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An ex-pat’s experience of working in China and Switzerland



Michelle, also known as TimeTravels here in the Thelma & Louise women’s travel buddy community, joined us for the ninth lockdown Facebook Live to share her experiences of moving from California to live and work overseas.

Watch the full Facebook Live here.

What is it like to work overseas?

After 25 years of working in IT in Los Angeles, Michelle felt the need to turn things upside down, to live somewhere else, to find out more about and make deep connections with other cultures. China was the most different place to home she could think of, so off she went!

After two jobs teaching in international schools in Shanghai and Guangzhou, Michelle moved to Switzerland, where she was IT director for an international school in a small town high up in the Alps. On the surface, the Chinese and Swiss cultures may seem as different as chalk and Swiss cheese, but Michelle found both to be equally different to what she was used to at home in the USA.

Whatever you might expect from China, Michelle told us, your experience there will be totally different again! She learnt not to discuss ‘The Three Ts’ – Tibet, Taiwan or Tiannamen – unless you knew who you were talking to very well. Michelle found the people to be welcoming, partly because she was obviously different and people were curious to find out more about her. She made friends with a young Chinese man and the unlikely pair travelled throughout the country. His company helped to deepen her understanding of China’s culture.

The Swiss town Michelle lived in was an education hub teetering on the side of a mountain. “Not a true representation of Switzerland” Michelle thinks, but a great base for exploring the country from, once she had a car.

Catch up on the full Facebook Live here.

How Michelle started working in international schools

Michelle also told us about the technical processes she went through to live and work abroad.

Rather than doing a quick, one-month-long Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, Michelle chose to longer and more in-deepth program which was part of the CA Dept of Education credential in culture, language and diversity. This opened doors to many more teaching opportunities overseas. It was a two-to-three year process before she actually started teaching in another country. Once in China, she also took a semester of Chinese language, broadening her knowledge of the language and experiencing life as a student instead of teacher.


5 tips for women thinking about teaching overseas, according to Michelle:


  1. Start with a trial to see if teaching is for you.
  2. Investigate agencies that organise placements in international schools. They will deal with the visas, accommodation and health insurance, making the process simpler than you might expect.
  3. Get qualified. Choose a more complex course that leads to a better qualification, to gain the best job opportunities.
  4. Be aware that many countries have a maximum age that they will accept people to teach. Michelle says the cut-off point is 55 years in many countries, but South Korea is 60, which is partly why, at the age of 58, she’s looking to make the move there next.
  5. Plan ahead and think about your retirement. It is possible to save while teaching abroad, but it’s not necessarily a career that will see you through to the standard retirement age in your own country (see point 4 above). Michelle’s plan is to get her Yachtmaster certification and travel!


Useful links for international opportunities, recommended by Michelle


  1. The International Educator: Articles and news related to international schools around the world. Small annual membership.
  2. JoyJobs: Helps with CV writing and recruitment strategies for international school teachers. Small annual membership.
  3. TeachAway: Free listings but individual organizations might charge application fees. Good for aspiring and new teachers, as well as TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training programs.
  4. Go Overseas: Focused on gap year, volunteer opportunities, internships, teaching aboard, TEFL training and travel/tours.
  5. Dave's ESL Cafe: THE website for ESL & EFL, packed with info and teaching resources, discussion forums, job postings, etc.
  6. All Hands & Hearts: Volunteer programs for international disaster relief.
  7. Volunteer Service Overseas: Volunteer and career opportunities in inclusive education, health communities, and resilient livelihoods in Africa and Asia.


For a more in-depth discussion of what it’s like to live as an ex-pat, watch the full Facebook Live here.


As usual, we also talked about the products and cultural snippets that are making life in lockdown bearable for us.

Cultural Escape: the books, movies and other audio-visual delights that are helping us through lockdown by transporting us elsewhere – without leaving our homes.

  • Buy Sherpa Adventure Gear’s Samir Windbreaker to keep the damp and chill off now, then take it with you on your next trip. It packs down to next to nothing, and each one sold funds a day of school for a child in Nepal. Plus, it’s beautiful.
  • Ana swears by the Tempur Travel Pillow to make sure she gets a good night’s sleep when she’s away from home.
  • Michelle recommends the following books as great introductions to life in China or Switzerland: 
  • Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost
  • Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bowes


We hope you enjoyed our Facebook Live travel chat with Michelle. If you’ve got anything to add to the conversation, please leave a comment below. We always love to hear from you!