Volunteerism: Getting Active to Settle In

Published on: June 10, 2020

Transitioning to becoming a stay-at-home spouse in a foreign country can be isolating. Former BAMBI News Editor, Ema Naito reflects on how volunteering for BAMBI helped her step out of her comfort zone and gave her the skills to reinvent her career.  

By Ema Naito-Bhakdi  

You’re living in a foreign country because of your spouse’s job. You don’t speak enough of the local language, and your visa doesn’t allow you to work. And you’ve taken on a new role as a stay-at-home caregiver.

The transition from “working” to “stay-at-home” (often used as a synonym for “unemployed”!) can be tough, even if you weren’t in a foreign country. But that foreignness can add another layer of isolation—linguistically, culturally, physically, and professionally.

My days as a stay-at-home mom revolved around nursing and feeding, potty training, sleep training, transporting the kids to/from kindergarten, and planning/supervising/joining play (I’m eternally thankful for our household help!)—all worthy activities to grow a functional human being…but I was bored. 

Deprived of adult interaction and thought, I felt stagnant and capable only of babbling on about baby poo and sleep. I bored myself.

Breaking out of my comfort zone

LESSON: You might have to go out of your comfort zone, but taking the plunge may lead you to unexpected places.

Seasoned expats know that volunteering is one great way to make new friends, do something meaningful, and find one’s sense of belonging. 

But sometimes, it’s not easy to take that first step. Inertia, shyness, the sheer exhaustion of parenting young children, fear…there are so many reasons that can keep you back. 

My biggest mental block was fear—of having to meet so many strangers, of adjusting to yet another world, of not being good enough to do the job. 

It took me until the post-birth high of baby number three to muster up the courage to volunteer for BAMBI as assistant editor for their monthly magazine. A year later, I found myself editor in chief, responsible for producing the 60-page magazine for our (then) over-500 member families.

Once again, fear stopped me. I didn’t think I had the professional background to be the big EDITOR IN CHIEF. It took a bit of encouragement from my husband (who probably later regretted it) before I could go once again out of my comfort zone and give it a go.

The payback was more than I could have ever imagined. I got to try out new skills and develop old ones, gain experience to add to my CV, and earn acknowledgment and respect from my peers.

And seeing many of my fellow volunteers pursue their interests and passions through and after their BAMBI experience in new, reinvented careers gave me the courage to strike out into a new career too.

Digging in, finding my new community

LESSON: Volunteering can give you a sense of belonging—the more so, the deeper you engage.

The editor is required to attend monthly BAMBI managing committee meetings, and the introvert in me recoiled at the prospect of meeting so many new people. 

But then I discovered we were all in the same boat: we were professional women (men were also welcome, but it was usually women) who couldn’t work in Thailand and who were keeping our professional selves alive by running BAMBI. Volunteering gave us an outlet for our itch to make use of our skills and experiences, for the good of our community.

I came to look forward to the committee meetings. To be in a room full of women passionate about their work was inspiring and energizing—an experience missing from my previous role as an assistant editor working remotely from home. It was the full-on engagement that gave me my new community and reconnected me with my professional identity. 

Giving and receiving: A two-way street

Volunteering isn’t all about altruism or pure self-fulfillment. We shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging what we “get” out of volunteering as well.

In my case, in exchange for many hours of labor, I got practical work experience to beef up my resume, created a portfolio of work, secured references for future jobs, and built my network. And made friends!

(I also appreciated that BAMBI gave practical privileges to volunteers, such as free entry to all playgroups and BAMBI parties, and invitations to semi-annual appreciation events.)

A note: volunteering is great but like anything, “fit” is important. If you’ve given it a fair shot but you’re not enjoying your work or it’s not what you had in mind, then I think it’s perfectly ok to step away (but try not to burn your bridges in the process).

Now that I’ve left Bangkok, I’m finally ready to move on from BAMBI. But I’m forever grateful to the organization and the wonderful volunteers I’ve got to work alongside there.  

The original version of this article was posted on the blog of Families in Global Transition, www.figt.org.  

About the Author

Ema is an independent English editor (www.theclarityeditor.com) who has been on the BAMBI News team since 2014. She now lives in Singapore, raising three cross-cultural kids, singing classically, and blogging at www.crossculturalfamily.com (日本語ブログ: emanate28jpn.blogspot.com).  

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.