On being a digital nomad, world traveler and online teacher

I’m sitting with Delanie Honda in her casita in Merida, Mexico. She’s wearing sporty shorts and a polo shirt. The contrast is strange, but I try not to stare. When I ask about it, she laughs. “That’s the greatest thing about working from home! You know, in a video meeting, people really only see your torso and head. As long as I don’t have to stand up to dance, I usually wear a professional top and something comfortable for pants.”

Honda, 26, works as an online English teacher while trotting around the globe with her laptop safely packed away in her suitcase. Some would call her a digital nomad, but she’s never used the label to describe herself. “I just like living in different locations and getting to experience something new every day. If someone gave me a job that I had to stay in one place and never use a laptop, I’d be happy with that too! But secretly, I really hope that job would be somewhere abroad.”

Is it weird interviewing yourself?

Not really, actually. It might make me sound crazy, but I’m always having a one-sided conversation with myself throughout the day. I think that comes from being an only child and often having to entertain myself if my parents were busy.

Don’t worry, I don’t think that sounds crazy…ahem. Well. How did you begin the digital nomad life?

Before working online, I was teaching English abroad. I spent one year in Cambodia working with an NGO, and 10 months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia. After I finished my term in Malaysia, I wanted to keep traveling, but I didn’t have another job lined up somewhere else. It was actually my boyfriend who got me started working online. He had a lot of experience being a digital nomad and convinced me to try it.

I tried remote jobs like transcription and doing some freelance gigs at first but I had to put in a lot of hours, and it didn’t pay very well. Since I already had this background in teaching ESL, I thought I’d look into online teaching.

Photo of digital nomad with students in Cambodia

Honda and her Cambodian students
from Phnom Penh wearing Halloween costumes

Do you have another job besides online English teaching?

At first, teaching online was my only source of income. I’ve chosen to live in countries with lower costs of living, so it was possible for me to live well just by doing that. But I learned early on that relying on one job wasn’t a good idea because my earnings could fluctuate each month depending on various factors like holidays. So I decided it would be better to diversify and try different skills so if one job is slow, then hopefully I could make it up with another one.

These days, I wake up early to teach English and finish by the late morning. I take a break, and in the afternoon, I focus on my other tasks for the day, like writing blog articles or user tests. I also have some personal projects I’m working on, including a podcast. I try to leave my evenings free to relax or play Ultimate Frisbee.

How did you choose to live in Mexico?

Before this, we lived in South America because it was a part of the world neither my boyfriend nor I had ever ventured to. We’ve learned a lot about the history, culture, and people living in Ecuador and Colombia, which is always the best thing about getting to live abroad. When it came time to choose a new location, I wanted us to stay closer to the US since I’m planning to go back there for school.

When choosing a new country as a digital nomad, we usually look for three things: 1) internet access and reliability 2) cost of living and 3) ease and ability to extend a visa. Honestly, I wasn’t very excited about Mexico because it doesn’t seem very exotic compared to South America or Southeast Asia. But the Yucatan has been far more interesting than I thought because of the Mayan history and influences.

Yes, I saw your video from the Day of the Dead parade. What was that like?

Digital nomade Delanie Honda shares a photo of mucbipollo

Mucbipollo: A traditional Mayan food eaten around Hanal Pixán

Getting to celebrate and experience these kinds of traditional festivals is one of my favorite things about being a digital nomad and getting to live in different locations. Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán in the Mayan language. Some of the traditions are similar, like setting up altars for friends and loved ones who have passed. The traditional food here for this holiday is called pib or mucbipollo, and it the most important offering left on the altars. It is made from corn dough, pork or chicken, and butter, wrapped in banana leaves and “baked” underground. Honestly, it wasn’t my favorite food that I’ve had here, but I was a big fan of the pan de muertos, the bread they make for this day of the year.

What’s your favorite teaching moment?

That’s a hard question! As an online English teacher working with kids, it’s like an episode of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” every day. I think one of my favorite groups of students were a set of five and six-year-olds who were just beginning their English lessons, so most of them were shy to speak or didn’t know many English words.

As a warm up, sometimes I’d ask them “What am I?” and make different animal motions. One week, one student says, “Teacher, you’re a crab,” before I even act out anything. We went through a lot of different creatures, like a tiger, snake, and ghost. I was really proud of how much they had learned in a short amount of time, and they were already being creative with language.

Digital nomad teaching online ESL class

Pretending to be Ola, a popular ALO7 character, during an online ESL class

You’re going back to see your family for Thanksgiving, right?

Right.

So, I guess this is a good time to practice the question: What’s next?

As much as I enjoy the freedom of living abroad and getting to travel and set my own schedule, I don’t plan to be location-independent forever. Changing location so often can get tiring, and while there isn’t one place I want to settle down yet, I would like to find a more permanent location. At least for now!

However, education is still very important to me, and I want to continue working in this field. I’m currently applying to graduate programs and hope I’ll begin my studies next year.

Are you curious about the digital nomad lifestyle? Read this blog post from Honda that discusses the pros and cons.

I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.

I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!

4 Comments

  • Tara Martin says:

    Interesting article. I would love to travel more and by working with this company, I would totally have that flexibility to do so someday once my children are older.

  • Jan millsaps says:

    I love that working for ALO7 pays well enough for many people to live in places where the cost of living is less than in the USA. Adventure awaits!

  • Tara Martin says:

    ALO7 rocks!!

  • Brandi Graham says:

    I loved reading your article! It’s so refreshing to know that I’m not the only one who frequently has one-sided conversations with themselves :-)! I hope to one day become a traveling nomad, thank you for sharing your experience, and valuable insight on how to successful teach abroad! I look forward to reading more articles on your travels!

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