In the middle of the night, I locked my apartment door. My bags were packed, and I held a plane ticket in hand—I was fleeing the life abroad I had established.
At that point, I had no choice but to leave my job when my manager asked me to do something unethical, and I learned that this breach of ethics was widely accepted all the way to the top of the organization. There was no time to fight the “good fight” for what was right—I had to acknowledge that this wasn’t my country and that I had no voice in my organization. And that was my cue to leave.
In our jobs, internships, and fellowships at home and abroad, we have a tendency to push ourselves really hard, almost too hard sometimes, with no chance of it paying off. I’ve seen so many friends around the world slog through poor working conditions, exploitation, and illness, hoping that their positions abroad will lead to something better. But sometimes, you have to weigh the costs and benefits, and you may find that your situation just isn’t worth it.
If your dream position abroad isn’t a fit for you, know that it’s OK. Here are the moments when it’s smart to consider opting out.
When Those Foreign Quirks Become Toxic
“My co-worker hid the company van again and told the manager I forgot where I parked it,” a friend working at an NGO in Cambodia once told me. “I’m being set up.”
In the U.S., this kind of behavior would not be acceptable, but in many countries there’s a different cultural climate that accepts a sort of “hazing,” especially among senior staff to those more junior. And sure, it may seem cute and funny at first that your officemates gossip about the new foreigner in town, but it’s important to realize the difference between colleagues playing harmless jokes—and colleagues with a vengeance.
A lot of my friends confide that they get similarly mistreated in their positions, and it’s not just about cultural miscommunication. Some have experienced comments about their appearance and the amount of work they get done, and others, especially in school settings, find themselves in high school drama where they get set up or tattled on (yes, in the office).
If these incidents are something you can no longer laugh at, or you find yourself dreading what surprises you might find in your office, then it might be time to head out. It’s important to be realistic about cultural differences, but you shouldn’t have to endure abuse or extra stress because of a toxic working environment.
When Your Health is Suffering
I remember working on a story in Africa, feeling nauseous all the time. I didn’t know it yet, but I had an undiagnosed parasite lurking in my system. And even though I was turning 50 shades of green in front of my colleagues, I kept pushing forward, wanting to get the job done. After a month of feeling really ill and dismissing it as a tropical bug, I ended up passing out face first in my bowl of pho at a dinner reception and finally getting to a doctor.
A number of my friends have had similar experiences, where even if they had something serious like dengue or malaria, they’d try to push through it. And yes, with treatment, both illnesses eventually pass, but they may have long-term impacts.
It is equally important to address and take time out for mental health issues. I had one friend who struggled with depression while she was in Romania. She was having a very tough time, but she thought leaving would be giving up, and so her situation got much, much worse.
Medical issues should always be taken seriously—but for some reason, we try to appear as if we are invincible abroad. And yes, if you have an upset stomach or even a short-term bug, you can definitely continue on, But when you are really sick (and especially if your job is making it worse), it’s a good idea to take a break. It’s also OK to weigh the costs and benefits of getting help on the ground or even stepping down from your post. It isn’t a sign of weakness; knowing when it’s time to take care of yourself is important.
When There's No Room for Growth
After the honeymoon phase of being in a new country is over, it’s easy to fall into the way of life of Wi-Fi cafes and lattes and really develop a new comfort zone. (Trust me, I knew every cafe in Southeast Asia up to the Golden Triangle). And that's fine, but if you’re not necessarily learning new things or making progress toward your goals, getting comfortable can definitely stunt your professional growth.
For example, English teaching is great for a while, and some people make an excellent career out of it. But if you’re just out of college and only planned to teach to gain some experience until grad school, make sure you consider how long you want to stay—and stick to it. That goes for many other professions as well. For foreigners working for local institutions, career paths are often horizontal, not upward, so you might get a raise but not ever be promoted. For that reason, for a lot of professional expats, two years is the finish line until the next post or heading back home.
If you feel that you have learned all you can out of a position, consider breaking out of the comfort zone you have established and moving forward onto your next opportunity.
When You're Taking on Too Much for Too Little
An internship in South America doing office work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for no pay sounds great, right? Hey, at least you’re in South America!
Well, not exactly. Under the guise of gaining international experience, many of us take on positions that really make us work too hard for too little—and don’t benefit the community, the organization, or our personal development. I’m not sure why we agree to them in the first place (yes, I’ve done it, too)—whether we feel we aren’t doing enough outside school and work or just can’t stay in once place for too long—but remember that even volunteer opportunities need to be balanced and need to be helping you reach your long-term goals.
There are tons of experiences out there that can at least cover housing and food and maybe even have some language classes thrown in, so you don’t have to settle for just anything that will get you abroad. If it’s not a fit, the organization will suffer, and so will you—even more so because it's at your own expense.
Among our generation, there’s a pressure to keep doing something interesting. And while that may seem automatic when working abroad because of the exotic factor abroad—that’s not always the case. I will always encourage people to travel and try new experiences, but it’s also important to recognize your professional value when you travel abroad for work.
Just because you are in a different country, doesn’t mean you have to suffer, stagnate, or settle for less. And if your job abroad doesn’t work out, it’s OK. It’s not a failure, it’s just a plane ticket home to rest and regroup—and a chance to find something new. I speak from experience: If I didn’t leave my job at the point I did, I wouldn't have found all the amazing opportunities I have now.