One of the interesting aspects of living in a foreign country, especially doing the job I do, is that you often become very image conscious. This affects your life in a number of ways: the way you dress, your social media and even how you relate to those around you. You’re very aware of how you conduct yourself in public and what message you’re trying to put across.
So, for example, I would probably wear trousers (and maybe even a shirt) when going to the mall or someone else’s house. It also means you have to be conscious of what photos you are posed in on Facebook, etc. As I work in a Cambodian setting, I have to be aware of what behaviours would suggest in Cambodian culture. Furthermore, Cambodians are very social and very curious. This means that the Cambodians in your neighbourhood know everything about you.
I went to a Bible study for those who lived in my area of Phnom Penh. One lady who went lived a few streets down from me. Obviously, it would make sense if we travelled back together. However, because of what her neighbours would say if she was seen in a tuk tuk with a man, we would often travel separately. She had a tuk tuk driver she trusted and she knew he was safe, so she would often ask him to pick her up and she would go back alone. If he was busy, though, we would travel together, but she would be dropped off on the corner so none of her neighbours would see I was also in the tuk tuk.
Another occasion, I had to pick something up from the house of one of branch leaders when I lived in Siem Reap. The two branch leaders are a couple, and only the wife was home. We chatted for a bit, and the conversation ended with, “Anyway, my neighbours are watching, so I will see you later.” This is quite common, especially as Cambodians do a lot more outside than we would (prepare food, cook, wash up, for instance). So, you are far more visible than you would be in the UK.
In my previous apartment, I don’t think I was ever alone with a female for more than 5 minutes. That was usually only because we were waiting for someone else to arrive. One of the reasons I moved in with Vitou and his wife is so that I could invite people more freely as I’d always have a “chaperone”, so to speak.
In social occasions, too, you don’t hang out with those of the same gender. At a Khmer party, the women all usually sit together and the men sit together, sometimes on separate tables. The order of deciding who sits where goes in order of Khmer/foreigner (i.e. the Khmer sit with Khmer, the foreigners with the foreigners), then split again by gender. The children do their own thing entirely. If you’re a foreign couple with a group of Khmer people you often act as the bridge between the male/female split. You’d sit together, and the female Khmer would sit next to the woman and the male Khmer would sit next to the man.
This can be seen in my social media posts. If you’re my friend on facebook, you can look through my photos and see how often I’ll be photographed with a group of guys or a group of females. Also, if there are both genders present, look how they are arranged. It’s more likely that the men are all sat together. There are some wedding photos where there is a large group. The Khmer will be together; the foreigners will be together. There is very little mention of anyone, other than my mother, on Facebook who is not a guy and there will be very few photos of me alone with a female (even if we happen to be dating). Furthermore, any couple photos in Cambodia are basically announcements of intentions to be married. Even the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are more akin to “fiancé”, but just at the stage when you haven’t set a date.
All this does mean that I am very careful. I want to have a good reputation here in Cambodia. Therefore, if you were to suddenly discover I had been dating someone for nine months and hadn’t announced it, this would be why.