Australians Abroad

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-By John Boley

There’s such a difference between visiting a country and living there. So what’s it like to actually live – and earn a living – in Asia, as opposed to just experiencing the place as a tourist?

Belinda Skinner is in her second spell as an expat. After six years in Bangkok, she says it is quite likely she will never again live in Australia, though she still regards it as home. That’s not to say she plans to spend the rest of her life in the Thai capital, just that she retains long-held aspirations to see the world – and anyway, she says, “all the parts of Asia are so different.”

She moved to Bangkok with her husband Peter and at first endured a stretch as a “trailing spouse” before finding work with a Thai company whose idiosyncratic owner regarded every staff member as part of a kind of extended family and considered they owed the company all their time. “Even down to the company golf day – everyone was obliged to play golf, regardless if they could play or not, or even wanted to. We got up at 3am, slept on filthy floors at the office, not allowed to go home because he was worried people would be late; there were people with handicaps in the hundreds, yet he would tolerate no exceptions.”

Belinda needed to work, largely though not exclusively because she could “not tolerate being the coffee-morning sort of wife,” and through networking contacts found her way to a much more amenable position as recruitment consultant, and more recently country manager, at TopTalentAsia, a placement company specialising in executive positions in Thailand and Dubai. Most of the people they place are Thais, but a company wanting to set up an office in southeast Asia can be assisted to find good quality farang executives too.

There are many communities of ‘farang’ (Thai-speak for foreigners) in Bangkok, some of them transient and some long-term expats. There are plenty of Australians (and New Zealanders), many in construction and resources jobs, others in hospitality and the travel industry. Belinda got to know them and – again by networking – joined and became active in the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce, which is celebrating with the Australian embassy the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Australia and Thailand.

Her position of vice-president is honorary but takes up plenty of her time. In between fund-raising activities and charity work around the host country (including voluntary work undertaken on a personal basis with the Red Cross, delivering flood relief parcels by boat to homes that were underwater during last year’s much-publicised floods), she also happens to serve on the committee of Bangkok’s AFL Grand Final function, which she proudly says is the largest such event outside Australia, surpassing even the UK with an attendance of more than 600 in one room for the event, complete with champagne breakfast, Aussie pies at half-time and standing room at the bar. Her track record has propelled her into the latest Thailand Tatler Top 300 expat list.

Born and brought up in Perth, Belinda wears a Fremantle shirt. She left not because there was anything wrong with the WA capital, apart from its well-documented isolation, but because she wanted to continue travelling. Her parents instilled that when she was young, to her profound gratitude, and she felt “there was more of the world to see.” She and husband Peter had previously backpacked in Europe for three months as a sort of preparation before, on their wedding day, they flew to the UK. Holding the reception in the Perth airport terminal and boarding the plane (last, to the cheers of the rest of the passengers and crew) still in full wedding dress was, she accepts, quite an unusual way to set off from one’s home country.

The UK was a big adventure, chosen partly for linguistic reasons (it still shares some aspects of language with Oz) and in part for Peter because for an architect, London was the gateway for design. After three years the couple returned in the mid-1990s to what Belinda describes as a “culture shock.” Having got used to the crowded lifestyle of cramped and busy London, Perth suddenly seemed sparse and empty, “and by comparison there was not much to do.” They missed the mass of events, exhibitions and shows that Londoners take for granted. Perth, she says, is a great place and has a fantastic climate, but they had greatly enjoyed the UK, which most people say lacks a climate and has only ‘weather,’ rather like Melbourne. Even cold and rainy days were fun, she says; “they were a novelty for us.”

They stayed in Perth for nearly a decade, seeing change but not at the same rate. “Change in Australia is not so dynamic, it didn’t happen overnight. Initially, everyone seemed to be doing and saying the same things as before we had left, like we were in a time warp.” Gradually, some things did begin to change. “At the time we married, we had wanted to live in the inner city, but in Perth no one did that. We had to try to get special permissions from the city officials to convert inner-city property to live in it.” This was backward, old-fashioned. But now there was a positive vogue for city life.

Since moving to Bangkok, where Peter is a business manager (for the first six months he worked two weeks in Bangkok and two weeks in Perth – a pioneer of long-haul FIFO, perhaps), Belinda has been back to Perth twice and will go again soon. After all, it’s only a seven hour flight, so she feels much less ‘away’ than she did in London. On last year’s trip, she felt “Perth was accepting its reality – that it isn’t Melbourne or Sydney and doesn’t have to try to be the same as them.” But the café culture had spread, and she was impressed at the quality and freshness of food and drink. People had taken much more to eating out frequently, not just on high days and holidays. Although everyone warned her that service was bad (because of the shortage of staff given the wages being paid in the Pilbara and other boom areas) but she says it was not a problem at all – unlike prices, which were eye-watering “especially for alcohol. I just couldn’t believe what they were asking!”

Belinda is quite specific about what she misses: the beaches (southeast Asian beaches are for suntanning, not surfing), opportunities to play sport, fresh clean air, the space and safety to ride her bicycle to work – and picnics. There is just nowhere for this simple enough pastime in Thailand and it’s a priority when she goes back to see her friends and family, who she does miss, although because of the crossroads nature of Bangkok it is relatively easy for them to come and visit her and her husband.

Thailand, and its capital especially, has a certain reputation. “You get a lot of stick when moving up here. Look, for a lot of guys it’s a serious temptation, but we know plenty of farang-farang marriages which stay strong here.” Belinda says it can be tough working there though. “It’s difficult for a female to do business in Thailand. Much depends on networking, which is frequently done in pubs, and Thai businessmen don’t necessarily include women in their invitations.”

She says Thais have a positive view of Australia, which is now rivalling the US and UK in popularity as a destination for children seeking quality education abroad, and a good standard of spoken and written English is becoming de rigueur among the new generation of Thais, she points out. Thais, according to Belinda, are not experienced at thinking outside the box and “have a different sort of logic that can be frustrating. But they are very friendly, honest (brutally at times!) and resilient,” and she has never once felt afraid in “unpredictable” Bangkok.

Peter and Belinda are happy there, but their stay is open-ended. When asked if she still regards Perth as home, Belinda says “yes.” Will she go back there someday to live? “Probably not,” as she has been away a long time and will find like many other expats that it can be difficult to re-assimilate. Will she move elsewhere? “Not sure. We could be in Bangkok forever.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 6:41 AM AEDT