My friend mentioned that mosquitoes are our true friends in Cambodia: they are always there when you go home and they never leave you nor forsake you. In Cambodia, mosquitoes are carriers of both malaria and dengue fever. Malaria is only present in the most rural areas and I am not at risk of catching it in my day-to-day life. Dengue, however, is an urban illness.
Dengue was first detected in Cambodia in 1963. (I don’t think that means it first arrived in Cambodia then, but I’m not an expert.) Since then its occurrence has been rising steeply. In 2018, there were over 15,000 reported cases of dengue. There are sometimes epidemics, for example in 2017, there were around 39,000 reported cases. There have already been over 1,000 cases of dengue reported in 2019.
Dengue fever can be just like a really bad case of the flu. However, there are deadly complications, which include dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome. Also, it can take weeks to recover from.
Even when not considering the general risks, mosquitoes make life somewhat uncomfortable and annoying. They like dark places and seem to hide in clothes.
Opening your bag and a dozen mosquitoes fly out.
Going to put your underwear on and a dozen mosquitoes fly out.
Squashing a mosquito and realising you killed it too late because your hands are now smeared with your own blood.
Waking up because a mosquito flew into your ear canal.
Getting too excited with the mosquito bat and realising you’ll be living in a mosquito graveyard for the next month.
Spraying the bathroom with insecticide then instantly needing the toilet. You have to choose between suffocation or wetting yourself.
Spraying insect repellent in front of a fan and getting it in your eyes.
Spraying your hands with DEET then touching your lips.
Inhaling a mosquito.
Getting a tuk tuk and realising that a cloud of mosquitoes are also hitching a ride.
Wanting to sleep with your back to the fan but knowing you’re creating a windshield that will allow stealthy mosquitoes to get to you.
Using a mosquito coil too near to your clothes so you smell of smoke for weeks.
Saturday was a typical day in my life in Cambodia. A lot of the activities were not things I do on a regular basis, but it’s more about the rhythm and the ups and downs of life here. Hopefully, it gives a bit of an insight of what life here can be like.
Saturday started early, because I had a lot to do. It was pretty well planned, to the extent that you can plan anything here in Cambodia. I had to buy things for school camp, get my hair cut and then go to a supermarket to buy ingredients for a pasta salad I was making. In the evening, I was going on a boat ride to celebrate my 31st birthday.
The first things was to catch a PassApp to Phsar Orussey (Orussey Market). I left the house at 8:30 and arrived at the market at 9am. The market had been open for an hour, but stalls were still opening. Phsar Orussey is the size of a shopping mall, but consists of hundreds of approximately 2m x 2m stalls. Orussey Market sells pretty much everything, if you know where it is. It’s so easy to get lost in the labyrinth of stalls and find yourself going in circles.
I was here to buy glow sticks. I’d been given some fairly clear instructions. Find the seeds and the grains on the ground floor. Past that bit are two stalls that sell glow sticks. I felt hopeful. I thought it’d be (relatively) simple. (Actually, I wasn’t particularly naive about it. I’ve been here long enough…)
I circled the store; I found lights and light bulbs, toy stands, meat grinders, dry fish. It was hot and I was sweating. The alley ways were narrow, and there were men with trolleys carrying goods inside constantly passing through asking you to move out their way. Finally, I found the grains (there were about twenty stands), and it was the next section with the toys and party supplies that looked the most promising. I circled the stands peering in to see if I could see the tubes of glow sticks I was told they sell. No luck.
Eventually, I changed tactics. I brought up a picture on my phone and started asking “mean neh?” (មាន នេះ) or “Got these?” I was given vague directions each time. Over there- they would wave. I would go on and then ask someone else. Over there (but in the direction I came from). I was was ready to give up. (“No, Thomas, you are tenacious. You will do this.” I told myself again and again.) I found a stall with a child and a woman manning it. She saw the picture and shock her head. However, she then pointed at a stall diagonally opposite.
I went to the lady at the next stall, handed over my phone. She zoomed in on the picture. “How many?” She bent below her counter, rummaged a bit then handed over one tube of 50 glow sticks. I asked for four of those. Sweat was still dripping from my head. I was glad I wore black as it didn’t show too much. However, despite the tiredness, dehydration and general disgusting feeling, I felt successful.
I was just about outside of the market, when I saw a facebook message, “Hey, I heard you were picking up some glow sticks. Could you pick up a couple of hundred for primary too?” Back in I went.
Hot and thirsty, I thought I would go to a place to rehydrate. What is the coldest place in Phnom Penh? Starbucks. So I caught a PassApp there. I thought I would book my hair appointment online (usually I just walk in and it works out but I wanted things to be simple). I did it, but no message came saying the booking worked. That happened last time and it was fine. However, I had an hour to kill.
I wondered around the shops nearby (my hairdressers was in walking distance). I thought I would then go to the barber shop, when suddenly a couple approached me. They were Australian (judging by their accent), and asked, “do you speak English?” They explained they wanted to buy a camera memory card. I found some Khmer security guards to ask if there were any camera shops nearby (in very weird and convoluted Khmer…). They suggested IBC, which is a big book store that sells electronic products too. I agreed it was probably their best bet. It was only about 200 metres away. The only problem was, it was over the other side of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest and widest roads. I offered to help them cross it. The woman grabbed my arm at one point. However, they arrived safely through the welcoming doors of the shop. I tried not to feel too self-satisfied as I kept reminding myself, don’t be smug.
I returned to the barber shop. My appointment hadn’t gone through. I’d have to wait another 20 minutes. At this point it was midday. I’d have to get my haircut, go shopping, return home, cook the pasta salad and arrive in time for the boat. I told myself it would be fine.
The haircut experience was as per usual. I got a typically Khmer looking cut, but it was fine. I then walked to the nearest good supermarket, knowing there was an ATM on the way. I popped into the little room of ATMs and, knowing I’d have to do the shopping and pay for the boat hire and other costs, tried to withdraw $180. The ATM was painfully slow. It was a good three minutes from requesting the money until it returned my card. During this time, I did think, well nothing has gone too wrong yet today, so perhaps this is it. The card popped out. I waited for my cash to turn up. It didn’t. The machine just returned to the home screen. I used my other card and the other ATM to withdraw money. I just told myself, “This is a problem for tomorrow. I have no time to deal with it now.” (It turned out to be fine. No money has left the first account.)
I walked to the supermarket and found everything I needed. I ordered the PassApp. It was going fine. Other than not knowing whether I’d lost nearly $200 (which was tomorrow’s problem to sort out), this part was going smoothly. The PassApp driver knew what he was doing and was able to follow the map (not all drivers can actually read maps), so I could just relax and not have to give directions.
Twenty minutes into the journey I was in for a slight shock. A large machine on the top of a truck had spilt a ribbon of dark black, oil over the road. At the junction, a motorbike slipped on the oil, and, with a sickening crunch, sent its passengers to the ground and their belongings across the road. A second motorbike, hoping to avoid the first, also skidded through the oil and crashed to the ground. It’s one of those moments when everything seems to pause. I expected to see broken limbs and blood. The sound and the suddenness in which everything happened suggested carnage. However, everyone got up and dusted themselves off. The PassApp trundled on, the driver only slowing down to tell one of the slightly injured men where their phone (“turosoab”) had ended up on the road.
A few junctions later, the PassApp stalled (this happens every journey). However, it wouldn’t start up again. I was definitely feeling the pressure of a lack of time. I just reminded myself that what would be would be and I’d have to deal with it as it happened. The PassApp driver pushed the vehicle to the side of the road. He tried rocking the rickshaw, moving it, wiggling the steering. Five minutes of this passed. Someone who manned a little tire-pumping stand at the side of the road helped the driver and the PassApp splutter into life again. We were back to trundling home.
I arrived home and got straight into action. I boiled the pasta; I washed and chopped the vegetables. I was sweating. I drank a ridiculous amount of milk as it was the only cold liquid I had that wasn’t for the boat party. The pasta salad was done and it looked good (even if I say so myself). I took a quick snap of it to send to friends.
I took a shower and got changed. It was when I was looking in the mirror that I realised what my barber had done. He had cut one arch above the ear a lot higher than the other. So much for the successful haircut part. (I really like the hairdresser too, we speak in Khmer and I enjoy it.)
I was in a rush to sort myself out and to dry off and get changed. One way to dry your hair quickly is to make use of the hot Cambodian air and use your fan as a hairdryer. I pulled my fan closer to me, whilst it was on. However, in the rush, I tugged too quickly. My finger pulled the cage of the fan forward and it hit the blade. Fortunately, the blade only skimmed my fingers, bruising the tips and slicing the middle finger slightly. It was a small injury, but it really hurt. Also, it bled quite a bit. I washed my finger, grabbed some tissues, collected the pasta salad and drinks and ordered another PassApp.
This tuk tuk driver seemed less sure about the map than the last; however, I was able to tell him “The riverfront near Wat Phnom”, which was straight forward. He did seem to go a strange route, straight through the busiest traffic spots. I still managed to arrive 30 minutes before the boat was booked, and just as some of my friends arrived too. Everyone arrived (after a few texts in jest about wanting to see the sunset not the sunrise) and we boarded the boat.
I think I pretty much switched off from then. I don’t actually remember seeing the sunset, only it got dark. I do remember having a really nice time with everyone and, of course, opportunities to have some fun with the very cute Khmer children who call me uncle.
A day like this is fairly typical. These are things that it made me realise about life here:
The smallest successes are big successes. Getting hold of the glow sticks was a major success. This is probably because…
Even the smallest task can be unexpectedly difficult.
Self-talk is quite important. Telling myself I was tenacious made me persevere and see the task through, even though I felt ready to faint in the heat and dizzy from the constant circles I had been walking.
I need to be willing to ask for help. Khmer people are friendly and helpful when they can be. If they don’t help, it’s usually because they are too shy.
Cambodia can be very unpredictable and chaotic. I think this can have either one of two effects: make you ridiculously stressed (like the poor Australian couple), or actually makes you less stressed. You realise that you are never really in control and that you deal with whatever problems when and how you can.
You devise a lot of coping strategies. Some of them your parents won’t approve of (not contacting the bank until the next day about missing money, for instance). But, you have learn to control your emotions in a situation and not let them control you (it doesn’t always work and of course, it sometimes gets too much for anyone).
Perseverance and tenacity are important. I see this in a lot of my friends here. However, I think if you are the type of person who has made it to living abroad in a country such as Cambodia, you tend to have some of those qualities anyway.
I love my time in Cambodia. It’s great and the country and its people are beautiful. So often I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I am here. However, that’s not to say there are challenges. Here are some of the biggest ones.
3. Cultural clashes
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but I am English. In fact, I am quintessentially so. If you wanted a stereotype of an introverted English man, look no further. This means that I am awkward, embarrassed, and uptight. I obey a needlessly endless string of social rules and conventions and social politeness and etiquette is relatively important.
What is difficult is that it is easy to forget that other English speakers are not necessarily English in culture. They probably have lower blood pressure and negotiate social situations with a lot less stress as a result. However, despite the shared language, their relaxed attitudes and happiness to discuss various subjects sometimes translates poorly into English culture. It can come across as overly familiar, nosey or insensitive.
My Khmer is developing, but it’s at the stage where actually it sometimes makes it worse. When I was first learning, what I understood was so limited, that I could often rely on the fact that I probably misunderstood the communication, or wasn’t able to make myself understood. This meant hand gestures, repetition and double checking were necessary. Therefore, often everything was tedious but you seemed to have a better sense of when you arrived at an understanding (or when you didn’t, which was the more frequent of the two scenarios).
What I understand has grown and what I don’t understand has shrunk a bit. However, this means that often the two parts overlap. Sometimes, I think I have understood, but actually I didn’t. This is this language danger zone. You go away satisfied that everything is fine, but find out later that you have unwittingly unleashed a disaster of confusion. I accidentally refused an invite to a wedding because I thought the guy was asking something else.
I can’t wait to get to the part where what I understand is far larger than what I don’t.
1. Communicating with home
This is probably one the hardest parts of living abroad. And it’s not me, it you. Well, actually it’s communicating with you.
Life in Cambodia is different, both in big, drastic ways and in subtle, difficult to perceive ways. Even if you have been to South East Asia or Cambodia itself, the day-to-day reality can be a lot different to the tourist’s or visitor’s experiences. When communicating with people who have never been, it can be even harder.
For example, let’s say I wanted to tell you about my visit to a market. The word market possibly conjures up lots of different images. For the typical westerner, it might mean a farmers’ market, full or organic food and artisanal breads and shiny round wheels of cheeses. The market in the UK is a middle-class day out. It’s clean; it’s sterile; it’s a bit dull.
In Cambodia, the market is the heartbeat of daily life. You can buy most things at the market, especially the bigger ones such as Central Market or Orussey Market. It will have fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, motorcycle parts, jewellery, souvenirs, homeware, incense, flowers, stationery, books and stands selling hot food. They are great, but they are hot, sweaty, and often really smelly. If it’s outside, you get the fumes of motorbikes and tuk tuks as they idle while their riders negotiate prices; inside the air is fetid with the smell of fish and blood and dank water that runs down the open gutters through centre of the market. The experience is also dependent on which market you go to.
To communicate these differences and the experiences are lengthy and time consuming. The market is just one example. My walk to work, a general journey through Phnom Penh, a Cambodian mall, a Cambodian village, a Cambodian home, the Cambodian countryside: these are all experiences that are quite difficult to articulate. It sometimes feels that just to have a meaningful conversation, you have to spend an hour explaining and describing the nuances of Cambodia. And that’s hard and can be isolating.
Also, there’s sometimes an unintentional power to words. Cambodia is great. I also know most of my friends here feel the same way. But sometimes we moan and we vent and we laugh about our experiences (such as nearly being stampeded by water buffalo on the way to work, a mosquito flying up our nose, the panic induced by thinking your air-conditioner is broken, getting misunderstood at a market, ending up at the wrong destination in a PassApp). But they are not really that significant. Yes, they can be annoying and sometimes it gets on top of us when we are tired or there is one too many mosquitoes buzzing around our head. But it’s just a fleeting complaint. We dust ourselves off (sometimes literally- Cambodia is really dusty in the dry season) and carry on. We don’t cry (every time); we don’t self-pity for too long; we don’t dwell. We let it out; we move on and we do the same again tomorrow.
However, often, by communicating it to people back home, suddenly it’s become something bigger than you intended. It’s suddenly the front-page news or the big issue. But that’s not how you wanted it to work out. A simple rant or joke can sound like a life-time trauma to those not in the midst of it.
Now, it’s my blog, so I can say what I want to. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the radio silence from the home end. It feels like we’ve set up a one-way radio system. I transmit updates, details and newsletters, and blogs, and Facebook posts. I actually have to work quite hard at it. A blog post may take an hour or so. The Fact Fridays or Words of the Week take 30 minutes. The newsletters can take up to three hours. Just a “It was great to hear from you!” is all it takes to feel like someone is out there and interested. Otherwise, all I’m getting is static at this end and it makes me wonder if it’s worth doing. Let me know you’ve read it. Ask questions (I know that’s hard, sometimes the lack of knowledge means it’s really difficult to know what to ask). Find out about something and ask me my thoughts on it. Challenge me to do something. Invite me on a Skype date. Tell me three things that have happened to you in the last week. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just let me know you are out there.
My parents visited me in January 2016. It was great to see them again and helpful for both of them to experience a bit my life in Cambodia. They were (hopefully) reassured that I could live happily and safely in this country. However, there were quite a few moments that I found frustrating and difficult.
So, I’m going to share my few words of advice about what surprised me most about the visit, both for the visited (although that sounds more spiritualist than intended) and the visitors.
In the weeks before and during my parents’ visit, my mind became a whole crucible of emotions: excitement, anxiety, joy and sheer panic. I put a lot of pressure on myself. You suddenly feel the burden of representing a whole nation to your guests, being responsible for their well-being and also convincing them that your choice to move to some distant land was reasonable and well thought-out. I hadn’t realised how stressful I would find it, but gradually, as my parents’ arrival date grew closer and closer, I felt a strange sense of impending doom.
Until my parents’ arrival, my life in Cambodia had been very separate to my life in the UK. Of course, I shared it with them through phone calls, this blog, Facebook posts and more. But they were snippets and some of them were carefully controlled. Now, my two worlds were colliding and my ability to manage the image I was presenting was limited. Cambodia is unpredictable and things go wrong at the most inopportune or ironic moments (like when you announce to your dad, “the beef here is really good!” for the restaurant to serve, for the first and only time ever, gristly, dry beef).
However, a lot of my feelings took me by surprise and it took me a while to work out why I had them.
You have placed a lot of significance in things without even realising.
One thing that you want to do when you have guests is to take them to the places that are important to you or places that hold special memories. You want to be able to share the significant aspects of your life with people significant to you. However, this can also make the situation slightly fraught and difficult.
Your visitors may not realise that this place is particularly significant to you. Heck, you possibly didn’t realise until you felt as if your memories and feelings with being trampled on. It happened to me.
I took my parents somewhere one evening. I can’t even tell you the name of it as I’ve forgotten. I had been there before with colleagues from the Khmer school I had been working at. I was there for a relatively short time and not much thought about it. However, I didn’t realise that the place had become imbued with importance. I had enjoyed the evening with my colleagues, and there I had felt a sense of connection with them personally, as well as an appreciation for Khmer culture in general. Despite not remember its name, this place was now associated with really positive memories and experiences. I had not realised that, for me, this place had become sacred ground.
I took my parents there. My dad wasn’t feeling well, so spent most the time with a pained expression of his face and making strange noises. They just didn’t seem to enjoy the evening in general. (My dad actually voiced his dislike of the occasion whilst we were there.)
You know in Inside Out, where they play memories in the balls, and Sadness touches a happy memory and it turns blue? Well, I could feel that happening. My parents had inadvertently trampled all over this sacred ground.
My tips for navigating this is to think beforehand why that place may have a special place in your heart. What memories were made there? Where there any particular success or milestones?
Once you have realised why that place may be important, tell your visitors. It is not fair on your guests if you lead them blindly into situations where they could cause unintentional hurt. So, let them know. Even say the words, “This place is significant because…” or “This place holds a special place in my heart as it’s where…” Then you’ve done your bit in communicating what you feel about the place. Also, your visitors might appreciate you sharing about your experiences and will feel like they understand your life a little better.
Make new memories
Another way to avoid the clashing of memories is to go to new places together. Some of the times I enjoyed most with my parents were when we went to places I had never been to before. First, there was no pressure of them enjoying or agreeing with your feelings about something. Second, it’s just great to do new things and to forge memories that you can share. Blooms in Phnom Penh, Preah Vihear in the north of Cambodia, Phare the Cambodian circus in Siem Reap are all now significant places to me because I went there with my parents.
My main advice would just be to tread lightly. Even if you are really close to the person you are visiting, you are being invited into that aspect of their lives. Be a good guest.
Ask if they have been there before and ask them about their memories there. Don’t always expect them to always be able to articulate the place’s significance to you. It may be that actually, it is really unimportant to them. But being polite about it won’t do any harm and it would avoid the risk of offence.
Also, quite often people will feel the same way about the country they’ve moved to in the same way that they do about family members. They can moan about them as much as they like, but if someone starts doing the same it’s rude. My dad told me that I hadn’t truly settled in Cambodia as I couldn’t accept any criticism of it. My dad is such an idiot, isn’t he? (Say “yes” and you’re in for trouble.)
Just remember, you are allowed to have whatever opinions of a place you like. Also, I believe in free speech. You can voice your opinions, too. But, I also believe in the saying, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. You have the freedom to jump from a second story balcony unto the concrete below. But you shouldn’t. You also have the freedom to say what you like about the place you are visiting. But it may be better to bite your tongue.
Again, you are being invited into that person’s life. It’s not just another holiday destination for them. If someone invited you to their home, you would be careful what they say. You wouldn’t start rating it like on TripAdvisor. Treat the whole country like the person’s home. Don’t rate it, evaluate it or critique it. Just enjoy sharing in it. If you’re not enjoying it, you better try faking it.
Another thing that could make it easier is don’t act like you are an expert on the subject of the country you are visiting (unless you are of course). That person may have lived there only for some months, or it may be years. Either way, if you are just visiting, they probably have a far better knowledge of the place than you. Therefore, advice may go unheeded.
Relax. I think most of the problems were a result of the unnecessary pressure I was putting on myself to be Cambodia’s ambassador.
It’s a privilege to share in other peoples’ lives, whether you are the host or the guest. Treat it like a privilege.
So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.
Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh
I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.
Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.
South versus North
Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.
Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.
Khmer versus Expat
Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.
My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.
A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.
Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.
Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.
However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.
Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.
I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.
I’m attempting to answer some of your questions, or questions that I’ve had asked of me by others or perhaps questions I’ve perceived or felt were implied.
One question I’ve not been directly asked but it seems to hang in the air a bit is “are you fluent in Khmer yet?” The answer to that is no. That’s the short answer and if that satisfies you, you can stop reading here. If you would like a fuller explanation of why not and why it probably isn’t happening anytime soon (despite my best efforts), then carry on.
First, the idea that Khmer can be learnt within a short time is usually expressed only by people who have never attempted to learn Khmer. They may have experienced learning another language, maybe French or German or Spanish. However, this is not quite the same.
There’s the “fluent in 3 months” idea that is bandied around the internet or people who have a vague awareness of foreign languages. And yes, it is perhaps possible to learn a language to a level of fluency in just three months. It is not possible, however, to learn all languages to fluency in three months. It depends on what your mother tongue is, your previous knowledge of language learning and your knowledge of linguistics. Also, it depends on what type of fluency you are aiming for.
The idea I think somewhat originated from the US Foreign Service Institute. That is the governmental body that heads up the training of diplomats and other foreign service workers. They rank different languages according to how long it would take an English native speaker to acquire that language to various levels of fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The end goal for this scale is for an overall professional fluency, which would be more demanding than a conversational fluency. And when they determine how long a professional fluency would take, that is how long it would take someone with 25 hours of class time a week, with an addition three to four hours of self-directed study a day (so around 45 hours of study a week). These classes are conducted by a team of linguistic experts, native speakers trained to teach and training specialists.
Even with that amount of dedication, the shortest amount of time it would take to meet their required standards for a language is 24 weeks, or 6 months. That’s for languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. These languages are considered closely related enough to English to make it easier.
Japanese on the other hand is considered one of the hardest and would take around 88 weeks.
So, where is Khmer? It’s in the group that would take about 11 months to learn. 11 months of 25 class hours a week. That’s 1,100 hours of Khmer class. Khmer is significantly distinct from English. It has a plethora of sounds that English does not have and are difficult to produce, it has a script that seems to read in spirals and comprises of the longest alphabet in the world, as well as a complex system of social registers.
You may say, but you’ve been in Cambodia 16 months already. That should have been more than enough time. I would like to remind you that the Foreign Service Institute provide 25 hours of class time a week. At my most intense learning stage, I did ten weeks of ten hours a week. That’s 100 hours. So, after that, I only had 1000 more hours to go. During my first year in Cambodia, I probably did a further 70 hours and another 5 hours of classes in the year I returned to the UK. Recently, I have done 10 weeks of 4 hours a week at G2K, 1 hour a week at school (a maximum of 18 hours) and a further 10 hours with Vitou helping me.
Therefore, I have around a further 897 hours of classes to go until I reach the Foreign Service Institute’s required standard.
Of course, I have the additional benefit of living in the country. However, my work means that I often live in a very English-speaking bubble and the Khmer I do get to use tends to be very repetitive and doesn’t progress beyond what I know already. (How long have you lived here? Where are you from? Do you like Cambodia? I would like to go to AEON Mall II. Yes, I went there yesterday.)
I shall persevere as much as I can. I need to not put too much pressure on myself and not to expect perfection straight away. I have definitely made progress since being back but there are still constant and daily struggles and mistakes. Once I am fluent, I will let you know.
I love my time in Cambodia. I also try to avoid presenting a “suffering martyr”. However, I did have a bit of a moan. The following is a (slightly censored) message I sent over WhatsApp to my parents:
My bed is an insect graveyard. Dead animals everywhere. I spray myself with 95% DEET to be safe. It doesn’t work because I still get bitten. But it is enough to strip the plastic off my nice laptop case when I touch it. It’s impossible to have nice things here. I accidentally bleached my nice work trousers because my shower wasn’t draining (admittedly more my fault than Cambodia’s). There are ants crawling in my laptop, dust everywhere, clothes get stained where someone left pink dragonfruit on a seat or they get torn by the random nails everywhere. Everything is just more effort. You can’t just drink water from a tap so you always have to be on top of how much water you have in your filter. You can’t make a salad without giving yourself diarrhoea. The stream nearby stinks. The road to school is terrible. When you get post the ants usually have got to it first. All your chocolate melts. My iPhone battery is dying because of the constant heat and power fluctuations. You can’t make a cup of tea without sweating the same amount of bodily fluids. You have to take your shirt off to have a [dump] because the bathrooms are so hot and humid.
There are other things, but that’s just what I included in my rant.
I am so incredibly lucky to be in Cambodia. The country is beautiful. The people are incredible. There are such amazing things to be grateful for. Everyday is filled with such blessings.
But there will be moments when you just need to vent. And that’s okay.