Expat Interview: From Tourist to Counsellor

Today we meet Sam Pryor, an expatriate who enjoyed a successful career in the United Kingdom before moving to Bangkok temporarily as part of her partner’s career. Weeks turned into months and before Sam knew it she was calling Bangkok home. Here she describes her experiences as a “Supporting Expat Partner” and reveals how she found a new niche for herself that involves using her own experiences to make a positive impact on expatriates living in Bangkok.

Can you please tell us a little about your background and what initially made you move to Bangkok?
My background has always been in Sales, Customer Service and Recruitment where I worked for various companies, including American Express Bank, Miss Selfridge, Animal and Honeywell Aerospace all before training to become a Hypnotherapist & Psychotherapist. I’ve always had a great interest in people and in my various roles, supported people through training and coaching whilst listening to their personal issues and situations.

Whilst studying hypnotherapy & psychotherapy I trained to be a grief counsellor for a UK organisation called CRUSE, as well as a listening volunteer for the Samaritans, and it was during this time that I met my partner, Howard, who was also a listening volunteer with the Samaritans. His ‘day job’ was as a Director for a Pharmaceutical Sales company who helped companies with the Sales and Marketing of their products.

An opportunity arose for him to work with a company in Asia for six months, so I came along for an extended holiday and in November 2012 we’ll have been in Bangkok for 2 years. During my first six months in Bangkok I volunteered with two organisations that I had found online whilst in the UK; The Goodwill Foundation and In Search of Sanuk. Both are non-profit organisations that help people in different ways. For Goodwill I was teaching English to disadvantaged Thai women and with In Search of Sanuk I visited kids in a slum to teach English and generally have great fun every Saturday morning.

Both of these organisations gave me a purpose to be in Bangkok and I enjoyed them both immensely. I learnt so much, especially about myself, and did things I never thought I could do, including teaching! I also met other expats who were living and working in Bangkok and speaking with them gave me the idea of starting my own counselling practice here as everyone I spoke to was experiencing difficulties in some way and most notably doing it without a valued support network of family and friends.

What were your first impressions of Bangkok? Did you suffer from culture shock?

I had been on holiday to Thailand twice before, but some time ago in 2001 and 2005 and Bangkok had changed a lot! But coming here on holiday and living here were two very different experiences. My first six months here were more of a holiday, as we were expecting to go back to the UK again after the project had finished, but the company in Bangkok liked Howard and he liked them. So we made the decision to stay. I packed up both our lives in the UK and shipped them over here, along with our dog and 2 cats.

That was June 2011 and then reality hit! My partner had a new job and work beckoned, so after just 2 days of being back in Bangkok I was alone in this new house, in this new area I didn’t know and really had to fend for myself. That was difficult and really left me wondering what I had done, which was hard to cope with and not something I felt I could share with anyone ‘back home’.

I couldn’t pretend to be a tourist anymore. I had a responsibility to learn a new language and really live in Bangkok. This was now my home. So I suppose I suffered from reality shock, rather than culture shock as I was lucky to really love Bangkok warts and all. But I was really conscious that I didn’t want to fall out of love with this city and that has sometimes been difficult to maintain.

What things do you like most about living in Bangkok?
That’s a really hard question! I love the food and the great diversity of places to eat and drink; whether you want to eat street food or hi-so! I love the fact that every day I spend here I will always see something that will me make me smile or want to take a photograph and that Bangkok makes it so accessible to explore the rest of Asia.

What things do you like the least?
That’s also really difficult, but the one thing I dislike the most is being called ‘farang’ by the locals! Every time I hear the word it really grates on me, because it is used continually to describe me! I am a ‘farang’, the Thai word for foreigner, tourist and coincidentally Guava (because they’re white on the inside) and I hear it a lot. I know nothing is meant by it, it is a descriptive word and I am indeed a foreigner, but I don’t like its continued use.

So you moved overseas as a “trailing spouse?” How did you feel when you found yourself living in a new country for the first time? Please share some of the thought-processes you underwent.

There was a mixture of excitement, nervousness and resentment. Excitement at living somewhere completely different to my home country and the opportunities that could bring. Nervousness at realising what it meant to be living here and that there really was no going back. But the resentment was initially towards my partner and the fact that although we had moved here together, his life really didn’t change that much; he was in his Expat ‘bubble’ where anything he needed his work did it for him whereas I was having to really have to cope with the reality of living in a new culture with a difficult language to learn whilst negotiating my way around the city by myself.

Many people experience various emotions when they move to a different country for the purposes of their partner’s jobs. What emotions did you experience, both negative and positive, and how did you deal with any negative feelings you encountered?
Along with the initial resentment, I also encountered the “What About Me?” feelings. I had trained to become a psychotherapist & hypnotherapist with plans to start working with children and support families coping with terminal illness. I couldn’t do that here, so what was I going to do? And how was I going to do it? I gave myself six months to ‘settle in’ to the new house, my new life and do more research into starting my practice here. Having spoken to many expat women termed as the “trailing spouse” I soon became to realise that I wasn’t the only one experiencing problems re-adjusting to life here and started to focus my practice towards the needs of expat women that I felt had been previously overlooked.

How do you feel about the term “trailing spouse?” Do you think it is an adequate description of people who relocate with their partners?
I don’t really like it. I feel that it devalues the support that person is continually giving to their partner/husband and children whilst they are living as expats. In my opinion, “trailing” means someone who is following another to the detriment of themselves because they don’t have a choice. However, in my experience and through various conversations with spouses, the decision to live in another country because of their partners’ career is made jointly with an understanding of the financial and personal benefits that can be earned as a result. It’s often when contracts are extended that the spouse can feel like their life is on hold because the decision making becomes out of their control.

I’m not married, so prefer to call myself a ‘Supporting Expat Partner’ because that is exactly what I am doing; without my support my partner wouldn’t be doing his job as well as he is. He can go to work and travel wherever he needs to safe in the knowledge that I have everything under control and organised at home. I have begun to recognise in my work that this often gets forgotten and easily becomes taken for granted without acknowledging the difficulties and often personal expense with which this support is given.

However, the husbands/partners also have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders too. Being the main wage earner evokes a certain amount of stress with having to maintain a certain role with their employer and spouse to ensure they don’t lose their job, income, home, school fees, driver and the lifestyle to which the whole family have become accustomed too. This comes with its own issues for the husband/career partner that can often be misinterpreted if they are working too hard and always travelling.

What three pieces of advice would you give to women and men who are relocating as part of their partner’s careers?
My main advice would be to find that something that gives you a purpose. In my first six months here volunteering gave me a reason to be in Bangkok as well, not just for the fact that I was supporting my partners’ career, because honestly it wasn’t enough for me; I didn’t want to resent him for having a great career and opportunity because I didn’t.

I often wonder if I will ever be lucky enough again to have this opportunity and freedom to spend time on developing ‘me’ and often suggest to clients who feel ‘stuck’ and asking “What About Me?” to think about what they would really like to do in the future. This may involve studying or training to accomplish something you have always wanted to do and will put you in a position to think of your own career potential.

Also, just because you have left your home country and maybe your own career, doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to offer in your new place of residence. There aren’t always many options for supporting partners to find employment (in Thailand companies only like to employ Thai people) but there are other opportunities. Think about how you felt relocating to a new country and what help was missing when you needed it; could someone benefit from your support or knowledge?

As a result of your own experiences, you now specialize in helping others when they move overseas. Please tell us more about what you do.
I soon realised that there were limited options for people who wanted to talk about how they were feeling, without being judged and looking for support with issues that hadn’t disappeared when they’d moved continents. It also resonated with me that as Expats we are all experiencing the similar daily challenges of living in Bangkok without a valuable support network of family and friends.

Whilst there are many womens groups here in Bangkok and long-lasting friendships can be formed, if husbands work together it can be difficult to discuss any problems within the relationship or family. There are also single women who have travelled alone to Bangkok to work and find it difficult to find their niche here within the various womens groups and with work colleagues who just want to drink and party. Both situations can be very isolating and problems can easily become exaggerated and feel out of control when there is no-one you can discuss them with. My aim is to provide a safe, non-judgemental environment within which people can explore their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

I can assist with past and present issues, including relationships, coping with change, stress, depression, self-esteem, grief and loss, self-defeating behaviours and physical and emotional abuse. I use Hypnotherapy for issues surrounding weight, smoking, phobias, habits, stress, anxiety and confidence.

What’s next for you?
To continue to develop and establish myself and my counselling practice within Bangkok so that I can be of assistance to a wider group of people. I have recently become aware of an extremely wide and varied number of Expat support websites and blogs. I have started writing articles for my own website which I also plan to make available to expats worldwide. I also have plans to develop a support group from the beginning of 2013.

If you would like to get in touch with Sam or would like to learn more about her services, you can do so at http://www.bangkokcounsellor.com/

Author: ExpatInfoDesk