The collectivistic context

Moving abroad, especially into a culture so distinct and different to your own, can be wonderfully challenging. At the moment, I seem to be going through a period where life is full of question marks. My previous cultural viewpoints are being questioned and interrogated by the cultural viewpoints I see in the Cambodians around me. This isn’t concerning; I am not having an existential crisis. Rather, my view of self feels like it’s being deepened, broadened and refined. This is particularly true of my faith and my interpretation of the Bible. I’m getting to see how it speaks and relates to a context different to my own, and therefore the stories that I thought I knew and the ideas I had are being challenged too.

One aspect of this tension between the concepts of individualism and collectivism. The West is typically individualistic and this will often affect their view of faith. Even their conversion narrative will be based on an individual experience: “In the prototypical born-again experience, people change their outlook on their lives by virtue of being saved, evident in a sudden, highly emotional experience of personal connection with God.” (Cohen, Wu and Miller, 2016) Even if you think of a modern, evangelical church service. It’s a lot of people, eyes closed and ignoring those around them, having a deeply personal and isolated encounter with God. As teachers at a Christian school, we seem intensely concerned that our students progress from having their parents’ faith to their own faith; that they should take ownership of their beliefs. Therefore, the faith of an individualist is centred around themselves and defined by their own internal experiences.

As a result, we often overlook the value of collective, community and social aspects of faith that are common to other cultural contexts (Cohen, Wu and Miller, 2016). This can be somewhat troubling because of the large amount of cultures that would be more collectivistic than the West. Furthermore, many of the countries that are collectivistic are not Christian, and therefore there is a cultural gap between what we are presenting as good news and they need to hear to be considered good news. Finally, my own personal context demands a greater understanding of collectivism and its implications in faith. As a teacher in a school where the students are mainly Asian and someone working and living alongside Cambodians, could it be that my approach to speaking about faith fails to resonate with many of those around me?

(Hofstede, n.d.)

Obviously, the West having a predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage, it’s perhaps easy to answer that this cultural view is in response to this heritage and the Bible promotes a particular worldview. However, this is perhaps worth further consideration, especially as the Bible is a Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean text, deeply saturated in a collectivistic context. There are quite a few Biblical passages that suggest a purely individualistic gospel is somewhat limited.

First, is the fact that our faith is defined outside of ourselves. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. Our faith is not because of some highly emotional feelings, but instead because of Christ and what he has done. This idea is also found in Ephesians 2:8-9, where it tells us our salvations is a gift from God and not from ourselves.

The Bible is littered with group or social conversion or miracle narratives. (One could argue there is a collectivistic undercurrent throughout the gospels and indeed much of the Bible, but I will perhaps mention some of the more blatant examples.) Households were converted in one instant. There’s Cornelius’ household, and potentially his close friends too, who were all saved (Acts 10:24; 11:14); Lydia’s household were baptised together (Acts 16:14-15); and the jailer’s household came to salvation as a group (Acts 16:30-34). In Acts 8:4-8, Philip’s missionary efforts in Samaria seemed to lead to the conversion of most of a city. These all seem to be examples of people coming to faith within a group context.

This is not the same as large groups of people at some evangelical event coming to faith. Although hundreds of people may simultaneously declare a faith in Jesus and ask for repentance, this is done individually and seen as a start of a solo journey of faith. What links these people is simply their attendance of some evangelical rally and their response to the same altar call. During this whole time, they may not know the person next to them who is also responding or even acknowledge them whatsoever. In these Biblical examples, those responding to the gospel had strong ties: they were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, masters, servants, friends, neighbours. They were not solo adventurers embarking on their journey. They were not lone rangers. Rather, they were members of a team, an expedition group, joining together in one shared mission. Perhaps a better image would be a rowing crew, all in the same boat.

This too can be seen in the gospels. In all three tellings of the healing of the paralysed man (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26), there is a subtle detail that suggests this team-like quality to faith. Jesus sees their faith: the faith of the friends and of the paralysed man. The faith was shared between the five of them; the act of getting the paralytic before Jesus was a group effort and their faith was the group value that drove them to do it.

Of course, this is reflected in the image of the body of Christ in Romans 12:4-6; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:11-16. All speak of various individual parts each working together to perform a job. But perhaps Westerners focus on the individual aspect too much. When we read it, we say to ourselves, “we all have our own job, our own function, our own importance in God’s church.” We forget to reflect upon our interdependence upon the other parts of the body. Different organs nourish or protect or cleanse the others within the body. It is perhaps 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 that highlights the necessity of coexistence and mutual relationships:

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Suffering and honour comes across the whole body; and different parts of the body must acknowledge their collective need for each other. This is not the business-like view the individualist has: we go in, do our job and go home. Instead, we are unified and our fortunes are intertwined. Our concern, our suffering, our honour and therefore our identity is in terms of the whole body, not just that we are a hand, foot or eye.

Collectivism, by framing identity in terms of the group, also places an importance heritage and tradition. These help to shape the values, the stories and identity of those belonging the group. The context for the reminder that we should be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” comes from the “great cloud of witnesses” that have come before us. (Hebrews 12:1) Therefore, again, spiritual encouragement to persevere does not come from internal emotion or even a personal connection but from the legacy of spiritual antecedents. The believers of the past witnessing to you is what spurs you on.

Currently, I am studying Khmer and taking a unit on Christian studies. This is what first nudged me towards further investigating and pondering the topic of culture. In a video interview with one of the teachers of the course, she mentioned how “without family we have no identity. We have no history.” Here in Cambodia, a collectivistic society, the family, the group and the heritage behind that is what defines you. This too is reflected in the Bible, with household conversions, friends in faith and the encouragement and value found in your spiritual heritage.

Therefore, when we give an individualistic gospel, it is perhaps little surprise if there is little response from the collectivists in the audience. We tell them to count the cost:

 25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

(Luke 14:25-27)

They are told to turn their back on their family, their identity, their heritage, their security and their own life. When they add up the price, they may find it lacking. It’s perhaps no surprise that Jesus threw down this particular gauntlet, given that it would have shocked and terrified most his audience. However, the Western gospel does not respond well enough. We are content to reject the confines of imposed identities and to forge our independence, failing to see the beauty of unity in interdependence. Like frustrated teenagers, we perhaps find this notion too easy. These verses perhaps pose little threat to us. Of course, those from a collectivistic society will have their cages rattled, and this perhaps could be a stumbling block. They would be giving up a lot. In response, what they might need to hear is this:

 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Luke 18:29-30

God is the source of a true, glorious, vast, eternal identity. It is a heritage that starts with the Creator of the earth itself and lasts until the end of days. They become a citizen of the kingdom of God, adopted into a vast, spiritual family.

Not only do they have to hear this, they have to see it in action. In the same interview that spoke of the value of family, the Khmer teacher also told us what can overcome the surrounding fears. Our greatest witness is unity and love for one another. Her conversion was after seeing the love of Cambodian Christians for one another. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage tells us that love trumps speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 13:1), which Paul tells us is a sign for non-believers (1 Corinthians 14:22). The 1 Corinthians 13 passage is often used in the context of marriage, but rather in its actual context refers to Christ’s body, being immediately preceded by the passage quoted above and then followed by an explanation of how the gifts are to be used to build the church. Love for one another, a crucial part of interdependence, conquers all and covers a multitude of sins.

This is why Jesus prayed this prayer for believers that heard his message, believers like you and I:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Jesus prayed that we may be united, that we may be one. We are to be one with each other, but also one with Christ the Son and the Father, just as they are collectively one together. It is through and for this complete unity that we have the glory of Christ. It is this unity and oneness that will witness to the world that Jesus loves us, just as the God of love – the God who is love – loves his son.

What a joy it is to know this and what a blessing it is to learn this. I am not advocating that an individualistic worldview or Bible perspective is wrong. It’s that God is so much bigger. His gospel is so much richer. The gospel allows the individualist to have our conversions, our joy and our individual fears relieved. He cares about us as our own unique person, wonderfully and fearfully made. But also, he draws us into unity with him and other believers. He restores our relationship with himself and with those on earth. God gives us an identity in him and an identity together as his body. We never have to fear being alone, we have his spirit with us, but we have our brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer and rejoice with us. And what an amazing privilege to think that Jesus prayed this for us two thousand years ago. For his is the glory, Amen.

Sources

Cohen, A., Wu, M. and Miller, J. (2016). Religion and Culture. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, [online] 47(9), pp.1236-1249. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308626003_Religion_and_Culture_Individualism_and_Collectivism_in_the_East_and_West.

Stefon, M., Benz, E. and Crow, P. et al. (2019). Christianity – Church and the individual. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Church-and-the-individual [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Rishmawy, D. (2013). Is Christianity Individualistic or Collectivist? “Yes” – C.S. Lewis and J. Gresham Machen. [online] Reformedish. Available at: https://derekzrishmawy.com/2013/01/03/is-christianity-individualistic-or-collectivist-yes-c-s-lewis-and-j-gresham-machen/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

GotQuestions.org. (n.d.). What does the Bible say about household salvation? | GotQuestions.org. [online] Available at: https://www.gotquestions.org/household-salvation.html [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Dimension maps of the world: Individualism. [image] Available at: https://geerthofstede.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/IDV-world-map-50.png [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Hofstede Insights. (n.d.). Home – Hofstede Insights. [online] Available at: https://www.hofstede-insights.com [Accessed 22 Nov. 2019].

Holy Bible: New International Version UK

Weston, C. (2011). Understanding My Own Culture and Why it Matters. Insight, [online] (7), pp.10-13. Available at: https://friendsinternational.uk/resources/downloadable-resources/our-periodicals/insight/235-issue-7-winter-2011-12/file.

How could you stay?

As a missionary, you get told “I couldn’t do what you do.” There is a belief that it takes a special type of person or a particular calling to make the move abroad and work building God’s kingdom there. I would say that isn’t true. (At least I don’t think I’m special but I do think I have calling.) It’s thought that it takes great sacrifice, bravery and zeal to do this.

It doesn’t.

What people who haven’t done this don’t see is the joy, the privilege and the real rewards of moving overseas.

You get such a rich experience of humanity and life. You suddenly see how great and broad and universal and varied the human race is. You hear such stories: heart-warming stories; heart-breaking stories; inspiring stories; terrifying and tragic stories; lovely stories, often from the same person’s life. You get to be a part of these stories and then your story and hundreds of other stories become permanently intertwined. The real privilege is when you get to see God beautifully transform these stories, redeeming, renewing, rewriting them into the story of his perfect kingdom.

Your understanding of God’s grace and goodness and glory grows. As you encounter the needs of nations and the cultural perspectives of different peoples, you see how the enormity of the gospel speaks into these different contexts, not just your own. The faith of believers that face difficulties and persecution and poverty you’ve never imagined challenges you and your mustard-seed faith. Worshipping alongside those from different nations, tribes and tongues gives you a small picture of heaven.

You see the beautiful humanity of the saints that go. Often missionaries are put on pedestals but when you’re among them you learn how human the Hudson Taylors and Jackie Pullingers are. I recently read a book Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield. I know his family as I work with his wife and their children attend the school where I teach. The family is as amazing and feisty and cool as they sound in the book. However, I also watched Nay, Craig’s wife, walk into a metal pillar today because she wasn’t watching where she was going. The sense of misplaced awe towards these people is stripped away and replaced with the sense of awe that God uses people like me. That is an amazing and also terrifying realisation to have.

Then, of course, are some of the beautiful sights and sounds that you grow to love.

Everyday, I get struck with a feeling of jaw-dropping confusion that I get to live here in Cambodia, serving God.

When you read the eye-watering statistics, it’s hard not to feel the pull. 3.14 billion people have never heard of Jesus. Over 70,000 people die everyday not having heard the gospel. For perspective 70,000 is about the population of Rugby and Shrewsbury. These people are living and perishing in darkness.

So, if you think you couldn’t go, well, I certainly couldn’t stay.

If you haven’t prayed and thought about joining global missions, then please do so. It’d be such a shame that you miss out on such blessings just because it hadn’t occurred to you to consider going.

Being a good guest

Imagine you’ve lived in the same house for many years, with the same people. You’ve built up routines and traditions – every Christmas you do it the same way; every Sunday you sit down in the afternoon to watch a particular TV programme, usually with a similar TV dinner; you listen to the same radio station as you’re doing the washing up in the evenings. You’re comfortable. You’ve decorated your house how you like it. It’s pretty good.

Now imagine, all a sudden, some lodgers moved in. For some reason they were just there. You did your best to accommodate their needs. You made sure there was food they liked in the fridge. You checked whether their rooms were comfortable. You did your best to make them feel welcome.

Then you heard these lodgers talking among themselves. They were complaining about the food you provided and how it wasn’t the same as what you were used to. They grumbled how often you didn’t get hold of the things they really wanted or if you tried, it just wasn’t as good as back home. They didn’t like your taste in music and wished you’d stop playing it. They wanted to watch a different programme on Sunday evenings and found this tradition of watching the same show annoying. They wanted to redecorate because they found your taste garish. They joked about how simple, old-fashioned and, in someways, backwards you were.

Then it started to get really strange. They started to wear your clothes. And all the time they were complaining how the didn’t fit and how they were uncomfortable. You came home one day to find the kitchen gutted. They were remodelling it for you with “better” and “nicer” appliances – ones you never asked for. It was going to be in a more modern style.

Surely, you would think they are terrible lodgers! They’re rude, entitled and opinionated. Their remarks are arrogant and unnecessary.

So why is it that as expats living as guests in a country that is not our own, we often act like these lodgers. We complain that the foods or the amenities we are used to aren’t available. We mock their music or tastes or traditions. If we are inconvenienced by these things in the slightest, we act like they specifically designed it to irk us.

I know that I’ve been guilty of this. I joked to my Khmer friend about how difficult it was to understand how Khmer people don’t plan things. I explained British people always plan and sometimes it was difficult for me that they didn’t plan trips beforehand. He simply replied:

Oh, that’s because we’re poor.

He went on to explain that often they had to wait until a few days before the event to check whether they had enough money to actually go. There was no point in making plans just to be disappointed when you couldn’t afford to do it. Even if they were trying to save, illnesses or flat tires or running out of gas in your stove would mean you’d have to pay out. So, it is just easier to make plans when you know they could happen.

Obviously, I felt foolish and cruel. I had shown no understanding or kindness. I had not attempted to see things from their point of view. I’d thought I’d try their lifestyle a bit, put on their clothes and then complain when it didn’t fit. They were gracious enough to include me in their trips and their holidays, and I just focussed on how one aspect of it rubbed up against my cultural experiences.

There is also an arrogance when it comes how we treat Khmer people. If their worldview isn’t the same as ours, we dismiss them as simple or backwards. We forget that their ideas might just be as complex and meaningful, we just haven’t taken the time to explore them. Or that due to hierarchies and social roles, it’s not the employees’ job to solve the problem, it’s the bosses’.

We also forget that they are not stupid, they just haven’t had the same opportunities. They haven’t had piano lessons and ready access to a computer since they were a child. I know many of my Khmer friends, with their dedication and intellect, would have far outpaced me if we had attended the same schools. It’s just that we didn’t.

So, we often come in, high on our degree certificates and a book we read, thinking we have a solution. We demolish things that may have been working fine and decided they need an overhaul just because they don’t suit our “modern” tastes.

So, I’m trying to learn. Currently, I’m sat in my bedroom with a funeral happening outside. This means loud music, gongs, and my motorbike sometimes being blocked in. But I’m a guest. Why should I feel that they should change years of tradition just for me? Who am I to criticise or moan? So, for now, I’ll try to focus on the privilege it is to have been welcomed into this nation and how rich the experience is – weddings, funerals and all.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • When have you been unfairly critical of a part of your host culture?
  • Where could you be more generous and understanding?
  • What areas of conflict between your culture and your host culture have you experienced? How did you resolve this?
  • What resources or experiences have been particularly helpful in feeling more integrated or at least understanding your host culture?

Sit and relax

These last few weeks (or perhaps months) have felt a little bit like death by a thousand cuts. (This was a form of execution or post-mortem humiliation, where a criminal would have parts of their body cut off and limbs amputated one by one.) My problem is that I happen to be a bit of a “yes” person. I like to help where I can and I find it hard to say no. What ends up happening is that I will have a large range of commitments in different areas and I have been struggling somewhat to stay afloat. The first problem is my lack of foresight. I will commit to something in the future, forgetting that, as always, more immediate and unexpected concerns come up. Therefore, currently I am committed to language learning, proof-reading various prayer letters, the school production, fortnightly WEC meetings, meetings with my WEC supervisor. I’ve had to drop the English teaching in the province for a while as my calendar seems to be bursting at the seams.

These could all be manageable if I didn’t have other things to do: plan lessons, respond to parents’ emails, mark work, go to meetings, chase up homework, my washing, shopping. Often these are small tasks, that on their own are not going to create an overwhelming sense of stress, but together they can create a sense of panic. Then, inevitably, someone will come up with “one small thing” or a “little favour” and it’s added to the 1000 other small things that are on your to-do list.

Even while I have been on holiday, the emails have been mounting (316 and rising) and the to-do list has been hanging over me. I’ve found it very difficult to switch off and my mind has already been jumping to the Christmas break.

Despite all of this, or rather because of this, I find that Cambodia is good for my soul. I love this country; I love Phnom Penh; I love the countryside; I love the vibrancy and the distractions it provides. A quick motorbike ride is enough to clear some of the cobwebs and to get you outside of your own head for a little bit. The chaos of the traffic and focusing on all the things happening immediately around you means that you can’t help but forget about the stresses of everyday life.

I’ve also been privileged enough to escape the city for a little bit. I visited Phnom Tamao Zoo then to one of the Cambodian beauty spots for lunch, and yesterday I also went to the province to visit Vitou’s family again. There’s something great about spending some time with Khmer people. You can just sit back, enjoy a few cans of Cambodia lager (I had just 2 throughout the whole day; the Cambodians have a few more), and eat the endless train of food that is set before you.

A riverside hut where river market stalls (equipped with grills) come provide snacks.

For Cambodians, sitting there with others whilst texting or doing something different isn’t seen as rude. There is no real concept of the divide of and public/private life. Most of their life is spent in the presence of others – Cambodians don’t really like time alone. So, it’s fine to spend some of it doing solitary things, with others around you. You can just sit there, enjoy each other’s presence, but have no pressure to be a witty raconteur or fill the awkward silences. It’s acceptable to just listen to conversations, play a game on your mobile, message other people, or just pick at the food laid out in front of you. You may have to interrupt what you are doing to join one of the ceaseless “cheers!” that happen at Khmer gatherings. Whatever the occasion, whether it is in a little bamboo hut on the bank of a river or at someone’s house, it’s okay, expected even, to just angkuy leng (ɑːŋkuj leːŋ) – sit and relax.

Communicating with Brits

This subject is possibly getting tedious, so I apologise. I know I have mentioned it previously and I probably will again. One of the most difficult areas of communication is with non-British English speakers. We are, indeed, divided by a common language.

I love reflecting on my British culture and how it has shaped me. Living in a foreign country highlights the differences and nuances of your culture that you normally take for granted. You also have to negotiate your own values and how they fit into your new setting. It’s helpful to know about your own culture as well as the ones you are interacting with. You are better able to pin-point why you respond to certain situations and why you feel the way you do.

Remember, with culture and any of these points, it is highly contextual and varies significantly from situation to situation and person to person. These are broad brushstrokes. It is a bit of a long read, so I have provided a summary at the end. Feel free to skip to it, but it may lose some of the nuance.

Privacy and personal boundaries

Two of the highest values in British culture is the sense of privacy and a need to respect personal boundaries. For example, when I told a Brazilian that no one talks to one another on public transport, he asked why were we so unfriendly. Actually, for Brits, that is being friendly. We assume the other passengers wish to maintain their personal space so we do not invade it. A small smile might be all you get and even that is a rare occurrence.

Therefore, you must be aware of this when communicating with British people. British people may not want to share details about something with you. Also as a result, English people may ask fewer questions about something and not seem interested. They are probably interested, but don’t want to seem nosy.

Indirect communication

Communication in Britain can seem direct at times, but there will be a lot of indirect communication that goes alongside it that can easily be missed.

The implied meaning of words are extremely important. In fact, you can assume that any implied meaning is the actual intended meaning. Therefore, you have to be careful that there aren’t any unpalatable implied meanings behind what you say. Sometimes, our indirect communication goes as far to say the opposite to what we actually mean. One perfect example is the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” We say that when the only thinking we will be doing is reflecting on what a ridiculous suggestion it was. We’ve already made our minds up and we profoundly disagree. But we don’t want to insult you by telling you that.

You have to remember, this is not disingenuous and we are not lying as those not familiar with British culture might assume. A British person being told, “I’ll think about it,” knows perfectly well what it means. We just forget that those from other cultures (especially when English is their first language) will not pick up on the contextual cues that go with it.

Taboos

There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Personal relationships

You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.

Practical tips

So, there are various ways to navigate these aspects of communication though.

When starting a conversation, ask general questions that don’t ask for details. Remember, you need to respect the other person’s privacy and personal boundaries. Some examples include, “Do you have any plans this weekend?” as opposed to “What are you doing this weekend?”; “Did you have a good holiday?” or “How was your holiday?” rather than “What did you do on your holiday?” The first type of questions allows your conversation partner to be as vague or as detailed as they wish. The second type of question traps your conversation partner into giving details they may not actually want to give. (Also, “What are you doing this weekend?” is usually reserved as a precursor to making plans.)

So, this becomes a bit of a dance, where meaningless fillers replace actual meaningful questions. Remember, we are indirect communicators. The fillers are intended to move the conversation on, but in a non-invasive way. Then gradually, you work towards the details.

“How was your weekend?

“Not bad actually.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yes, we went to see my family.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, we had the Sunday roast. The beef was pretty much perfect. And the roast potatoes were lovely. We could have done with a bit more gravy though.”

If you want to broach any of the taboo subjects, you have to take extra care. Let’s say, for example, a British friend is wearing a particularly dashing piece of knitwear. (All Brits love knitwear.) You want to find out how much it was. The easiest way to find out is simply ask another question then provide the cues until you get the details you want. So, for example, the conversation would go like this:

“That’s a lovely cardigan. Where did you buy it?”

“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”

You might possibly note that the price was offered pretty much straight away. This often what happens, as the “Where did you buy it?” is often heard as a non-threatening “How much was it?” If it doesn’t work straight away, you could try these techniques:

  • Make a general comment about TopShop “Oh, I love the dresses in there.”
  • Tell them about what you bought there, “I got some lovely shoes there for about £50”.
  • Allude to the topic of money: “Topshop can be a bit expensive, but it’s usually worth the cost. Sometimes you can find real bargains too.”

Once they tell you the price, don’t criticise it: “Oh, that’s too much!” You will not be popular. The best response would be, “Oh, really? I love the colour.” You’ve got the information you want, then move off the awkward topic as quickly as possible.

If this doesn’t work, then there’s the “You don’t mind me asking how much it is?” which is where the speaker pretends to be asking for permission to ask a personal question by, in fact, asking the personal question. Usually, the British person will begrudgingly acquiesce and tell you.

Hearing “no”

British people will refuse a request or a suggestion as politely as possible. They will often make an excuse or use indirect communication. “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll think about it” is often a no. In a case when making group decisions, ideas may be rejected by giving an alternative. For example

“Why don’t we go to Dominoes tonight?”

“What about TGI Friday’s?”

Alternatively, the British person may just agree for the sake of agreeing, even if it makes life difficult for them. Sometimes, it’s worth checking if that is the case.

Let them speak

British people often find talking loudly, effusively and interrupting inappropriate. In a group setting this can be difficult because the Brits sometimes go without an opportunity to speak up. There have been times that I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve been spoken over or not had an opportunity to raise a point. The subsequent silence does not usually mean that my point has been made, it probably means I’m livid.

Useful phrases

“I’m sorry to bother you…” This is used when asking questions or even when making complaints. I have walked up to information desks, where the person’s actual job is to answer my question, and apologised for interrupting them whilst all they were doing was waiting for someone to come and ask a question.

“I’m sorry but…” This phrase preludes any complaint, expression of annoyance or outright disagreement. You may raise the volume of what you are saying a notch and place a small amount of emphasis on the words. This means we’re getting serious.

“Oh, by the way…” This will signal the most important but also the most awkward part of a conversation. In order to minimise any emotional impact, we make it seem inconsequential and trivial.

“Oh, sorry.” If you bump into someone, interrupt someone, get in someone’s way or hold someone up, then say sorry.

Do what you want, we’ll just grit our teeth anyway

As British people don’t respond effusively to annoyances or complain you will get away with a lot. We may not like you or what you did as a result, but we will rarely tell you. So, you can easily ignore all these rules and carry on regardless. We’ll just grit our teeth and smile throughout.

Summary and other useful tips

  • Respect privacy and personal boundaries
  • Don’t force Brits to give details
  • Use filler phrases and filler questions to draw out more information
  • Avoid taboos: politics, religion and relationships
  • Brits will say “no” by offering alternatives
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Use “sorry” like confetti
  • Don’t make a complaint unless absolutely necessary
  • Don’t be too effusive or emotional
  • Don’t come across as arrogant
  • Be self-deprecating

Other resources

I’ll be writing a British culture vs. Cambodian culture post soon.

Keeping in touch with home

Some people actually seem to appreciate that I flood everyone’s inbox, facebook feed and general life with news about myself. Apparently, I’m better than average at keeping in touch with people back at home, so I was asked to give some tips to others in similar situations. I looked back on my previous posts and it turns out past me is wiser than I thought. (However, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so I shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory.) In 2016, I wrote What I wish I knew 2, which deals with some of the emotional aspects of maintaining those relationships. Read it first! Also, this FAQ Thursday touches on this as well.

It’s really easy to feel isolated, forgotten about and disconnected. Some of that is because the people back home won’t know about your life . However, here are some ideas of how to maintain contact with home. Some of them are silly and whimsical, others take more time and investment.

Write a regular newsletter

This is the main technique that people in my situation use. It’s a quick and easy way to disseminate a lot of information quickly to a lot of people. There are of course some pros and cons.

Newsletters are rather impersonal. By their nature, they’re a catch-all and generic. People receiving them may feel a little indifferent to it, as they feel like they’re just one of an email list (which, of course, is true). Also, the time that goes into it doesn’t match the response. Very few people will ever respond to a newsletter (if you’re reading it, make it a personal mission to respond to newsletters!).

I’m not at all suggesting that you ditch the newsletter, but if you still want to maintain contact with home, you probably have to do things on top of this too.

Use social media

Facebook and any other type of social media is a blessing and a curse. It can suck time and compound feelings of homesickness. But it’s also a way to interact with those at home in a more personal way. I have used groups and pages in the past. There are reasons for this, if you think its social media overkill.

My Facebook page is public and open to everyone. It’s a way of presenting information to those that I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m close with but would like to maintain communication with (for example, those you met at a convention or something). It’s meant to be light and not particularly personal.

My Facebook group is by invite only. It is a bit more picky. I have criteria for who gets in the group. (Mostly, they’re Christians as it’s where I share things about my faith; they’re from home / not linked to my work here. These aren’t hard and fast rules.) Here I can post personal information, things I am struggling with, things I am enjoying. As the information is more personal, it seems a little bit more intentional in terms of who is receiving what and why.

Make an event of it

Sometimes, it’s really hard feel like you are connecting with people. Information is going out, a few likes and responses are going in. Also, there is no sense of immediacy. It might be hours or days until you get a reply. Time zones and people simply not knowing your routine means that phone calls etc., are a bit trickier.

One way is to make an event of a catch up. I’ve used Facebook live before. It was planned, at a set time on a set day and I advertised the fact I was doing it a few weeks in advance. I’ve also sent out invites to Skype calls. It was sent to particular individuals I wanted to catch up with, with the available days and times I was available to Skype.

Example invite I sent out over WhatsApp to friends.

It creates a sense of significance and it encourages a response. It is also helpful, as it’s hard enough to remember what the time difference means and when to catch up. Remember, be very specific about which time zone you are talking in though!

Remember them!

Remember birthdays, Mothers Day, Christmas etc. I’ve found out moonpig.com is my friend. I can schedule cards to be sent on the day in advance. This is quite hard, as often your brain is a bit disconnected with the rhythms back at home. This means I don’t have to worry about missing it because of timezones or internet problems.

Be creative

There are just some silly ways to keep in contact. Tag people in memes. Send a joke. Arrange an event when you do something at the same time, just on other sides of the world (e.g. watch the latest episode of a TV series). Sometimes, personalising it is especially helpful.

It’s a hot mess

I have a colleague who has a favourite saying, which is best said in her Mississippi accent: “It’s a hot mess.” That perfectly sums up life in Cambodia at the moment. It’s reaching 38 degrees. Piles of rubbish rot in the hot sun. It has only rained once in the last three months. There are rolling power cuts every day (I either have power in the morning or the afternoon, but not both). I sometimes have to shower from a bucket when I have no running water. And to top it off, my digestive system is finding a new way to torture me each day. It’s a hot mess. And these difficulties seem to force the ugly sin out of me like the sweat from my pores. I’m grumpy, impatient and ungrateful. My clothes stink; my body stinks; my heart stinks. 

But through it all, there is so much grace and goodness. In the heat and the sweat and the power cuts and mosquitoes, God is so, so good.

Cambodia quickly teaches you that you are not in control. Your plans are quickly waylaid; each day throws a different challenge in your path. Power cuts, traffic jams, tuk tuk drivers losing their way, stomach bugs, sudden rainfalls (not for the next few months, though), ATMs eating your cash, not being able to make yourself understood, photocopiers jamming, the internet cutting out in the middle of a Skype call. The list goes on. They all serve to slowly steal any semblance of control you have. However, even if I’m not in control, God surely is. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:21) It is God who I can rely on. God’s purposes prevail. His perfect and pleasing purposes prevail. God prevails. Praise the Lord.

There are those little “inspirational” phrases you see popping up on Facebook. They seem fine on the surface then you realise they are simply not true. One of them is “You can’t always control your circumstances but you can always control your attitude, approach and response.” Well, that’s a lie. Paul says in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Human hearts are ugly- none so more than mine. In the tiredness and the frustrations I become rude, impatient and insulting. Sometimes I’m able to hide my callousness under a fake smile and a stiff upper lip. But in my heart, there are cruel and hurtful words. I’m quick to judge others and I’m all too willing to store up bitterness. My heart is a hot mess. However, no matter how ugly our hearts are, God’s grace is far more sufficient, far more beautiful and far more faithful. No matter what the heat and the sickness and the piles of rubbish churn up, God’s goodness can deal with it all. No sin is so ugly or mistake so big or attitude so selfish that it can ever nullify the work of Jesus’ death on the cross. Praise the Lord.

Cambodia quickly teaches you how weak you are. I’ve been ill three times in 2019 already. It’s near the end of a thirteen-week term with very little let-up. I’m tired. My classroom is on the top floor and by the time I get there, I sometimes feel dizzy. I rely on sugar and coffee to keep going, only for my energy levels to crash and burn. I have aches and pains. “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall,” Isaiah 40:30 tells us. My body is – yes, you’ve guessed it – a hot mess.

It’s not just my physical body that is weak. My self-control is woefully lacking. I procrastinate. I’m distracted. I’m not prioritising my relationship with God the way I should. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I’d like to say that it’s because I’m in a spiritual battle. But that’d also be a lie. There’s very little fight coming from my end and the devil is probably very happy to leave me well alone. I’m doing a good enough job of causing my problems on my own as it. I’ll tell myself I’ll pick up my Bible or I’ll pray about such-and-such or I’ll listen to a sermon but I’m too lazy or too busy watching pointless Facebook videos. I’d like to say my self-control is a hot mess to be in-keeping with the theme, but, frankly, it’s non-existent.

But God took murderers and liars and adulterers and those running away as far and quick as they could, and he used them. God breathed life into dead bones. The verse after Isaiah 40:30 tells us

but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:31

God can take the hot, weak mess of my body and soul and change it and use it and restore it. He can give me strength to do all things. And I sure know I need it. But I also know I can rely on his promises and goodness to sustain me. Praise the Lord.

So, why am I telling you this? It’s not for words of pity or sympathy. Nor am I looking for people to tell me I’m doing a great job (I’d simply think you didn’t read the blog post properly). No, I’m asking you to pray. I’m asking you to pray that I know God’s goodness and love and joy throughout my time here. I’m asking you to pray that God will be my first love. I’m asking you to pray that I prioritise my time and energy and strength to seek and serve God with earnest and passionate focus and determination. I’m asking you to pray that God renews my weak and feeble heart and breathes life into these dead bones.

I’m also asking you to pray, thanking God that in the hot mess of life, he can still use these situations to teach me to give him control, to acknowledge my weakness and to seek his plan for my life. Praise him that the power cuts and the heat and the rubbish is slowly (sometimes, I feel, too slowly) making me more like Jesus. So, once again, praise the Lord.