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From California to Cameroon: C’est La Vie

12 July, 2012 09:10  Erin Erin

Krystina Nguyen cameroon I’m Krys and I’m currently living in Cameroon while working for the US Peace Corps.  Though I love it here, there’s no place I love more than where I’m from, California.

1. Why did you move abroad?
My three biggest passions in life are business, travel, and public service, thus, they led me to serving with the US Peace Corps. By living as local, the travel experience becomes an unparallel cultural exchange where one can really cultivate mutual understanding.  I’m pretty lucky that I get the option of living abroad.

2. How do you make a living?
I work as a Small Business Advisor with the US Peace Corps.  It is a two-year volunteer position, but housing is provided with a stipend that covers transportation, communication, food, and miscellaneous expenses. The idea is that you live at a level close to those that you are serving, but if you can budget, you are well taken care of.

3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
I have regular access to internet and cell phone service, so frequent communication is possible, yet at any given time, the internet and cell phone network does go down.  I’m one of the 5% of Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon that can video Skype (albeit very slow!) from my home. That being said, I also went three months without a computer as I waited for a new one to be brought over and when you’re traveling in country, internet can be non-existent.  It all depends!

4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Cameroon?
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer gives you automatic respect amongst community members as they know you are here for development work.  I find that the moms always seem to be looking out for my best interests as well.  You can be quite the celebrity as you’re the only foreigner around!

5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Cameroon?
There aren’t too many expats in Cameroon, so there are a lot of stereotypes to fight.  People will assume you have money and charge you more, people think all Americans are Caucasian, so if you are of a different race, they might not believe you (until you bring up Barack Obama!), etc.  And yes, sometimes when I walk down the street, people will randomly yell “White person!” or a wannabe-Chinese “hello” at me! You just have to laugh it all away.

6. What do you miss most?
Beyond friends and family, I miss diversity in foods!  What I wouldn’t give for sushi, cheeseburgers, or tacos!

7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
It’s very important for a Volunteer to integrate into the community for safety concerns and work reasons.  The Peace Corps provides both professional and personal counterparts to Volunteers when first moving to site.  From there, everyone will see you; it’s not too easy to hide yourself as you are the only American amongst Cameroonians!  It’s then just a matter of being outgoing enough to say hello to people at their homes and play with their kids as Cameroonians are very friendly and open to foreigners.

8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
I wouldn’t consider things strange, but rather just different from American culture. It’s a very inclusive culture, so if a neighbor hasn’t seen you in a few days, then you must have been traveling!  People show up late to meetings due to “African time” and if it rains, nobody leaves the house until the rain stops.  Also, religion is very important, so I can never plan meetings during prayer time (which is five times a day in this highly Muslim-populated community!).  Very different, but just as interesting!

9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
I feel that Africa in general gets stereotyped with the mentality that all the countries are exactly alike and that poverty plagues every single person here.  Yes, there is poverty and corruption; however, doesn’t every country have poverty and corruption? Cameroonian culture has such a beautiful landscape with rain forests, mountains, beaches, waterfalls, and volcanic crater lakes, but perhaps even more beautiful is its people with over 250+ ethnic groups all with vibrant customs!  There is much poverty alleviation work to be done, but let’s not forget the beauty and diversity.

10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
As I moved from a developed country to a developing one, the cost of living is MUCH lower; however, a Peace Corps Volunteer forgoes a traditional American salary to live like a local in the country.  The experiences is by no means easy as I see others live the “traditional” expat life of wealth, but the cultural exchange, work, and relations a Peace Corps Volunteer builds are the reasons the experience is so rich.

11. What advice would you give other expats?
For those considering the Peace Corps, know why you’re choosing to serve and what you want out of the experience. You can create the experience you want and it’s much easier to do that when you know what you’re going after.  Also, make sure to listen to what is needed by community members in order to have successful projects.cest cameroon

For others coming to Cameroon, really try to escape the “expat bubble.” Eat street food, make friends at the market, and pick up a few phrases from the native tongue.  You’ll have a great time trying!

12. When and why did you start your blog?
I originally started C’est La Vie in 2007 as a journal of my travels to which I expanded into a travel tip blog.  Now it shares the experience of my daily life serving in the Peace Corps. The purpose of the blog evolves as my life evolves - happy reading!

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