Generation Y Expat Q and A with Jess Ong

I briefly worked with Jess when she was at QPAC (the Queensland Performing Arts Centre) and also follow her tweets and Instagram posts. I saw that Jess is in Mongolia now and thought to catch up with her and send through some questions for the Generation Y Expat blog!

Tell us about yourself…

I’m 27 years old and have hit the pause button on my life in Australia to live and work in Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia on an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) assignment. I’m in UB until the end of December working as a Communication Officer at an adult education NGO. In addition to this, I spend my days eating, drinking, singing karaoke and travelling around the place with friends!

What brought you from the Marketing team of QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre) to working on an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) assignment in Ulaanbaatar?

I had been interested in undertaking an AYAD assignment for a while and after being at QPAC for three years, the time felt right for me to do some exploring. I was ready for my next challenge and after a bit of to-and-fro-wing, it all fell into place. I have always been interested in development work and have had the niggling urge to contribute ‘something more’ for a long time. I learnt a lot during my time at QPAC so this, along with a love of people and their stories and a curiosity about the effect of digital and social media on the dynamics of relationships and larger communities helped everything come together, eventually!

How did you handle the changes in culture between Australia and Mongolia? On a personal and also on a professional level?

Mongolia is an incredible place; from the people to the traffic to the food to its history, it is one massive mind boggling experience. This, coupled with who and what I left behind in Australia, left me feeling incredibly overwhelmed and vulnerable at times but I came over to Mongolia with eight wonderful people on other assignments and we landed in a place with a large presence of AYADs from other intakes – this socialising and sense of community really helped, as there was a shared experience amongst all of us. While this constant socialising provided an instant lifestyle with great friends, I also needed some quiet time to fully comprehend the decisions I’d made and to actually realise I was now living and working in Mongolia, that this was now my life! Plenty of writing guided me through this adjustment phase… moving overseas is an incredibly exciting time but it’s also a massive change and I initially found it hard to have left such a wonderful friendship circle while they all remained behind. I still wanted to know what was going on, who was eating what and what the weather was like so thank god for the internet because knowing I could almost instantly contact my friends and family was a lifesaver.

Professionally I was very lucky to have two Australian women who were teachers at my organisation so they quickly became like my second mothers and looked out for me. I don’t think it would’ve been a huge problem had they not been there but they definitely assisted with my transition into work, provided contexts for me to understand why things were done the way they were and I became quite close to them. One of them is now back in Australia but one still remains and again, it is the social factor that helps adjust to the changes in culture – knowing there are people who have experienced what you have or can at least offer advice is such a saving grace.

An open mind and a willingness to try new things (especially food – hello mutton, dried sour curd and salty milk tea) is the only way to handle cultural differences – they’re simultaneously fascinating and challenging.

What do you hope to achieve in this international assignment?

As with everyone who undertakes development work, I really hope to achieve that feeling of contributing something more to the greater good, of knowing I’ve made a difference of some sort and I relish the opportunities I’ve had to meet some incredible Mongolian children and adults who are furiously striving to move on to something better. I would love for my NGO to reach the goals and standards we’ve set, particularly in relation to communication and developing a digital presence for the organisation – these tangible accomplishments signify that knowledge has been shared, built upon and maintained, which is essential for the organisation to move forward. It also means I’ve done an ok job in my time there and that’s important to me! Like many other things, undertaking an AYAD assignment is great for career development – gaining experience in digital communication in the development sector on an international level while meeting and networking with like-minded people are opportunities I’m excited to have in front of me.

Career progression and development aside, I have always had the desire to live and work overseas as a ‘professional’ (unfortunately I’m well past the age of having the enthusiasm to work in a bar) and I wanted to know I could do it out of my comfort zone. I was ready for new opportunities that would help me learn and grow in all aspects of my life but actually doing it was so terrifying – now I’m here and have worked out the kinks it’s incredible but this year will be a big personal accomplishment and one that will shape where I go next.

What transferable skills or attributes does one need to work on to be mobile and global?

Excellent communication skills is the number one necessity, followed by confidence, patience, flexibility and humour.

Being able to communicate ideas and opinions, particularly in a cross-cultural context is essential to survive and contribute – it is completely challenging at first to find the balls to speak up and share but not doing so results in feelings of frustration and actually becomes quite taxing on the ego, trust me! It’s equally as important to be able to just observe and understand the way simple day-to-day activities are communicated… just because everyone used to live and die by their Outlook calendars at home doesn’t mean it happens everywhere. Having confidence while out of your comfort zone across so many different aspects of your life is tough and I have days where I wonder whether I actually even know what I’m talking about… I think these feelings are completely natural and will happen wherever you are (at home or abroad) but the secret lies in realising that of course you know what you’re doing, that communication and confidence complement one another so now is the time to strengthen both skill sets.

Finally, patience and flexibility go hand in hand in life but even more so in development work; meeting times change, power is lost in your building for the entire day, documents need to be translated… so many things require flexibility and patience but the one thing I had never thought about tested me the most – the patience to not always be busy. My previous role at QPAC was ridiculously full on and my day was constantly shaped around deadlines so arriving at a small, local NGO was a difficult adjustment because I was so used to being on the go all the time. Not having this same level of busyness left me feeling somewhat useless and like I wasn’t achieving anything, which was incredibly hard on my ego and self-esteem. Interestingly, a fantastic article appeared in The New York Times right when I was struggling with these thoughts. The article talks about how we’ve all become so busy, or like to proclaim we’re busy, as a “hedge against emptiness” and goes on to highlight the importance of idleness and slowing down, I recommend reading it! My biggest learning over here so far has been understanding that everything has a context, including busyness, productivity and achievement, that it’s ok to not be 100% crazy, supersonically flat out and that it’s ok to sit still.

Oh, and humour – laughing about things always helps but it’s not always the easiest thing to do… life overseas, and especially in a developing country, is always unpredictable and so many ridiculous, unbelievable things happen that laughing about it is sometimes the only thing to deal with it. It also helps make you realise just how special and quirky your new home is and how lucky you are to get to see it all unfold!

When the assignment ends at the end of this year, what are you looking forward to in 2013 and beyond?

In the short term I’m really looking forward to returning to Brisbane, I miss that place more than I expected and I absolutely cannot wait to eat haloumi and tofu rice paper rolls until I fall over! In the long term I want to do more travel – there’s so many other places I want to get to but unfortunately this relies on money and as I won’t have a job to return to when I get home, I’m going to need to do some serious saving.

I will be going where the wind takes me in relation to work but I know I really miss working in the arts. I miss the variety, creativity and collaboration that inevitably comes with that industry so I’m contemplating moving into cultural community development as this means I can get my hit of the arts but also work closely with and explore how the arts and culture can help bring communities together and be an advocate for change. I also have a love of people and their stories and I actually started a journalism degree many moons ago so the idea of returning to it is something I toy with every year – I am obsessed with radio programs like This American Life and Conversations with Richard Fidler so if I could emulate something like this, I’d be set.

I have a few goals set for myself that I’m aiming to have figured out by the time I leave Ulaanbaatar, I know my time here is going to shape and shift how I approach life once I return to Australia so I’m eager to embrace whatever comes my way…

Get in touch with Jess…
My blog with bits and pieces about life in Mongolia:



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