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 few questions about living abroad that I am happy to answer through my Ubatuba blog.
With my wife Katja and our daughter Olga we have just moved back to Finland after spending 4 years in Cambodia working in 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 did spent a period of 5 months in the capital Phnom Penh in 1998 working as a volunteer for local Non-governmental Organisations (NGO). More new 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. I think that even though one can expect these things, it is not possible 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 as well as negative side.
One more important issues being a couple who decide to work and live abroad in a small place as we were is 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 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 under various point of views. Professionally it gave me the rare opportunity to work at the grassroots level on issues related to participatory local governance and involvement of villagers in decision making project 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 longer period has also given me the chance to learn a bit the language and establish good working relationships with Khmer colleagues: This allowed to build to some extent trust between me and them and I learned 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 is normally very difficult. It is difficult form me to differentiate between professional and personal point of view as the two things are linked. Development and change is what I am interested and what I want to do and research. From a personal point of view I have had two very strong moment that have shaped in my mind and feeling Cambodia: the birth of our daughter and the death of my younger brother. These two extreme of life have showed the essence of life itself and in a way it has been positive for me to be in Cambodia where basic needs are the every day reality in order to cope with them and grow out of them.
Do you still feel Italian?
My background is of two nationalities as my mother is German and my father was Italian. I have been used to travel between these two countries since I was very young. Though I feel for a great part Italian as that is the place I grew up and I my roots are, I never felt totally Italian. This has not change and I believe it will not change in the future as well.
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 the place I grew up and where the family is. I have been living abroad since 1996 and stayed for shorter and long period in Scotland, Spain, Finland, Nepal, and Cambodia. But I still feel the one I was, though maybe my world view 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…)
I think living is a small pace like Kampong Thom. Where besides the work, there is very little to do than going to the market or riding the bicycle along the rice fields in the later afternoon when the temperature drops a bit. During our first months there 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 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 to me how I personally adapted to a new kind of life. The hot season from March to June was indeed very hard to stand. But Kampong Thom or Phnom Penh would not have made a big 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 really think in terms of for ever. That seems to me too definitive and I still enjoy the idea of change, though it can lead to positive or negative experiences in coping with new environment. In the development and cooperation work 4 years are a good time in a project. This could be stretched up to, say, 6. But if one stays too long in a project he or she may loose objectivity and energy. Cynicisms can than 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 project now and then.
Tampere, 27. January 2006