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my career abroad

Why have you moved to Bangkok, Thailand? What spurred you to make this change?

My name is Marica Rizzo and I've moved to Bangkok, Thailand to work with a startup non-governmental organization (NGO), Wedu that focuses on providing access to tertiary education for young women who come from rural areas of least developed countries. I decided to move abroad because I'd been in Vancouver for many years and was looking for a new experience. I was happy in my old job, but found myself wondering about two goals I had set for myself. When I was in high school I set a goal to work abroad after I graduated university, and that my work would have a positive impact on the lives of others.

So, when I left my old job in Vancouver, I was looking for an experience to satisfy these two goals and to allow me to explore my interest in working in the social and international development sectors.

What's your job title, and what do you do?

I am the Mentorship Program manager. Since February, 2013, I have designed and implemented a Mentorship Program for the young girls that Wedu supports. My program includes a leadership development curriculum that enables mentors and mentees to discuss new topics and learn in different ways. Through this program, we aim to enhance the technical training the students are learning at school to give them a better chance at becoming great leaders and inspiring change in their communities.

Why is your location the place for you to be now?

It's the place for me to be now because it's giving me the space to learn new things about myself. There is something to be said for moving out of your comfort zone to really understand the deepest parts of you. So really getting uncomfortable in the basics in life – food, transportation, leisure activities, weather – is the best way to learn how you handle tough situations, and to identify the simplest ways you find joy in life. This is the best place for me to be on my journey to discover where I can contribute best when I get back to Vancouver.

What were you worried about before you left Canada for your location?

Getting sick. I've heard so many people tell stories about getting ill in Thailand because of the street food – but now I eat street food everyday. Nothing like facing your fears!

How has the transition to your location been? Any amusing stories?

Here are a few tidbits from daily life in Bangkok that took some getting used to:

The National Anthem:

Each morning the National Anthem is played in many public areas (such on transit, in malls) at 8 a.m. Since I live close to the Skytrain, I can often hear it when I'm waking up. I didn't know that's what it was – I just thought a neighbour had a loud alarm, and a preference for the song.

Then one afternoon, I had an awkward experience going home from work at the Skytrain station. I had just entered the station, and my train had just come in. So as I turned to go up the stairs, many people were coming down. Picture the entrance to a ballroom where the stairs come down on both the left and the right. I was standing in the middle, about to choose between left and right, when everyone stopped in their tracks. No one moved as a song came over the sound system. To me, it was like that embarrassing moment where you feel everyone is staring at you, but it was the regular 6 p.m. playing of the National Anthem in the station. I now try and leave work a bit earlier to be on the train before 6 p.m. They don't play the song on the actual trains, just the stations.

Bed Sheets:

I went to buy bedsheets recently – and when I opened the package of my "complete set" there was a fitted sheet and two pillow cases. I thought I was ripped off because I didn't get a top sheet. So I went back to the store and asked for the top sheet. The sales guy looked at me and said, "they don't come with those, if you really want one, you have to buy it separately." So I asked him what he puts over himself when he sleeps. He just laughed at me! "Nothing! It's so hot, why do you need one anyway?" Then I laughed too – for the past few weeks I haven't even been using a top sheet, and I just kicked it off when I was at the hostel.

Air Conditioning:

Air conditioning is a symbol of status, so richer Thais will sleep with the AC blasting – and buy big comfy duvets to sleep under, the kind you would use in Canada. Talk about wasting energy – energy wasted all night with the AC on, and then a waste of material to make the duvet.


Here, you ask the driver if he'll take you where you need to go, and he decides! So one morning when I was trying to get a cab to the United Nations Building where I had a meeting, I was rejected five times by drivers who didn't want to make the trip across the river. It wasn't a long ride, but I guess they assumed they wouldn't have a fare coming back.

What things have people noticed most about you? And what's been people's reception to you?

Well, my ethnic background is Japanese-Italian, and I have some Asian features – so when I often get asked if I'm Thai, or half-Thai. Because there are many Thai/Caucasian mixes here, people often assume I'm local. So people often start talking to me in rapid Thai, and when I apologize and explain I am still learning Thai they ask "where are you from?" And when I say Canada – they look confused. I suppose most Canadians, they assume, are Caucasian. Living in such a multicultural place as Vancouver, you just get used to everyone being from everywhere, but here, I confuse the locals.

What things have struck you about your location?

How friendly everyone is. They say that Canadians are friendly – we are, but in a more polite, "let me get the door for you" kind of friendly. Here, while people will rarely hold the door for you, they will always smile at you. When I first arrived, I thought they were all laughing at me for something I was doing. But, I've learned that Thais are just really happy and friendly people and they want to help you so badly, even when they don't know the answer. I feel really safe here as well – I have no trouble walking the streets alone or being a young girl by myself.

Is business different in your location compared with Canada? How?

It's different, of course, in many of the typical Western versus Asian ways of conducting business. There is a lot less direct communication, and a lot of reading between the lines. There is far more attention given to hierarchy and people conduct themselves accordingly.

Have you had to change your actions in any way to succeed?

Certainly! I am much less direct and confrontational. I use more words to show respect first, and then request or ask for what I need. Things happen a little slower than I am used to because there are more conversations to be had – but otherwise, it's been a simple adjustment to just be more polite and accommodating.

Is there anything you would want to share with someone who might follow in your footsteps?

The best advice I can give is to pass on the wisdom that Nike bestowed on us years ago, "Just do it." Seriously. Take the leap and if you've got even an inkling of working abroad – just give it a shot. You can always come home.

If you're nervous, set a reasonable limit to your time away. I committed to six months of working here and then will be deciding what's next. And while I've loved the experience, at the end of my six months I'll be going back home to Vancouver.

The second piece of advice is that sometimes you have to say 'no' to interesting opportunities to make space for new ones. I had to say 'no' to a great job in Vancouver so that I could give myself the space to say 'yes' to an opportunity abroad – even if was just going to be a short one.

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