While still in high school, I knew that whatever I was going to do for a living had to include living overseas for extended periods of time or at least require international travel. I was curious about foreign people of every type and description, and I badly wanted to discover new and unfamiliar places. I was especially interested in learning about art and customs of people very different from myself and I often sought out opportunities to discover these. By the time I was graduating from university I had already lived in four countries on two continents. I had come to the realisation that every country and culture has its positive and negative characteristics, every people had something charming and wonderful to teach me, and I felt drawn to keep discovering more and more places. I felt I was far from ready or willing to attach myself to a particular place and call it my permanent home.
I thought I had acquired the ability to dive into a new culture and language and adapt without a long or painful transition period. Although the transitions I had experienced before weren’t without their difficulties, I saw each experience as an exciting opportunity to grow, a fun personal challenge of sorts. Some places were easier for me to adapt to than others, but I felt I had mastered the ability to blend in quickly—like a chameleon changing its colors depending on the environment it finds itself in.
Providentially, soon after graduation, I received a full scholarship towards a Master’s degree at one of Thailand’s top universities. I was thrilled. I knew very little about Asia and I couldn’t wait to arrive in the land of elephants and orchids. All I had read and been told about this exotic kingdom seemed alluring and romantic.
My arrival in Thailand marked the beginning of my Asia chapter, and a battle with new smells, sounds and sights became my new life. The language seemed impossibly singsongy, and the women all seemed to speak in high-pitched little-girl voices. I bristled at the idea that I had to speak that way to be understood. I struggled terribly with culture shock and the transition period seemed interminable. I felt cut off from everything I understood and held dear—banished on a foreign planet that would swallow me whole, break me and spit me out dead. I really didn’t believe I was going to survive the trial. I was homesick. I felt isolated and unable to make significant progress. Wow, my struggle was intense, and long. Eventually, I realised that my rudimentary language skills were keeping me trapped in the “transition” vortex forever and I would never feel comfortable with Thailand until I became serious about learning more Thai. Acquiring the language skills necessary to understand and be understood made an enormous difference to my sense of belonging.
After Thailand, I lived in Laos for a brief time and also in Cambodia for eight long years. Khmer is not an easy language, however I worked hard at it and learned the basics – enough to communicate my needs and exchange ideas in a social setting.”. My efforts paid off and my comfort level grew immensely the more comfortable I became with the language. The ability to express oneself and understand others is key to how happily or easily we adapt in a new culture. I’ll be the first to admit that Asian languages came much slower and with more struggle than the European languages.”
However, the sense of achievement gained by learning enough Thai and Khmer to function in those cultures enriched my life and helped me to have a higher regard for myself. They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’ve certainly seen this to be true.