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my career abroad

Wearing traditional Bhutanese dress, Andrea Giesbrecht is joined on a tea break at the Tashidingkha Middle Secondary School in the Punakha Valley, Bhutan, by an unidentified visitor, left, and Karma, a Bhutan Canada Foundation staff member.

What's your name and job title?

My name is Andrea Giesbrecht and I'm a teacher at Tashidingkha Middle Secondary School in the Punakha Valley, Bhutan.

Why have you moved to Bhutan? What spurred you to make this change?

At the end of 2009, I was teaching in Brunei while completing my Master of Education degree. I knew it was time to make a change and began looking for another international experience. I was also hoping to work with a Canadian organization and when I found the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF) online, I knew it would be a good fit.

At the same time, however, my financial situation was such that I nearly talked myself out of applying for a position which pays less than $400 per month. I sent off the application form, all the while saying to myself, "Andrea, don't be ridiculous. You can't go to Bhutan!" My bank account was dry after paying for my degree and I felt that I needed to be in a place with better financial remuneration.

I halfheartedly applied for some other positions, trying to convince myself that Bhutan was a bad idea at this stage of my life, but the seed that had been planted had taken strong root and I arrived in Bhutan in February of 2010 as part of the first group of Canadian teachers to work with the BCF.

I was placed at Tashidingkha Middle Secondary School in a rural area about three hours from the capital. I was thrilled to be here but I told myself it would only be for a year. It's funny how things work out sometimes.

What exactly do you do?

First and foremost, I am a secondary school English teacher. Since 2011, I have also been working as an English resource teacher, supporting Bhutanese English teachers from eight different schools in the areas of language and curriculum.

Is there anything you would want to share with someone who might follow in your footsteps?

Living and teaching in Bhutan offers an outsider the rare opportunity to be part of a unique culture and way of life. I know that I was hired to teach but I feel that I have been given more than I can possibly offer. I can't deny that there are difficulties and frustrations along the way but I am richer for it.

Why is Bhutan the place for you to be right now?

Living in a Bhutanese farming village has become my reality but before I came here I could not have imagined it.

Life here is not always easy. There are very few of the modern amenities to which we have become accustomed in the developed world and, while I find a definite charm in simple living, sometimes I wish I could throw my clothes into a washing machine while I pop over to the supermarket for fresh bread.

I find myself at a loss for words when people at home in Canada ask, "What is it like to live in Bhutan?" Everything is different, so how do I even begin to answer that question? Despite the challenges, I have found a true "home" here and in many ways I can't imagine being anywhere else.

I have a quiet rapport with my neighbours, most of whom are subsistence farmers and very few of whom speak a word of English. By living with these people and observing their daily interactions, I have learned many things which extend well beyond how to hand-wash my clothes and prepare local food. I am learning patience and acceptance of circumstances beyond my control. I am learning how to adapt to what life has in store and that it's okay for things not to work out the way you intended them to. And I have learned that there is always time for a cup of tea with a friend, unlike at home where we have to compare schedules and perhaps there is a free hour to meet for tea next Tuesday.

In March of 2012, I had an accident and sustained some serious injuries. I was evacuated to Bangkok for surgery and, once I was strong enough, transported home to Canada for further recovery. There were moments of severe physical pain and emotional trauma but perhaps the most difficult moment was as my plane was leaving Bhutan. I knew I was badly hurt and that I needed to go but I had no idea when or if I would be coming back. I didn't have the opportunity to say farewell to many of the people who are important to me. As we took off, and I could see the village houses scattered on the hillsides shrink and disappear, I sobbed uncontrollably.

After 10 months of recovery and therapy, I was able to return to my life in Bhutan. No one would have blamed me if I didn't go back and some people were shocked that I wanted to go back at all. The fact that I never once considered not returning speaks volumes about what this place and these people have come to mean to me.

What things have people noticed most about you? And what has been your reception?

The Bhutanese people are used to seeing foreigners at the tourist sights, usually attached at the hip to a guide, but it is unusual for rural dwellers to interact with foreigners. At first, my neighbours were very curious about me and I know they watched me – where I went, what I ate, who I talked to, what I bought at the market and so on. Now they seem to accept me as part of their community and I no longer feel like I'm in a fishbowl.

My teaching colleagues find that I move very fast and do things with greater intensity than they are accustomed to. They get things done in their own time and find it amusing that I want to plan and start projects as soon as we are given a task. They tell me I am very "frank" – something which is sometimes appreciated and sometimes not. I take more initiative than many of my local colleagues, which is usually appreciated by the school administration, but I need to be careful not to step on toes. There are cultural subtleties which I am sometimes unaware of.