Stephanie in Hong Kong

This week’s interview is with Stephanie, a first-grade teacher in Hong Kong. Stephanie is another friend that I met in the Literacy Coach Cohort. We discovered that we actually have a fun “small world” connection. Stephanie taught in Guatemala with Kelly who I met while traveling in Guatemala in 2007. (Kelly was just about to start her international teaching career when we met and she’s still at the same school today!) Kelly was also the first teacher that I interviewed for this series. Since starting out in Guatemala 14 years ago, Stephanie has taught at an impressive string of schools around the world:

  • American School of Guatemala, Guatemala (4 years)
  • American School of Doha, Qatar (4 years)
  • International School of Beijing, China (2 years)
  • American School of Bombay, India (3 years)
  • Hong Kong International School, Hong Kong (1 year so far)

Next year, Stephanie will move into a new role as the Lower Primary Literacy Coach/Coordinator at her school.

What made you decide to teach internationally?

I had done a few international trips during and after college and caught the bug! It’s so cliche, but I loved exploring new cities, navigating cultures different from my own, and learning about cultures by EATING! As a first-generation Chinese-American, I had grown up feeling “othered.” My neighborhood elementary school was in a majority Irish/Italian Catholic neighborhood, and I was one of a handful of Asian Americans in the entire school. Thus, traveling/living/working abroad did not feel super different to me as I had already grown up feeling like that. I am interested in how people might do the same things, but in different ways (cook, eat, parent, teach, dance, sing…).

At the end of my six years teaching in a public school system (my first job out of university) in Massachusetts, USA, I had also just finished my Master’s degree and was trying to make decisions. I then started researching schools specifically in Guatemala, which had been the site of one of those international trips during college. I eventually became a late hire replacing a late retirement announcement. It was only supposed to be two years! The rest, they say, is history.

What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

Teaching at a new school is basically like being in a new country. There are things that every school does, like report cards, fire drills, cafeteria duty… but every school does them in a different way! Every school has its own culture and vibe. You have to learn the acronyms, you learn where the good (private) bathrooms are, and you learn names.

How is teaching at your current school different from previous schools that you’ve worked in?

Some schools I’ve been at have been amazingly diverse. At one point for a few years in a row, I had 22 students in class but around16 home countries represented. That was a very special time for me, to be able to work so closely with children to help them develop a community. At a different school, I once had a Hindu and Muslim student hugging each other and singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” as loudly as possible– in a country that was not majority Christian. They did this for a week. Those are the moments that stay with me because they are so different from how I grew up.

What’s it like living in Hong Kong? 

My city is vibrant. There are so many different things to do for all moods and lifestyles– in one weekend, I can sit at a gorgeous beach for sunset, go on a beautiful island hike, enjoy a meal at a very small local family restaurant, or then go for a hotel brunch. There is nightlife… and day life. All of this is easily accessible by public transport and bilingual signs.

How easy is it to meet locals and integrate into the local culture?

My very dormant mother tongue is Cantonese, so I can communicate a tiny bit with locals. I sound like a 5 4 3-year-old, but I laugh and they laugh. Sometimes they switch to English. I think if you are generally extroverted, you can meet anyone, anywhere (local or expat).

Do you still get culture shock? How do you experience re-entry?

I have traveled and lived in so many places that I’m not sure if I experience culture shock in the same way as I used to. My re-entry into the US does involve some reverse culture shock– mostly going to supermarkets or big box stores and seeing an entire giant aisle devoted to one thing (like laundry supplies).

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from your first international job search?

After 20 years of teaching, I know there are no perfect schools or places. There will be pros and cons to every setting and when I try to let go of my pride/ego, I can enjoy it all. During interviews, I do look for links to my educational philosophy and use the internet to check if the new location is a fit for my indoor and outdoor hobbies.

How do you go about making both your new accommodations and your new country your own? 

I think walking is one of the best ways to get to know a place well- you start seeing more and more details even after passing by the same spot daily for months. Only some businesses have an online or social media presence. I find the more interesting businesses– the ones that have been in the neighborhood forever– are found on foot, like the tiny hardware store or the small cart selling local food. Through walking, you notice the local businesses, the spaces, and the people who make up your host country. My accommodations in each location have been composed of things I’ve hauled around in my travels and things I pick up locally (usually found on long walks about town!).

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

When the little annoyances feel like they are greater than the benefits, it feels like it’s time to leave.

What has been your favorite teaching location thus far? 

They have all been so great for me for so many different reasons! I have enjoyed the diversity of climates, food, religions, music, and most importantly, joy.

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching?

Most things are not permanent- try it out with an open mind and see what happens. 


Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.


If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

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