In November 2019, Michaela Cricchio, 26, booked a one-way flight to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English abroad.
Cricchio first heard about programs to teach English in a foreign country during an international studies class in college. When she couldn’t afford to move right after college, she spent a year and a half working on a cruise ship, where she could live rent-free, to save up.
After becoming certified to teach English and applying for a work visa, she was off to live on her own for the first time, and in a foreign country where she barely knew the language, no less.
“I remember sitting on the plane a year ago for my first year of teaching in South Korea and thinking, ‘What am I doing?'” Cricchio recalls. “Now, to actually be here and wake up every morning knowing I’m in a different country and so far away from home, it still hits me sometimes … I’ll realize that this is my life.”
Cricchio loves her expat lifestyle. As a foreign English teacher, her school pays for her rent, which allows her to live in Seoul comfortably on $24,000 a year. During the weekends, she meets up with friends to visit cafes, restaurants, bars, art museums, parks, shopping districts and other city attractions.
But despite all the highs, she has one word of caution to other young people who want to travel the world and work abroad.
“The biggest misconception about living abroad is that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows,” Cricchio says. The Instagram photos and vlogs of people living abroad rarely cover the challenges and mundane parts of daily life, she says.
For Cricchio, living in South Korea has been a major culture adjustment, since even basic errands like going to the grocery store can be challenging on her basic proficiency of the language. She still has work to do, bills to pay, health check-ups to schedule — she also still has to pay taxes to the U.S. government. “It’s still real life, just in a different place,” she says.
And teaching English grammar to elementary school students when it isn’t their first language is harder than you’d think, she adds.
Cricchio says it’s important to have realistic expectations in mind when making such a big life change. Also, it’s completely expected and normal to feel lonely during the experience.
She’s used apps to find English-speaking friends who are all in similar situations — young, newly independent and very far from home. “It’s really great to have your friends practically become your family,” she says. “But of course, there are times when I really miss my family. Being in this apartment alone at night, it gets lonely.”
FaceTime has become a lifeline for her to stay in touch with friends and family back home, including her parents and three older siblings. Sometimes, seeing them all together makes her even more homesick. But during those moments, she reminds herself that she’s living this lifestyle to learn and grow on her own.
Still, Cricchio wouldn’t change the experience for anything. She hopes to continue building her financial cushion and finding opportunities to be a digital nomad, where she can move around, teach English part-time and freelance write about travel and teaching.
“Living in Korea has changed the way I look at my future,” Cricchio says. “Before, I was super afraid of the world, super shy. I wasn’t really sure about what direction I was going in.”
In the last year and a half, however, her confidence has skyrocketed. “It’s helped me grow up a lot. I 100% rely on myself here. I do have the help of my friends and school, but overall, I rely on myself a lot: financially, mentally, emotionally. I’m all I have.”
Her biggest piece of advice to others who also want to move abroad is to stop putting off their plans and actually get the ball rolling.
Though Cricchio couldn’t afford a teaching certification right after college, which can cost upwards of $1,000, she gave herself a timeline: She’d work two contracts on a cruise ship and save the money she needed to move.
She made good on her promise once she hit $13,000 in savings: She enrolled in a certification course, got in touch with a teaching abroad program and applied for her work visa.
At times, Cricchio questioned whether she was “ready” to make the big leap. But, “it’s never going to be the perfect time,” she says. “If I had waited till I was ready to move abroad and come to Korea, I would have been waiting a while.”