Many people hear my story and think it’s great but somehow not feasible for themselves. The thing I hear over and over again is “But how can I move abroad with kids?” So I’d like for you to hear it from someone who’s done it. John David Lewis is a high school principal. He is married with two kids and like many, toyed with the idea of moving abroad for years. He had doubts of course, but this isn’t about his doubts. This is about how he overcame his fears and led his family on the ultimate journey of moving abroad.
The Hardest Part is Getting Out
In 2002, I was a year out of undergrad living in Orlando with no job, and was considering teaching abroad in South Korea where I was born. I needed something to do and why not see the world? I got an interview and all I needed was to take the Praxis (Alternative Teaching Certification) Exam, but this was a no-go because I was a new grad, with no job, and a lot of pride and ego. You see how that all makes sense? I was encouraged to teach because the youth needed more positive men in the school building. Summer vacations and insurance sounded like my best move. I started out as a teaching assistant and fell head over heels in it. I never realized how much the youth were moving without any positive influence or guidance.
I got my first opportunity (October 2002) to teach at an alternative school about a month after I started as an assistant. I qualified for a temporary (five years) certification due to my undergraduate degree. In Fall 2003, I entered a two-year program that allowed me to get a Masters in Education Leadership while completing my teacher’s certification. I never anticipated leaving the classroom, but I decided to further my education so if an opportunity came, I’d be ready.
Fast forward five years (2010) to a new home in Atlanta, a marriage, and two kids. On my Facebook timeline, I saw someone I worked with teaching in China. We started chatting and I remember saying that I wished I’d done that, but was convinced there was no way I could do it now because I had a family, a mortgage, and [insert additional excuses here]…
In November of 2014, my wife and I considered moving to another city for a change of scenery. After much deliberation, it came down to Dallas. After more research, we realized the money was great, but we would be too far to see family regularly, so that was nixed. It’s funny how we ended up on the other side of the world though, which started with a conversation with my 5 year old. A couple of months later, I asked him where he’d like to move and he said, without hesitating, China. When I asked why, he said, “We don’t know what they do on that side of the world.” I had not thought about moving abroad for years and thought it was too difficult to make it happen with a family. Regardless, I decided to do some research and noticed the benefits of living abroad as an administrator in education. Money (no taxes for gross incomes of 101k or less), less workload, opportunities to travel to other countries for cheap, exposing my family to the world and not living in a box – I’m in.
We discussed it and agreed that I should apply and we’d weigh our options if I got the opportunity. I went online and typed in “assistant principals abroad” leading to sites like Teach Away and Footprints with a number of positions. After review, we decided I’d apply to Argentina, China, and the United Arab Emirates. Phone interviews and emails with China and Argentina didn’t pan out and I got discouraged. But apparently, third time is a charm because I had interest from the UAE! They wanted me to fly to New York for a Skype interview. At this point, I’m thinking am I really about to pay $1000 dollar flight plus hotel and lose a day of pay at work just to get the same result? Well, I got a flight, pumped myself up, answered the questions to the best of my ability and planned to hear something in a week or two.
Two weeks after my interview, I received an email that said I was selected. I didn’t think about how my wife didn’t say anything or move, because I was so ecstatic. I was going to give my family an opportunity that most of us are too scared to pursue because of the what-ifs. I get it, but I figured if this didn’t work we could always come back. Weeks go by with friends saying congratulations when one friend of mine asked, “How does your wife feel?” He then asked, “What did she say?” Then, I thought about that moment I mentioned earlier. She didn’t say anything or move. I thought since we talked about it and I got the job, it was in stone. He encouraged me to talk to her because it would suck to get over there, she hate it and we have to come all the way back because she and I were not on the same page. It made sense. The conversation was better than I imagined. She just needed more time to process this change. Getting over the fear, pursuing the opportunity, and getting everyone on board was the hardest part and now the clock was on.
I was no stranger to moving and my wife, Kanika, loves throwing things away, so it was easy to downsize. We kept our cars and allowed our brother to move into our home, leaving ourselves a bit of a safety net to return. Excited and cautious, we got a mix of those emotions from our family and friends. Mostly, people thought it was an awesome experience and the kids would learn so much. Older or more traditional people were more apprehensive. We’re too far away. What if something happened? My father-in-law said his generation got a job, started a family, and continued until retirement. This generation just moves around the world and it felt unstable. It’s the unknown that sparks that fear and the falsehoods we learn that feed that fear. I have always been curious and only satisfied when I experience things myself, so other people’s opinions and experiences didn’t dissuade me.
I will say one argument I got from a lot of people was that I was abandoning the youth. I gave over a decade of my career to the youth of my country, my community, and my culture. I spent hours at work during the day and at night. I am proud of what I have done, but I have two children of my own that I want to have a greater impact on. Truthfully, I had three children that I wanted to have a greater impact on. My nephew, who is the same age as my daughter, needed a change of scenery, a smaller class environment, more exposure, and closer supervision, so we made the decision to take him too. So along with our preparations for the move, he needed a passport, we needed to become legal guardians, and notarize documentation from his mother to travel with him internationally. Our to-do list grew a little longer.
“I have always been curious and am only satisfied when I experience things myself, so other people’s opinions and experiences didn’t dissuade me.”
Learning and Unlearning Some Things
I arrived in Abu Dhabi in September 2015. My family stayed behind so that I could get familiar with the place. This country was nothing that I had imagined. Of course, there was sand and it was hot, but it was a regular big city just like in the States, except cleaner. The propaganda that we are taught from television was nothing like this. The American concept of the Middle East is limited to Desert Storm and the Taliban. Did you know Arabs are people who speak the language and from a country that speaks the language? Being Arab does not automatically make you Muslim. I have met several Arabs that are Christians. I had a lot to learn and unlearn.
Work started the following day with orientation and then they put us right into the schools. I had no idea what to expect. I found that my responsibilities were very focused on one task: improving academic performance. On top of that, they believe family comes first so when you clock out, that is family time. In the U.S., I wore several hats, but my workload decreased significantly because I could focus solely on academic performance and effective classroom strategies. It was refreshing.
My colleagues were very friendly and welcomed me as if I were one of them. That put me on the fast track to learning the culture firsthand. They like to hold hands and defy all American Man Laws. Initially, I was so uncomfortable. It was like my friends were right there in the same room watching and laughing because masculinity in America leaves no room for hugging and holding hands. I wanted to be open-minded, so I found myself holding hands with men during conversations. After time passed, I realized that for me to adapt, I would have to accept some things that were out of the norm for me. Nobody here worries about that and why should I? I do not have to do it often, but I don’t think much of it when it happens.
I also had to learn about eating food here. They use their hands and rarely use utensils. This happens at people’s homes, gatherings at school and barbecues. This was tough to handle because Americans obsess about germs. Here, they will tear pieces of bread and hand it to you, give you dates out of their pockets and expect you to eat and be merry. Some people have yet to accept that, but I have come around to accepting this part of the culture too. I learned quickly that the people were really nice and made my transition even smoother. After about a week, I met up with some expats from all over the U.S. and began to build relationships to get acclimated to this new life. After I went out, I recognized that the expat population makes it feel like you are not that far from home at all.
Can We Really Do This?
November had finally arrived and after six weeks, I was finally being reunited with my family. I was so excited about taking them around to see and experience things that I’d seen or done. Our first stop was home. Our flat is about 2,500 square feet, with floor to ceiling windows throughout, three huge bedrooms and a maid’s quarter in a high rise on the beach. Everyone was so excited about getting new things with the kids planning out their bedrooms and my wife planning out every other square inch. So far, I had no furniture other than a few couches and an air mattress, so the dollar signs in Kanika’s eyes put fear in my heart. Moving on, our last stop for the day was the beach. I just watched them laugh and play as I just thanked the man above for the courage to take this opportunity.
The following week, I went to work and came home around 4pm two days in a row. My son asked me what I was doing home. When I told him this is the time I got off now, he just hugged me and said, “We get to be together as a family all the time!” (Yes, my kids talk like that.) What’s crazy is that in the US I worked so much trying to make a few extra dollars to provide, that I never realized how much I wasn’t home. My work schedule and my wife’s work schedule meant that our kids were missing out on quality time. We decided since we were moving for my job and she didn’t have the time to secure one, she’d homeschool the kids for at least a year to sharpen their skills before entering the school setting. We noticed there were skills all three children were lacking in and hoped the small environment and ability to focus on their needs would be the best decision. After two years, my wife is itching to start working again and since my job does not provide tuition, we are carefully looking through schools to get the right balance between quality and tuition.
The question was can we really do this and the biggest decision after moving here was whether to stay. We compared the job market and pay, feasibility of travel, in and out of school experiences for the kids, and safety. We had decided only after a few months that we did not want to come back to America to live any time soon. It is peaceful and safe here, we travel often on breaks without saving up for it, and we have the money and time to put the kids in various activities, which wasn’t an option before. Marriage-wise, my wife and I have more conversations about us than bills and schedules, and we’ve rediscovered the joys of dating. When we made our trip home after our first year, my welcome home gift was a car break-in with a shattered window. This, along with the news reporting a new Black man being killed every day, put my wife on edge. We love our family and friends. Being away from them is the only con we could come up with, but we were certain we were making the right decision to leave. Last summer, we sold our house and cars and put the last of our things in storage. Our nephew stayed with his mother and the LewiSquad became a four-person team boarding a plane home. We traded the “American Dream” for our own and I wouldn’t trade this journey for any other.
“We had decided only after a few months that we did not want to come back to America to live any time soon. It is peaceful and safe here, we travel often on breaks without saving up for it, and we have the money and time to put the kids in various activities, which wasn’t an option before. Marriage-wise, my wife and I have more conversations about us than bills and schedules, and we’ve rediscovered the joys of dating.”