I think the most important advice I could give someone preparing to join this program would be to drop any and all expectations. I think people often have preconceived notions of how life will be when they move abroad, and while it's important to know enough to be prepared for potential situations, it's also important to keep in mind that hardly anything ever plays out the way you had imagined in your mind. You will see and experience more if you are not blinded by the bars of your expectations. Being able to flow with the way things happen will vastly improve your experience. But also, maybe bring some earplugs. The dogs howl at night.
I work at a private school in Mandalay, and my typical week is very laid back: I think I got extremely lucky with my placement. I teach grades 1-4, with a focus on listening and speaking fluency, which means I really just get to play games that will give the kids opportunities to practice speaking.
My classroom hours total up to about 13 hours a week, and I maybe spend and additional 2-3 hours lesson planning (since the grades are split into multiple classes, I see each class twice a week and really only need 6 lesson plans per week). I'm not required to stay at school when I don't have class, so I have a ridiculous amount of free time. I am aware that this lifestyle isn't for everyone, but I find it to be a nice break after the 50-60 hour weeks I was working prior to my departure.
Outside of school, I fill my time with reading and drawing at nearby coffee and tea shops, doing at least an hour of yoga a day, teaching my inn keeper's daughter piano, and eating delicious and affordable meals (breakfast and lunch are provided, so I only really have to worry about dinner). On most weekends I climb at Yaedagon Taung with some local friends that I met through the Mandalay Rock Climbing Community.
All in all, it's a pretty peaceful existence, and life here is good.
My biggest fear going into my experience abroad was the fact I was going alone. I would say that generally as a human being, I tend to be on the anxious side, so I was worried about how my mental health would respond when I stripped away all of my comfort blankets and support systems, hurtling myself into the unknown.
I'm not sure that I necessarily overcame my fear... I just ended up gritting my teeth, taking a leap of faith, and buying a plane ticket (which felt like the last step that would make my decision to move abroad final).
Looking back now, I feel as though a lot of my fears were rather irrational, as everything turned out to be fine. The relationships that I've forged with people here, be it with the members of my orientation group, the teachers at school, or with my climbing friends, have been an integral part of my adjustment to life in Mandalay. Finding a sense of belonging in this community of people has fended off any feelings of isolation. While I still miss home from time to time, I find myself to be quite happy and content.
In addition to this, I have found that I actually really enjoy the solitude of living on my own in Mandalay with nothing tying me to my previous constructs of self. I find I have a lot more time to think and a lot more time to do things (like reading, yoga, and art) that had slipped from my list of priorities when I was too busy floating around my much larger social circle back in Boulder. Here I find that while I still have plenty of opportunities to be connected and social, I also get the time to recharge my introvert self.
Yes. I think that it is one thing to be aware that you were raised in an extremely privileged environment, but actually experiencing this privilege is something entirely different. I've always prided myself on having an open mind, but as always, there are certain things that you learn only through experience.
One of the most monumental realizations I've had so far is how much of a privilege being eco-friendly is. Being from Boulder, Colorado, love for the earth and respect for the environment are woven into the fundamental fabric of my being. Growing up in a place where environmentalism is so common, you almost forget that while individual efforts are important, some people simply aren't equipped with the resources or systems needed to minimize their impact on the earth.
For example, you won't find rubbish bins spaced conveniently every 100 ft, neatly compartmentalized into "landfill", "recycling", and "compost" here. No one is going to pay $12 for an "environmentally sustainable" paleo bowl with quinoa, or a vegan and organic shampoo bar. As I followed the global climate march on social media, Mandalay streets bustled with people going about business as usual.
Being here has given me a whole new sense of appreciation for systems that do allow for environmental sustainability, as well as highlighting the need for top-down reform, starting with large companies and corporations adopting eco-friendly policies and alternatives that will in turn trickle down to the individual level.