Addressing issues

My goodness, my brain has just melted. I have just had a culture lesson as a part of my language course on terms of address within the family. I knew Khmer terms of address was complicated, but I knew nothing.

So terms of address are what we call each other (Mr, Miss, buddy, sweetheart…) etc., with various levels of formality. In British culture we do change the terms of address in relation to the context. These terms of address can also refer to the person you are addressing or yourself. For example

Your humble servant asks your majesty to close the window.

The “Your humble servant” part refers to you as the speaker, and “your majesty” is the person you are addressing, in this case, the queen.

One of the most noticeable contexts we switch from terms of address is within a school. Students also refer to a teacher by their surname and a title (Mr, Mrs, Miss) or by Sir/Miss when not using their name. Teachers refer to other staff by their first name, unless when talking to or in front of the students.

  • Whilst in the classroom: “Mrs Smith, can I borrow your red whiteboard pen?”
  • “Jimmy, can you return this to Mrs Smith?”
  • In the staffroom: “Debbie, thanks for lending me the pen earlier.”

Parents and usually visitors will also use the polite form of the name when addressing or referring to a teacher. (This might not be so much the case in America and I have had visitors refer to me by my first name to a student, much to the student’s horror.)

We also do it within the family:

  • Sweetie, can you find mommy the sticky tape?
  • Come give granny a big cuddle and a kiss!

However, in Khmer, these terms are generally used instead of other personal pronouns. So you don’t use អ្នក (neak) which means you that often or even ខ្ញុំ (knhom / kʰɲom), for I, that often.

So you would say for a word-by-word translation:

  • “Big Brother well and healthy?”
  • “Mum go where?”
  • “Grandmother [I] will give Granddad [you] 20 dollars for the market.”
  • “What is wife cooking?”

These all come with varying levels of formality. Furthermore there are other specific examples, for example a grandfather can call his oldest child father (as long as he is actually now a father), to show his status within the family:

  • “How much did Father Suon [you- Suon is a name] pay for that motorbike?

I’m not sure if Suon would respond with dad or granddad at this point.

And this is just within the family. You’ve got to change the Is and yous to different words when addressing teachers, staff, managers, very close friends, monks, strangers, those of a higher status than you, kings and gods. You also might have to change the verbs you use as well.

I’ve started creating a table for this and will sit down with Vitou and make him help me fill it out. I expect it to be rather tear-stained before it’s finished. But I’m going to persevere!

Khmer superheroes

Okay, so you’re going to need to hear me out on this. I think Khmer people descend from a race of superheroes. Even if it’s not true, it’d make for a brilliant comic book series. (Copyright ThomasinCambodia.com 2020 – because we all know that’s how copyright works). I did read somewhere (I’m not entirely sure where) that there are legends about how during the Khmer Empire, its soldiers had superhuman strength. This was something to do with magic strings around the arm or herbal tea poured over stone phalluses (you think I’m joking – I will probably take the magic string option in my comic book). Then somehow, during the Cambodian dark ages, these superpowers disappeared. Perhaps the powers were like some sort of natural resource, that was over used? Like the mystery of why the great Empire itself fell, why did the superpowers disappear?

But, today there are still signs of these once incredible superpowers. Like today, I was being driven by another tuk tuk friend. (I have a cold and I don’t fancy getting caught in a rainstorm.) Near my local market, a child lost control of his skateboard, he jumped off and the skateboard shot out into the road. My tuk tuk driver friend expertly weaved his tuk tuk so the skateboard glided between all three wheels. This happened in a split second. See, superpowers.

Any foreigner living in Cambodia will have their own examples of Cambodian superpowers.

However, maybe in a comic book series, these superpowers will start emerging, maybe in a group of young university students. They will have to navigate life in Phnom Penh, study, the discovery of their sudden abilities and fighting a band of evil witchdoctors… Then Hollywood will buy the rights to the story, and having learnt the lessons of its past, cast all Asian (preferably Cambodian) actors and film it all in Asia, thus boosting the COVID-19 stricken tourist industry of the region. (Well, in that case, maybe this comic book story will have its own superpower.)

There’s a season for everything

I’ve nearly completed my third year in Cambodia. One thing about doing it for a second time, is that the rhythms and seasons of life become more normal. The rains come, the rains go; the mosquitoes come, the mosquitoes go; the hot days come, the hot days go; the weddings come, the weddings go; the power cuts come, the power cuts go.

Now, we have nearly reached the wet season.

We have also reached the goodbye season. The cycles of the academic year bring people to the school and the country, and as the academic year ends, so people also leave. For the local staff at HOPE and for those who stay longer, goodbyes are hard. They don’t get easier and as a result first hellos can be also difficult.

In 2018, I began my job at HOPE school. That was for a season. That season is coming to the end now.

It makes me aware that Cambodia is probably only for a season. So far, it’s been three years. I’m not sure how long it’ll be, so I should make the most of enjoying it. One day, I might be saying goodbye to Cambodia for the last time. There is a time for that, as there is a time for everything.

There is a time for everything,

    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
     a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
     a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

Who knows what this next season will bring?

Going public

One of the interesting aspects of living in a foreign country, especially doing the job I do, is that you often become very image conscious. This affects your life in a number of ways: the way you dress, your social media and even how you relate to those around you. You’re very aware of how you conduct yourself in public and what message you’re trying to put across.

So, for example, I would probably wear trousers (and maybe even a shirt) when going to the mall or someone else’s house. It also means you have to be conscious of what photos you are posed in on Facebook, etc. As I work in a Cambodian setting, I have to be aware of what behaviours would suggest in Cambodian culture. Furthermore, Cambodians are very social and very curious. This means that the Cambodians in your neighbourhood know everything about you.

I went to a Bible study for those who lived in my area of Phnom Penh. One lady who went lived a few streets down from me. Obviously, it would make sense if we travelled back together. However, because of what her neighbours would say if she was seen in a tuk tuk with a man, we would often travel separately. She had a tuk tuk driver she trusted and she knew he was safe, so she would often ask him to pick her up and she would go back alone. If he was busy, though, we would travel together, but she would be dropped off on the corner so none of her neighbours would see I was also in the tuk tuk.

Another occasion, I had to pick something up from the house of one of branch leaders when I lived in Siem Reap. The two branch leaders are a couple, and only the wife was home. We chatted for a bit, and the conversation ended with, “Anyway, my neighbours are watching, so I will see you later.” This is quite common, especially as Cambodians do a lot more outside than we would (prepare food, cook, wash up, for instance). So, you are far more visible than you would be in the UK.

In my previous apartment, I don’t think I was ever alone with a female for more than 5 minutes. That was usually only because we were waiting for someone else to arrive. One of the reasons I moved in with Vitou and his wife is so that I could invite people more freely as I’d always have a “chaperone”, so to speak.

In social occasions, too, you don’t hang out with those of the same gender. At a Khmer party, the women all usually sit together and the men sit together, sometimes on separate tables. The order of deciding who sits where goes in order of Khmer/foreigner (i.e. the Khmer sit with Khmer, the foreigners with the foreigners), then split again by gender. The children do their own thing entirely. If you’re a foreign couple with a group of Khmer people you often act as the bridge between the male/female split. You’d sit together, and the female Khmer would sit next to the woman and the male Khmer would sit next to the man.

This can be seen in my social media posts. If you’re my friend on facebook, you can look through my photos and see how often I’ll be photographed with a group of guys or a group of females. Also, if there are both genders present, look how they are arranged. It’s more likely that the men are all sat together. There are some wedding photos where there is a large group. The Khmer will be together; the foreigners will be together. There is very little mention of anyone, other than my mother, on Facebook who is not a guy and there will be very few photos of me alone with a female (even if we happen to be dating). Furthermore, any couple photos in Cambodia are basically announcements of intentions to be married. Even the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are more akin to “fiancé”, but just at the stage when you haven’t set a date.

All this does mean that I am very careful. I want to have a good reputation here in Cambodia. Therefore, if you were to suddenly discover I had been dating someone for nine months and hadn’t announced it, this would be why.

You know you’ve lived in Cambodia when…

My girlfriend and I were listing things that show you’ve lived in Cambodia. We reached 110 different aspects of Cambodian life. If you’ve lived in Cambodia, check to see how many you have scored or if we have missed anything. If you don’t live in Cambodia, it might give you a humorous insight into daily life here.

Food and diet

  1. You think the most appropriate knife for any job is the biggest meat cleaver you own.
  2. Dinner for breakfast isn’t weird.
  3. You’ve knowingly eaten/drank bugs because you can’t be bothered to fish it out.
  4. You’ve knowingly eaten bugs because they were meant to be in your food.
  5. You’ve eaten soup from a bag.
  6. You’ve eaten the ear and rear of a pig and everything in between.
  7. You’ve had a dessert ruined by durian contamination.
  8. You’ve got something in your fridge people at home would never dream of keeping there.
  9. You’ve had to explain that you’re full even though you haven’t eaten rice today.
  10. You’ve eaten a chicken/duck that was alive when you arrived.
  11. The variety of food available amazes you.
  12. You only know the names of some fruits, vegetables or herbs in Khmer because you don’t have them where you live.
  13. You’ve eaten organs of animals you didn’t even know they had.
  14. Your order at a restaurant has been based on how many days you have available to recover if things go wrong.
  15. You’ve judged someone for not ordering ice in their drinks.

Transport

  1. You’ve had to drive through a herd of cows, past a truck and round children on bicycles at the same time.
  2. You’ve seen a whole house being driven down the road.
  3. You’ve driven through a field because it has less potholes than the road.
  4. You don’t even blink when someone is driving directly towards you the wrong way on the sidewalk anymore.
  5. You’ve thought, “dang it, I should’ve taken the sidewalk” when driving.
  6. You don’t even blink when you’re down the wrong side of the road anyone.
  7. You treat traffic lights like helpful advice.
  8. You’ve wondered what the road markings are actually for.
  9. You’ve driven through a tent.
  10. You’ve had your motorbike/car blocked in by a tent.
  11. You have been in a tuk tuk with more than 8 people.
  12. You have been on a motorbike with more than two people.
  13. You have carried something enormous or unwieldy on a motorbike, whilst driving.
  14. You have fallen asleep in a tuk tuk.
  15. A tuk tuk driver took you back to your house without you telling him where you live because he remembers you.
  16. You don’t think it’s weird to park your car or motorbike in your living room.
  17. You’ve transported furniture on the roof of a tuk tuk.
  18. You’ve had someone else push your motorbike by riding theirs and putting their foot on the back footrest.
  19. You know how difficult it is to push a motorbike with a flat.
  20. You know how to kickstart a motorbike.

Health, hygiene and safety

  1. You’ve woken yourself up with your own B.O.
  2. Your tolerance of getting dust in your eye has risen 1000%.
  3. You have stuck to multiple surfaces because of sweat or had multiple things stick to you.
  4. You worried more about eating that salad than the piece of food you dropped on the floor.
  5. You freak out when people drink from the taps in movies.
  6. You’ve sprayed yourself in the mouth/eyes with DEET on at least 10 occasions (one of which was just to get rid of the taste of durian).
  7. You’ve washed your raw chicken because you’re worried it’s been sprayed with insect repellent.
  8. On a really hot day, you’ve gone into a shower wetter than when you came out.
  9. You prefer cold showers over hot showers.
  10. You’ve pulled a wet money note or receipt out of your pocket and it’s not because you’ve been near water.
  11. You take Imodium before travelling just in case.
  12. You wondered “is that pee or water??” while using a squatty potty.
  13. You have slipped up on wet tiles.
  14. You have burnt your leg on a hot exhaust at least once.
  15. You’ve fallen off your motorbike while it stationary.

Wildlife and nature

  1. A herd of goats or cows are outside your house and you think nothing of it.
  2. Used a cockroach like a hockey puck.
  3. You saw a rat in a restaurant, said “hey there’s a rat in the restaurant” and kept eating.
  4. You have killed a rat.
  5. You appreciate the phrase “look like a drowned rat” even more after the rainy season.
  6. You’ve had to decide which to stand closest to: the fighting dogs or the rat in the bin.
  7. The main reason something goes in the fridge is to keep the ants away.
  8. You’ve frozen a bag of rice or cereal before.
  9. You killed more than 40 mosquitoes in 10 minutes.
  10. You had an ant/mosquito in your motorbike helmet whilst driving.
  11. You had some animal fall on you/run over your foot/hide in your shoe.
  12. You stepped over an escaping animal (fish/crab) in a market.
  13. You realised it’s better to be able to see a cockroach that to have seen a cockroach than not be able to see that cockroach.
  14. You’ve accidentally smuggled a dead animal back to your passport country in your luggage.
  15. You’ve been chased by a dog.

Daily life

  1. You regularly think “I nearly died”.
  2. You’ve slept on the floor during a power cut because it’s cooler than your bed.
  3. You’ve had to wear xxl clothes because you’re in Asia
  4. You’ve put your washing in and closed all the windows when the wind picked up.
  5. The water ran out while you still had shampoo in your hair.
  6. You had to change/shower again within an hour of changing/showering because you moved away from a fan.
  7. You get up really early to do something while it is cool and realise it is already too late.
  8. The sound of a fan turning off gives you the heebie-jeebies.
  9. You’ve handed over too much or too little money because working out something in two currencies is too hard.
  10. You find it strange that it’s easier to sleep in the day when it’s hot than at night when it’s hot.
  11. You take a jumper to the mall/cafe/cinema.
  12. You don’t want to go back to your passport country because the internet / mobile data is more expensive and not as reliable.
  13. You got a tan / sunburnt because you stepped outside for two minutes.
  14. You have realised that making a plan for today was the first mistake in your plan.
  15. The tasks that take 5 minutes in your passport country take 2 hours here, but the tasks that take 2 hours in your passport country take 5 minutes here.

Culture

  1. You’ve not been sure how high to sompeah so it looks like you’re practicing a yoga move
  2. You’ve almost dropped everything trying to sompeah with your hands full.
  3. You’ve done the moonwalk of shame: you entered a house with shoes on and slowly walk backwards hoping no one has noticed.
  4. You’ve had to sit down outside a neighbours/stranger’s/friend-of-a-friend’s house because they invited you to take a seat.
  5. You got up to do something while at someone else’s house and they almost rugby tackle you back into your chair.
  6. You’ve just sat in a chair in the middle of a room while everyone stares/smiles at you.
  7. Been told you look like a white celebrity you most definitely do not look like.
  8. You’ve been told you’re fat, have a big nose and really pale in the same week (which are all compliments here).
  9. You’ve been to the wedding of a couple you’ve never met before.
  10. You’ve been to funeral of someone you’ve never met before.
  11. You’ve visited the mother and new born baby within hours of them giving birth
  12. You attempted something for two hours only for a Cambodian to do it in 2 minutes.
  13. You had a random Cambodian save you in your moment of need.
  14. You’ve had a Cambodian come and give you advice on keeping safe.
  15. You’ve had a Cambodian grab you by the shoulders and move you in the right direction/away from danger.
  16. Your Cambodia friend/house helper/colleague performs some miracle on a daily basis.
  17. You’ve had a Cambodian give you the sweetest and most heartfelt compliment you’ve ever received.
  18. Your tiny Cambodian friend performed a superhuman feat of strength without thinking anything of it.
  19. You’ve had a Cambodian “telling off”, which is, “oh please next time do [insert what you failed to do this time]” whilst smiling sweetly.
  20. You’ve been told to “look after yourself” at least once a day.
  21. You’ve offered a Cambodian a cup of coffee, only for them to suddenly make one for you.
  22. You scared a Cambodian when you’ve told them the current temperature in your passport country.
  23. You confused a Cambodian when you said that your passport country doesn’t have that food/fruit/tree/animal.
  24. You have been told to go have a nap at a stranger’s house and obliged.
  25. You’ve not known who the market seller/shop owner was and who’s just a friend/customer because they’re all helping you with your purchase.
  26. A stranger knew your name/where you live/where you work/where you’re from because they have a vague connection to someone you know.
  27. You’ve been given a surprise massage at the hairdressers or other places.
  28. You have had children wave and say “hey-lo” to you.
  29. These children suddenly became very shy when you replied in Khmer.
  30. A Khmer child has played a game with your flip-flops.

If you have lived in Cambodia, tally up your scores and add a comment.

  • Food and diet: __/15
  • Transport: __/20
  • Health, hygiene and safety: __/15
  • Wildlife and nature: __/15
  • Daily life: __/15
  • Culture: __/30
  • Total: __/110

If you haven’t lived in Cambodia, what statement surprised you the most?

Simple Khor Sach Chrouk (Cambodian caramelised pork)

Living with a Khmer family has it’s benefits, including trying some amazing, home cooked Cambodian food. I asked Sophy, the wife, to teach me a dish this week and I thought I would write it up.

Khor Sach Chrouk is a really hearty, comfort-food that can easily be customised to your taste. It’s simply caramelised pork belly and it’s really, really delicious but incredibly simple. It’s not spicy but if you do want to add some warmth, put in some ginger. It usually comes with boiled eggs too, but if can’t be bothered with that fuss, don’t worry. We’re only really here for the sticky, sweet, soft pork anyway. What’s also great about this version is that it uses things you probably have around anyway. No special trips to the Asian grocer store necessary!

Cambodians usually will serve more than one dish at a meal. So this is often accompanied by cucumbers, long beans, lettuce or other refreshing vegetables, just to balance out the rich sweetness of the sauce. Again, that’s optional.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6 people

  • 1 kg of pork belly, chopped into rough cubes
  • 4 tablespoons soft brown sugar (palm sugar is great, but just use what you have)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons of chicken stock powder (or probably 1 chicken stock cube and dissolve it in the water)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 500 ml water
  • 4 hard boiled eggs with their shells removed (optional)

Method

  1. Add about 3 tablespoons of the water to the pan and add the sugar. Bring to a vigorous simmer and stir until you have created a sticky syrup.
  2. Add the garlic and ginger (if using) to the syrup and cook until fragrant.
  3. Add the pork belly, the stock powder and the salt. Stir until the belly is a light golden brown.
  4. Add the water and bring to a simmer.
  5. Add the eggs, if using.
  6. Simmer until the sauce is reduced to a thick syrup.
  7. Serve with hot jasmine rice and sliced cucumbers.

Add your own twist

This doesn’t have to be done with pork belly, but the fatty part of the meat just adds that extra richness. You can use a leaner cut such as the shoulder, or even use chicken. You can also add additional spices in with the garlic or ginger including a stick of cinnamon or some star anise. Or if you want to add copious amounts of black pepper, go for it.

You can substitute the salt for a teaspoon of fish sauce. Some people also add bamboo shoots with the eggs.

Poems I Penhed

As an English teacher, I inevitably have to teach poetry. I mainly teach to analyse it, but sometimes I teach to write it too. And when you ask the students to do something, usually you have to provide an example.

So, I taught my students about accentual verse (where it has a similar number of stressed syllables in each line) and poetic metre. I also taught them about using metaphors, and used the structure of the opening three lines of The Highwayman‘s as an example. It has a metaphor that consists of two nouns, and each noun is modified by another noun or adjective. So these are the examples I created for the students in order to show them how to write it.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 1

The wires were twisted jungle vines hanging from ancient jungle trees;
The ruined roads were racing rapids of motos weaving and winding with ease;
The food carts were bubbling cauldrons sending scented smoke high into the sky;
The houses were rain-stained sentinels watching the noisy traffic rush by.
The golden Wat was an open oasis, full of orange-robed men.
This is the city I live in: the beautiful Phnom Penh.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 2

Plastic stools sit around street side stands
Selling baguettes, fruits, meats, condensed milk from cans.
Tuk tuks with curtains and tireless fans whirring.
Smoke from the incense swirling and curling.
Tires wrapped in gold foil at repair stores;
Motos hitched up on black oil-stained floors.
Children spill from school like the tide at the shore.
Ice-cream yellow. Shuttered windows. Dirty whiteboards.
Sudden side streets at jaunty angles.
Shops with a single lightbulb that dangles.
Grandmothers in brown, black patterned skirts swaying,
Wearing white blouses, returning from praying.
The heat of the day switches to the dark of the night
And its still humid air with the dark moths in flight.

It was also important to me to teach poetic forms from various cultures, including the traditional Cambodian Pathya Vat form. It’s a really hard form to copy into English, as Khmer generally consists of shorter words. The form is each stanza has four lines, each line has four syllables. The last line of one stanza rhymes with the second and third line of the subsequent stanza. (So an ABBC DCCE FEEG pattern.)

Again, I wrote an example.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat stands
A silhouette
Its towers set
Before the sun

Rising golden
The night is done
Monkeys among
Ruins, birds take flight

An orange globe
It’s yellow light
Reveals the might
Now set in stone

Ancient battles
Myths, gods all shown
Carved by unknown
Hands, this Wonder

A thousand years
For us to honour
As we ponder
On Angkor Wat

Now, I’m under no illusion that these are works of literary merit. They will need a couple of redrafts or rejections before I would be satisfied with them. But they did the job they were meant to do and I hope you enjoy them somewhat.

Useless barang…

One of the most humbling things about moving to Cambodia is how useless I often feel. Being a barang (the slang word for foreigner), I watch Khmer people and how resourceful and competent they are. There seems to be a few reasons for why I feel Khmer people .

  • I simply don’t understand the culture or ways things are done. Sometimes, the way things happen are extremely different to that in the UK, from sourcing things you want to buy, paperwork or cutting obscure tropical fruit.
  • Cambodians have had to be resourceful. They can use what they have to get the job done. In the UK, we often rely on specialist tools such as mandolins for thinly sliced fruits or specific saws with specific frames for specific tasks. They’ll just use a normal knife and a saw blade for most of what they have to do. Sometimes it takes extra effort or care, but they’re content to put the work in.
  • A sense of confidence in their abilities. Khmer people are very humble and very down-to-earth people. But sometimes, they seem blissfully unaware that sometimes they shouldn’t be good at something. We seem to have a mindset in British culture that this is the realm you are good at and this is what you aren’t good at. However, Cambodians seem to just assume they might be able to do it. It’s probably because in the UK we are able to outsource things we couldn’t do. We even had to come up with a name for when you did it yourself (DIY), because that wasn’t perhaps the norm. But in Cambodia, you tend to try to fix it yourself.
  • Certain skills are highly legislated. In the UK, if you were not confident you could plumb or wire something in correctly and to exact specifications, you wouldn’t even think of doing it. Here, there is less emphasis on this, but for the most part it does seem to work.

As a result of these things, I’m often in awe of the speed and ability of Khmer people to do what they need to do. I’m often not at all confident in doing things, such as DIY or even some cooking tasks, so I will often leave it to the Khmer people to do it. And even when I do have a go, what often will have taken me ages to just attempt is done in a fraction of the time by a Khmer person.

One day, I hope I will be more confident in my abilities to negotiate Cambodia and all the challenges it has for me. But until then, I’ll just be another useless barang.

Control

When Christians back home think of missionaries, I expect they often think of sacrifice and what they’ve had to give up. God has been incredibly gracious to me, and has not asked me to sacrifice all that much (or at least has only asked me to sacrifice a few things that are important to me). I know that I have been abundantly blessed here in Cambodia.

However, recently I have moved house. I have gone from living on my own in a cute one bedroom flat to an entire house with an entire family. For the most part, it is great. But this means I’ve had to sacrifice something that is apparently very important to me: control.

They say that a British man’s home is his castle. There’s a sense of guarding it, controlling it and also isolating yourself within it. Living on my own and also back in the UK with my relatively introverted family meant that guests were invited, we knew when they would arrive and approximately when they would leave. It was very much within the realms of our control.

When I invited a family to move in with me, I forgot I would be inviting Cambodia into live with me as well. Previously I had managed to manufacture a British fortress, or enclave, my little colony. My apartment was a tiny Gibraltar jutting out into the sea that is Southeast Asian culture.

However, with British Imperialism long dead (despite nationalist attempts to flog that dead horse), it wasn’t going to last. So I now live in a Cambodian house. Yes, it’s more of a fusion of our two cultures. But it is a Cambodian family in a Cambodian style house living in Cambodia. Therefore, Cambodia has the upper-hand.

As a result, the come and go nature of Cambodian living (cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, brothers and sisters all appearing unannounced) is very much a part of my life. And I’ve found it hard. I’ve found it hard that the drawbridge to my fortress has been irrevocably lowered and the gates swung wide opened.

Then twitter post came along to convict me of my selfish thinking.

God has bought me to Cambodia not to set up impenetrable walls and to be at arm’s length from those around me. He called me to be his messenger, his ambassador and his hands and feet. Sometimes it will be messy and uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But me stepping into this situation is nothing compared to Jesus stepping from heaven into the mess and discomfort of our fallen world. So even when I’m tempted to pull up the drawbridge, I’ll remind myself that embassies don’t have them.

My favourite things about Cambodians

In my previous post I spoke about cultural clashes. I want to remind you that they are not reasons I look down on Khmer people, but rather where our cultural values conflict. Neither is right or wrong; it’s dependent on whose perspective you see it from. Also, there’s a propensity to see only the differences, and more often than not, the negative ones. I love Cambodia and its people. Yes, there are times when that’s tested more than usual, but I still try and celebrate Cambodians and enjoy living here. So here are things I love about Cambodian culture.

The joy

Cambodians are famous for their friendliness, their laughter, their smiles. Their parties are loud and exuberant. Things are colourful. Their chatter playful. They love games and silliness, even as adults.

The word for play is leng /leːŋ/ លេង. It’s often attached to other words to suggest an element of fun or relaxation:

  • daer leng /ɗaᵊ leːŋ/- to go out for fun (to walk + to play)
  • niyiey leng /niʔjiᵊj leːŋ/- to joke or tease (to speak + to play)
  • angkoy leng /ɑŋkoj leːŋ/ -to sit and relax (to sit + to play)
  • keng leng /keːŋ leːŋ/- to nap (to sleep + to play)

Celebrations, such as weddings and other festivals, are bright, loud affairs. There are games and food and drinks. Cambodians love to laugh and joke and play.

The hospitality

Hospitality in the UK and hospitality in Cambodia is somewhat different. (If you want to see how this difference caused me reverse culture shock read my post melamine plates.) It’s slightly more relaxed (those not used to it would say chaotic) than in the UK. It’s far more easy-come easy-go (like much of Cambodian life, it seems). There’s a vague arrival time and people turn up and plates of food appear.

The welcome is always warm (although sometimes a bit shy and nervous around foreigners) and the beer is always on ice. The cheers “juol muoy!” happens regularly. Basically, any time someone goes to have a swig of beer, you have to clink glasses with everyone then every takes a good swig of their glass, often drain it entirely.

There seems to be an endless conveyor belt of food. There are multiple dishes, ranging from soups, seafood, snails, bbq meat, stir fried greens and, of course, rice. It’s a relaxed affair and you just sit eating. This can go on all day. During this time, neighbours, friends, family, passing acquaintances will be invited in or appear and eat then go. There’s a lot of greeting and farewelling or others popping to the nearby store to pick up another case of beers.

There can be (very loud) music and karaoke and children playing.

This hospitality is more casual than in the UK. There are no napkins (maybe some tissues to wipe your fingers), you can use fingers or lettuce leaves or chopsticks or spoons to eat with, there are few manners to worry about. The karaoke doesn’t matter on the prowess of your singing voice. (This can make it entertaining for all sorts of reasons.) This is the type of hospitality I love. Hospitality that is devoid of social barriers such as etiquette (etiquette is always designed to divide people between social status, so think about that when you next tell your child to take their elbows off the table) and special talents. You come, you eat, you sing. It is hospitality designed to welcome.

The bonds

Cambodians can be naturally shy and a bit hesitant with foreigners, but once you are in, you are very much in.

Social networks are important in Cambodia, and often the connections made can be long lasting and strong. Also, when you’ve made a strong friendship with others, you adopt many of their connections as well. There’s a concept of bong-p’oun. This little means older and younger siblings, but it really refers to your circle of close friendships and family members. There’s a sense of responsibility to care and look out for those in this circle. It’s a tight, reciprocal bond.

I’ve been seen grateful for the connections and friendships I’ve been able to make. There’s a definite sense that I have a collection of people who have my back and will care for me whatever happens.