Expat lyf yo.
It ain’t always easy despite what the glossy brochures and blogs will tell you. There are pressures of work, relationships, home and family combined with a new country, the challenges of working in a different environment, cultural and food differences and homesickness. Some days are awesome and you think you are really lucky to be doing something somewhere exotic, other times the frustrations of working with people from a different culture and language group just get to you.
I think expats (volunteers or otherwise) who live in similar countries i.e. westerners to other western countries get off a little easier than those of us who have gone to a totally different country. For west-west expats, there are many similarities to work and life culture, food, systems and understandings. For west-east (and east-west) expats it can be excruciating to work sometimes but the rewards are pretty amazing.
I thought it would be a bit of fun to highlight some of the key challenges that expats face when coming to a developing country- do you have any others that have been interesting for you to face? I’d love to hear all about it!
This is probably one that affects most people who move to a country that is very different to their own….If you are going from Sydney to New York or London probably wont have to deal with this! The stomach issues…ohhhhh. Its in the conversations of most travellers and expats – the horror stories, the tips for reducing the impact, the best medication to take and news of friends and foe who have dealt with this too. For an expat it can be a little worse than for a backpacker or tourist as there is a certain amount of expectation that you will be on the ball at all times. You aren’t here to sit back and relax, you are here to work! And work you shall! But…the good thing about being an expat with a dodgy gut issue is that your colleagues will understand if you need to run to the bathroom every half an hour.
Deal with it – hydration, hydration hydration. Eat plain food like steamed rice and bananas (or nothing at all). Avoid meats and spicy food. Get some charcoal tablets and some pepto bismal if you can find it. Unless you are super sick or have to travel, I would suggest that you avoid taking gastro-stop or imodium – that bacteria is better out than in!
As an expat/volunteer there are certain behaviours that you have to uphold. You have to be mindful of local customs, be professional and considerate, not offend anyone and be patient and flexible always. But there will be times, many times, where an expat will be faced with something that will really really affect them. This is particularly the case in Cambodia where poverty, human rights abuses, gender inequality, environmental destruction and abuse of animals is, sadly, commonplace.
Sometimes these issues come up and slap you in the face when you least expect it such as a friend making reference to someone they know having HIV and how your friend doesn’t want to work with them. Or watching people throw bags of rubbish over the side of a boat into the river without even a second thought. Or seeing animals being beaten with sticks and rocks thrown at them. Or your colleagues ordering the female staff around or totally ignoring them in the office.
Deal with it – take a deep breath and remember that you don’t know the full story. And you are a guest in another country. Yes, in our home countries some behaviours or attitudes would never be acceptable, but this is a developing country and expats and volunteers are generally there to help improve the living and working conditions. Don’t get angry, upset or demanding. Suggest better ways of doing it then and there, or raise it with the individual later. For example you could say something to your boss like “Maybe we shouldn’t hurt the dogs when they come near the office. Can we try spraying them with water instead of throwing rocks at them?”
We will all face times where we will miss home. It could be the heat or the cold getting to us, the inability to find our favourite brand of biscuits, the frustrating lack of commitment to tasks, the piles of garbage everywhere, being ripped off by tuk tuks and market vendors or seeing a sea of strangers when all you want is a buddy. This homesickness can come and go and can be especially bad when there are big things going on at home such as parties, problems for family members or friends or even celebration days that you feel like you are missing out on. Facebook can make these times really crappy because all you are seeing are the fun times and you get a massive case of the fomo’s.
On top of this there is the pressure to stay involved and seem happy at work and to tell friends and family that everything is peachy (don’t want anyone to worry about you!) and the pressure we place on ourselves to succeed – we didn’t give up so much back home just to throw in the towel. Everyone expects that you are having an AMAZING time and doing AMAZING things when more often than not you are doing just the same boring crap you did back home like spending your Saturday mornings washing and cleaning the house.
Deal with it – Take some time out to chill out. Watch a movie, read some books, get into some activity that will help to occupy the mind and soul. Write letters and postcards to people back home and even little gifts. And of course there is skype and other phone-services you can use to give peeps at home a surprise call. I think the best times to do this are when friends are getting ready to go out and you can have a few drinks together via the internet! Then there is the whole thing of actually getting involved in the community you are in – make some friends, go out, do things, have fun!
Language and Culture
This, of course, is a huge issue that is (I think) the most interesting challenge. Working in a place where you have language and culture barriers can be exciting and fun. It can be frustrating and confusing. It can be informative and interesting. Relationships between people, mannerisms, behavioural norms, cultural events, sayings, food and identity are all within this area. It can take years to understand everything, so don’t try to overwhelm yourself in the first few months. And sometimes the norms aren’t even relevant to your work – for example, I was told Khmer people have a quiet demeanor yet in my office there are raised voices regularly.
Things often seem ridiculous to us with our own opinions and belief systems – like not being allowed to drink coconut when a woman has her period, not combining certain foods like durian and whiskey. But when you actually analyse some of our own cultural norms they can seem quite ridiculous too. Such as eating sweet cereal for breakfast when it tastes like a dessert, only eating a certain type of bread at easter (hot cross buns) or having a day that celebrates people being sent to war and killing people.
Deal with it – Give speaking the language a go, get involved in ceremonies and events, be open to trying new things. Think about how strange some of our own customs and behaviours would be to a foreigner in your country.And if all else fails, laugh it off.
The Food Tastes Funny
Food is an important aspect of travel and living. When we travel we are often open to giving it a go and shoving all sorts of questionable items into our mouths because we know that soon we will be home and back to our salads, vegemite toast and sausage sangers. The challenge when actually living in another country that it can be hard to satiate cravings for things that we would otherwise have available everywhere. Like sushi handrolls and orange juice and prawns. Instead you have a huge array of unknown snacks and dishes available that are scary to look at, taste odd and are hard to get away from.
There is also the unhealthy options of KFC, McDonalds (though not in Cambodia!), Pizza shops and any number of greasy chinese joints. But these can often serve a healthy dose of food poisoning or general malaise thanks to the fact you are eating something you probably wouldn’t eat at home. ever. You will undoubtedly put on weight, get pimples and feel crap though!
Deal with it – Try some of those funny looking dishes and you could be pleasantly surprised. And if you are horrified at what you ate, well at least you now know what to avoid. You can also try cooking up dishes at home that meet your cravings and have a crew who you can cook food together with – but maybe try using some of those local ingredients in your dishes such as using thick rice noodles with spaghetti sauce.
They Just Don’t Get It
A fun part of moving somewhere else is that you can establish a whole new group of friends and be the person you have always wanted to be. Or you can just pretend certain things about yourself don’t exist like you used to be a boring accountant and now you are a creative genius! But the challenge with this is that you will be starting friendships with people who maybe just don’t get you. They don’t think you’re funny, they don’t understand when you make sweeping generalisations or try to explain some story that ends up being a “I guess you had to be there” moment. This can leave you feeling vulnerable, exposed, lame and lonely. This can happen with both other expats and locals, especially if you don’t share a cultural or language background because a lot gets lost in translation.
Deal with it – don’t take it to heart and be open to new things. Find common things to talk about and create new moments that your friends back home will be thinking “I guess you had to be there” when you try to tell it. Try not to focus on what was and focus on what is, here and now.
So, what have been the challenges for you, fellow expat? Whats been the hardest to overcome?