Teaching Abroad on Two Continents: An Interview with Rachel Faust

Educators and travelers that completely immerse themselves into another culture by living abroad have always been very inspiring to me. Rachel Faust took the leap twice by teaching in Mexico and China for a total of four years and she is anxious to do it again. Rachel is originally from Guttenberg, Iowa.  She has experience teaching multiple elementary grades in both the United States and abroad. Currently, she is a mentor for new teachers through Grant Wood AEA in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

When was your first international trip?

Other than going to a resort in the Dominican Republic, I had no travel experience. When I signed up to teach in Mexico for two years, it was my first time spending a significant amount of time in another country.

How did you decide to teach abroad?

I attended an international teaching fair at the University of Northern Iowa.

Were people in your hometown surprised about your decision to teach abroad?

Yes, nobody thought I was actually going to do it!

What was it like to teach in Mexico?

I taught in Monterrey for two years. The school was probably the best run school I have encountered so far in my career. Lesson planning was top notch. Almost everything in the school was brand new. In terms of the organization and initiatives in the school, they were way ahead of schools in the United States. The students came from very wealthy families and owned homes in the United States. Most of them were also American citizens.

Since Mexico was your first time living abroad, did you experience any culture shock?

One of my first experiences in Mexico was shopping at Walmart. The teaching program took us to Walmart to stock up on groceries when we first arrived. I remember looking for Parmesan cheese and I couldn’t find it anywhere! At first I was really upset that I couldn’t find the products I was used to back home, but I quickly realized that living in Mexico was going to be different.

Did it take a while to understand the cultural differences?

After the Parmesan cheese incident, I quickly adapted to a new way of life in Mexico. As Americans we are brought up believing we are the center of the universe and that our food and culture is everywhere and that we are the only country in the world with a high quality of life. I learned that was not true.

What was the best part of teaching in Mexico?

I loved every second of it. The school was amazing and I formed close friendships with the other teachers in the program. There was always something to do. We would play ultimate Frisbee every week. Almost every weekend someone would host a dinner or birthday party.  It is really hard to compare it to anything in the United States because we are often not a part of a close knit community.

Did you travel around Mexico?

Yes, I had a car in Mexico, so I took countless day trips to surrounding towns and went to Tulum, Oaxaca, and Puerto Vallarta. My student’s father owned the Rayados soccer team so I was able to attend many games.

After teaching for two years in Mexico, did you go to China right away?

Yes, after finishing two years in Mexico I went on to teach in China for two years as well.

Where did you live in China?

I lived in Hangzhou, which is about an hour from Shanghai.

Was your experience teaching in China different than in Mexico?

Yes, it was very different due to the language differences. Even though I didn’t speak Spanish the sounds and letters in Spanish are fairly similar to English so I felt like I could catch on. In China, I felt like I was an emerging reader. The signs and communication style in China were so different from Mexico.

Besides the language barrier were there any other challenges you faced in China?

There were several unique challenges to living in China. Unlike in Mexico, I did not have a car, so transportation was an issue. Although at the end of my time in China, they got Uber, so that helped quite a bit. I also got dysentery after a month of living in China.

While you were living in China, you also found out you were expecting your first child. Most people might have decided to go home at that point, but you stayed in China. Why did you decide to stay in China?

I consider myself a very determined and independent person and I thought I could make it work.

How did teaching abroad affect your world view?

Mexico completely changed my world view and China strengthened it. Before living in China and Mexico I was a cliché American. I was very arrogant and I thought the way Americans lived was the only way to live. I thought everyone wanted to be us. After teaching abroad, my entire life changed. I became much more open-minded and kinder. When I came back to America I would see bias and prejudice in other people that I hadn’t noticed before and I would think that was me four years ago!

Do you think other educators should consider teaching abroad?

I think teachers need more cultural training to understand how students feel. When I was in Mexico, we had a day when students only spoke in Spanish. I had a very emotional reaction to not being able to understand what was going on, but that is how many of our students feel every day.

Do you have any upcoming travel plans?

My husband and I are going on our honeymoon to Vietnam and Bali. We will be able to see friends we met while teaching abroad. Many of the people I met live in other countries. I have friends in South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, and Australia to name a few.

Do you have an interest in teaching abroad after hearing Rachel’s story? Check out local recruiting fairs like at the University of Northern Iowa or websites like The International Educator.

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