Our Kin: Sarah Harrison | Brunei

Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up?

My early years were in the remote north of Western Australia before progressively moving closer to central Perth. My parents have always enjoyed building and renovating so I grew up in a few suburbs, all very different to the next, and went to four schools. It undoubtedly had an influence on my love of travel and change.

Who modelled “success” for you growing up?

My mum seemed to be able to ‘do it all’ - wife, mother, full time worker, domestic goddess - all carried out with grace, care, strength and finesse. She seemed to be able to handle anything, and she did. Unsurprisingly, I subconsciously adopted the same approach until realising that it was a model that not only failed to help me be my best self, but was far from sustainable personally. I have zero idea how she did it! 

 

What did you think you’d be when you “grew up”?

I’m not entirely sure where I got the idea of being a vet or a nurse but neither came to fruition.   

 

How and when did you make the transition to being a freelancer?

2012 was the magical year that I dreamed of going part-time in my marketing day job so I could spend more time freelancing. In April, my position was made redundant and I took the money and ran straight into business ownership.

 

What were the challenges in the early days of having your own business?

Two major things for me; isolation, and the discipline to stop working. I’d worked in an office environment for 18 years before going out on my own from the comfort of home. I’d yearned for this freedom for so long but it became a trap. My networking efforts had paid off so I had a steady stream of work that I never said no to out of fear of the ‘famine’. So I worked. All the time. On my own. I started working from cafes around me in Melbourne as a way to be around other humans and found it to be a highly productive way of working, conveniently with a steady flow of coffee and snacks brought straight to my virtual desk. I also began connecting with other freelancers and came to appreciate the power of vulnerability supported by authentic and meaningful connections.   

Tell me about the move to London and what you were hoping to find there.

I haven’t actually lived in London since 2002, but a major intention and perk of being self-employed has been the ability to work anywhere, and that has included spending up to six months a year in the UK and Europe. In what would become my final sojourn in 2018, I wanted to acquire a new client and continue working with them back in Australia. The universe had other plans though, as I found not only a great international client, but also an amazing partner. Just as we began discussing the prospect of me moving to London, he was offered a role in tropical Brunei on the island of Borneo - easy seven-hour direct flight to Melbourne. It seemed like the perfect way for me to keep my Australian base while sharing my time with the jungle for love. Or so we thought.      

 In 2019 you headed to Brunei. Tell me about that experience. What did 2020 look like for you?

Here was something we never predicted: the transition to Brunei was the hardest year and experience of both our lives. There’s very little information online about the Islamic Sultanate but as two people who had travelled, moved cities and spent plenty of time outside of our comfort zones, we rather naively thought, ‘how bad could it be?’. It’s hard to narrow down the journey in a few lines but I’ll summarise as best I can.

From arrival, my partner’s job was all consuming. That meant I needed to quickly adopt a heavy support role and forfeit much of the life, business and sense of self that I’d built over the decade prior in Melbourne. What ensued could only be described as a long, drawn out existential crisis as I went swiftly from independent city girl and business woman to grocery-shopping, domestic-bound ‘housewife’ (my nationally-recognised occupation in Brunei, printed on my expat identity card together with the name of my ‘employer’ - my partner). Meanwhile, the love of my life (and now boss), was completely overwhelmed in what seemed like an impossible role rendering him largely unavailable, physically and emotionally, not aiding the sense of isolation from being alone in an oversized house in the middle of the jungle. Getting accustomed to the culture and environment of this quirky little muslim country, with all of its religious rules and contradictions, took time too. I escaped back to Melbourne as often and for as long as I could, to keep in touch with clients, friends and my sanity. 2019 became about sheer survival; of self, my relationship, my business and the connection with friends which felt the full brunt of someone experiencing chronic grief, confusion and distress.


By the time 2020 came about, I’d developed not only a bucket load of patience, but also the skills and strategies to tackle the feelings of isolation and identity loss that one might also need in the event of, say, a global pandemic. As Covid forced lockdowns around the world, people were connecting online more than ever before and a global appreciation for the need of human connection and empathy grew exponentially. Clients got in touch looking for help from someone they knew worked well in a remote capacity, offering me a renewed sense of purpose. The country put a hard stop on travel from the early stages of Covid which meant we were virus-free from May. And for the first time, I felt gratitude for our isolated ‘open air prison’ turned ‘beach side bunker’.

What has been the biggest learning about yourself during this time?

That I make a terrible housewife and totally underestimated how much I enjoy the freedom of drinking a glass of wine in public. But seriously, I learned (rather painfully) that when everything you know and have come to rely upon is stripped away, you’re really only left with yourself, and knowing who that person is without the peripheral noise can be a hugely challenging proposition. I also discovered that when my level of self worth is compromised, I tend to compensate by way of over-functioning (very common for women) and sacrificing my personal boundaries. As tough as it has been, it’s been a rewarding experience that’s helped me become clearer, more confident and accepting of who I am, and who I am not. 

 

How have you needed to change the way you work in a new country?

While it’s illegal for me to be employed in Brunei, I’ve been continuing my freelance work remotely since borders closed in March 2020. The biggest adjustment was working from home in the jungle rather than cafe hopping and people watching in the hustle and bustle of Melbourne. I repurposed a couple of spaces around our oversized house in Brunei which helped with productivity, but going for entire days without physically witnessing another human being took some getting used to. I have to make sure I leave our property at least once every two days just to visually observe other people and talk to someone besides our cat.   

 

Has your definition of success changed over time?

Yes but not as fundamentally as in these past few years. Success pre-jungle was pinned to whether I was living in alignment with the life I’d designed for myself; business, travel, autonomy, and balance. The problem being that when I suddenly and inadvertently found myself far removed from that life, I felt like a monumental failure. It was heavy. So success became lighter - making the most of our situation, finding my happy, being open to the learnings and opportunities around me, holding my relationship together (joking but not) and accepting this chapter the way it is, knowing there are better ones to come.  Sarah Harrison and her cat, CologneTell me about your rituals when you have:

2 minutes - cuddles and chats with Cologne, our rescue cat


15 minutes - appreciate the wildlife around us (the monkeys and hornbills are particularly entertaining)


1 hour - stretch, reflect, journal, ideate 


Connect with Sarah.

1

  • Honest, raw & inspiring. Thank you for sharing your truth and know that better times will come xx

    Ruth

1 comment

Honest, raw & inspiring. Thank you for sharing your truth and know that better times will come xx

Ruth July 09, 2021

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