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Sunday 14 July, 6:15pm
I have lived abroad twice; in very different places and circumstances. Way back in 1996 we lived in St Helena for a year; the tiny, isolated island where Napoleon was sent to live out the rest of his life because he couldn’t possibly escape! Last July I followed my husband to Cambodia which couldn’t have been more different. Both times I have been very homesick but ultimately they were worthwhile and interesting experiences and the importance of friendships has really been brought home to me.
I really wish I had done this right at the start of my months in Cambodia. (St Helena is English speaking) Although we did go to informal classes which were great fun and very social an intensive course would have been really useful just for basic communication. Although many educated people in Cambodia speak English as do many involved in tourism the man and woman in the street generally don’t. We lived in a street where the neighbours were friendly but communication was often limited to smiles and greetings and that was a real pity. One lovely market trader took it upon herself to teach me the names of all the fruit and vegetables and told me the prices in Khmer, not minding while I slowly worked out the mind boggling numbers. The Cambodian language, known as Khmer, is hard to learn for Westerners especially in its written form but basic oral communication skills can be learned if you make the effort.
Even in other western countries superficially similar to the UK there will be many customs and habits that are different and surprising. Living in St Helena was a little like going back to the fifties, simple living (no TV though we could get a crackly BBC World Service) and everyone had a picture of the Queen on their wall! Living in South-East Asia is as different as could be. There are obvious things like the food, the heat and the crazy traffic but also the colours, smells, customs and, of course, the poverty. The sort of things that you see on holiday and love but can be much harder to live with everyday. I think that even for those who ultimately love their new home there is a settling in period to be gone through.
I went abroad both times with my husband who was working in schools. In St Helena ex-pat wives weren’t allowed to work, in theory to protect local jobs but in fact it meant that qualified specialists weren’t allowed to use their skills in a place where no-one else had them. I did manage to do some voluntary teaching in their Special Needs centre. In Cambodia I quickly found a part-time job teaching English to small children (quite a long way out of my Secondary School comfort zone) and I did enjoy that. One friend I made was a play therapist and couldn’t find anyone to take her seriously in Cambodia, even at the specialist children's’ hospitals. She found it both frustrating and upsetting that her skills weren’t recognised. For most of us these days our own careers are a big part of who we are and it is hard to put that on hold. If you know you may not be able to work think about what you will fill your time with, maybe it is a chance to learn a new skill?
One of the main challenges for me, being a bit of an introvert, was to find new friends. Whatever your interests there will be others, not necessarily from the UK, who share them. Somewhere there will be a church, a sports club, musicians, artists…..looking for new members and friends. The most challenging part is getting out there to find them. I was lucky enough to fall in with a women’s group from the Anglican church in Phnom Penh with some inspiring women in it. Many worked for non governmental organisations as there is a lot of Western Aid going into Cambodia; some, like me, had husbands who were working in NGOs or the diplomatic services. All were facing the challenges of living far from family and friends and familiar surroundings. While I was there two members of the group faced the immense challenge of relocating ‘home’ after many years working in Cambodia. That reverse transition can be immensely hard as the culture shock works the other way!
In St Helena our technological marvel was a fax machine and a telephone. I don’t remember using the phone much so I guess it must have been expensive. In Cambodia calls abroad are very expensive but mobile data is cheap and so calling home on What’s App or Facebook Messenger was really easy, though my elderly mother never really got the hang of the smartphone we got for her. Calls to and from her were very hit and miss! We also wrote a blog which lots of friends read and which we posted links to on Facebook and Instagram. Wherever you go there will probably be blogs or websites written by ex-pats and we found that useful for advice on travel and shopping.
Make the most of any holidays, chances to watch or even participate in local festivals and visit places where the locals go, as well as the tourists. Cambodia is said to have more public holidays than any other country; there's a number of Buddhist festivals, Royal birthdays and the famous Water Festival. We visited the beautiful coast of Cambodia several times, local beauty spots, beautiful temples, Siem Reap to see the ancient temples of Angkor, the North east to walk with elephants and stay the night in a local village, and had a holiday in Vietnam.
Have you lived abroad for a while, where you have had to learn to adapt and make new friends? We'd love to hear from you! Or have you recently returned to the UK and are trying to adapt to your life back home, re-energising old friendships or looking to build new ones? We can help!