When Familiar Becomes Foreign

Today’s post comes from Amanda Mitchell with our partner organization Learning Service, an advocacy group promoting responsible volunteer practices. Amanda is the communications volunteer in Cambodia with PEPY Tours, a social enterprise tour company through Learning Service. We chose this post today for its unique perspective on otherness, both while abroad and when returning home. Her emphasis on empathy is a beautiful message to remember.

amanda mitchel 3Weaving through Angkor Archaeological Park, we zipped past the mighty Angkor Wat on our way to a remote pagoda. I swiveled on the back of my friend Sreyneang’s motorbike to catch one last glance at the ancient temple before it disappeared from sight. Tourists lined streets, buying up elephant pants and snapping photos.

We stopped at the end of a dirt road and climbed the steep, concrete pagoda stairs. Sreyneang chatted with a brightly robed monk, asking in rapid Khmer if he would perform a water blessing for us. He set out a donation tray and motioned for us to have a seat on the woven mat in front of him. Raising his voice over the chatter of young monks watching a boxing match he recited a series of chants, tied red strings around our wrists, and instructed us to change for the water blessing.

Moving to another country introduces new ideas, beliefs, and cultural practices. At first, everything is foreign and confusing, but gradually the “otherness” begins to fade. The once shocking sight of women going about town in brightly colored pajama sets blurs into the background, and drinking from coconuts and hopping on the back of motorcycle taxis becomes part of your daily routine.


In May, I was lucky enough to spend some time back in the U.S. catching up with my family and friends before returning to my job in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Each week was packed full of catch-up coffee dates, family dinners, and road trips to former haunts. While I loved hearing about my friends’ lives and seeing my family without the assistance of an electronic device, questions about my future became exhausting.

When are you going to get a ‘real’ job?

Have you thought about your 401(k)?

Are you ever going to settle down?

amanda mitchel 1I’ve always prided myself on being open-minded. Dive out of an airplane? Thrilling. Trudge around Europe with a backpack? Challenging. Unidentified-meat dish? Surprisingly tasty. But mention a five-year-plan, the possibility of children, and throw in a mortgage and my mind slams shut.

What do you do when relating to friends and family back home becomes harder then navigating a crowded market in a foreign language?

Everyday Ambassador attracts those of us longing for something “different” and itching with wanderlust. Always looking for ways to relate cross-culturally and learn from far off places, we have to take care not to lose empathy for those who have chosen a different path. Those who stay home are embarking on their own adventure, and honestly, it’s one that scares me more than moving to a new country by myself.

I struggle for words of encouragement when friends tell me about engagements because the idea of settling down in one place long enough to even have a relationship is hard to imagine. My parents ask when I’ll be home again and I forget how hard it must be for them to watch their child move across the globe. The gap once filled with our shared interests and dreams widens.


amanda mitchel 2Giggling, my friends and I tried to change into our sarongs as discretely as we could before taking a seat on the pagoda steps. The ground at our feet was green and slippery from constantly being wet. We all bowed our heads reverently as the monk began chanting behind us. In rhythm with his words, he scooped water from an urn and poured it over our heads.

The Cambodian water blessing is a traditional Buddhist practice meant to cleanse you of bad luck whilst bringing happiness, good fortune, and compassion for others.

Still dripping, I walked away determined to show my friends and family the same understanding they’ve given me, refusing to let the things once so familiar turn foreign.


“Wednesday Wisdom” is a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador partnerships director  Meg VanDeusen. Every Wednesday, we will feature updates from our partners and reflections from the Everyday Ambassador community. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #wednesdaywisdom or #wordstoliveby on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.


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