Steve Rohan is an English teacher living and working in China. Once every year, he takes two months off to travel, typically moving overland between China and his former homeland England.
His pathway to this lifestyle began in 2009, when he took a six-week career break to work on an eco-tourism project in Siberia, Russia. The experience of work and travel gave him new skills to apply to his management job, and ultimately led to his big move to China in 2015. Steve has now travelled to over 50 countries, with a passion for overland travel and obscure places, which he writes about on his blog thetripgoeson.com.
In this interview, he talks about adjusting to life in China, balancing work and travel, how his exploration benefits his teaching work, and spending Christmas in North Korea…
Your first career break was for an eco-tourism project in Siberia in 2009. What did this involve, and why did you decide to do it?
That’s right, my first career break involved travelling overland from England to far-eastern Russia. After two weeks of travelling through Europe and exploring Moscow, I made my way to Siberia where I helped construct part of a hiking trail around Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water.
I decided on this project as I wanted to take an extended break from work, but also give something back to the places I was visiting. Having spent time in England working on various conservation projects and a love of the wilderness, it seemed a perfect fit.
How did you approach the situation with your workplace?
By this point I’d been working for my employers for seven years and I had a pretty good relationship with upper management. I also had a good team working under me who were perfectly capable of handling things while I was away, so in the end it wasn’t too hard to negotiate the time off. The boss’s son had taken a sabbatical a few years prior, which probably helped too!
What preparations did you make for the trip, and what did you aim to get out of it?
There was a lot of preparation needed for this trip as Russian visas are notoriously difficult to get. Coupled with this, I was to be travelling overland (and by sea), which required a lot of planning to ensure a smooth journey.
Thankfully, the planning phase of a big trip is half the fun for me, and I spent my evenings working out routes and logistics. The aim was to spend time living out in the wilderness where few people get to venture, and also pick up new skills.
Another important factor was to give something back to the land and people I would be visiting.
What did you learn from the experience that you were able to apply to your career later?
Teamwork was one of the biggest things I took away from the experience, especially surmounting obstacles like a language barrier and cultural differences. It certainly helped prepare me for my move to China many years later.
“Something changed in me after that trip, and settling back down to a desk and spreadsheets didn’t quite cut it any longer.”
Did your perspective on life change in any way as a result of the trip?
The trip to Siberia changed my outlook massively, and eventually led to my career change. Something changed in me after that trip, and settling back down to a desk and spreadsheets didn’t quite cut it any longer. A seed had been planted!
You made a major life and career change in 2015. Tell us about this and what inspired it?
That’s right, in July 2015 I left everything I had ever known and moved to the other side of the world to embark on a new career teaching English in China. As mentioned in my previous answer, after spending time travelling Europe and Russia, I knew I needed to try and find a path more in tune with what I wanted in life.
I think I had always known deep down that I wanted to travel the world and try to find a career that would facilitate it. It just happened a lot later than expected (I was 34 when I made the move).
How did you find readjusting to living in China?
Things are very different here compared to Europe, and it took time to adjust, but my experiences travelling certainly helped me ease into it better. There is a small expat community of other teachers in my city, which has definitely helped too.
How do you balance your teaching work with taking two months off to travel each year?
It’s quite easy as I basically wait for my contract to end and then renew with a start date two-months hence. I’ve done the same each year for the past three years, and my employers have been more than accommodating about letting me travel.
I feel guilty for leaving my older students if we are mid-way through a term, but my more-than-capable colleagues cover me while I’m away (and vice versa), so it works out well.
Other teachers usually visit their respective home countries three or four times a year, but I just take one big break which works better for me.
How do you decide what to do with your travel time each year?
Usually it will encompass a trip back to England and as I don’t fly, I just look for new routes taking in countries I haven’t yet visited (or returning to favourites like Kazakhstan).
“As travel is something I’m passionate about, I think it comes across in my teaching and helps engage the students on a better level than sticking to a rigid curriculum.”
Do your regular travel experiences benefit your teaching work in any way?
Absolutely. It makes it easier to come up with engaging content, and if I have first-hand experience, it’s easier to share. I visited Romania last year and taught my students about Dracula and Vled Tepes; a class I think they particularly enjoyed.
I assign projects to my students based on travel such as planning a trip to London, or writing a postcard for the younger students. As travel is something I’m passionate about, I think it comes across in my teaching and helps engage the students on a better level than sticking to a rigid curriculum.
What are the biggest challenges of this lifestyle, and how do you overcome them?
Home sickness can be an issue of course, especially at times like Christmas. One way to get around that is to take a trip, and last Christmas I spent in Pyongyang, North Korea! I keep in contact with friends and family, and many of them have come to visit me in China, so I think I’m quite lucky.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced so far is dealing with the current outbreak of COVID-19 here. I was on holiday in Tibet when things started getting serious, and I travelled back across the country when many places were on lockdown. Thankfully I made it back to my city without incident, but have been stuck at home for over three months now!
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time off work to travel?
My first piece of advice would be to go for it and not think of excuses not to! It’s easy to carry on dreaming of that once-in-a-lifetime trip, but then worrying about your workload or other distractions.
If you are worried about approaching your employer, try and think of examples of how the trip could benefit them, such as gaining new experiences, teamwork or anything else you can apply to your work life.
Feeling inspired? You can beginning planning your own trip of a lifetime with our guides to round-the-world travel planning and taking a travel career break. Read more career break travel stories in our series of interviews.
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