Why is living abroad so exhausting?

When I first moved to Cambodia, in pre-pandemic days that feel like centuries ago, I wrote a blog post about how exhausting living abroad was. I think it still caused confusion as to exactly why I felt so tired. It’s got better, in that I know how to manage it a bit better and I can push myself a bit further. But a new couple arrived in Cambodia recently and said how tired they were. They asked us to pray that their tiredness would get better. I didn’t want to tell them the truth that you are probably always just as tired, but you are simply more used to it.

There are lots of factors that can leave people more tired than normal. Some days I won’t be as tired but other days, I’ll do a little bit and then just go back to bed for an hour. Also, living abroad affects people differently. Some people don’t even find it exhausting, whereas some people will find some aspects more exhausting than others. It can also change depending on your life-stage, how long you’ve been in the country and how much you wish to integrate with the local culture. However, if you are finding life tiring, these might be some of the reasons.

The climate

Cambodia is hot and humid. So, unless you are sitting in a room with air-conditioning, or is very shaded and breezy, you are probably sweating. Even if you are in front of fan, you are probably loosing fluids (it’s just that the fan is doing it’s job and taking the moisture from your skin into the air, helping you cool down).

This means that any activity can be so much more draining. Yesterday, we were going from one shop to another. They were about 600 metres away from each other. However, it was midday, so there were no shadows being cast. It was very humid and we were already carrying shopping. So, we still had to take a tuk tuk, because we knew it would be too hot to walk. (Later in the day, I was able to walk a similar distance between shops because the sun was lower meaning one side of the road was shady.)

Unpredictable storms, sudden downpours, the dust picking up the wind all make the environment we live in different to what we grew up with and therefore different to what our body is used to. You do adapt a bit, but unless you move overseas when you are very young, it’s unlikely your body will get used to it completely.

Rules of life

Imagine you woke up one day and every rule about life had changed. Everyone knew but you somehow missed the memo. This included

  • Where you buy your shopping
  • What side of the road you drove on
  • Road rules (is it okay to cut corners or drive on the pavement?)
  • How you got to places
  • How you paid your bills
  • What money you used
  • The prices for things (what was cheap is now expensive, what was expensive is now cheap)
  • How you drink your water

These are just the practical elements. Then there are the cultural rules. Often people think learning about culture is just a little, often superficial thing (‘This is how you say hello in this country!’). Imagine if you had to learn the following all over again…

  • When and how to say please and thank you
  • What topics are taboo and what is now okay to talk about
  • Table manners
  • When and what you eat at different times of the day
  • How to give gifts
  • How to extend invites, and whom you should invite
  • How to apologise and make amends
  • When you go to bed
  • When you get up
  • How to negotiate prices
  • How to make a joke
  • When to arrive at scheduled events (which will differ for each type of event)
  • How to pass people you know on the street
  • How to interrupt someone
  • How to give advice
  • How you introduce and talk about yourself

Again, it’s very easy to say, “oh in Cambodia, you barter the price”. First, this is not always the case. There are some things you don’t barter for and some places you wouldn’t barter. You need to learn these rules. Second, how do you barter? Do you offer a different price? Do you simply ask if they can drop the price? Do you say about how the product isn’t as good as one you saw the other day from a different store? Do you simply wait? Do you pretend to lose interest? Do you only barter for each item individually, or do you buy a number of items and see if you can get a good price for them altogether? What is considered a good price for that product? What offer would be demeaning? Do you look serious or do you smile when you do it? Is it okay to check the product and take it out of it’s packaging? What questions should you ask (Where is it from? What if it is faulty? Will you replace it?)? How long should the process go on for?

Culture has rules, and these rules have rules. They have nuance that you should try to be aware of.

It’s not only about trying to operate in your host culture, which is exhausting enough, it’s about trying not to operate in your own culture. British culture has so many more rules about what is taboo and about table manners than Cambodia. For instance, in Cambodia, talking with your mouth full is perfectly fine with friends. Asking the price of a recent purchase is also okay. In British culture, these things are rarely acceptable. And it will grate on you. You will have an instant, visceral reaction to it. There have been so many times when I have had to really struggle against my immediate, innate response to situations. It’s usually when something has been said that if a Brit said it would have been rude or hurtful. The person did not realise that there was implied meanings to their words or actions. It is so hard, especially when you are tired, to switch off the part in your brain saying, “if they said that it means they are angry with you!” Sometimes it’s impossible to do it, and you just need to have a good cry and try to move on.

A simple example is the difference in the American/British version of the phrase, “I don’t care.” In American English it is the same as, “I don’t mind.” In British English, it can hold the connotations of “I don’t think much of this discussion. The topic bores me. Stop asking me questions about this. I’d rather not be here with you anyway.” I know that Kristi has learnt not to say it in front of British people. She said it once to her British friend after she asked “where do you want to go out to eat?” and slightly offended her. She said it to me once, and my immediate reaction was one of shock, but I managed to tell the little voice in my brain she just meant “I don’t mind.” However, doing this constantly can be tiring.

Decision fatigue

There is a reason why routines and cultures exist. They prevent you having to think about every small thing and your brain can just do it on autopilot. However, when you move to a new country, you have to think about everything. (When should I go to the shops or to the market? – First thing while it is cool is the answer. Do I drive to the shop or take a tuk tuk? Etc. Etc.)

It’s now recognised by psychologists that humans have a limited capacity for decisions within a day. We’ve all experienced when we’ve had a hard day and we can’t decide what to have for dinner. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we would normally eat or what we enjoy. We cannot even begin to process the options, let alone decide on one. This is decision fatigue.

The automatic decisions barely make a dent in this capacity, whereas when you have to consciously think about the choice it makes a larger dent. The more you’ve eaten into this decision-making capacity, the more difficult it is to make a good choice. (It’s interestingly why supermarkets have an over-abundance of exactly the same product and why car salespeople offer you all these bizarre added extras to your car. They are trying to diminish your capacity to make a good decision – a good decision for you that is.)

Now, when you arrive in a new country, many of those decisions that were once automatic now have to be conscious. This eats into your ability to make good, healthy, sustainable choices. It’s also hard when a lot of these decision have important consequences. The question “What do I have for dinner today?” in Cambodia can translate to “What’s the quickest route to a week of diarrhoea I have available to me?” When you make the wrong choice, it’s not just that you’re left with a dinner you don’t really fancy; this time you’re left with bilharzia.

Establishing routines that keep you healthy and happy can be a long process too. It also means that we can become reliant on comforts such as cafes and expensive supermarkets. They are familiar and easier, but often not sustainable. It can take a concentrated effort to get a sustainable routine in a world that is so different from what you knew.

Second language

Working in a language that is not your own, until you are fluent and comfortable with it, can be tiring. You not only have to think about words, but grammar, pronunciation and processing lots of information at once. This one gets considerably easier. When I first arrived, my 2-hour lessons were completely draining. Trying to speak Khmer for that length of time was so hard. Now, it’s relatively easy (unless the lesson involves completely new vocabulary or concepts).

What’s funny about this one, is when I have completely drained myself speaking Khmer, I lose my English too. It’s like my brain is just constantly buffering. I become a real-life version of a Zoom call on bad Wifi.

Just having a language barrier can make situations so much more stressful and confusing. Paperwork, any government or official dealings, buying expensive things such as vehicles, renting houses become so much more difficult when you’re trying to do it in a language you barely understand. And even day-to-day interactions have problems, from getting the wrong drink or food given to you at a restaurant to your tuk tuk driver dropping you off at totally the wrong part of the city.

Sensory overload

Have you ever tried to concentrate whilst there has been a flickering light or a crying baby nearby? It’s hard isn’t it. When your different senses are being stimulated, it can be tiring. There is a reason why we have a phrase “an assault on the senses”. It’s because we can feel like we’re being attacked by what is around us.

A new country will have lots of sights and sounds that you have not experienced. This will be tiring. However, even after a few years, you may still experience a wealth of sensory input. For example, a general tuk tuk ride will take you past a lot of sights, sounds and smells that you will be taking in, whether you choose to or not. You will pass a food stall frying garlic one moment, and a heaping pile of stinking garbage the next.

In the West, we have become very good at creating sensory bubbles. We drive in cars, with the music we want to listen to turned up. We have double-glazing and live in detached houses. We have zoning rules (or at least practices) so you don’t get houses next to loud workshops for example. This doesn’t happen in Cambodia. One of the main problems of Phnom Penh is the constant construction that is happening. Even as I write this blog post, my neighbours are building an additional floor to their house. This means there is drilling, and banging and hammering that is happening most of the day, everyday (even the weekends).

Also, Phnom Penh can smell really bad. A lovely combination of a sudden downpour flooding the sewage system followed by a burst of hot sunny weather makes for a very fragrant afternoon. And just the rubbish at the end of the day, the fish markets, the durian, the trash piles, the rubbish being burnt, the charcoal grills being used all make for a heady sensation.

Without double glazing and gaps in the sliding windows, or driving in a open tuk tuk, you’re exposed to all these senses. And it can make you really weary. Noise pollution has been linked to sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, stress and mental health issues.

Other things…

There can be loads of other things that are exhausting, but I have written about elsewhere. There can be cultural or interpersonal conflicts, culture shock, and many more.

What can you do?

If you know those living abroad such as missionaries, there are things you can do to help.

First, don’t expect to much of them. If all they’ve done is gone to a language lesson then spent the rest of the day in bed, it’s probably what they needed to do. Language learning can be so draining.

Pray for them. Pray for energy, wisdom, time management, and that they get used to things.

Chat with them about their stresses and see if there is anything you can do about them. Sometimes, just having a listening ear can make a huge difference.

For the missionary, there are some great books and resources out there. It’s also really important to realise that you are not a martyr and your life is not necessary more difficult than what the people back at home are experiencing. They have their own problems and stresses, they just look different to yours. It may be hard when you feel like they don’t understand your problems, but make sure you’re not guilty of the same thing! You can be as much a listening ear to them as they can be to you.