Sometimes you meet people who are ‘born’ expats and Gabrielle is very much one of these global people. Born in India, brought up in Bahrain and South Africa and then off to the USA for two decades before finding a new kind of life with her husband Skip in Cambodia. Read her interview to find out why her current home in Phnom Penh introduced her to a gentle culture she never found elsewhere.
1. Where are you from originally?
I am British, born in India, raised in Bahrain until the age of 16 when I moved with my family to South Africa to finish my schooling, then travelled to the U.S. on holiday and stayed more than 20 years. My family travelled constantly so I grew up with an airline ticket in my hand and my sights on the next horizon.
2. Where do you live now?
Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
3. What first attracted you to your new home? Did you try anywhere else on the way? Did you move for work or for lifestyle?
Actually, Cambodia chose us. My husband, Skip, and I honeymooned in Thailand six years ago, fell in love with Southeast Asia and decided we’d like to live here. So we applied to volunteer organisations working in this part of the world and were accepted by Volunteers In Asia which posted us to NGOs in Phnom Penh.
The move was for lifestyle, not work, as we had a comfortable lifestyle in the U.S. where we lived, many good friends and good jobs, but saw something beckoning us in Asia.
There’s a gentleness and acceptance in this part of the world that we rarely see in the west, and a childlike enthusiasm for life, despite the atrocities that have been inflicted on this country over the years. Conflict is frowned upon, people smile constantly and we see a lack of judgment among Cambodians that we find endearing and heart-warming.
4. What kind of property do you live in now? Will you stay here? What’s your ideal place to live in within your new country?
We live in a lovely, spacious two-bedroom apartment in a quiet section of town where we can walk anywhere and always feel safe.
We’ve been here a little more than two years and sometimes talk about living somewhere else. But we always come back to the realisation that Cambodia makes us happy and we feel incredibly blessed to have discovered this country “by accident”.
5. Are you speaking a new language? If so, how did you learn?
VIA provided language classes for the first three weeks and we continue to work with a tutor twice a week who comes to our house to help us practice our Khmer. It’s pretty challenging and I do a horrible job with the language but Cambodians love it when you speak to them in their native tongue. Just a couple of weeks ago, we met a man at a petrol station and started chatting with him. When he left, said “Thank you for speaking Khmer” which warmed our hearts. People laugh at us constantly but we know it’s the best way to connect with them and we enjoy making the effort.
6. What do you do for a living? Where do you physically work from? Do you work with clients/customers back in your home country or your new one?
Our “day jobs” are in the offices of the NGOs we work for. I work at Development and Partnership in Action (DPA) as an English Resource Advisor, which means I edit the lengthy reports which go to our donors. Skip works for Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency (CRRT) which is an organisation lobbying the government for transparency in revenues generated by the oil, gas and mining industry. He does English editing work as well as providing consulting and more strategic assistance for them. Neither of us had any such experience in the past and arrived here without any idea of what we’d be doing other than learning from this culture and experiencing new things every day.
I am also a freelance writer and write articles about travel, people, food and experiences from this part of the world (www.GabrielleYetter.com) I write restaurant reviews for a local website (www.Khmer440.com), as well as travel and experiential pieces for Cambodian magazines; I have completed a book on traditional Cambodian desserts for Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (out later this year) and a book about moving to Cambodia which will be published this Autumn.
7. Do you work online? If so, what is the internet connectivity like? What software do you commonly use on day to day basis? What would be your top tip for online working from your new country?
I am constantly online and find the connectivity to be good most of the time. Of course, there are occasional brown-outs or the internet connection goes down for a few hours at a time but most of the time it works for me. There are also plenty of coffee shops with good wifi if I need them.
8. Are you paid in your new home currency or in pounds/dollars/euros? Do you exchange money often? If so, what service do you use?
Cambodia is primarily a cash society and uses US dollars for most transactions. I get paid in cash and never need to exchange money since I have a bank account here where I deposit and withdraw from.
9. Do you have children? If so, how did they adapt to the move? How are their schools? Are they bi-lingual? Are their good future career opportunities within your new country?
I don’t have children. Skip has two grown-up daughters who live in the U.S. However, there are several good schools here, working with either US or UK curricula.
With regard to career opportunities, there are many in Cambodia. This country is hungry for expertise and education and offers enormous opportunities to people who have something to offer. Many people come here to teach English or work in development work and then branch out into other areas when opportunities arise.
10. Did you bring any pets with you? Or leave any behind? How did this work out?
We had to leave behind our precious cat, Gracie, who I adopted from an animal shelter many years ago. Luckily, she has a home with a dear friend in the U.S. who adores her and sends me regular updates and photos.
When we went home to visit last year, I was concerned about seeing her and feeling guilty. But she was perfectly happy and hardly even paid attention to us, so I knew we’d made the right decision.
11. Is your life better than it was before? If so, how?
Without a doubt, yes. While we had wonderful lives in the U.S., there’s something so much bigger and embracing about life here that’s hard to explain. We feel constantly alive, regularly confused, always amused and sometimes befuddled by Cambodians and the longer we live here, the less we know!
We feel we’re able to make a difference in small ways since this country is so poor and we find our hearts broken and warmed at the same time by people who have nothing. We are humbled in seeing how Cambodians help one another and give unconditionally.
While there are restaurants, cafes and attractions here to make any westerner feel at home, we usually prefer hanging out in local food spots, talking with Cambodians, exploring open air markets and visiting areas that most westerners don’t see.
Our lives here have taken on a different focus as we have so much less when it comes to possessions but so much more when it comes to living.
12. What are the best things about living in your new country? Has the move been good for the whole family?
The best thing about Cambodia truly is the people.We have learned so much about giving and acceptance since the country is primarily Buddhist and we don’t take ourselves so seriously these days.
We’ve learned to slow down and to let go of a lot of the stresses we had in the past. We don’t drive a car here so we rely on tuktuks and buses to get around the country which is so much easier and less stressful. And we never see a bill or invoice since everything is paid in cash.
Things happen more immediately here. We don’t make plans with friends weeks in advance as we did in the U.S. as arrangements happen more spontaneously.
I also spend quite a bit of time in tiny rural villages, meeting local people who make their livelihood through rice farming and live in the simplest of circumstances. On a recent work trip, one of the villagers told us that people from their village often travel to the Thai border to find work as it pays so much more than the $500 per year (yes, year) they are able to make in their village.
While trips like this can be challenging (wading through muddy roads, sitting on grass mats surrounded by chickens and cows, meeting with villagers who speak no English), they are also the best part of being in this country as they provide me with opportunities to see inside people’s lives.
13. What are the most challenging things about moving to and living in your new country?
Sometimes we get homesick for people we love as it’s a long and expensive trip to visit them. We deal with the little frustrations (like changing schedules, things that break down and stuff that doesn’t work) and usually laugh them off. Heath care is a bit of a challenge as, while there are good international clinics, there’s not much in the way of advanced medicine if you have any major problems.
And the political situation and poverty in this country is always challenging as we’re constantly confronted with people who are suffering.
My first couple of weeks here were stressful as I was very much aware of the heat, dirt, rats, lack of order and roughness of the country. I now find these things don’t bother me and actually love the edginess of Cambodia and how it makes me feel. For me, it was about learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
14. Are you here for good? If so, why? If no , why not?
At this point, we have no plans to leave. We’re happy. The lifestyle is inexpensive but that’s not the primary reason for us wanting to stay. We love the people and the connections we’ve made and can’t imagine saying goodbye.
We’d like to explore other parts of the world and I think we’ll know when that time comes. Perhaps it’s when people in Cambodia don’t smile all the time.
15. Any partings word to people thinking of moving to your country?
Cambodia is not for everyone. It’s hot, dirty and very much a third-world country.
But, for us, it’s real. The rough-around-the-edges grittiness of life here is embracing and simple, and the people are the county’s best asset.
For anyone moving here, it’s important to do some homework to get an idea of how things work. Read about the devastating history. See photos of the beautiful scenery. Learn some of the language. Look at maps of the area to see where you want to live. Make contact with people who live here before you come. Be open to experiences like you may never have had before.
Then be prepared to plunge into a lifestyle that will shock you, entertain you and embrace you every day of the year.
Gabrielle Yetter is a freelance writer who moved in 2010 to Phnom Penh with her husband, Skip to volunteer at an NGO in Cambodia. She was born in Bombay to British parents, raised in Bahrain, worked as a journalist in South Africa then went to the U.S. on “holiday” where she lived for many years. She has worked in the corporate world, run her own small businesses and, since moving to Cambodia, has written a book about traditional Cambodian desserts as well as the Cambodia chapter for a book about moving to SE Asia, both of which will be out later this year.