This entry is different from anything you have read here before. It’s about the other side. A honest reflection and probably something you don’t expect.
It’s been a year. Actually more than a year already since I left Switzerland. I remember it as good as if it had been yesterday even though it seems to be an eternity away. My journey was comfortable, took over 30 hours, within which I had to change the airplane three times. Yes, I do a lot to save money. And yes, I also missed a plane due to a delay of the one before. Smile. And if I had considered it as a “crazy challenge” that time (I didn’t), I would laugh at those thoughts nowadays. There is far bigger challenges in a life abroad. In a life as a volunteer in an entirely foreign surrounding with heaps of situations you have to face, to cope with, to get used to.
I’ve been asked many times, what is THE biggest challenge. Well, that’s not an easy question. And I guess, everyone in our team would answer it differently.
From my point of view, there is none. There is no BIGGEST challenge. It is the combination of various obstacles which appear sometimes to be bigger, sometimes smaller, sometimes don’t appear at all – probably depending on time, recent happenings and problems, mood.
Obvious but small
There are those obvious things. Things like climate, food, standard of living. I reckon, I handle those mostly quite well.
Of course, the climate is everything but comparable with Switzerland. Needless to say, I sweat like a monster and sometimes even miss the – until now – hated winter. However, you get used to it. Used to drinking several litres a day but never having to go to the toilet. Used to the warm water shower even though you don’t have a boiler – generously heated up by the sun. And also used to the rain, sure enough, it rains cats AND dogs when you have a vital meeting and no time to wait for it to pass.
Dietary problems? What’s that? Is that edible? 🙂 I don’t have that – thank God. A Khmer friend once said: “It’s impossible for you to starve. You eat EVERYTHING.” I guess I do and that’s why I know a lot about stomache issues… To be honest, I even like things I NEVER wanted to try – and when I tried I hoped I would find it so disgusting that I never eat it again. But it came different. There is a lot of weird stuff here. But that’s another chapter. Despite that, I have to be fair: I do miss a few things: drinkable tab water, Swiss cheese, Swiss chocolate, Swiss sausages – Bratwurst(!), Swiss honey, hazelnut yogurt, … . It’s a long list. Visitors and gifts from friends and family try to keep my fridge full with those things. Thank you 😉
I am very blessed with the ability to feel comfortable wherever I am and to get used to living standards which are far away of what Swiss people are used to. Once more, I can only recall what an undeserved privilege it is to grow up in a first world country. Next time you complain about having to stand in the business class of a train or about the coffee at Starbucks taking 30 seconds longer than usual, or any other luxury problem, please stop and think about people who have far more serious problems: Like how they can get enough money/food for their family’s dinner. Or how they can survive because their mother just died of Malaria. Or how they can get away from sex trafficking, being abused, poverty, exploitation, … . It may sound bold, but I reckon in countries like Cambodia you are confronted with daily problems you might not have known that they existed. And you start to count things like the lack of public transportation, a delayed coffee or a hair in your Fried Rice as irrelevant.
Wherever you go in the world, the culture there will be different from yours and I trust you’ll find a part good and another part will never make sense to you. As an expat you want to fit in, you don’t want to stay the “weird white foreigner” forever. But let’s be realistic, you can’t understand – let alone agree with – all of the culture and you will always be different. There is heaps of dangerous and uneasy situations; some are impossible to avoid. They belong to a life abroad. Full Stop.
The difficulty is at its highest, when you get accused of things which for you are not only peanuts but also would never be a reason to fight about in your own culture. The same happens the other way around. The easiest example is to lie: What is in their culture totally normal and legitimate is in western culture a break of trust. It’s so simple. To cope with such differences is not easy at all. They appear again and again and again. Impossible to avoid. Whether one was innocent or not – that’s depending on the point of view I guess – it hurts. It can destroy motivation, happiness, self-confidence, friendships, teams. Even when you agree to disagree, it leaves a mark.
Money. Always a nice topic, right? Especially for Swiss who take the bank secret more serious than anybody else. I was raised up being told to only use the money you earn – a good lesson, undoubtedly. However, as soon as I started to think about going on mission in Cambodia, I realized that this principle would have to change. Unlike my whole life long, I would not get paid from a company but would have to ask for money from people! The beginning of a life abroad meant the end of a monthly, secure, stable income. Soon enough, I learnt that sponsors also have their seasons in life and will stop paying while others would begin. Every time, I open my bank account I am excited about what would appear soon and amazed by people who believe in me and are willing to support it. It’s been not only positively overwhelming but also challenging. I learnt to fully trust on God which is definitely easier said than done. But he promised (ex. Luke 12.22ff) to provide enough – and his promises never fail.
I honestly still struggle sometimes with accepting money. And thoughts about how to spend it are my new best and worst friend. I love being generous and rarely hesitate when I get the chance to invite friends for lunch, buy a helmet, pay school fees, etc. At the same time I ask myself if it is ok to go to a massage for a few dollars. Whether I want or not, I always think twice before I spend a Dollar.
Saying “no”. Having a clear border between free time and work. I’m not good at both. How can you say “no” when you love it? When you’re passionate about it? I haven’t found the best way yet.
What I know nowadays – and I hate to admit it – is, that I sometimes worked to much, and rested too less, and took care of myself too less. Those who know me well can imagine how my face looks like now, staring onto the screen, typing these words. My eyes rolling, my nose wrinkled, my lips strongly pressed together.
There were days in the past where I should’ve said “no” or should’ve entrusted others with more of my tasks. I know that now. And I could only blame myself, but that doesn’t change anything. I have to try to change it instead. It’s a big challenge. For me saying “no” to something you love to do is simply a contradiction. But I guess, I have to learn it. And I have to learn to manage my time better.
Finding sympathy for my life
Being understood by locals here as well as friends and family in Switzerland is nothing I can take for granted. First-mentioned have everything familiar here, they usually don’t know living abroad, let alone how it is to live far away from a completely different home.
Furthermore, most people I had left in Switzerland/around the world have never been here, have never seen what’s going on here, have never experienced it. It is safe to say that most also haven’t lived abroad on a volunteer basis. They often see pictures and stuff on social media and hear funny and interesting stories. Why? Because I lie? No. Because I just don’t like to talk about negative stuff! People keep telling me how glad they are that I look and am happy and how much I must be enjoying my life, … . And this is true!
HOWEVER, it’s only one side of the page!
Even some who are very close to me were shocked when I once asked them to pray for me and some problems and when I mentioned that I actually had one of my biggest crisis ever over here and that I keep having struggles with different things. They were shocked. And so are you now, maybe. And that is ok. Absolutely ok.
Please only do me one favour: Don’t take Facebook & co. as being a 100%-representer of my life. There is a lot more in it than laughter, great adventures, fun, parties. Only thing is, that I am not that kind of person who loves to publicly talk or rather complain about bad stuff.
There is always two sides. Don’t let sunny statements and pictures blend you. Also rain belongs to it. And not only rain, but also storms, gusts of wind, earthquake alias to get strongly shaken by surroundings. I wanna finish with a cynical but sometimes actually suitable sentence:
“We arrived at the top of the mountain. Now it goes downwards.” Smile.