Interview of the month September 2017– Interview with Kristen Palana

While supporting expats to settle in smoothly, I publish these interviews, revealing personal stories, tips, and ideas. Arriving in a new country is such a change, so how can you make it feel ‘’Home’’ easily? This month, answers are revealed by Kristen, an expert in moving abroad.

 Original country:  USA

Expat countries:  Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Myanmar (With short-term working stints also in India, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Tanzania

Current country:  Myanmar


Your story in a nutshell:

I am an American/Portuguese multimedia artist recently based in Rome, Italy where I served as Associate Professor of Digital Media and the Director of the Film and Digital Media Program at The American University of Rome since 2006. In July of 2016, I moved to Yangon, Myanmar where I am now currently an Associate Professor of Digital Media at American University of Myanmar. I work on animation, video, graphic design, illustration, web and interactive projects independently, as well as for clients and non-profit organizations ( The vast majority of the work that I do is to promote positive social change.

I have taught undergraduate and graduate college students since 2000, as well as offered art and multimedia courses in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Besides teaching tens of thousands of online students at Udemy and other platforms, I’m also a Course Facilitator for the UN-mandated University for Peace (Costa Rica) through their Centre For Executive Education.

We came to Myanmar mainly for my husband’s job at the UN’s World Food Programme. We liked life in Rome, but conditions were not right for us to put down roots and we wanted to explore another part of the world. So here we are.

Biggest challenges:

-Helping my two sons, ages 5 and 7 feel settled. And also trying to find ways that they don’t lose their Italian language!
-Dealing with the weird sensation of leaving full-time employment to being an entrepreneur and someone looking to teach in-person in my new home.


Did you integrate and adjust smoothly? What went well and what was hard:

It has been nearly a year now in Myanmar. Initially, I wondered if I would hate, like, or even love my new home. It’s one of the few places in my life that I moved to without having had the opportunity to visit first. (The other two were Edinburgh, Scotland and Los Angeles, CA. respectively.)

I can now say with profound certainty that it is indeed, love.  Yangon, Myanmar is the most happening city in all of Myanmar and yet it doesn’t suffer (yet) from choking smog or that boxed-in feeling you might get from larger cities from an over-abundance of giant skyscrapers blocking out the sun.

You certainly can find too much traffic and crowded, teeming streets full of humanity. And while you might pass several beautiful towering golden pagodas or temples, you will also most certainly see moldy-looking buildings that are downright run-down with trash piling up in their back alleyways and spilling into the streets. For this reason, I have (I believe) invented a new word to help me describe my Yangon: Shabbical. (That’s part shabby, part magical.) The magic lies in the small details. Here you are more likely to get a heartfelt smile and a wave from a gang of teenagers on the street as opposed to the finger like in other parts of the world.

Myanmar, despite being one of the poorest countries in Asia also happens to be the world’s most generous country according to the CAF World Giving Index.

Where you find inspiration from:

Daily life and the kindness of most locals.


Do you feel you belong or rather feel a stranger?

I feel both depending on the day.


Please tell us your important TIP(s) when moving to a new country:

  1. Do Your Homework
    OK. I know that sounds boring, but do read up on where you will be moving to; its history, customs, places of interest, challenges, etc… The more you arm yourself with knowledge about your new home, the less weird and foreign it will seem which will then lead to you having more confidence to walk around as a new citizen rather than as a timid tourist. It also helps to stock up on maps, books, videos, and other resources that you can go back to again and again as you are dipping your toe in the waters of your new home.
  2. Smile, Make Nice and DO Learn at Least Some of the Local Language
    No joke but the day I found out we were moving to Myanmar, one of the first questions I had was, “What language do they even speak?”
    Ba-ma-za-ga would be the answer. (That’s Burmese in Burmese but using our Roman alphabet. Baby steps!)

I believe that the very first words you should learn, even if you are just making a day trip to a foreign country are at a minimum, “Hello” and “Thank You.” Particularly when you are traveling in parts of the world where the languages are mainly spoken only by locals, it’s worth it just to see the LOOK on people’s surprised and happy faces. Learning even just a few words of the local language says a lot about what kind of person you are. Being able to even just say “thank you,” even if you botch the whole thing up, also means that you are respectful, empathetic, and humble enough to at least try.

  1. Upon Arrival, Sign Up for a Class…. Stat!
    It doesn’t have to be a language class, though for purely survival reasons I recommend starting there. (The downside for me is I now speak the most Burmese in our family so have to do all the taxi negotiations, restaurant ordering, and asking for directions…)
    When you move somewhere new, suddenly you are a stranger. All your family and friends are thousands of miles away. Even the people from your old grocery store and the coffee shop who said hi to you each day are nowhere to be found. The best way to start feeling normal again is to start putting yourself out there (sounds like dating!) and interacting both with locals as well as other expats.

Great options include language classes, meditation groups, religious study groups, sports clubs, continuing education classes and more. Look for classes and other meet-up events for expats through groups like Internations as well as local Facebook and Google groups for expats in the city you just moved to. Try to do this BEFORE your move so you can make a few online friends and get information before you even set foot in your new home.

  1. Helping Others Also Helps You
    You may or may not know that moving to a new city or country is extremely taxing. Many people, despite brave faces and the best of intentions, end up depressed at first. It’s not easy starting a new life and you should give yourself the permission and space for both positive and negative emotions to pass through you. However, if you’re like me, you prefer to feel useful, happy, connected, and curious as opposed to down in the dumps. One great way to not only meet other locals and foreigners is to find ways to use your talents and skills to help the local community.
    There are many many non-profit centers, schools, clubs, and individuals to help. You just have to find them and make contact. Not every situation is the right fit, so the key is to just pick something, get started, and see how it goes. Rinse and repeat.

5. Now Go Get Lost So as long as you are safe (walking during the day in a generally safe area with other people around) then go get lost as well. It’s the best way to begin to orient yourself as well as clean out the cobwebs of your mind.


Thank you very much!