A (Selfish?) Life in Savannakhet, Laos. (+addendum…)

I just came back from a party to farewell another fabulous human being I have met here, Michael.  He originally came here as a Fulbright scholar, and stayed for longer than he was contracted to… I mean, who wouldn’t?

It was a fabulous party.  Held at mutual friends’ house, ‘Pot luck’ – bring a plate.  Fabulous food, fabulous company, great conversations, music, shared interests – new faces, old faces, local people and expats.  Michael is a sociable person who has worked at a range of different places, and he invited them all!  He is around half my age, but his playlist was excellent – huge range of music from different places and eras.  This epitomizes a very different life to the one I lead back ‘home’.

People who had seen my recent facebook posts asked me about my plans for when my contract expires, at the end of August.  For the first time I needed to articulate something I’ve been putting off, what am I going to do?  It is June now, my contract ends in three months.  I don’t want to leave but I need to go home.  I want to come back.

I talked with my 85 year old father today.  He said something like “So you’re looking forward to coming home, because I miss you and many other people miss you too…”  My immediate thought was no, I’m not looking forward to coming home.  My ‘home’ is a miserable place, a job in which I am devalued and constantly on edge, never knowing whether I’ll have work for the next semester, no chance of achieving an ongoing position.  Children who I adore but I cannot continue to be their all when living a life of discontent.  A complete lack of ‘community’, where I sit at home on my own and wallow in my misery.  A lack of meaning and feeling as if I am contributing to the world.  Here I feel as if I am on my way to contributing.  To helping others achieve, to inspire, to educate, to share my knowledge and be a part of improving the lives of others.  I don’t want to go home.

Is this selfish?  Am I only thinking of myself?  Or does a meaningful life actually matter?  It seems to matter to me.  I have worked hard for a long time to develop the skills that I want to share with others.  I have tried to do that in my ‘home’ context, in working with students in Australian universities to inspire, to provoke, to work towards a better future for their students and the world.  Sometimes this feels like an achievement, as if I’ve made a difference.  And then I get my student evaluations, I get rejected for ongoing positions, I feel like I’m not inspiring, or achieving, or doing anything of any value to anyone.  I feel like a failure, with nothing to offer. God I hate that feeling, but it’s real, and it hurts.

So I leave Australia, I work here as a volunteer, supported by the Australian government.  I feel as if I have some purpose to what I’m doing.  I feel as if people appreciate what I’m doing.  People seem to acknowledge and recognise that what I’m doing is selfless – this is not for me.  I have knowledge and ability and I can share it unselfishly – I simply need enough money to live, and beyond that, I will give what I can.

This is the dilemma I find myself in.

Addendum:  a year later, another volunteer position in a different country…

The dilemma is still with me.  Again I find myself in a position that feels right – in a position that welcomes me and my skills, where I feel I can make a difference, where I am challenged every day.  As I leave home, my father hugs me and every time it feels like the last goodbye.  My children hug me as I farewell them, and I assure myself that my discontent presence is more damaging than my content distance – that technology provides a channel for more communication than would be possible with my presence.

I was asked by a friend why I didn’t look for the same work in my own country – out of respect for being a closer part of my kids’ lives, and (presumably) to work for the betterment of my own country rather than overseas.  It is difficult to articulate why I do not have any desire to work in my own country, but I think I have expressed this in many ways over many years.

Professionally, there are people who have training and experience in my profession who can certainly do these (local) jobs and who I would have to compete with based on questionable measures of competence.  I am tired of battling to prove myself, to present myself in an ‘acceptable’ manner, to write and to speak in a way that is not true to myself and has nothing to do with what I want to accomplish and how I want to work with others.  Or how I can draw on a life-time of experience that doesn’t ‘fit’ in my ‘3 page max CV’ and certainly isn’t mentioned in job interviews.

For a long time I have just wanted to work at my best, to meet challenges head on and to use my ‘big picture’ thinking to work on immediate issues … I don’t have as much energy as I did 20+ years ago when I started on the desperate journey through academia so I’d rather put the energy and passion into the work I have, than into getting my foot in the doors that remain closed to me.

So the ‘dilemma of selfishness’ remains but …

Deliberating inside my Cave…DSC_9022-Optimized

Advertisements

This life and that one.

This life and that one.

Two Months Left … Not ready to leave!

I left that one for a multitude of reasons:

  • Working as a sessional academic in a university for 15 or so years, and still be a lowly kicking ball is demoralising and ultimately soul-destroying.
  • Turning 50 was life-changing – time to live my dream.
  • Becoming a volunteer overseas for the second time in my life was that dream.
  • Living, working and learning in a new country/culture was also part of that dream.
  • My older son needed to find his own way in the world.
  • My younger daughter has a father who loves and looks after her, and a life in which she is happy, living, learning and thriving.

But overall, I didn’t feel wanted, needed or appreciated in that life, but in this one, I do.

I feel as if I’ve been on my way to turning 50 forever.  I went back to higher degree study in 1999 after finding out that my Graduate Diploma of TESOL did not entitle me to teach in Victoria.  I eventually completed my Masters and then my PhD whilst working as a sessional academic in 2011, aged 44.  At that time I had a 2 year old daughter and a 15 year old son.  My CV was pretty good; I have never stopped working, always being independent and thirsty for new knowledge and experiences.  I had been interviewed for a few academic jobs (tenured), but at that time the message was always … finish your PhD first.  I still remember how at that time I felt invigorated and energetic, hopeful and happy to become an ‘expert’ in whatever it was they considered necessary in order to give me an ongoing position.  And as anyone who has also been through the gratuitous process of applying and being knocked back, that energy and invigoration is likely to soon get sucked out of you.

I finished the PhD and found that my university faculty no longer had any work to offer me.  I seemed to have reached a dead end there – after 12 years or so of studying and working in the same faculty, I got to one of those low points between contracts and had to accept that I had been labelled something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’ and that I would just never be good enough.  Yes, I’m allowed to feel disappointed … (see below).

And the rules had clearly changed along the way, not just ‘finish your PhD’ but ‘finish your PhD and a mass of publications in highly ranked journals to show you are serious and publishable’, ensure your work ‘fits’ the current milieu, and that you are already ‘known’ as one who will succeed within that …

Where/when do you realise you have left your run too late?

I’m allowed to feel disappointed…

[…] I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.

(from:  https://theprecariatandtheprofessor.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/im-allowed-to-feel-disappointed/ 1Jul17)

Luckily, I was able to get sessional work at the university just a little lower on the ranking scale, and a little further from my house.  Some more insufferable job interviews for the work I was currently doing as a sessional, an underlying sense of humiliation and failure, and my 50th birthday looming closer.  Four years spent doing the work, walking the walk, talking the talk, improving my practice and knowledge and learning ways to ‘suck it up’ as required for a sessional who wants more work for the next semester.  My writing was often focused on my experiences working as a sessional and teaching/lecturing in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy, with a primarily critical sociological viewpoint.  At that time I wrote about the ‘problems’ of diversity and social justice, critical thinking/teaching/reflection, student evaluations, the precariousness of sessional work and mental health implications.  And lived it.

*     *     *

I began looking for overseas volunteer work that matched my credentials, preferably in South East Asia.  I found a job and had a phone interview in which I was able to draw from all of my experiences, the good the bad and the shocking, along with how I learnt and what I learnt from these, and how this experiential knowledge would be useful for working in a place where the challenges are not simply theoretical, but which impact on every aspect of your life, every day.

It was my first successful job interview in around 20 years.

And now I am in my last 2 months of my assignment.  Wanting to do more.  Wanting to come back and continue my work.  Applying for such positions and being told my years in academia, whilst useful for knowledge and theory, do not cut it against those who spent the last 20 years of their career working in ‘development’.  And at the age of 51, what do I do?  Where do I go next?  How do I find the equivalent to that appreciation and meaning I have in my life at this point?

DSC_9303-Optimized

 

A life that just gets better!

(Post Written for Diabetes Can’t Stop Me  link to post here)

Some Introductory details:

  • I was diagnosed with T1 diabetes in 1977, at the age of 11 years.
  • I was admitted to the Royal Children’s hospital (Melbourne) almost in a coma. I stayed in the hospital and was ‘trained’ to look after my condition over 2 weeks.
  • I was embarrassed and ashamed at that time and didn’t want anyone to know. My older brother (by 9 years) had been diagnosed at age 9 but he never talked about it.
  • My mother took the brunt of my care. She boiled my glass syringes and reusable needles every night, to soak in Methylated spirits until required.  I had to test my urine, using a dropper, test tubes and a magic tablet that was dropped in the tube, changed the colour and then was then measured up against a chart.
  • At the age of 13, more complications for my life after a serious car accident (Anglesea, during a Diabetes camp run by the RCH).
  • Needless to say, my teenage years were a mess, but I survived!

Skipping a few decades, I am now 51, working as a volunteer in Savannakhet, Laos – a little known landlocked country between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar.  I have two amazing children, a boy aged 21 and a girl aged 7, who still live in Melbourne where I grew up. I did a lot of study over the years, culminating in a PhD (Education) in 2011.  I volunteered in the Solomon Islands in 1994 after spending two crazy years in Kalgoorlie (Western Australia).  I never believed that having diabetes should stop me – and it hasn’t.

Not to say I’ve always been in the best of health, or particularly well-controlled.  My teenage years were a disaster – but having diabetes in a way stopped me from going as far awry as some of my friends did.  I have spent some time in hospital on occasions from DK (Diabetic ketoacidosis) and learnt a lot about my body and control in the process.  I felt close to death on occasions, and this is frightening, but gave me more determination to survive.

My son was born in 1995 (I was 29) – I spent 5 weeks in the RWH (Royal Women’s hospital) before his birth because of my badly controlled diabetes and risk of preeclampsia.  He was induced early, weighed 5lbs at birth and is now a healthy 21 years old.

My daughter was born in 2009 (I was 43) – and that was when I was able to go on pump therapy which has changed my diabetes control incredibly.  Another gorgeous healthy baby, induced but much easier than the first time around.  She is now an incredibly delightful child of 7, so much like me that I’m afraid she will be the next diabetic to join our extended family (currently – 2 siblings, 1 cousin and his child, 1 uncle – and who knows who else draws the next short straw?).

So, at the age of 51, with 40 years of diabetes under my belt, I am proud to say that it has actually incentivised me to conquer the odds, and do the best I can for humanity.  Here in Savannakhet, I am working at a Teacher Training College, with teachers who train young people from rural areas, so that they are able to return to their villages and share their knowledge as a teacher.  I feel appreciated for what I do, and I am so glad to be of help however I can.  Life here is not necessarily easy – complete lack of availability of the medications I need (I had to bring as much with me as I possibly could, and have cut back on blood tests and some medications so they don’t run out), the heat is constant – I’m always sweating, the food is so different to home, there is no suitable medical care locally and I must travel to Thailand or Vientiane for appropriate treatment for any problems that occur.

On the upside, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever been before in my life.  I have everything I need.  My insulin requirements are much less than when in Australia (yes, even with the dreaded rice as a staple of my diet) and I have had incredible experiences and adventures.  And I appreciate life and every moment so much more.  I really thought, as a young badly controlled diabetic, threatened with blindness, amputations, and kidney disease for all my sins, that I would never get past 34 years.  Well I have, and I’m loving it!

on the bike-Optimized

One Week Pre-departure

I have just spent four days at my ‘pre-departure briefing’ – information, advice, networking, and an absolute brain overload!  And too much food.

Aug 2016 Briefing2.JPG

As the departure date looms, I just have to maintain the pace – fill in all those little bits, tick off the ‘to do’ list (that really only exists in my overloaded head) and go through all the doubts, worries, trepidations and fears that are to be expected before setting off on a big journey.

During the four days of the briefing I learnt all of the rules for what I (we volunteers and ‘representatives of the government of Australia’) should and shouldn’t do, say or think.  What to say and what not to say, how to behave and how not to behave.  We learnt that there are people employed to support us on our ‘missions’ (my word, not theirs) and there is in-country, international and support from home if we find ourselves in need.  I learnt that our roles involve ‘capacity building‘ (the new catch cry for international aid).

Overall, I learnt that a hell of a lot has changed since I volunteered 22 years ago.  That changes in line with neo-conservative government have far flung consequences that have a significant role in how we might attempt to live a meaningful life.  That our ‘freedom’ only extends so far in what we are able to do, to say, to choose.  Or to share.

I have organised two ‘see you later’ parties to share with friends and family.  I have spent time with my gorgeous children and organised for their trip to come and see me for Christmas.  I have said farewell to my dog, my house, and my life in its current state.  One of my colleagues at the briefing said ‘oh, but it’s only a year’!  I think of a year in my child’s life and it is huge.  I want my year to be huge too.  We only have so much time in this life – I want to make the most of all of it.

Bye.jpg

Expatriates – blogs, advice, adventures, (tbc…)

A blog that caught my attention early on, Mundane Chaos -Misadventures in Southeast Asia came up with a search on my destination (Savannakhet Teacher Training College).  Stephanie Crabtree wrote about her experiences there in 2012/13 with lots of amusing anecdotes, observations and experiences that I really enjoy reading (and writing!).  These are the sorts of stories I like to share/hear about and can give all sorts of insights about expat life.

mundane chaos

I responded to Stephanie’s blog and she kindly emailed back, saying she’d almost forgotten about the blog (don’t you love that they just ‘hang there’ forever?) since returning home 3 years ago.  But she sent me some contact names and some helpful advice which is great!

 The Culture blend thoughts on  expatting, repatting, transition and life is another blog I’ve enjoyed, from an ‘expert’ expat named Jerry Jones who writes with a thoughtful, humorous  and wise approach.

Capture

The ‘expat’ comes in all shapes and sizes (and income levels).  I like Jerry’s ‘crawl in the hole’ advice (link below) because it pretty much rings true to my own (earlier) experiences.  I don’t think you can ever become an ‘expert’ inter/cross cultural participant because everyone is looking for different things, and that not everybody gets a ‘thrill’ out of being out of their comfort zone.  But … as an older and hopefully wiser participant, I hope that I can retain not only my sense of humour, but the ongoing interest in, and passion for difference.

culture blend
http://www.thecultureblend.com/

Love to hear about more examples – I will add them as I discover them myself!

Another site with great links and photos about the wonders of Laos!

travelling to Laos.PNG
http://www.mappingmegan.com/why-you-should-travel-to-laos/

western-do-gooders-need-to-resist-the-allure-of-exotic-problems (from The Guardian)

western dogoodersLink to Guardian Article:  23 April 2016 

 

“But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability.

Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.

Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous.

Go because you want to do something difficult.

Don’t go because you want to talk.

Go because you want to listen.”

This piece was originally published on The Development Set

Courtney E Martin is a journalist and author of several books including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists

Australian Volunteers International – To volunteer abroad you’ll need to know the answer to this question

Volunteering Ian McDonaldSource: Australian Volunteers International – To volunteer abroad you’ll need to know the answer to this question

I met Ian McDonald back in 1993 when I was preparing to volunteer with AVI, also in the Solomon Islands.  He was a cool and inspirational dude!  And realistic.  Interesting reflecting on his comments here – the answers I gave then, and would give now, certainly fit well into the OK rationales.  But he was (and clearly still is) always realistic about the inevitable challenges and difficulties encountered along the way.