Teaching ESL abroad creates new opportunities for adventure for one Latina abuela

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Teaching English in the “other” Iraq, Patricia Hernandez finds assimilation into the local culture made easy because of her bicultural and bilingual background.

Patricia Hernandez is proof that the spirit of adventure isn’t just reserved for the young. This 53-year-old California grandmother of three decided to venture out of her comfort zone and try her hand at teaching English — in Iraq.

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Kurdistan to be exact. According to Hernandez, Kurdistan is the “other” Iraq. One not plagued by gun battles, suicide bombers, land mines or much media attention.

“We don’t see any of the war or hear any fighting here,” wrote Hernandez in an e-mail to Latina Lista. “It’s very safe. Kurdistan is growing each year. There are malls like we have back home and I can find many of the same food brands. The people are very nice and always go out of their way to help. It surprises me every year how much Kurdistan is trying to become more westernized, but it has a long way to go yet.”

Hernandez teaches English as a Second Language or ESL to students ranging from preschool to fourth grade, where 30-40 students pack a typical classroom eager to learn.

Finishing up her third year as an ESL teacher in Kurdistan, Hernandez plans to head home this summer to her family after four years teaching abroad.

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A street in Kurdistan

It’s a career choice she doesn’t regret.

“I decided to teach overseas because I saw a need to spread the English language,” Hernandez wrote. “Also, it’s a great way to experience a country, its culture and its people. I have made some great friends from (all) parts of the world.”

Hernandez feels her biggest asset that has helped her while living in Kurdistan is the fact that she speaks both Spanish and English. While most of her students are Muslim, with a few Christians, the majority of them speak more than two languages.

Yet, while the country strives to westernize itself and the groundwork is being laid for the next generation to live in a cosmopolitan world, Kurdistan is still a country where women are still restricted by centuries old traditions.

“Most Americans see on TV women covered in black walking around, ” writes Hernandez. “Yes, there are a lot here dressed that way but there are many who dress in jeans and t-shirts.”

Hernandez writes that she has done her part to “assimilate” into the local culture by adopting some of the rules that dictate how women should behave. For example, Hernandez limits her interaction with men in public and dresses modestly, which means no sleeveless blouses, short skirts, shorts or in any way showing any cleavage. She’s also careful not to drink or smoke in public and unless absolutely necessary does she venture out after dark by herself.

But even with all the restrictions of living in Kurdistan, it is an experience Hernandez would not have missed. In fact, it’s a career path she wholly endorses for anyone willing to be adventurous enough to give up American conveniences to experience a different way of life.

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Kurdistan’s 5-mile road of high-rises.

For anyone wanting to teach ESL abroad, Hernandez writes that a four-year degree is a necessity. It can be in any field but especially helpful if it’s in English. The person should also be a native English speaker, have a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages or TESOL certificate and, perhaps most importantly, be willing to have an open mind about living in a different culture.

While teaching ESL abroad can be rewarding, Hernandez says everyone needs to exercise caution when choosing an ESL school.

“There are many ESL job sites. Dave’s ESL Café is a great one to search for overseas teaching jobs,” Hernandez recommends. “I would suggest people really research the school and country they are thinking about teaching in before accepting any position. Like anything, there are scams. Never send money. A legitimate school will normally pay for a teacher’s travel, visas and living quarters. Not all schools offer the same.”

Reflecting on her time in Kurdistan, Hernandez has no hesitation in recommending the country as a travel destination with one exception.

“To anyone thinking of visiting Kurdistan, I would suggest not coming during the holy month of Ramadan,” Hernandez writes. “It’s a time of fasting for Muslims. Most restaurants don’t open till around 5 or 6 p.m. during this month.

“Also, out of respect to the main religion here, Islam, a woman should cover her hair and wear long sleeves. Any other time of the year would be fine to let your hair show and wear a half-sleeve shirt.

“But the most important thing any potential visitor or ESL teacher to Kurdistan can do is read up on the culture and understand the religion of this region before visiting.”

It’s a simple act that serves as a prime example of how cultural sensitivity goes a long way in getting along in a different country and making new friends.

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