In my goal to inspire and supporting people, I publish these interviews, revealing personal stories, tips and advice. Moving abroad is a big change and often challenging, but also filled with opportunities. Or not? This month I introduce you to Merel.
Original country: the Netherlands
Expat countries: Indonesia – Australia
Current country: Malaysia
Your story in a nutshell:
I am Merel and I am a travelista, a writoholic and Asia-crazy! I was born in the Netherlands 48 years ago. After my law studies, I decided to follow my heart, instead of my head. During an internship in 1994 at the Netherlands Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, I’d already fallen in love with the country. So after finishing my studies, I decided not to follow the usual career path of becoming a lawyer in Holland, but to seek adventure in the unknown. Hence, I sold the little possessions I had, which paid for my aeroplane ticket and three months of staying in Jakarta. And I was lucky enough to land a job with the Dutch War Graves Foundation, an organisation I still feel proud to have connections with.
It was in Jakarta that I met with Brett, my now husband. He’s Australian. We got married in beautiful Bali and our son Beau was born a year later, in 2004. Another three years later we decided to move to Sydney, Australia. A beautiful country, but we missed the dazzling spark that had always spellbound us in Asia. Hence, in 2014 we made the move back and we ended up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Why your choice of your current country:
After living in Sydney for six years, we felt it was time to move back to Asia. An engineer by profession, it was easiest for Brett to guide us in finding a job outside Australia and it was here in Malaysia that job opportunities were the best.
When I look back at my first year in Jakarta, being a 27-year-old single woman from a western country, I believe it was my background and beliefs about gender equality that created challenging situations for me. I encountered situations where ideas of women were simply brushed aside; their opinions didn’t seem to matter that much. Or sometimes, people assumed I was in Jakarta on behalf of my partner, or with my family. Coming from a free-thinking environment in Holland, I simply wasn’t used to being treated other than being an independent person.
Working practices and benefits in your adopted country:
Having a support group here in terms of a live-in help, that’s what I call benefits. It allows me to create more space inside my mind, so I can focus better on what I need to do.
Did you integrate and adjust smoothly?
I believe being used to Asia, really helped us to settle in smoothly in Malaysia. Looking back though at my initial time in Jakarta, I realise that the first year was easy; after that, it became harder. Why? Well, at first, everything is exciting and new. But Jakarta can wear you down. The slow speed at which some admin processes move, the ongoing traffic jam, language barriers, cultural difficulties, that all becomes apparent and tough to deal with, after a year or so.
Where you find inspiration from:
Traveling, my friends, my family and my inner creativity.
What is your current business?
I am happily continuing my coaching business that I started in Australia in 2011, but unlike in Australia, I do not have that many face to face clients here. Occasionally, yes, but at present, I see most of my clients through Skype. At first, I worried about not being able to catch a certain energy through the internet. But after a while, I realised that I started to develop other senses to ‘read’ the client in order to get a complete picture.
I am a Transformational Coach, but also a scout for a modelling agency and I am currently exploring how to get more involved in writing for a broader public. For the Dutch magazine the Flits (a monthly magazine for Dutch expats in Malaysia), I am the editor in chief and I blog for two online magazines about travelling in Asia.
Was it difficult to start your business in a foreign country?
I believe I was lucky to find a job in Jakarta as a fresh graduate. Here in Malaysia I just continued what I was doing already. It is great to have a portable job! In Australia though, I found it quite hard to find a suitable job. I guess that was one of the reasons why I went back to studying, to become a life coach.
How you stay motivated:
I travel. And I eat durian. But I am so happy to live in this beautiful part of the world, that I don’t get easily demotivated. Especially in Jakarta but also here in Kuala Lumpur, I wake up every morning thinking: “Life is a party.” Which has nothing to do with drinking cocktails at the poolside haha. I was simply living my dream.
What are your words of Wisdom?
Believe in yourself. Trust your inner voice. Don’t get distracted by opinions of others. Follow your own course. And don’t let idiots ruin your day.
What is the worst that happened to you as an expat?
In Jakarta, the Dutch consulate had given me an emergency passport after my old passport had expired. I remember as it had a pink (!) cover which made it look like a Barbie passport… I needed that document to be able to fly to Australia for Christmas holidays. At the airport though, we were not allowed to leave, since it was a passport with only blank pages and we realised it had no proof of me being in the country legally! We managed to fix it (legally) and were allowed to leave the next day, but in Australia, we had to jump through some more administrative hoops to ensure that I was also allowed back into Indonesia again… The stress this added to an otherwise nice holiday, is something I’d rather forget.
What is a misunderstanding that happened to you as an expat?
In Indonesia, I was always addressed as ‘Sir’ by phone or email since they were not always used to women living and working on their own. I even remember having trouble opening a bank account; they kept asking for my husband to sign the documents as well, in order for me to have my own bank account.( I can laugh about that now…)
Your plans for the future:
In 2017 I will explore ‘the writing platform’. I just started with a column and articles for two online travel magazines, so that’s a start! I’ve got tons of ideas, but I need to sit down and map out that flood of creativity that is bubbling up at the moment.
Please tell us your important TIP(s) when moving to a new country:
• Learn the language.
• Mingle with locals.
• Try ALL the local food.
• Even durian.
• And always stay curious…
Thank you very much!
Interviewed by Rachel Smets