Text and photography by Merja Yeung.
Translated from Finnish by Rebecca Watson.
Teksti suomeksi löytyy TÄÄLTÄ.
Highly-educated stay-at-home mum
Juliette Williamson started to conquer the world already as a child, when her parents’ work led the family of six to Nigeria and Morocco for nine years. Adulthood certainly hasn’t quelled her desire to see the world; she studied in Canada, and later, at the age of 28, moved to Spain, where she ended up starting a family with her architect husband Jaime.
Juliette and Jaime’s youngest child Sancho was only three months old when the family decided to uproot to Da Nang in Vietnam. They lived in three different cities in Vietnam for a total of four years.
When the family first arrived in Vietnam, it felt like they’d landed on another planet. Having lived in so many different countries, difficulties in adjusting came as something of a surprise for Juliette. Meeting the needs of a tiny baby in a strange place was a challenge.
Finding nappies, sugar-free milk and bed linen was a near impossibility in rural Da Nang, and with everyone around only speaking Vietnamese, communication was an issue. But after the first three tough months clouded with culture shock, Juliette began to see the good sides of life; the breathtaking countryside, clean and tasty food, friendly people and amazing culture to learn from. In the beginning, the way locals behaved caused some confusion for the mother of small children; a total stranger could suddenly come over and grab your child from your lap to hold without even asking permission.
Already after nine months, Jaime’s work project in Da Nang was terminated, and he landed a job offer in Mexico City instead. The family wasn’t too keen on the idea of another move, but in the end were swayed to swap continents by an attractive package. Jaime left a month in advance to take care of practical things, while Juliette stayed behind to store their belongings.
After living in sleepy, rural Da Nang, Mexico City seemed vast and restless, and Juliette never felt safe there. With warnings of child kidnaps, the family felt always stressed.
Corruption was rife, also affecting the construction project Jaime headed. The couple’s youngest child Sancho kept having panic attacks at night, and nocturnal hours were spent settling the kids back to sleep.
After three months, the family had had enough and decided to return to Vietnam despite no knowledge of work prospects there. Yet Vietnam and no income beckoned more than a hefty pay check in Mexico.
The family moved to Hoi An, where Jaime and Juliette set up their own interior design firm. After a successful start, money though trickled in slowly, as locals couldn’t afford to buy the services they were offering. In fact, many began to make use of the couple’s ideas by themselves.
After two years, Juliette took an opportunity to open a branch in Ho Chi Minh City for a French market research agency and Jaime was soon offered a job too. The change proved a big one in more ways than one: the family was covered with sickness insurance again, and galleries, cinemas and other pleasures that come with life in a bigger city were now on their doorstep. The move was also a boost for Jaime’s career, and a year later, his company offered him another position in Phnom Penh. Once again, the family got ready to pack their bags.
City life in Cambodia became a major driving force for the family. The older children enjoyed the company of other kids at school instead of being home-schooled, which brought on a major change also for Juliette: she had time for herself! After years of doing consultancies for big companies she decided to go back to clinical psychology. However it didn’t last long. A new baby boy arrived end of 2017 taking away her time for her new career projects. She still manages to follow some patients on therapy and to do consultancies for NGOs from time to time.
Her career and hobbies might have taken some backseat after having kids, but her old love affair with theatre was rekindled in Phnom Penh. She’s now a regular member of French-speaking acting group La Troupe de Théâtre Francophone de Phnom Penh.
Juliette differs from most expats in Cambodia, as she takes care of her children and housework herself. In Phnom Penh, even stay-at-home mums usually hire a nanny and cleaner as extra help.
Juliette misses the culture, cheese, family and friends from her home country, France, but craves after things from other countries she’s lived in as well, such as Moroccan hospitality, spontaneity, couscous and mint tea, and the Spanish tapas culture.
Juliette finds that compared to Vietnam, foreigners in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh easily live in an “expat bubble”, with markets replaced by supermarkets and bicycles by tuk-tuks.
It’s safe to even grab some street food in Vietnam, whereas the level of hygiene is distinctly lower in Phnom Penh. Vietnamese people are prouder of their country and strive to be self-sufficient, while in Cambodia everything seems to be up for sale.
Even after all the years abroad, Juliette has a special longing for her home country. The family plans to return to France in a few years' time to give the children a chance to create more friendships before they turn into adults.
The family hopes to find a home in the French countryside that would serve as a base if they decide to uproot once more. They’re still hoping to experience life in Africa as a family.
Although Juliette has plenty of fond childhood memories from her life on the move, before having children, she always felt somehow different and a little rootless. As the years have gone by, she has learnt to increasingly appreciate her parents’ decisions. Juliette had the opportunity to delve into new cultures and see different ways of living and being, which is something she has wanted to pass on to her own children as well.
Right now, Juliette is lapping up new experiences as a family both in their daily lives and during exotic holidays. They appreciate the freedom of everyday life and lack of dress code in Phnom Penh, which differs quite a bit from life in Europe. There are hardly any rules and restrictions.
The family has been fortunate enough to only encounter a few scary situations like a bag getting stolen, but Juliette feels that the main concern in Cambodia is the rise in prostitution and its darker side, paedophilia. Also corruption is a widespread, daily part of life in the country. She always felt safe in Vietnam, but it’s a different story in Cambodia.
Juliette warmly recommends a move abroad for anyone who is flexible, curious, open-minded, adventurous and up for a challenge. Before taking the plunge, it’s worth thinking about how ready you are to put old rules and habits aside and take a leap into the unknown. A spot of self-reflection in advance goes a long way when problems arise later on – as they always do!
There’s never just one, right way to live.
Born in 1977 in Nantes, France.
Family: Husband Jaime, architect, b. 1978, and children Amaya, b. 2009, and Sancho, b. 2010.
Education: Psychology in France and Canada, specializing in criminal /legal psychology. Second psychology degree in marketing research and communications.
Employment: Stay-at-home mother.
Languages: French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese.
Lived in Phnom Penh since April 2015.
Hobbies: Theatre and Zumba.
Phnom Penh tips
1 Riverside at night (nearby Royal Palace)
2 Silk Island / Koh Dach
3 Rent a boat for the evening and dine along Mekong River
1 Angkor Wat
3 Koh Rong