Flipping cultural values

I don’t think until I arrived in a different country and worked in an extremely international setting that I realised the extent of how different cultures could be. Furthermore, what is perceived as a positive and significant value in one culture is easy to dismiss as negative, rude or backwards in another. Stereotypes, conflicts and miscommunications often arise when these cultural values clash. However, if you take what can be seen as a negative cultural trait and try and flip it to its positive cultural value, it can be helpful in seeing why people behave how they do.

Negative perceptionPositive Cultural Trait
Aloof and coldRespect for personal boundaries
Loud and brashOpen and welcoming
Disingenuous or dishonestDiplomatic
Rude or bluntHonest and straighforward
VaguePrivate
UnfeelingPragmatic
Dramatic and intensePassionate, responsive, empathetic
Intrusive or nosyInterested, community orientated
Superficial relationshipsTreats everyone with warmth
Unforthcoming and taciturnDesires deep, genuine relationships
Over-familiar with superiors/eldersEgalitarian
Obsequious or passiveRespect for authority and social rank
FlippantRelaxed and easy-going
Pompous or nitpickerRespect for ceremony and rules

I’ve seen in forums or heard in meetings people talking about how Khmer people are dishonest or don’t mean what they say. However, it made me laugh. As a Brit, diplomacy or tact is quite important (unless you’re a considered a close friend, then we’re really rude), so multiple times a day I would say something that other cultures would perceive as a lie. I did once try to point this out to those that said this, but I’m not sure if I was direct enough.

I’m definitely having to learn to be generous to others in terms of how I perceive them. I’m trying but it’s still very much a work in process. Which cultural traits values do you align with? Which negative traits do you see in others?

Village teaching

Once a month (okay, it’s been twice in two months), I’ve been going with some Khmer friends to teach English in two villages in rural Cambodia. My friends visit most Saturdays in the month, providing various programmes from youth fellowship evenings to hygiene information for young girls. They often teach English themselves but they asked me to go along to provide some supplementary teaching as an actual qualified teacher and fluent English speaker.

The settings in the various villages are interesting to say the least. First, we are not actually in a classroom. The first ‘classroom’ is the area underneath the typical stilted house you find in the countryside here. There is very little headroom as you can see by the picture below. There are rows of desks crammed together, where the children gather to learn. The second site is outside a larger, more modern house, which is far more roomy, but there are no desks.

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So there are some obvious challenges:

  • It’s really hot. I sweat to a disgusting extent (as well as learning which shirts are breathable and which are not);
  • Banging my head/ cobwebs in my hair;
  • Slipping in the muddy patch just by the whiteboard;
  • Lack of time (20 to 45 minutes);
  • Pressure to finish the class (the first class usually has more time than the second, so often I end up only teaching half the stuff I do in the first village for the second village);
  • Lack of frequency (once a month);
  • Lack of resources (when you google how to teach with a lack of resources, there is still an assumption that there are exercise books and desks);
  • Lack of preparation time;
  • Large classes (27-50 small people crammed into that space);
  • A range of abilities and ages (probably 4-18 year olds, although I think the youngest ones are just there to be babysat);
  • Over dependence on Khmer translation (the lack of time means that I haven’t built certain routines and taught teaching commands, also I need to plan and communicate better what I want translated and what I don’t).

So, it has got me asking a few questions:

  • Is there any point? I can teach very little, I can’t really follow it up and are they actually benefiting from me being there? Are they just listening to the Khmer?
  • What should I teach? How do I create fun, meaningful lessons with so few resources and in such strange conditions?
  • How do I do it in the best way possible?

First, I set out to create a mobile classroom kit.

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Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary. I’m no pedagogical hero. But this what my classroom-in-a-bag consists of:

  • plastic display sleeves- these are great. My lessons basically consist of me showing vocabulary cue cards and saying it or getting them to do something with it. Paper and card would be too flimsy (have I mentioned, I don’t have a classroom), so slipping the sheets in these really helps. If you just have white paper inside, it makes a great whiteboard. I still write some of the key ideas down, because the words can get rubbed of easily.
  • paddle whiteboards– I’m not sure if they are worth the expense (they aren’t particularly costly, mind). If you just wanted to buy the plastic sleeves and slip paper inside that would probably do. However, they add an element of whimsy that the students seem to appreciate. Furthermore, they are just slightly more robust. The sets I bought came with a pen and a rubber lid, which makes things helpful too.

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Advert or protest? Who can tell?

  • soft balls– they are good for call and response games or things in a sequence, like numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, etc.
  • Kroma/scarves– these are useful as blindfolds or for other games. I haven’t used it yet, and probably won’t in the first setting, but in the second setting I probably will sometime.
  • plastic fruit and flash cards– only buy them if you are actually teaching that topic (or colours, or likes or dislikes, etc). I feel a bit ridiculous being a 30 year old man with toy fruit and vegetables in my house. I intentionally keep them very much with the rest of the supplies, so that it somehow validates the purchase choice.

Of course, my little mobile teaching kit is a work in progress. But I have been amazed at what is able to be accomplished and how much time I am able to take up (because that is the aim, isn’t it), with so few resources. I will write another post where I delve a little further into what I actually do with these resources, what I’ve been teaching, what benefits I have seen from me coming and what I would like to improve in how I do things.

Also, if you have any great ideas or tools or tips, let me know. I’m desperate.

Silk Island 2: Worms and weaving

This is the second part of my adventures on Silk Island. To read the rather hilarious first part, click here.

So, Vitou and I escaped the silk weaver’s house. (I can’t even remember her name; I’m that much of a scoundrel.) I did not have to marry anyone, which was a relief. Say that I have commitment issues all you like, but I just wasn’t ready for it, you know?

We weren’t really sure on our next plan, so Vitou phoned his friend to ask what we should do next.

“I’m sorry,” Vitou needlessly apologised. “I have not been here before.”

I would trust Vitou with my life. I’d probably trust him with my credit card PIN. Heck, I’d even trust him with my Facebook login details. So, I accepted whatever plan he decided on and got in his tuk tuk.

Vitou headed north as there was apparently a beach resort at the northern-most tip of Koh Dach. It was a really nice journey, as Silk Island is mostly farmland and countryside. It was a refreshing change from the concrete and the litter and the smelly “canals” (open sewers) you find in Phnom Penh. So I really just enjoyed the scenery and the beauty of it. The tarmacked road turned into gravel road, and we still happily bounced along. Then the gravel stopped.

July and August are apparently meant to have the heaviest rain, but this year it seemed to wait for mid-September. Although the weather was really nice while we were there, the downpours throughout the week prior had left the roads as nothing but muddy troughs. Being a typical Brit, I didn’t say anything about possibly stopping there. Being Khmer and not wanting to disappoint, Vitou continued. So we both went on through the slippery, uneven terrain. Vitou did brilliantly at guiding the tuk tuk through the mud, but his poor motorbike and tuk tuk did take a bit of a battering.

We did get stuck at one point, so I got out and gave a push. There were other occasions when the jolts and bumps produced concerning noises. I was worried that the wooden tuk tuk would shatter and poor Vitou would have lost his livelihood (tuk tuk drivers are able to hire tuk tuks, but he’d have to pay that as well as the loan he got to buy his current one). I made a mental calculation as to whether it was viable for me to buy him another tuk tuk if my westerner’s weight split this one asunder. (I think you can get the bike and the tuk tuk for around $2000, if anyone is interested.)

We nearly got to the resort when the road turned to nothing but thick mud and high mounds of gravel (there was some sort of construction work happening). However, it was only about another one hundred metres to the resort so Vitou parked the tuk tuk and we got out and walked. There was a really interesting building, possibly a lighthouse. I said it was beautiful; Vitou wasn’t so impressed.

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The resort consisted of less than a dozen wooden homes, with two “restaurants”. I mentioned to Vitou about getting food, and he spoke to one of the locals and told me, “You can buy rice and a whole chicken. It is fifteen dollars.”

“Tlai!” I responded. Vitou seemed to agree that it was a bit costly.

We walked up to the beach. However, you know how I said that September has had quite heavy rain. Well, this means the Mekong has swelled and the water levels have drowned the beach.  There were dozens of huts (essentially, moveable palm leaf covers with a little bamboo platform underneath), but these had been bought up onto the shore out of the river. The view across the Mekong was impressive (although a little bit obscured by the huts) and you got an impression of how big it actually is.

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The “beach”

Vitou told me that this is the place that families from Phnom Penh come when it is really hot. It’s also a romantic get-away where you take your girlfriend, he said. This was not something I really needed to know, not having quite moved on from my previous failed relationship an hour back.

We had a bit more of a look around then walked back to the tuk tuk. I had some cereal bars in my bag, so shared them with Vitou. I’m not sure he would recommend them to a friend, but we were both quite hungry at the time.

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View down the Mekong from the bumpy bridge.

We managed to make it back through the mud, then turned and crossed over a narrow channel of the Mekong on a large but bumpy wooden and steel bridge. We then headed towards the Silk Weaver’s Community. It is essentially a museum of Silk Weaving and other eclectic traditional agricultural artefacts. There was even a guide to tell us about it all. It only costs $1 to get in (but you won’t be allowed to leave until you bought some silk).

He showed us two traditional huts on stilts, that were essentially of a His and Her design. The hut for the men had a rounded roof, the women’s hut had a pointed gable. When two families wanted to match-make with their sons and daughters, they would send one young man in to the man’s hut, and a girl into the adjacent hut. I think the ideas was that in their loneliness, they would find comfort in the embrace of one another. Fed up of the topic of Cambodian romance, I was glad when we moved on to the topic of worms.

He took us through the process of the worm breeding and feeding. They cut the cocoons of the female silk butterflies open, but as they did not naturally emerge, their wings are not fully formed preventing them from flying off. They are introduced to the male butterflies, with whom they mate. (The male butterflies seem to go off and die at this point.) The butterflies lay the eggs on paper, which is kept for a number of days. The eggs hatch, and the worms are feed on mulberry leaves that are harvested from the nearby farms. The worms, after a few weeks, weave themselves a silk cocoon. I thought that the butterflies were then boiled alive. However, this is not what happens. Instead, the cocoons are put out into the sun (except the ones that have been left to mature to malformed butterflies), and this is what kills them. Then the cocoons are boiled.

One cocoon makes about one hundred metres of silk. However, 80% of this is relatively coarse and is only used for making things like table runners or scarves. 20% is fine silk fibres, which goes to make more delicate garments. The raw silk is a beautiful golden yellow colour. It is then put on a spindle and a spinning wheel and spun into threads.

We were then taken to the looms and shown these in action. I was able to ask some questions about the process. Apparently, it takes about a month or more to set up a single loom. Each one is set up to weave a particular design. The loom has a number of horizontal bars, with vertical threads hanging down from them. The silk threads of the fabric that is to be woven passes through the vertical threads. The weaver selects the different bars, which then determiners which silks threads are raised and lowered. When the shuttle is passed between the threads, this is what creates the pattern. A simple pattern with have around fifteen of these horizontal bars, a more complex pattern could have forty. The weaver will have to remember which bar to select at which point, in order to create the desired pattern. They also need to be on the look-out for broken threads which need to be mended. After every few feet or so, they will often stop and check the loom, adjusting some of the threads if necessary.

I confused myself just writing that, so if you didn’t follow it, don’t worry. No wonder it takes up to two years to learn the silk weaving process. Then it’s only the old women of the village, who have been weaving for years, that design the different patterns as their extensive weaving experience gives the knowledge of how to do it. It’s amazing the work that actually goes into creating silk.

My guide led Vitou and I around the rest of the centre. This included a small menagerie of animals, including monkeys and porcupines. I thought porcupines were African animals, so was surprised to see one here. (After a bit of research, I discovered they are Malayan or Himilayan porcupines. Unsurprisingly, they are eaten.) There were also peacocks roaming about, but they weren’t the beautiful type you see in country estates in the UK. They looked more like turkeys that were half-way through being plucked ready for Christmas dinner.

We got led to the waterfront, where they had a swimming pool of sorts. I write “of sorts”, because I’m not sure I would brave it. It was essentially a cage sat in the Mekong, and judging by the silt that was being dredged from the pool, it was mostly filled with mud. We were then led past more His and Her huts, and over a little bridge made in the traditional fashion. Vitou was very hesitant to walk over it, probably because he is wiser than I am. It did look, to be fair, as if someone had found a bamboo mat and nailed to the sides of a bridge. The holes suggested that this bridge had seen better days. But it did support the weight of three grown adults, so looks can be deceiving (for now at least).

We got to the end of the museum tour and was about to leave; Vitou helpfully and subtly said, “Perhaps you give him a tip.” So I did, and we went. I asked about getting food somewhere here or just return to Phnom Penh. We decided food was too expensive here so we went back home. In the end, I didn’t have time to get anything to eat before I needed to be at a team meeting in the afternoon.

While waiting for the ferry back, there were some last attempts by locals to sell me more silk. I tried to point out I have enough silk already.

Vitou took me to where the team meeting was being held and I paid him. Normally, in these types of articles, you would detail the costs, including “paying for a tuk tuk driver for a day”. However, Vitou rarely tells me how much I should give him. He probably does it so I can pay a reduced rate, but my sense of gratitude and utter dependence on him means I will pay more than is required. He usually just says, “Pay what you think you should,” then leaves it up to me. I think the usual rate is about $15-$20 for a day. However, I felt obliged to pay for the cost of getting his tuk tuk cleaned and for being my bodyguard/ chaperone/ photographer/ cultural guide for the day as well. I won’t say how much I paid, but it was worth every riel.

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Journey back with Vitou.

So here are my general tips for going to Silk Island:

  • Bring more money than you think you’ll need. You may need to pay for a wedding or buy your way out of awkward social situations.
  • Head to the Silk Community Centre first. You’ll see pretty much everything you’ll see elsewhere there.
  • Don’t go to the top of the island unless it’s been pretty dry.
  • Don’t let your tuk tuk driver leave your side.
  • Bring your own food (although there is a restaurant at the ferry terminal on the island, and that doesn’t look too bad).
  • Enjoy your adventure.