What do you find hardest about Cambodian culture?

When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.

However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.

For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.

British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.

I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.

However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.

As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.

Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.

I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.

One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.

Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)

If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.

I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.

This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.

Moving abroad skills/preparedness audit

Life in Cambodia can be wildly different to life in the UK. There are different routines, considerations and skills needed in order to survive. There is so much I have learnt to do and there are also many skills I know I’m lacking. If I had the opportunity to do more research, receive more training or practise some skills before I came it may could have made quite a bit of difference and I wouldn’t feel quite at a loss at some points. These just cover the basics; I will probably write another one about cultural integration and awareness. Also, if you enjoy this post but haven’t read my A Million Questions post about learning about a new country, you might find that interesting too.

Health

  • Are your vaccines up-to-date?
  • Do you know your blood type?
  • Do you know the locations of the nearest/best hospitals where you will be living?
  • Have you checked whether you can get hold of any medication you need?
  • Have you researched potential threats to health (e.g. malaria, dengue, Zika virus, parasites)?
  • Do you know how to prevent mosquito bites, insect bites and other local risks to health?
  • What foods are safe to eat and what should be avoided? (This varies from place to place, so the blanket advice for travellers may not be applicable. For example, ice is usually fine in Cambodia!)
  • How may the change in diet or climate impact your health?
  • Have you learnt how to adjust to a different climate?
  • Have you made plans in the case of emergency medical care? Does your family know your plans?

Transport

  • What are the main types of transport in the country you are moving to?
  • Is it the same or different to what you are used to?
  • Would it be worth getting lessons before you leave? (I would have loved to have motorbike lessons before I left; I completely feel as if I’m making it all up.)
  • Do you know basic vehicle maintenance?
  • Do you know about different types, brands or models of that vehicle?
  • What public transport is available in the country?
  • What conditions will you travel in when you take public transport? How might you need to prepare for this?

Clothing

  • What clothing do you need for different seasons?
  • What clothing is available in the country? What will you need to bring more of? (For me – vests, socks and shoes)
  • What are locals’ attitudes towards different types of clothing choice? What image are you trying to convey? How do the clothes you wear convey this?
  • What clothing will be comfortable or practical for different reasons?
  • How will you keep your clothes clean?
  • Do you know how to hand wash clothes?
  • What type of clothes will you have to wear at work? What would be good to wear when out and about?
  • Can you sew?

Food

  • What are the main components of that country’s cuisine?
  • Do you know how to eat it? (For instance, I still struggle to eat fish and prawns because I didn’t eat it a lot at home.)
  • What types of fruit and vegetables are there? Do you know how to eat, prepare and cook them? (For instance, can you cut up a mango?)
  • What type of food and ingredients will be available where you are living?
  • Can you cook some simple meals just on a stove?
  • Do you know how to wash vegetables and meats in an effective and hygienic manner? (Yes, I know that probably back at home you are told not to wash meats. That advice might not apply so much where you are.)
  • Do you know how to avoid foods that you are allergic too?
  • Do you know what substitutions for different ingredients you use often can be used?

Language learning

  • Do you know which languages are used in the country and where you will be living?
  • Do you have a basic idea of language families and their features?
  • Do you know your learning style?
  • Are you aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet and its usage?
  • Are you familiar with the phonemes of your target language?
  • Have you researched language learning techniques?
  • Do you know what resources are available for your target language?
  • Do you know the pros and cons of the different resources (for example is the resource somewhat old-fashioned so now a bit offensive? Yes, FSI courses, I’m looking at you.)

Cultural adjustment

  • Have you researched some of the dos and don’ts of the culture?
  • Are you aware of culture shock, what it is and what it looks like? Have you researched reverse culture-shock?
  • Have you researched your own culture so you are aware of some of the potential pressure points? (Privacy and personal space is a large pressure point for me.)
  • Have you found out what cultures you might be working with? Have you researched them? (You might be working in an international setting. I find more extrovert and say-what-you-mean cultures more difficult than Khmer ones most the time.)

Back at home

  • Have you planned how you will stay in touch with those back at home?
  • Have you researched what methods of communication there are available?
  • Have you spoken to others about how they should communicate with you?
  • Have you scheduled regular, committed time to communicate with various people?
  • Have you considered how you will communicate with younger family members? (I’ve found regular Skype calls with little people really hard to navigate.)
  • How will you negotiate import events like Christmas? Have you reflected on how this might affect you?

Yourself

  • Have you taken time to think about how you as a person might affect your experience?
    • What do you enjoy doing in your home country?
    • What activities might be available in your new country?
    • How do you respond to stress?
    • What self-care techniques work for you?
    • What is your personality type? What Enneagram type are you? What does it say about you?
    • What are your reasons for going?
    • What do you hope to achieve?
    • How do you cope with frustrations and disappointments?
    • What bad habits should you try to deal with before you leave?
    • Where might you need to be more flexible in your thinking or world-view?
    • What stereotypes or presumptions might you need to deal with before you leave?

This is a pretty long list. A lot of it could be done with a google search or by watching a few YouTube videos. Some you might need to reflect on for longer. You may want to discuss a few with others who have lived abroad, or close friends and loved ones. I hope this list helps someone and if it does, like or comment! If I failed to add something (because these are only based on my experiences), let me know too.

Ask a missionary…

One of the hardest aspects I have found with being abroad is the relationships with those back at home. There are often awkward attempts either way but sometimes it feel like attempts to communicate fall flat. I’ve think I’ve identified one of the problems.

I’ve often invited others to ask questions about life in Cambodia, but either I get asked the same questions (“What do you miss most…?” “Cheese.”) or they’re hard to answer (“What flowers are in bloom at the moment?” “Er… the pink ones.”) or just silence. I think a part of the problem is knowing what questions to ask. So, I thought I’d help. I’ve also given them a chilli rating on how spicy the questions and possible answers are. One chilli 🌶 is the basics (they’re possibly things you should know already, but it’s worth checking if you don’t know.) Two chillis 🌶🌶 gets a bit more detail. Three chillis 🌶🌶🌶 are more personal and could give rise to painful answers. They could also reveal some of the failings or difficulties the missionary is facing. If you are a very close, you can go in for the deep three chillis 🌶🌶🌶 but perhaps otherwise stick to the one or two chillis. Also, this is not meant to be a hard-and-fast interview. Your aim is not to go through the list and tick them off. These are ideas to help start the conversation.

Where they live

  • Where do you live? 🌶
  • How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area? 🌶 – 🌶 🌶
  • What is your favourite thing about your area? 🌶🌶
  • What amenities or resources do you have close access to? 🌶
  • What problems are there in your area? 🌶🌶
  • What grieves you about the area where you live? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How should I pray for where you live? 🌶🌶
  • What is your house/accommodation like? 🌶
  • What’s your favourite thing about your accommodation? 🌶
  • What would you change about your accommodation? 🌶🌶
  • What daily hassles or frustrations do you have with your accommodation? 🌶🌶
  • Who do you live with? 🌶
  • What are they like? 🌶🌶
  • How do they bring you joy? 🌶🌶
  • What relational problems are there between you and those you live with? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can you serve those you live with better? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can I pray for those you live with? 🌶🌶
  • Who are your neighbours? 🌶
  • What are they like? 🌶🌶
  • What type of relationships do you have with your neighbours? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can you better serve your neighbours? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can I pray for your neighbours? 🌶🌶

Out and about

  • How do you travel about? 🌶
  • Describe a typical journey. 🌶🌶
  • Do you feel safe when you travel? 🌶🌶
  • How often do you go out for leisure? 🌶
  • What is there to do where you live? 🌶
  • What do you do to relax? 🌶
  • Tell me about your ideal day off. 🌶🌶
  • Where are your favourite places to visit? Why? 🌶🌶
  • Where would you like to visit? Why would you like to go there? 🌶🌶
  • What activity do you hope to do? Why do you wish to do that? 🌶🌶
  • What place did you find the most interesting or rewarding? Why was that? 🌶🌶
  • What activities would you like to do but can’t? 🌶🌶 How does that make you feel? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What do the locals do when they have free time? 🌶
  • What is your opinion of how locals spend their free time? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶
  • Do you feel bored or stressed where you are? If so, how could you change this? 🌶🌶
  • What unhealthy habits do you have when it comes to spending your free time? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Are you stewarding your money wisely? 🌶🌶🌶

Daily life and healthy routines

  • What is your daily routine? 🌶
  • How is this routine similar to that back at home? 🌶🌶
  • How is this routine different to that back at home? 🌶🌶
  • What do you eat most days? 🌶🌶
  • Do you have a good work / relaxation balance? 🌶🌶
  • Do you eat healthily? 🌶🌶
  • Have you been well? 🌶🌶
  • What has prevented you from being healthy at the moment? 🌶🌶
  • What common illnesses or health problems are there in your country? 🌶🌶
  • What daily challenges do you face? 🌶🌶
  • Are you exercising regularly? 🌶🌶
  • Are you sleeping well? 🌶🌶
  • What changes to your routine could you make to help you stay well and healthy? 🌶🌶🌶

Their work

  • What do you do? 🌶
  • Where do you work? 🌶
  • How do you get to work? What is that journey like? 🌶 -🌶🌶
  • Tell me about your average day. 🌶🌶
  • Describe your place of work. 🌶🌶
  • What is your favourite thing about your job? 🌶
  • What is your biggest frustration about your job? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What is a daily challenge you face in your job? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Do you enjoy your work, overall? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How does your work make you feel about yourself? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Do you work with locals, foreigners, Christians, non-Christians? 🌶 Do you like this set up? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Who are your colleagues?🌶
  • What positive relationships do you have at your job?🌶🌶
  • What relational problems do you have at your job?🌶🌶🌶
  • How can you resolve any problems or issues you are facing?🌶🌶
  • How can I pray for you as you do your work?🌶🌶
  • How can I pray for where you work and those you work with? 🌶🌶

Host culture

  • What is your predominant host culture (the culture that they now live in, which is not their own culture)? 🌶
  • Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 🌶
  • What do you like most about your host culture? 🌶🌶
  • What has surprised you most about your host culture? 🌶🌶
  • What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 🌶🌶
  • How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 🌶🌶
  • What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 🌶🌶
  • How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Which language / languages are you having to learn? 🌶🌶
  • How is language learning going? 🌶🌶
  • What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 🌶🌶
  • What challenges have you faced in language learning? 🌶🌶
  • How do you feel about language learning? 🌶🌶

The country

  • Where is the country? 🌶
  • What climate does it have? 🌶
  • How have you adjusted to the climate? 🌶🌶
  • What are the cities like? 🌶🌶 What is the countryside like? 🌶🌶
  • What sites do you enjoy in the country? 🌶🌶
  • What animals are there in your country? 🌶
  • How do you and the locals live alongside these animals? 🌶🌶
  • What seasons are there? 🌶
  • What new things to enjoy does each season bring? 🌶🌶
  • What new challenges does each season bring? 🌶🌶
  • Where are the top tourist places to visit? 🌶🌶
  • What is the food like? 🌶🌶
  • Tell me a bit about it’s recent history. 🌶🌶
  • How do most people make a living? 🌶🌶
  • What struggles to local people face in their lives? 🌶🌶
  • What problems are (somewhat) unique to the country? 🌶🌶
  • How can we pray for the country? 🌶🌶

Relationships

  • How do you maintain relationships with those back home? 🌶🌶
  • Do you have Christian friends in your host country? 🌶🌶
  • Do you have local friends in your host country? 🌶🌶
  • How are you relationships with family / spouses etc. who you live with? 🌶🌶
  • Do you feel like you have meaningful connections with others? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Have you formed any unhealthy dependent relationships? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How do you make sure your strong relationships include rather than isolate others? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Are you lonely? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What causes you to struggle with maintaining relationships with those back at home? 🌶🌶🌶
  • Do you feel listened to and understood by those back at home? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can you improve your situation in terms of relationships? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How can I pray for you, your friends, your family, etc. ? 🌶🌶🌶

Faith

  • What answers to prayers have you had recently? 🌶🌶
  • What encouraging news do you have for those praying for you? 🌶🌶
  • What has God been teaching you recently? 🌶🌶
  • How regularly are you praying? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How regularly are you reading the Bible? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What are you reading in the Bible at the moment? 🌶🌶
  • How can you apply what you have been reading to your situation? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How regularly do you worship with other believers? 🌶🌶
  • Which church / churches do you attend? 🌶
  • How do you serve the churches you attend? 🌶🌶
  • How could you serve them better? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How do you feel about your faith at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How do you feel towards God at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How do you feel towards Christians at home and supporters at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
  • How do you feel about your calling at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What is bringing you anxiety, grief or pain in your faith at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What can you do to change this? 🌶🌶🌶
  • What can we pray for? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶

If I ever get around to it, I might make videos answering some of these questions and the questions on my a million questions post.

The Cambodia Bucket List

Cambodia is such an amazing country. I’m so privileged to live here and there’s so much to experience. I’ve achieved so much already.

These are the things I’ve managed to achieve so far:

  • Visit Angkor National park
    • See Angkor Wat
    • See the Elephant Terrace
    • Go to Angkor Thom
    • Find the dinosaur at Ta Prom
  • Visit the floating villages on the Tonle Sap
  • Visit the Koh Ker Temples
  • Visit Preah Vihear
  • Visit Oudong Mountain
  • Go to Mondulkiri
    • See Bousra Waterfall
  • Go to Kampot
  • Go to Rabbit Island
  • Eat at the crab market in Kep
  • Eat taurantula
  • Eat prahok
  • Celebrate Khmer New Year at Angkor Was and Pub Street
  • Go rice planting
  • Explore a lot of Phnom Penh, including
    • Eat dessert at Phsar Toul Tompong
    • Eat lunch at Phsar Thmei
    • Shop at Phsar Orussey
    • Go to the night market
    • Head to Bassac Lane
    • Have a cocktail on the top of Phnom Penh tower
    • Ridden a ride on Diamond Island
  • Go to Tuol Sleng and Chhoeung Ek
  • Go to the Royal Palace
  • Go on 3 boat trips on the Mekong
  • Visit Silk Island
  • Go to 8 weddings
  • (I’ve also been to two funerals, but I don’t really count them as achievements as people had to die for that to happen.)
  • Watch the Cambodian football team play at the Olympic Stadium

However, there is still a lot I want to do:

  • Do a Khmer cooking class
  • Take part in a Khmer music class
  • Have a lesson on how to do the monkey dance or the coconut dance (I’m under no illusion I will be good at it)
  • Watch a puppet show
  • Visit Kulen Mountain
  • Visit Kirirom Mountain
  • Go to the islands near Sihanoukville
  • Visit Battambang
    • Go to the bat caves
    • Ride the bamboo train
  • See the dolphins at Kratie
  • Go to Rattanakiri
  • Stay in the Cardamom Mountains and go nature spotting.
  • Find local Khmer restaurants that do the best food.

What else do you suggest? What things have I not included in my list?

A decade of change

A decade is quite a long time and quite a lot can happen. It’s been great reflecting on what happened and how God has been at work during this time. This is quite a long post, so get yourself a cup of tea, sit down, relax and read. (Or, simply skip to the highlights reel at the end.)

2010

I was working my first “real” jobs after having left university. I was a part-time youth worker at a church and a part-time teaching assistant at a sixth-form college. Possibly the most important part of this year was the people I came to meet.

First, the Bemrose family joined our church. They were to have a massive impact on many people in the church. Their warmth, hospitality and generosity will have an eternal legacy they probably don’t even realise.

Second, Duncan came back from somewhere in the antipodes. At first, he thought I was weird. Later, he knew I was weird. We had a quickly-forming, slightly bizarre and irreverent friendship. Duncan would have an influence over how the end of the decade would pan out, and takes whatever opportunity he can to remind me.

There were of course people who had a massive influence on me this year, but I knew them already. Also, there are others that I may have met somewhen in 2010-2011, but not so sure.

2011

I moved house! Twice. I moved out of my parents house to the St Denys area of Southampton. At first I was in a house with a slightly strange vibe. The landlady (who was on one of the Olympic sailing teams) decided to sell the house so I had to move again. This new house would introduce me to a wide array of people. I can say I was very blessed as pretty much all of my house mates were great. That’s quite unusual.

The Deakin and Bradbury families joined in a blessed union. I played keyboard at their wedding. I almost vomited from stage fright.

My brother got engaged, then swiftly left to live in Palestine. His fiancée just as swiftly got to work with wedding arrangements.

Sadly, my grandmother died this year.

I decided that I would be moving on from my jobs the summer of the following year; however, I felt God wanted me to stay in Southampton. Therefore, I applied for two routes. One was a post-graduate conversion course into medicine. The other was for a PGCE course as a secondary school teacher. This decision meant God was going to teach me a number of lessons about following his will the following year.

2012

This year was quite a momentous year for me, both in terms of hearing and understanding God’s will, but also in terms of the track I would end up going on.

In January, I had my PGCE interview. Most of the places had already been filled so there were three candidates for one place. I didn’t get the place. Okay, I thought, medicine it was to be, then. So, I had to wait for the results of that application.

One morning, some weeks later, I was sitting in the college staff room, when I had a ridiculously strong sense that the results of my application were in. It was almost an audible voice. I logged onto the application website, and sure enough, moments previously, the results had been updated. My application had failed, it told me. I had no options left. My PGCE application got me nowhere; my medicine application had been denied.

I went to the bathroom and (mostly silently) railed against God. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was unfair. I told him that I knew he wanted me in Southampton, but I needed a job in order for it to happen. So I told him that he needed to sort it out. I was angry and frustrated.

That same afternoon, I decided I would go to my parents; it being a place of refuge and solace. To get there, I had to take a train. While waiting on the platform, I received a phone call. It was from the coordinator of the PGCE program I had applied to. Some positions has opened up; I was asked to reinterview for the course. That time I was successful.

This process was quite an important one for me. There’s a saying that “when God closes one door, he opens another.” Well, that hasn’t been my experience. It’s usually, “God closes all the doors until stubborn Thomas finally concedes it’s God’s job to sort it out, not his.” I’m not talking about a passively lying on the floor waiting for God to wave a magic wand. It’s just that I have a small, slight, barely significant (read: huge, massive) problem with clinging onto control and diving headlong into what I think is best. God has to remind me to stop and talk to him about it first.

This process had another important consequence, one that I would only realise the following spring. It gave me an unswerving confidence that God wanted me to be a teacher. It was one of the main things that kept me going through 2013.

In the summer of 2012, I was introduced to WEC and the idea of cross cultural mission. Duncan pestered me to help at WEC’s teenage summer camp. For this, I’m very thankful. Obviously, I was aware of world mission, as a distant, interesting but personally irrelevant concept. It was this camp that prompted me to pray about whether world mission was for me. I asked God if I should go, and if so, where. The answer was instant. It was Cambodia.

September 2012 was massive for the Ashmead family. I started my teacher training. Only days later, my brother got married.

2013

This year was probably the most difficult of my life to date. Training to be a teacher is tough. It is tough in a school you like and feel a part of. If you are in a school you don’t quite fit in with, it is really hard. I was even told at one point that teaching wasn’t for me. These words are ones I still carry with me, and often give rise to terrible moments of self doubt. I am probably still clinging onto some bitterness and have perhaps been somewhat unforgiving about how I was treated during that part of my teacher training. I think that letting go of that part of my life is long overdue.

However, as I was confident that God wanted me to be a teacher, the thoughts of others had little to do with it. Therefore, it gave me the conviction to persevere. Despite some tears and heart-ache, I knew I should continue. I remember thinking, at some points, “Well, God thinks otherwise, so you are wrong.” (There were other pedagogical or practical reasons why they were wrong, but God has the last word on the matter.)

On the plus side, my placement at the difficult school was ended and I went back to a school I thoroughly enjoyed working at. I even got a 12-month job there for the following academic year.

I went on my first short-term mission trip. Yes, short-term trips have an ambiguous place in the world of cross cultural missions. (Who do they serve? Who are they for? Do they help or hinder?) This was probably a significant trip as quite a few on those on the trip continued to pursue mission in one form or another. The trip was to South East Asia and I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the team. I was blessed to get to know some amazing, faithful believers.

I began my first year as a newly qualified teacher. PGCEs don’t really equip you for teaching. You’re working with dozens of people each day, and each person brings a seemingly infinite capacity for surprises. A PGCE (and teaching in general) equips you with two important skills: ploughing on regardless of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the ability to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. If you have a bad lesson you have to get to the end by hook or by crook. Furthermore, when you finally reach the end, there may be as little as 30 seconds to get over it and to mentally prepare yourself for the next class. You also learn to moderate your emotions and to process your thoughts, experiences or frustrations at a later, more appropriate time. You’re also taught to be reflective. You almost form the ability to stand outside yourself and see the events as an observer would. The challenges of teaching, I think, have definitely helped me adjust to life in Cambodia. There’s been lots of picking myself up and dusting myself off (sometimes literally).

I returned to South East Asia again on my second short-term mission trip. Again, this was significant for a quite few of the team.

In 2013, the first of my lovely nieces was born. That was certainly a significant change for the whole Ashmead family.

2014

As far as I am aware, 2014 was much of a muchness. God continued to prepare my heart for mission and confirm my calling to Cambodia.

2015

My job at my school was difficult. It always had been a challenging school to work out. However, during 2015, I wanted out. This enabled me to take the plunge to ask for a sabbatical year and apply for a yearlong short-term trip to Cambodia.

Then something interesting happened, I fell back in love with my job. Perhaps I needed the discomfort in order to actually move me forward.

2016

This was a momentous year. This is when this blog starts, so if you want more detail, search the archives.

I left the home I moved into in 2011; a few months later, I left the UK. In July, I arrived very jet-lagged into a hot and dusty Phnom Penh. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. However, within less than a few weeks, I had fallen head over heels in love with Cambodia.

I met Vitou, first as a reliable tuk tuk driver. This quickly turned into an enduring friendship. When you move to a foreign country, it’s often helpful to have a person you go to with any quandaries or problems. Vitou was this person to me.

My first few months was spent learning basic Khmer. Then, in October I moved to Siem Reap to start working in the project school WEC had there. It was a bit of a slow start and I learned a lot about the practicalities of such a project and also a bit into how Cambodian culture worked.

2017

The first half was extremely blessed. I thoroughly enjoyed living in Cambodia, despite an array of challenges. I realised returning to the UK would be hard. Even before my plane tires hit Heathrow airport, I decided I would be returning to live in Cambodia.

Starting back at my previous school was hard. The second half of the year was hard. The academic year started with a significant bereavement in the school community. Ofsted quickly arrived on the back of this. Then there were endless changes to classes and syllabuses, as well as regular mock exams. A long term sickness added extra pressure to the department. As a result, despite not having a GCSE class I still had to mark a set of exam papers at a rate of once every month. This was on top of the extremely large load of marking I had for my own teachers. The previous teacher in my classroom did not have the opportunity to tidy her classroom before she left. She was a prolific hoarder and had left three skips worth of trash to be disposed of. This process took a number of weeks. Finally, I was chronically missing Cambodia. It was hard.

I was living with my parents at this point, but I doubt they saw me. Most evenings, I got home and went to sleep.

An opportunity to teach in HOPE school, an international school in Cambodia, had come up. In fact there were two opportunities. I applied for both and either. HOPE has two campuses: one in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap. They both needed and English teacher. I applied to the school, saying I was happy to choose where I went.

2018

(There is a more thorough overview here.)

I interviewed for the job at HOPE and was successful. They didn’t let me know until some months later which city I would be in, but that was fine. Finally, I found out it was in Phnom Penh. There was a little grieving in this decision (there would have been if the other decision was made).

The job of packing up to go happened all over again. This time it was far more thorough, expecting for it to be far more permanent. Finally, I said my goodbyes and began at HOPE school.

The second part of 2018 was great. My friendship with Vitou and his family continued to deepen.

2019

(There is a more thorough overview here.)

This started and ended on holiday with Vitou. In January, I went to Mondulkiri with him. The first months of 2019 were challenging: heat, mosquitoes, power cuts, water issues. The sound of a fan being switched off still makes my stomach churn, because from February-April it usually indicated a power cut and a long, hot, sleepless night.

My second, equally delightful niece was born. My other grandmother passed away too.

At the very end of 2019, I moved house. I have in fact moved into a house with Vitou and his family. Then for the last few days, we headed to the coast and spent a few days mainly lying in hammocks.

Highlights reel

  • Biggest events: Stephen’s wedding, the birth of my nieces, moving to Cambodia.
  • Biggest challenges: my teacher training year, learning Khmer.
  • Biggest transformation: not considering cross-cultural mission to being pretty involved. I think I’m more open-handed with my plans and open-minded to possibilities.
  • Biggest thanks: James Bemrose, for listening to all the tears and tales of 2013; my awesome colleagues that guided me through teaching; Peter Short, my pastor for displaying a faithful work in Christ; of course, my long-suffering parents. There are so many people who joined with me in this decade that deserve thanks. So if that’s you, thank you.
  • Biggest surprise: moving and loving living in Cambodia. If someone told me that in 2010, I’d have laughed or been concerned for their health.
  • Biggest lessons: submitting plans to God, relying on God’s perspective on a situation, that God does speak to us.
  • Significant verse to sum it up: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs‬ ‭3:5-6‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

2019 in review

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The old calendars are about to get chucked out, new shiny ones ready to be used. Youtubers, facebook walls and bloggers everywhere are reviewing their year. It’s especially essential for rubbish bloggers like me, who fail to write regularly, and my facebook posts are an eclectic mix mainly detailing my sleeping habits and the weather. So this is what 2019 looked like.

January

On January 1st, I headed off to Mondulkiri with Vitou. It was such a great time to spend with him and a great opportunity to explore more of Cambodia. It amazed me how comparatively cold it was. I bought a scarf. So, okay, it was only about 18C at night, but that was cold enough.

January was a month of mosquitoes. They were everywhere. And I don’t mean a few. I mean hundreds. Mosquitoes are not just an annoying pest. They are dangerous here. They carry dengue fever and although it usually just leads to something like severe flu, it can be fatal if complications arise. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for dengue, but so far I’ve escaped!

The first three or four months of 2019 were actually pretty hard. There were a few times when I had to have a moment’s moan.

January was also the month I melted a teapot. I actually did it again in April. But I eventually found a stove teapot with a louder whistle so you can’t forget about it.

February

February was quite intense and filled with ups and downs. The general struggles of living in Cambodia continued: mosquitoes and rising temperatures.

It was also the month when I turned 31! That was great. Vitou surprised me at 6:30 am with a birthday cake. Then, on the Saturday, we had a boat party. Read about that Saturday here. (Updates from that post- the hair cut turned out to be quite uneven around my ears; the money situation was fine; half the glow sticks spoiled in the Cambodian heat and couldn’t be used. Ah, Cambodia, you do make life interesting.)

The following week was camp week. This was a one-week residential, and I was on team middle school. Therefore, we took grades 6, 7 and 8 off to Shalom Valley, which is near Kep on the coast of Cambodia. It was a really good week. We did, however, have two hospitalisations (they weren’t life-threatening). You’d think the injury was from the dangerous looking obstacle course or the fire juggling or the mountain walk, wouldn’t you? No. One was at sustained at the butterfly farm and the other just walking from their room to dinner. It just goes to show that risk assessments never truly reflect reality.

Straight after this week was the WEC Cambodia prayer retreat. It was good to see everyone, but I was pretty out of it for a lot of the time. Also, I got (mildly) electrocuted having a shower and I then got very ill. Poor Vitou agreed to pick me up from the hotel. I didn’t tell him I was getting unwell, so he decided to take me on an errand another hour out of Phnom Penh. Then, I had to force myself to eat some of the food his aunt offered me, despite feeling ready to vomit everywhere. Finally, after an hour of waiting, I admitted I felt unwell and we went home. It turns out a few other people from my WEC team were ill as well and I probably got off quite lightly. I did have to take a few days off work.

March

The unrelenting march (see what I did there?) of difficulties continued. The temperature was soaring and power cuts were becoming a daily occurrence. My facebook posts reflected this as well as this blog post: It’s a hot mess.

However, there were great moments too. I went to Takeo a few times for the village ministry, which was always great fun.

March definitely taught me some lessons on how to be grateful despite difficulties.

April

April meant a two-week break. It was much needed. I explored the Cambodian countryside visiting various friends and family of Vitou. It was great. However, at some times it was difficult. I was the outsider and I didn’t feel as if I completely fitted in. I also ran over a dog (it was fine!). I also got to go to Khmer wedding number 7.

I bought my own motorbike! She’s called Makara and she’s my best friend.

I also had my first falling out with Vitou. Basically, someone died and I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t the first person everyone thought about. (If you’re judging me right now, please, go ahead. I am fully aware that I am a really terrible person.) Vitou was unnecessarily apologetic and I received a public facebook declaration from Vitou that he had done something terribly wrong. That was a bit of an insight into the shame-honour culture of Cambodia and how relationships exist in the public sphere rather than the being just between you and the friend. We’ve made up. Vitou still thinks it’s his fault, which clearly it isn’t. (Vitou, if you’re reading this: you’re the best!)

May

My brother visited! It was great for him to experience Cambodia, even if it was very brief. He met Vitou and the family. He also met some of my colleagues in Siem Reap. (Poor guy.) He loved it here. It did mean I had to sleep on the floor for a week.

It’s not me!

June

I finished a year a HOPE. I passed my level 5 Khmer assessment with flying colours! I put a post up about these achievements on Facebook. Obviously, I could rely on my brother to be encouraging in this situation.

It was quite a tough academic year in some ways. Much of it was the bureaucratic and administrative aspect of schools. The kids are great. The colleagues are supportive. But meetings, grading, reports, admin just kills me. It makes it hard that HOPE school has bits from all across the globe so sometimes the systems seem nonsensical but do fulfil a purpose somewhere.

July

I returned to the UK for two weeks. It was a very quick trip but it felt like the right length. Any longer and I think I would have got itchy feet. It was great to catch up with friends and family and to gorge myself on British cakes and fried breakfasts.

The most significant part of that trip was meeting my little baby niece for the first time. Of course, it was great to see my older niece too and see how much she has grown. I managed to have some really nice time with family. My sister-in-law also did some amazing baking. She might have even robbed me of my status as “best baker in the family”.

Then there was the ten-day WEC Cambodia conference in Kampong Thom (a province in central Cambodia). It was nice to see another small part of Cambodia. One of the most difficult things I’ve faced over the last year was not feeling a part of the WEC team so much. There are a lot of reasons for this: most of the members I knew already are not in Phnom Penh and simply because school life can be all-absorbing. However, spending quality time with the WEC team was really helpful in reestablishing my sense of belonging in the team. That was a real blessing.

August

School started again, with some logistical difficulties (of course, it is Cambodia). This meant filling in for teachers and merging classes for a few weeks. I also started teaching drama, which was quite scary and daunting. I new the course requirements and I understood the syllabus and exams. However, translating that information into actual lessons was quite a challenge.

Rainy season started with dramatic results, and there was quite a bit of flooding across the country. Fortunately for me, Phnom Penh was not particularly affected.

The general challenges of life in another country continued too.

I also started dating someone.

September

School life seems to absorb everything, especially if you are a yes person. I was working on the school production, being proof-reader for various newsletters and things. However, I had another week off for Pchum Ben, which was an opportunity to sit and relax. I visited a zoo and got to relax on a boat, then went to visit Vitou’s family in Kandal province again.

I also started another level at G2K, this one was Christian Studies 2. It was unbelievably helpful and interesting. Over 10 weeks, I learnt about Khmer culture and barriers to the gospel, as well as learning to pray in Khmer and sing Khmer worship songs.

October

I think one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on this year is exploring my attitude towards cultures and learning more about them. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love its countryside; I love its vibrancy; I love its people. Yes, there are frustrations and difficulties. Most of the time they are funny or momentary.

I do believe missionaries have a God-given responsibility to honour the host culture they are in. They are to encourage and love the people they are interacting with. It challenged me how I can be a good guest in Cambodia.

This month introduced a new, exciting challenge into life in Cambodia: getting to school. Due to building works, bad weather, large factory trucks tearing up the surface and just construction workers dumping soil on the road, it was a daily challenge to arrive clean and in one piece. Also, at school we had to complete a lot of documentation for the Ministry of Education, which put extra pressure on all the teachers. It helped that we had a few days off dotted through the month. 

November

This month was Water Festival month. I really love Water Festival and I got to go to the riverside with Vitou’s family to celebrate. There were fireworks and a procession of lit-up barges. It’s very crowded but great fun.

It was also just busy. First, the WEC Cambodia team had visitors from WEC UK, to do some filming of the various ministries of WEC missionaries here. This meant they were also visiting the school. It was great to have them here but also, in some ways, exhausting. They only visited me for one day, but as I had to sort cover etc. for my lessons it meant that there were logistical aspects that needed organising.

Also, the school production was drawing ever closer. This meant sources, painting, repairing props and things for back stage. Most of my life was spent in Japanese two-dollar stores or Japanese secondhand stores.

It didn’t help that I started suffering from insomnia. I again had to take a few days off because I just didn’t sleep for a number of consecutive days. It’s a lot better now, but I will still have the odd night when I don’t sleep.

December

The school play, reports and the end of the G2K course all hit at once. It was a crazy week and at some points it was a struggle to get to the end. Somehow I did it and now I’m on the wind down towards the Christmas holidays. The school production was a big success and the students who took part made us all very proud! It’s amazing that such a small school could have so many intelligent, wonderful young people.

Then there was the general election in the UK. It’s always strange being on the outside of such events. You get somewhat removed from the media circus and it means that perhaps you can stand back a bit and think about it in a different way. This led to me writing a post about how democracy will never save us.

I’m also going to be moving house. This will mean packing, cleaning my current apartment, buying new furniture, cleaning the new house, then unpacking and settling in. I’m lucky to have a few weeks off as well as a holiday to Kep booked.

2020

2020 is going to see a lot of changes for me, and not everything is certain. The only thing, in fact, that is certain is that I will be making 2020-vision jokes until at least May. And of course, that God will continue to be faithful regardless of mosquitoes, power cuts, dust and other problems.

Why democracy will always fail us

I am sat in Cambodia, seven hours ahead of the UK, watching the general election results roll in. I’m also hovering on social media watching responses to exit polls and election predictions. Having been in Cambodia for the run up to this election and having not been living in the UK for quite some time, I’ve been really surprised by the intensity of people’s social media posts. They speak of depression, despair, broken friendships, lives changed irreversibly for the worse. Now, I’m not saying these elections are not significant, but I’m really shocked at the emotional weight of yesterday. I perhaps understand it from my friends who are not Christians, but I’m probably seeing it more from my Christian friends. They’re writing about dashed hopes and painful fears of what these results will mean.

Before I go further, I want to deflect the potential barrage of complaints and questions and accusations. I do believe Christians should be involved politically. I do think we should exercise our right to vote. (I had to organise a proxy vote to get my ballot in the box.) I do think that Christians should speak God’s truth in the public sphere. I do think we should fight against injustice and fight for mercy. And here’s the massive “but”…

Christians should not misplace their hope in political systems.

There will always be blurred lines between political ideologies and faith. But we should not get the two confused. Faith is for our belief in Jesus. Do not put faith in the people and the powers of this world. There are a few interesting reasons for this.

The knowledge of good and evil

In the Garden of Eden, there were two fruit trees. One was the tree of life. The other was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The former, humans could eat from; the latter would result in certain death. It’s interesting to think that before Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they were innocent of the distinction between the two. God had that knowledge. (He had called his creation “good” after all.) Man did not.

A lot of our political intentions or ideas are born out of our view of what is good and what is evil. Yes, we can believe we have a biblical perspective on our politics, but our wisdom is limited. It was the arrogance that man can be like God and that they could possibly know what is truly right that led Eve to reach for the fruit. It is the same arrogance today that is dividing friends and communities. Despite having tasted the fruit, we will never know good and evil as God does and we should humble ourselves and remember this. Furthermore, partaking in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil only heaped calamity and despair upon humanity. Why, then, are we so surprised that our political attempts to discern good and evil result in much the same?

Human sin

After the fall, sin entered humanity. Every heart is full of it. We are all destitute and depraved. As a result, every human system, institution, ideology is flawed. Sin runs through it like a seam through marble. Sin, therefore, invades our politics and parliaments, our chambers and churches, our banks and our ballot boxes. No where and nothing is free from the blood-red stain of sin.

We can see how sin is infiltrating our politics each day. Deceitful campaigns, Russian hackers, sleazy candidates all point to a fallen humanity. This is by no means a new thing in politics.

Just take a look at the Old Testament leaders: Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon. Each of these people were sinful and flawed. They lied, murdered, jealously clung onto power, and had multiple sexual scandals. If the Twitter witch-hunt existed back then, they would have descended on them like a pack of ravenous vultures. Even though many of these people were seen as good, God-honouring leaders, they still had massive moral failures. If the Israelites could not place their certain hopes on these political leaders, how can we be expected to do the same to the leaders of today?

Saul, perhaps, is the most obvious example where political hopes fell gravely short. The Israelites were desperate for a change in their political system. They wanted a monarchy, just like all the other countries around them. God gave them what they wanted; he gave them Saul. Saul was a cowardly, insecure, jealous, bumbling fool of a man. The hopes of the Israelites were gravely misplaced.

The Christmas Story

So, what then do we do with this? Where do we place our hopes? Well, as the UK prepares for Christmas, they need to look no further than the story it celebrates.

Jesus, the King of kings, was not born into a palace (like the Magi assumed he would). He was born into a dirty stable in some provincial backwater. Jesus, vulnerable and lowly, was twice victim of the political world around him. First, he had to flee to Egypt in his infancy; second, one of the world’s greatest political machines churned him up and spat him out in a humiliating and horrific death. Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, victorious and glorious. Instead he trotted in on a juvenile donkey. Jesus did not challenge Caesar or bring an end to the oppressive rule of the Romans. Instead, he ushered in a mustard-seed kingdom, no bigger than a widow’s coin.

Jesus’ kingdom is political but never in the way that we imagine it to be. It is subversive and upside-down and defies systems and party lines.

So, rather than putting your hopes in an election, or dwelling on fears caused by the future government, remember the Christmas story.

Remember the lines from O Little Town of Bethlehem:

The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.

Remember what that little baby came to do. For it is not the cross on a voting slip that can save the world. It is the cross on which Jesus died that has already accomplished this.

Let us pray:

Our Father who is in Heaven,

Your name is holy; you alone are good.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We do not rely on earthly kingdoms or pledge allegiance to human flags. Instead, we humbly kneel by a lowly manger and declare we will follow you and your ways.
We come now to adore you. We place our hopes in you. We give our fears into your hands.
Forgive us, Lord, for the times we have been arrogant. Forgive for when we desired to taste of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Forgive us when we have been unkind in our words and deeds. Teach us your ways. Help us discern your plans in all this.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen.