Who are you?
Robin Ann Martin.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved abroad in 2006 to the Sultanate of Oman.I was tired of the nationalism in America, along with anti-Arab sentiments that were common then, and wanted a broader perspective on life and education, through my own direct experience. Plus, it’s easy to find work outside of the US, when you have a good American education. I’ve lived in five different countries since 2006: The Sultanate of Oman, Turkey (my favorite!), England, Malaysia, and now Thailand.
What challenges did you face during the move?
The first move was pretty easy, once I found a job. The hardest part was just setting up the receiving end of the shipment of my things from the States to Oman. Customs can be a little tricky and very different in each country, as can be the shipping businesses that you work with to transport your things. Taking things to make you comfortable can help you adjust, but sometimes it’s not worth the hassle of the shipping process. Less can be better.
How did you find somewhere to live?
I found a job first, just by applying to work in a country that I’d never heard much about, and so became very curious to learn more once I got the job interview! Applying to work for little universities in small countries if you have more than a BA from any good western university is a great ticket for beginning the life of an expat.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Where I live now in Bangkok, yes, of course, there are probably thousands of expats who live here.
Where I lived first in Oman was a rural area, in the beautiful yet remote southern part, where there are many local tribes and the great “Empty Quarter” meets the seasonal monsoon, and produces the most wonderful light sprinklings of green to make the land lush in a very small micro-climate. Yet even there in the Shining City of Salalah in Dhofar, there were a handful of expats who made my life transition much easier.
Finding friendly and caring expats is one of the first steps to making any cultural transition much easier. Locals are so lovely, but they often don’t understand the stresses that are involved in settling into a completely new culture and place, where even English can be a rarity, so that even going to the bank or supermarket can become a little adventure.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
It varies. When I lived in Turkey, it was VERY easy to make good friends with many locals, and wonderfully so. Of course, I lived in an English-speaking university community and got involved in the local tango community too. So all that helps.
Here in Thailand, I work in a Thai school, and everyone is so busy, one mostly just makes friends in a collegial way. Though, outside of work, most Thais are lovely and friendly, when they are confident enough to talk to you! I live on the outskirts of Bangkok, and am slowly starting to make a nice circle of friends outside of work too.
What do you like about life where you are?
The school where I work is a caring and beautiful school, with many unique (and some quirky) approaches to holistic education. I enjoy slowly learning about Buddhism and Thai kindness too.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Bangkok is the worst plastic-obsessed and consumeristic city that I’ve ever lived in. And NOISY! Finding quiet cafes and coffee shops and pleasant parks to go on weekends can sometimes be challenging. Though, not impossible.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The Thai approach to time and authority feels very different from any other culture that I’ve ever lived in. Time is flexible and deadlines do not seem important. Meetings can happen at the drop of a hat, and there’s not much respect for the individual’s prior schedule.
Authority-wise, the Buddha is worshipped by many, and the monks have more than a little respect in the small community where I live.
Beyond that, it also feels less like a democracy than even the Middle Eastern countries where I lived, and people are a bit cynical about the corruption here. Plus, I’ve never lived in any place where talking about the royal family with foreigners is simply forbidden. Together, this all creates a certain kind of relationship to authority that locals have, which feels strange at times. Takes some getting used to.
Other things that are different are: How emotions are expressed or suppressed, with “happy” being the main emotion that is most acceptable. Also, people don’t always tell the truth in situations where it would be easy to do so. So that sometimes has led to a few uncomfortable moments, as getting emotionally upset or verbally assertive when you are irritated by little half-truths is also frowned upon. “Mai pen rai” means “never mind!”
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
The number of exotic fresh fruits and vegetables that I’ve never heard of, but that are delicious is amazing. I am not too fond of durian, but I love rambutans, mangosteens, dragon fruit, rose apples, pomelo, tamarind, and the super flavorful little bananas too. That just begins to name what’s available here, that most westerners have never known until they live in SE Asia. As for the number of unique vegetables, I’m still learning what they are called!
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Take your time to learn about each country when you decide to go there. Read about it in the news, watch Youtube videos, read books that have been translated into English, AND then get to know locals. Don’t be in a hurry. Expect the unexpected (especially with Immigration in Thailand!). If possible, find an employer who HELPS to handle all the visa and work permit processes. Ask lots of questions.
Be patient with yourself, your new home, your new colleagues, your new students once you arrive! When you enter a new culture, you are breathing into an entirely new life. It takes time to adjust. Learning the basics of the local language is helpful, but give yourself time to be in a “confused state of mind” too. There are days, weeks, or months — when your pronunciation will just never be adequate. Get used to it. Get used to NOT KNOWING, and just enjoying the ride, and learning to observe non-verbal communication as much as possible. It’s amazing how much you can communicate with taxi drivers just by being relaxed and friendly, but don’t expect them to know much English.
Adventure is not always what you expect it to be. Go with the flow, and then call a friend back home and rant occasionally when everything feels too strange and you’re not sure which direction is up!
What are your plans for the future?
I take things one step at a time. Not ready to say about my future plans just yet.
You can keep up to date with Robin's adventures on her blog, A Wandering Life Journal.
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