Julie, Marie and Victor are three students at ISA in Lille who joined the intercultural week about living and working abroad conducted by David Hoffman of the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). They have posed me a few questions about living abroad that I am happy to answer through my Ubatuba blog.
With my wife, Katja and our daughter Olga have just moved back to Finland after spending 4 years in Cambodia working on development and cooperation projects. We are just in the middle of the process of adjusting to Europe, its climate, the people and the rules, while a part of us is still in South East Asia still waiting to leave.
Here are the questions.
How close was reality to your expectations about living and working abroad?
Cambodia was not new to me as I spent a period of five months in the capital Phnom Penh in 1998, working as a volunteer for local Non-governmental Organisations (NGO). Newer to me has been the experience of living in a small provincial town, Kampong Thom, in the middle of the country. There are only 15.000 inhabitants, and the whole province is pretty rural, with its economy based on subsistence agriculture. One is never prepared enough to see poverty and directly observe the extent of the struggle that some people face every day to survive, the lack of health care service, the lack of safe drinking water, and so on. Even though one can expect these things, it is impossible to picture them as the reality we have seen in some villages. But ultimately, this is the work I want to do, and I like to experience extended periods of life abroad with its positive and negative sides.
One more important issue is a couple who decide to work and live abroad in a small place as we were in the importance for both the partners to have a fulfilling and challenging job. Even though I had the working contract while moving to Kampong Thom, Katja soon got in touch with local NGOs did some volunteering work and after one year, was also contracted by DED (German Development Service) to advise and expand the environmental projects of Mlup Baitong, a local NGO with an office in Kampong Thom.
What is the most important thing you have learned from your experiences? What do these experiences bring to you? Was it worth it?
The decision to go to Cambodia was definitely positive and worth it from various point of view. Professionally it gave me the rare opportunity to work at the grassroots level on issues related to participatory local governance and the involvement of villagers in decision-making projects and development activities that could improve their life. I had the privilege to learn a lot about the role of traditional institutions such as pagodas in community development and see the value of traditional social capital as a means towards the end of improving people’s livelihood. Staying for a more extended period has also given me a chance to learn a bit of the language and establish good working relationships with Khmer colleagues: This allowed me to build to some extent trust between them and me, and I knew their personal stories about the terrifying years of the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime. With a short-term assignment in the country, this usually is very difficult. It isn\’t easy for me to differentiate between the professional and personal points of view as the two things are linked. Development and change are what I am interested in and what I want to do and research. From a personal point of view, I have had two powerful moments that have shaped my mind and feeling in Cambodia: the birth of our daughter and the death of my younger brother. These two extremes of life have shown the essence of life itself, and in a way, it has been positive for me to be in Cambodia, where basic needs are the everyday reality to cope with them and grow out of them.
Do you still feel Italian?
My background is of two nationalities my mother is German, and my late father was Italian. I have been used to travelling between these two countries since I was very young. Though I feel a great part Italian as that is the place I grew up and I my roots are, I never felt Italian. This has not changed, and I believe it will also not change in the future.
Or for both of you, do you think you have more than one identity or possibly multiple identities?
I try to keep one identity. I come from Cremona, Italy. That is the place I grew up and where the family is. I have been living abroad since 1996 and have stayed for a shorter and extended periods in Scotland, Spain, Finland, Nepal, and Cambodia. But I still feel like the one I was, though my worldview may have benefited from these experiences, and to would be difficult for me to go back.
What has been the most interesting challenge when you were abroad? (Family, friends, way of life, integration…)
We were living in a small place like Kampong Thom. Besides the work, there is very little to do than go to the market or ride a bicycle along the rice fields in the afternoon when the temperature drops. During our first months in 2001, I remember that we used to go for weekends to Phnom Penh as both of us felt the need to see people and go out. But this urgent need was reduced with time, and later, we liked more and more the idea of staying the weekends in Kampong Thom, trying to get back from meetings and work in Phnom Penh. This showed me how I adapted to a new kind of life. The hot season from March to June was indeed tough to stand. But Kampong Thom or Phnom Penh would have made a slight difference. Now being back in Europe, one thing that I miss or that has disappeared is the smile of the people.
What could be the reasons for you to stay in the same country for a longer time or even forever?
I can’t think in terms of forever. That seems too definitive, and I still enjoy the idea of change, though it can lead to positive or negative experiences in coping with a new environment. In the development and cooperation work, four years is a good time for a project. This could be stretched up to, say, 6. But if one stays too long in a project, he or she may lose objectivity and energy. Cynicism can then break-in, and an experienced advisor working in Cambodia once said, Cynicism is a very contagious disease that must be avoided, maybe by changing country and the project now and then.
Tampere, 27. January 2006