I’m answering some FAQs about my life in Cambodia. They may be questions I’ve been asked or just ones I think are in the back of people’s minds.
This question seems to come in various iterations: what food/drink/clothes/place/whatever do you miss most from the UK? I’ve even been asked who do I miss the most a few times, as if I’m not going to give a socially acceptable answer to that one (I would say, “My family, especially my niece, and you of course.” Whether any of that is true, I’ll never tell).
I’ve actually answered this question before, but that was back in 2016, when I had pretty much first arrived. However, things have not changed since then. I still get the questions and I still answer the same thing. There is nothing material that I have missed in the UK.
I really enjoy my life in Cambodia. I like the food, I love the people here. There’s also such a wide range of Western foods or Asian food restaurants (and even Middle-Eastern food) available there’s nothing much to miss. I understand how there might be things you would miss, especially if you were in a different country or even area of the country that doesn’t cater for Western tastes so much or with such much variety available. However, that doesn’t seem like too much of a problem here.
I know that people do miss things from home. (I did a Facebook survey, and it was about 60/40 split of those that missed stuff and those that didn’t.) There have been fleeting moments when I miss something, usually when I am ill or tired or had a tough day. But it has never been more than a fleeting moment.
But, I still have a massive problem with answering that question, or perhaps I still have a problem with what I perceive to be everyone’s response to my answer. First, it’s a loaded question; it assumes already that I miss something. That makes my response to it already awkward and unnatural. But there also seems that the question is layered and that there are other implicit intentions behind the question. (Maybe this is the case or maybe I’m just making it into a problem when it isn’t.) However, when people ask me “What do you miss the most from the UK?” I feel like they are asking “What do you miss about your Britishness the most?” or “What about our shared past and identity do you miss the most?” The question is not simply about things: it’s about my heritage and my sense of belonging and the things and memories I shared with people back home.
By answering, “Actually, I don’t miss anything from the UK” its like saying, “I have turned my back on my Britishness” or “I reject my life at home.” Often, when I tell people that I don’t really miss anything I see a look in their eyes as if I suddenly lifted a sharp axe above my head and physically severed any connection that we once had. That that is not at all wha it feel like to me or my intention.
First, all my colleagues and students at HOPE School will attest to my Britishness. I am definitely not rejecting my heritage. (I teach Dickens and Shakespeare, for goodness sake.) I often fill meetings and social interactions with awkwardness and necessary unnecessary pleasantries. I stare silently to express my utter and explosive rage at something. I’m very British and it’s going to take a lot to knock it out of me. Sometimes, it’s softened a bit. I’m perhaps not as judgemental about perceived social faux-pas as I once was. Also, I’m learning to sometimes “put down” my Britishness, as if it were a hot cup of tea, ready to pick it back up when the moment is right. But I’m not rejecting Britain or my life at home.
It also doesn’t mean that I didn’t like things you sent me or you shouldn’t do it. I don’t put sentimental attachment onto things or foods, but I do like being thought of. For me, often the actual gift doesn’t matter, it is definitely a case of it’sthe thought that counts. If you want to send me something, head to Poundland or somewhere silly. Dafter the better. I recently received a box of PG Tips in the post. When I opened it, I did not think. “Great, I’ve been dying for a proper brew.” I thought, “Someone went to the effort of wrapping, labelling and posting something so that I would feel remembered.” It’s the gesture that touched me.
So, don’t expect me to miss food or things. But that doesn’t mean I hate you and it doesn’t mean I want to be forgotten about, either.
Wow, 2018 has been quite a year. It’s had two British royal weddings; a FIFA World Cup in Russia; the Commonwealth Games in Australia; Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress; 4 UK citizens were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichock killing one; the northern white rhinoceros became extinct; Indonesia was hit by both an earthquake and a few months later a tsunami, together leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured; and a children’s football team and their coach were rescued from caves in Thailand. When considered next to this global perspective, my life is not nearly as significant or dramatic, but 2018 was an important year for me, just the same.
It’s also really difficult to look back on: not emotionally but in terms of ordering and placing certain events that happened. My brain did this weird thing when I arrived back in Cambodia. The previous year in Cambodia and the subsequent year back in the UK seem to have gone through this strange cognitive shift. My brain seems to have arranged them so that UK life and Cambodia life maintain a contiguous narrative. So thinking about early 2018 is really hard, because I have to make a mental effort to tell my brain those events did happen at that point in time. I’ve currently got a Facebook poll going to see if anyone relates to this. If I’m on my own, I’ll let you know.
Seeing as this blog is as much about recording memories for me as it is about sharing them with you all, I thought I would try to sum up the whirlwind that was my life.
In December 2017, I applied for a position at HOPE International School in Cambodia. On 11th January, I was offered an interview. This would be a Skype interview at 6.00 am on a Wednesday, before I went to work. The interview was a success and I was offered a job two days later. I was returning to Cambodia. However, at this point, I did not know whether I was going to be living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. HOPE has two campuses and there was a suitable position at both. I had told the school I did not mind which one I went worked at so had to wait for their decision.
I turned 30! I’m not really a huge birthday person (my own, that is- I get more excited about other people’s), but with some reluctance I arranged a celebration. I had to endure the cake being bought in by waitresses singing and shaking tambourines. It was awful. My friends delighted in how terrible I found the experience. The cake was great, though!
I also found out that I would be in Phnom Penh, teaching International Baccalaureate and iGCSE English and English literature. There was a little bit of grieving for the future I would not have in Siem Reap. However, I loved Phnom Penh (I still do), and I reminded myself that I would love it just as much.
It started snowing at the end of February, but eventually got deep enough to have a couple of snow days.
I enjoyed the snow, but I decided I definitely had enough to last me for the next two years in Cambodia. I remember the winter of 2017-2018 as very long, dark and cold. It may be because I had skipped the winter of 2016-17, so I was less prepared, but I remember driving home each day after school and it being very bleak.
I booked my plane tickets: Heathrow to Bangkok (with a change at Moscow); and then Bangkok to Phnom Penh a day later. However, because of the Russian involvement in the US elections, and heightened tension between the UK and Russia due to the recent poisonings in nearby Salisbury, my mother did not approve of my route and airline choice (Aeroflot). However, I was more than happy to exploit the post-World Cup plane prices.
My mum turned 60. I created a “old ladies starter kit” for her. She was overwhelmingly pleased with the gifts, which was concerning as the aim was to buy useless, unwanted presents. The only thing she was particularly horrified by was the pearl chain for her glasses.
April, as it was the holidays, was also a time to start sorting out a lot of my stuff. Most of my belongings went to charity shops.
I also made some បបរ (babar, or Cambodian rice porridge) and Cambodian styled coffee.
“Go to dentist” was one of the first things on my “Return to Cambodia to do list”. I finally ticked it off! I was needlessly anxious about needing more fillings, and I was problem free. (Well, at least my teeth were.)
I remember May was a particularly beautiful month. The sun seemed to shine a lot and it reminded me how beautiful Britain was.
May saw the royal wedding. I baked a lemon and elderflower cake, as that was what Harry and Meghan were having. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever baked.
There are perils of nice weather and living in the New Forest. The excursions into the countryside bought me too close to the local wildlife, and I got my third tick since returning from Cambodia.
The hot weather did bring some spectacular storms, which I hated driving in. However, I braved it, and drove to a hill in an open area of heathland to get a panoramic view of the lightening. Unfortunately, storms don’t film well on iPhones, so what I captured didn’t do it justice.
I drove to Cornwall and back to visit the Bemrose family. It nearly killed my car and I remember there being sand everywhere. It was a great time. It was also a blessing going to the Bemrose’s church and people offering to pray for me.
I also went on a zombie-run with my work bestie. I found out I was no-nonsense and a bit cut-throat in survival situations.
There was a heatwave and everyone seemed to lose their mind. However, it reminded me very much of teaching in Cambodia. I was able to implement some of my hot weather tricks (including wearing t-shirts under you shirt, which everyone thought was crazy, but it isn’t).
The end of the month saw the year 11 prom. I love proms, possibly more than the kids.
I find out that I would not be teaching the International Baccalaureate. This is simultaneously frustrating (I had bought and begun reading the set texts) and a relief as I had little previous knowledge of the system and it was causing me some anxiety.
On the last day of June, I drove up to Coventry and back, for the Bagg-Lowe wedding. It was great to see them get married and to catch up with some old friends!
This was the last month I had to prepare for leaving to Cambodia, as I was leaving on the last Monday of July. So, I intentionally left it quiet. There was only my dad’s massive 60th birthday party, my farewell party, a church goodbye, cooking a Cambodian meal for my church small group, and the various end-of-year goodbyes at school; as well as trying to pack within my baggage allowance. So, July, was in fact, a crazily busy month. I think that was useful in a way, because I just had to get on with it and not think about what was happening.
The last day of school was emotionally charged. A lot of the kids cried. Some of them only came in because it was my last day (missing the last day of school is quite common…). They filled my car with balloons (they spied an opportunity when I was returning somethings from my car to my classroom and hadn’t locked it again). They also designed and bought me a horrible, garish t-shirt and it remains one of my very favourites.
After this whirlwind, I finally packed and was ready to leave…
Early on Monday 23rd July, I headed off towards Heathrow Airport on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. At last, I was heading back to Cambodia.
I enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Bangkok (except the part when they tried to sell me expensive jewellery and suits). Bangkok had enough that was familiar to make me feel I was definitely getting close to my goal, but there were enough differences to know I was not quite there yet. Perhaps its because I wasn’t seeing the familiar sights and didn’t have a sense of my bearings, like I do when in Cambodia. The temple tours were fun, though. You definitely get the sense that Thailand (then Siam) was a grander nation than Cambodia in the last few centuries.
After 24 hours in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Phnom Penh. I was already excited in the airport when I realised, whilst queuing for security, that I was in a line with a group of Cambodians. Then at the departure gate, there were more Cambodians. I did debate for a while whether to try and strike up a conversation, but I think that jet-lag would have made it too hard.
After about an hour, the plane turned and tilted, revealing the meandering Mekong River. I could see Koh Dach (Silk Island) in the centre. Then I could see Chaktomuk (the four faces). Its where the Tonlé Sap river, the Mekong and the distributary Tonlé Bassac all join; the centre of Phnom Penh lies on the banks of this 1 km stretch of water.
We swooped over the north of Phnom Penh. Comparing Bangkok and Phnom Penh as you flew over them, you definitely saw how Phnom Penh was smaller and less dense than the other capital. However, as I saw the familiar grid pattern and boreys (neighbourhoods), I definitely knew which I had the emotional connection to. I did manage not to cry.
I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, a bit dazed and tired. A new colleague took me to my new apartment for the first time. It looked great, but a little bare. I had about a week to sort myself out.
Of course, one of the highlights was being reunited with my Cambodian brother, Vitou.
In the week I had to sort myself, I squeezed in a visit to Siem Reap. I left 11pm on 31st July, to arrive in the town I used to live on 1st August. I had breakfast at my friends’ house, then attended a team prayer meeting, visited the school I worked at and (I think, shared lunch with them), then had another team meeting then went for dinner. The next morning, I was heading back to Phnom Penh. It was definitely a whirlwind. It felt good to be back, but it didn’t make me regret the fact I was now in Phnom Penh.
I started at my new school. The first few weeks were a confusing barrage of alien acronyms and systems. I begun teaching my new classes and it quickly became clear that the students at HOPE has as much life and personality as the ones in Sholing (although it manifests in slightly different ways).
There were also humorous incidents (getting a new gas bottle; being chased by a dog; etc.). I also have a placement test for Khmer classes at G2K. I was tired, somewhat stressed and anxious. They advised I entered at level 3.
I also visited Takeo province for the first time, to visit the Good Neighbours team. They are a part of my sending organisation, WEC, and they run a pre-school and a church in the village. I really enjoyed my time here.
In September, Vitou’s family grew. His wife gave birth to a lovely baby girl!
September was a time of getting into new routines and settling into the new life at HOPE school and north Phnom Penh. I started attending Vitou’s church, which was conveniently right down the road to where I live. I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
A friend visited from Malaysia with another of her friends. I took them on a brief tour of Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom and Central Market.
On the last weekend of September, the new staff had a boat trip along the Tonle Sap and Mekong. It was a great way to see Phnom Penh. On the Saturday, a group of us also went up Phnom Penh Tower, to see the view at the top. With all these night-time photos, they don’t do it justice.
This was again quite a busy month. I was continuing with my Khmer lessons. I also watched a Cambodia vs Singapore football match (Cambodia lost). It was the Pchum Ben holiday. I taught at the rural villages for the first time.
It was also Vitou’s wife’s birthday, so there was a party.
November was Vitou’s birthday, so another party. I had also introduced him and his family to Carl’s Jr. Vitou also began tutoring me Khmer. So, I was doing Khmer at G2K on Mondays and Wednesdays and with Vitou on Tuesday and Thursdays. This did mean that a lot of time on Saturdays was spent retreating to a cafe and tackling the marking and planning I had to do.
Vitou, his whole family and I attempted a trip to Kirirom mountain. We didn’t make it that far as the car broke down. I spent most of the day at Vitou’s dad’s house and then in a car getting towed back to Phnom Penh. Despite not arriving at our intended destination, it was still quite a fun adventure.
The end of November and December were quite stressful and this meant I lost some sleep. This is because it’s marking and reporting deadline time and also I had my Khmer assessment. There were various events going on, and I was often double booked as a result. Also, there’s a difference in western style planning and Khmer style planning for events which often are at odds. However, it was still a really enjoyable month.
It was Vitou’s twin’s birthday. So, again another party. (Next year there will be a party every month from September-December in Vitou’s family.)
There was also the wonderful wedding of my friend, Jonathan. It was great, as I was invited to both the morning and the afternoon session. It was really fun and interesting to see a Christian Khmer wedding ceremony. (I’ll try to blog about it later.)
There was another boat cruise, this time with my WEC team.
I passed my level 3 assessment. I still need to work on some aspects of my pronunciation. I’m going to write myself a plan of action and each week focus on a particular set of sounds. (Sounds geeky, doesn’t it.)
Of course, then there were the various Christmas celebrations. Again, on Christmas Eve I had to negotiate being in two places at once. However, it went without too much problems.
Wow, I’ve been busy
Looking back at it all, I’ve been really busy. 2018 has been a crazy year. The events at the beginning seem a different life-time away. 2019 might be a little bit calmer, but I’m not so sure.
I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.
Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.
My Facebook feed is full of videos about plastic or vegan meal recipes or how one industry of the other is causing waste. From single use plastic or how meat consumption destroys the planet, there are a lot ways that we are told we should be better stewards of the planet. These posts almost exclusively come from my British friends and not my Cambodian ones. There may be something cultural about it: perhaps British people love animals and the environment more than Cambodians. (The respective heritages of Christian and Buddhist faiths may have something to do with this.) However, there is a more plausible and obvious reason: the choices of my British friends are born out of privilege.
Cambodia has a massive rubbish problem. Every street side or empty plot of land with be filled with stinking bags of rubbish. Plastic clogs streams and covers fields. Everything is served in polystyrene cups or boxes or little plastic bags tied up with elastic bands. Single-use straws are common and popular. Most plates or cups or spoons are plastic and often disposable. Cambodians use them, probably without a second thought on its long-term environmental impact, despite how blatantly obvious the impact actually is.
You may judge the Cambodians for the limited understanding or their dismissive attitude or their simplicity. However, Cambodian’s do not have the same opportunities to make good choices. First, pragmatically and practically, their opportunities are limited. However, psychologically, they may not be equipped to make such long-term decisions. Good choices often come from a position of privilege, not from a position of greater intellect or superior morality.
First, practically, plastic is the obvious choice in the life of an everyday Cambodian. It is affordable, available, easy, disposable and hygienic. The single use polystyrene boxes are cheap. If you make a comparison on the affordability of more environmentally-friendly options, there is a clear winner. Small Cambodian cafes or street-side stalls simply cannot cover these costs. Many Cambodians will earn a couple of dollars a day, therefore, cheapest is always best. Also, the plastic options are readily available. The environmentally friendly ones are only available in a few places and that would only be in large cities that are developed to cater for Western sensibilities.
Secondly, no Cambodian really wants to be think about storing multiple reusable bags or Tupperware boxes. When your home is one room, with only one bed for the whole family, a small gas stove and very little other furniture, they just seem like a waste of space. At home, people have whole cupboard dedicated to miss-matched plastic tups and lids, and another dedicated to piles of lifelong bags from Waitrose. When you have a single cupboard, that’s not really an option. Cambodians are going to want an option that is easy to get rid of and won’t clutter their small homes. Plastic is perfect for that.
In a tropical country that is dusty and dirty, plastic provides convenient hygienic options. One reason that Cambodians like straws is because cans are often dusty. Something only has to be sat in the same place for a day or two here for a thick film to have covered it. Plastic is clean and therefore substatiaatially better than not using straws or disposable items.
Therefore, plastic use is huge in Cambodia. But, of course, Cambodia is still a developing nation. The resources need to deal with such waste has not been able to match it. Recycling and efficient waste-disposal is costly and requires good infrastructure and government funding. This simply isn’t there. The Cambodian people cannot even afford clean water systems, schools, road system, healthcare, de-mining programmes, electricity infrastructure or crime prevention. Many visitors are offended by the waste and the pollution, but there are so many other issues that Cambodia needs to address first. Also, visitors have not seen the massive developments and progress that Cambodia has also made.
So, feel free to post your videos about plastic waste or environmental issues on Facebook. However, as you do it don’t feel indignant or smug. Just a remember, these choices come from privilege.
It’s 30˚C, it’s hot, it’s sticky, but it’s also Christmas. This time of year, I feel a little bit disorientated. The calendars say it’s December but the weather outside is not exactly frightful. I actually enjoy Christmas here in a way. Apart from shops having some decorations, it passes without too much attention. There’s no pressure to cook the perfect turkey, to buy the perfect presents and to make sure that you’ve sent out cards before the last post. Ironically, the lack of celebration perhaps allows more focus on what the story of Christmas is about.
After my Khmer lessons in the evening, I will often drive (well, get driven) down a long road that passes behind the international airport. It’s called Street 2004. In the day, it seems to be mostly metal workshops. However, when the evening comes, the metal workshops are mostly closed and the street is transformed. Karaoke bars turn on their bright lights and restaurants start blaring music. There must be at least twenty karaoke bars along this street. It’s amazing that the workshops seem to wholly disappear (they are just tucked away in the darkness) and that the bars were there all along during the day.
Karaoke seems like an innocent enough past time. However, these bars often act as brothels or at least where girls get paid to entertain and host men. Each bar has a row of chairs outside, seating about a dozen girls, all in glamorous dresses and makeup, just waiting. Sometimes, these are school girls, pressured by family members – even their own parents – to earn extra money by selling themselves. Abject poverty can lead to terrible choices. Sometimes the eldest daughter, for the sake of her siblings or perhaps someone struggling in the family, is forced into prostitution. There is no free NHS, there is no social welfare, there is no bursary to fall back on. There is only sexual trafficking, petty crime or begging in order to survive.
So, at least twice a week, I am confronted by the brokenness of this country and the sin of this world. Cambodia provides a lot of opportunity for this type of wakeup call: the victims of mines begging at tourist sites, young children pulling rubbish carts and collecting cans and wires and anything that can be stripped and sold for a few riel. Cambodia’s beauty and vibrance is also mixed with sadness and hardship. Sometimes they are so intermingled its hard to know where one ends and the other starts.
My heart breaks to see the rows of girls; or the begging children; or the trash collectors sitting in among bags of rubbish searching for scraps; or the victims of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge still forty years on. Where is God in all this? Where can I find the Merry Christmas, or joyful tidings or season’s greetings in the dirt, destitution and degradation? It’s near impossible to reconcile a Cambodian Christmas with the picturesque Victorian images of Christmas the UK has inherited: a plump baby Jesus asleep in the serene manger, while the silent stars looked on over a quiet, orderly and clean Bethlehem. It seems so wrong and confusing.
But I think that the Cambodian Christmas is more akin to what actually happened in first century Palestine.
Jesus came to this damaged world. He didn’t arrive to live a life of cozy Christmas cards, tacky tinsel and steaming stuffing. Nor did he come to reject the poor, condemn the prostitute (or even the pimp) or to hang out with the rich and powerful. Nor did he, perhaps which is most confusing to us, come to wave a magical omnipotent wand and clean up the mess. That would just be sanitising the world, much like our cute version of the nativity does.
No, instead, Jesus (who had, for eternity, been dwelling in heavenly bliss) stepped down into the hurt and pain and hardship of this world. He visited the dead and dying, he invited the rejected, he blessed the outcasts. Jesus – the refugee, the carpenter, the rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee, the trouble-maker – had came to heal, to transform and to restore. Jesus, that little baby, had come to die so that a world reeking with death and decay could come alive once more.
Simply, Jesus came because God’s heart broke.
God saw the pain and suffering far more than my fleeting glimpses as my tuk-tuk trundles along Street 2004. God knows everything from time’s beginning to time’s end. He sees the whole of humanity’s pain. God knows it and God’s love for his children and his creation surpasses anything that we could ever reach.
And so he sent his son.
And because of Jesus, everything changed. We live in a changed and new world.
We live in the promise that we can be reconciled to God, our Father and creator. We live in the promise that Jesus can indwell within us and can provide us with the peace and the strength and the wisdom to navigate the hardships of this world. We now live in the promise that one day all tears will be gone and the world will be renewed.
This is the gift of Christmas. This is the good news. This is the news available for all, those at home and those in Cambodia. The priest, the prostitute, the pimp can all receive this gift. Not one person is too far gone or too broken or too unsightly that God’s love cannot reach them. For, the Bible tells us, whoever calls on the name of the Lord, can be saved.
My love of rice has definitely grown since moving to Asia. I will happily eat a bowl of well-cooked, jasmine rice on its own.
Most people in Cambodia use a rice cooker. I’ve got one that I haven’t used. But it’s really easy to get decent rice without one. At home we used to boil it in a starchy soup and then drain it. This stops it getting fluffy and evenly cooked.
You will need
A saucepan with a tight fitting lid (this is important);
A timer (your phone will do)
Bravery and patience
Measure out your rice and give it a good rinse. I usually use half a mug per person.
Add your rice to the saucepan. Add twice the amount of water. (Preferably filtered drinkable water for those in Cambodia.) Season with salt.
Put the lid on. This will be the last time you see your rice until its ready to eat.
Bring your rice to the boil. Meanwhile, set your timer to ten minutes.
Once your rice is at a boil (you’ll hear it rattling and it may start spitting a bit), turn on your timer.
Do not lift the lid at any point.
This is where you need to be brave and patient. You can turn the heat down if you’re worried it’s boiling away too wildly.
Whenever you hear whatever ringtone you set it to, turn off the heat.
Reset your timer and leave the saucepan for another 10 minutes.