The Expat Perspective – Taking Courses while on Assignment

The Expat Perspective on Courses by Sally Wells

This month I was reflecting on the value of taking courses whilst on assignment and not necessarily for the obvious reasons, although whatever is learned is clearly a bonus. Course content is a fairly minor consideration and most places I have relocated to will have the usual selection including Language instruction, Photography, Art, Yoga, Alpha, Cookery, Meditation, Bridge, Mahjongg (yes, surprisingly big in Tanzania!) and if you are lucky enough to be by the sea, Sub-Aqua Diving, Windsurfing and Sailing etc.

Depending on your location, learning the local language may be more or less urgent. Even if the business language is English, however, being able to greet people and carry out some basic personal and shopping type conversations always puts expats on a better footing with the locals than would be natural otherwise. Best of all though, your language teacher is also the gateway to understanding any cultural peculiarities you have noted, or demystifying the seemingly strange behaviour of colleagues or neighbours. It also affords the opportunity to befriend a local, even if they are your teacher. Don’t be shy to extend hospitality to them, you will learn so much about your host country and her people just through conversation.

Joining a course is a well-worn way of expanding your social network, especially valuable when you are new to a country and only know the people you work with, the gossips at the school gate, or your domestic help. Under the guise of learning a new skill you can surreptitiously check out potential friends, pick up tips on great places to visit or things to do and generally get to grips with what is out there for you to embrace on your expat adventure. If you are a ‘trailing spouse’, courses are invaluable for creating a routine, filling up time when there is too much of it on your hands and providing a distraction from the fact that your furniture still hasn’t arrived and the children are missing the pet rabbit that was left with cousins at home.

If you have relocated with family, courses can be great for family bonding and relieving boredom. Children especially enjoy them if they are more successful than their parents. I can recommend learning to sail to fit this category, as children’s’ smaller size, greater nimbleness and generally higher fear threshold make them ducks to water compared to their lumbering parents! Wrestling with a difficult language can also be a fantastic example to set to your kids if they are struggling with a tougher curriculum at school, or having to absorb new subjects quickly. They will appreciate the empathy you are able to give and gain from the example of hard work and reward that you set.

Courses can result in unforeseen practical consequences too. In the early days of an assignment, a Photography Course I attended stimulated an urgent need to orient myself in my new surroundings as we met each week at a new location to take pictures. There’s nothing that makes you feel settled quicker than to learn the layout of a new city and its interesting back routes and byways almost as soon as you arrive.

There is of course, much to be said for the joy of learning something you didn’t know before, and the deep satisfaction in gaining a qualification or simple certificate of achievement whether in Swahili, Saxophone or Sub-aqua. Most exciting of all, you never quite know what these courses may lead to. I have known several expats who have undergone dramatic changes of career following exposure to new pastimes while on assignment and can now count newly fledged Pilates and Yoga teachers, professional photographers, a wine expert and writer to name just a few. There was even one acquaintance who, following a Pole Dancing course became an instructor of said skill (as toning exercise) at the local gym!