Being a good guest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that’s because we’re poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

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

Sit and relax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating with Brits

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

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

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

Privacy and personal boundaries

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

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

Indirect communication

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

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

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

Taboos

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

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Personal relationships

You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.

Practical tips

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

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

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

“How was your weekend?

“Not bad actually.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yes, we went to see my family.”

“Oh, really?”

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

“Sounds lovely.”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”

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

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

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

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

Hearing “no”

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

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

“What about TGI Friday’s?”

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

Let them speak

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

Useful phrases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary and other useful tips

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

Other resources

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

Keeping in touch with home

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

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

Write a regular newsletter

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

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

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

Use social media

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

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

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

Make an event of it

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

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

Example invite I sent out over WhatsApp to friends.

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

Remember them!

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

Be creative

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

It’s a hot mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:31

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

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

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

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?

A million questions

Living in Cambodia for an extended period has somewhat ruined travel for me. The idea of going to another country and only skimming the surface of the cultural and historical vastness of a country seems a bit incomplete and, inherently by its nature, superficial. The tantalising glimpses of another culture and life only create further questions. It also makes me feel foolish because I used to feel I had a somewhat complete view of a country I had merely visited. I suppose the maxim is true: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

It made me think about what questions someone should know the answer to in order to feel like they had a basic grasp on a country. Many countries require a citizenship test, that ask seemingly arbitrary questions, for those wishing to become a citizen of this country. I thought about what questions I would include if I wrote a citizenship test. So far I’ve come up with about 260 questions. Some of them could be a dissertation topic in themselves; some of them would just require a quick google search. Hopefully, some of them would get people to ponder a bit more about the country they live in, are studying or wish to integrate in.

1. The basics

  1. What is the name of the country?
  2. Who leads the country?
  3. What type of government is it?
  4. Who are its nearest neighbours?
  5. What are its major languages?

2. Demographics

  1. What is the population of the country?
  2. How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?
  3. What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?
  4. How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population.
  5. How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?
  6. What are the different people groups in the country?
  7. Where can they be found?
  8. What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?
  9. Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?
  10. What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?
  11. Which people groups live alongside one another?
  12. What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?
  13. What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?
  14. What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?
  15. What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?
  16. What are the main differences between the groups?
  17. What is the average age of the country?
  18. What is the average life expectancy of the country?
  19. How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?
  20. What is the population growth of the country?
  21. What are the consequences of this growth?
  22. Are some people groups growing quicker than others? What could be the impacts of this change in demographics?
  23. What are the effects of emigration and immigration on the population?
  24. What are the factors causing emigration and immigration?
  25. What are the attitudes towards emigration and immigration?

3. Geography, climate and landmarks

  1. What landscapes are there in a country?
  2. How do the landscapes influence the lifestyle of those living there?
  3. What is the climate of the country?
  4. What seasons are there?
  5. How do the climate and seasons effect the culture and daily life?
  6. How do the landscapes look different according to the seasons?
  7. Is the climate and weather different in different regions?
  8. How do the seasons affect nature, wildlife, crops and harvests?
  9. How have the seasonal changes been affected by climate change?
  10. How has this affected the people?
  11. What natural landmarks are there in the country?
  12. What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
  13. How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
  14. What manmade landmarks are there in the country?
  15. What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
  16. How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?

4. Culture and values

  1. What is the dominant culture?
  2. Is it a individualistic or communal culture?
  3. Is it a guilt culture, shame culture or fear culture?
  4. What are the significant cultural values?
  5. What of the consequences of breaching these cultural values?
  6. How do others respond to social deviance?
  7. How is social order and the status quo maintained?
  8. What behaviours are considered polite or impolite?
  9. What do they celebrate?
  10. How do they celebrate?
  11. How do they respond to major life events (births, deaths, sickness, marriage, new job, job loss, moving house)?
  12. What are the general fears of the culture?
  13. What do they do to alleviate these fears?
  14. What secular holidays or national celebrations are there?
  15. How are the holidays and celebrations linked to the climate, geography or nature of the country?
  16. What do these holidays and celebrations tell us about what is important to this culture?
  17. What are the influences of minority cultures, neighbouring cultures or other cultures on the culture of this country?
  18. What social hierarchies and class systems are there?
  19. How can you tell the difference between those of difference social status?
  20. Is it easy to gain social status?
  21. What generational differences are there in terms of cultural values?
  22. What are the traditional arts, songs, instruments and dances of the country?
  23. Are these traditions being preserved or are they dying out?
  24. What other traditional cultural artefacts are there?
  25. Who performs or creates these cultural artefacts?
  26. Where can you see them displayed or being created?
  27. What are the myths and legends of the culture?
  28. What stories are famous and often told?
  29. What proverbs are there?

5. History

  1. What are the major events to affect the country within living memory?
  2. How are these events remembered and commemorated?
  3. What effect do these events have on the national psyche and sense of identity?
  4. How do different generations view the events?
  5. How do the different people groups view these events?
  6. How widespread was the effects?
  7. How does the global community view the events?
  8. How is this similar or different to how it is viewed in the country?
  9. How are these events taught in schools?
  10. How are they talked about?
  11. What historical events are still celebrated or commemorated in the country?
  12. How are they remembered?
  13. What does the remembrance of these events suggest about nation values and identity?
  14. How are these historical events viewed across generations and people groups?
  15. How have these historical events been mythologised over time?
  16. How are they taught in school?

6. Faith

  1. What is the dominant religion of the country?
  2. How does it affect the social structure of the country and of communities?
  3. What religious buildings are there in the country and in the average community?
  4. How does religion affect daily life?
  5. What religious festivals and observances are there?
  6. How does faith affect views towards major life events?
  7. How do they believe the world was created?
  8. Where do humans come from according to their beliefs?
  9. How do they explain other natural phenomenon?
  10. What happens when people die?
  11. Will the world end? How will it happen?
  12. How do people interact with the spiritual domain?
  13. Who is able to interact with the spiritual domain?
  14. What hierarchies does religion create or enforce in the country?
  15. What role does religion have in maintaining the status quo?
  16. How is this country’s religion different from its neighbours?
  17. How do people of this country worship in a way that is different to other adherents of that faith?
  18. What superstitions are there?
  19. What objects, animals or natural phenomenon have spiritual significance?
  20. What beliefs are there in fate or luck?
  21. How can you change your fate or luck?

7. Family life

  1. What is the size of an average family unit?
  2. Who makes up an average family?
  3. How many people will live in the same house?
  4. What is the size of an average house? How many rooms does it have?
  5. How many children does an average woman have?
  6. What are the roles of each member of a family?
  7. Do families live within the same communities?
  8. What are the attitudes towards care for the elderly?
  9. How are children raised, disciplined and nurtured?
  10. What is the average age to get married?
  11. When are you considered past your prime?
  12. Who haves the economic power or responsibility in a family?
  13. What traditions and practices are there relating to pregnancy and birth?
  14. What traditions and practices are there relating to death and illness?
  15. How do they celebrate birthdays?
  16. What ceremonies are related to courting, engagements and weddings?
  17. What is the attitude towards divorce and infidelity?
  18. What are the rates of domestic abuse?
  19. Are there differences in family life between urban and rural areas? What are they and why are there these differences?
  20. How has the look of the family changed between generations?
  21. What does a family meal look like?
  22. How often do extended families eat together?

8. Daily life

  1. What time do people get up?
  2. What time do they go to bed?
  3. How many people share a bed?
  4. What are the children’s/babies sleep routines? Are they different from the adults?
  5. How many days a week do they work?
  6. How long are their work hours?
  7. What are the household tasks or chores that need doing?
  8. Who does them?
  9. Where do they do their shopping?
  10. How many meals do they eat a day?
  11. What do they eat for each meal?
  12. Do they eat at home or do they eat out?
  13. How much money do they spend on grocery shopping?
  14. What do they do with their free time?
  15. Who do they spend their free time with?
  16. What is the most popular non-alcoholic and alcoholic drink in the country?
  17. What sports are popular in this country?
  18. What music do they listen to?
  19. Do they use social media? Which sites do they use?
  20. Do they have access to television, radio or films? What do they watch?
  21. What objects would you find in the average house? What are they for?
  22. What daily struggles or frustrations might a person face?
  23. What transportation do people use on a daily basis?
  24. What do people wear on a daily basis?
  25. What influences the fashions and what is worn?
  26. How far do people travel on a regular basis?

9.Community life

  1. What are the names for community units? How are they structured?
  2. What hierarchies are in place? Who has authority within a community?
  3. Where do communities gather?
  4. When do communities gather?
  5. Where do communities interact?
  6. Where is the heartbeat of community life?
  7. What is the relationship between private and public life?
  8. Who are the gatekeepers to the communities?
  9. Who knows everyone’s business in a community?
  10. What social ties are there within communities?
  11. How do people feel about spending time with others?
  12. How do people feel about spending time alone?
  13. How many people have visited other countries?

10. Education and employment

  1. What level of the population are literate?
  2. What is the education system of the country?
  3. What is the attitude towards education in the country?
  4. How many children attend school?
  5. How big are the average classroom sizes?
  6. How do the following factors affect educational attainment: gender, region and affluence?
  7. Which educational establishments have the best reputation?
  8. What is the most common type of degree, certification or training?
  9. How do most people find work?
  10. What is the rate of employment in the country?
  11. What are the consequences of unemployment?
  12. Which sector is the largest provider of employment in the country?
  13. Which company is the largest employer?
  14. What is considered a good job in the country?
  15. What is the average wage?
  16. How many people live in poverty?
  17. What sectors are growing in the country? How is this impacting employment?

11. Health and safety

  1. Does the average family have a fresh water supply? Where do they get their water from?
  2. Does the average family have access to electricity? What are the sources of electricity?
  3. How do they maintain cleanliness and hygiene?
  4. Does the average family have access to a toilet?
  5. What illnesses are common in the country?
  6. How are they treated? How are they prevented?
  7. Is prevention, treatment and health education widespread?
  8. What is the infant mortality rate?
  9. How many people per doctor are there in the country?
  10. What is the leading cause of death?
  11. What is the rate of alcohol addiction?
  12. What is the rate of substance abuse?
  13. Where are the best hospitals?
  14. Who has access to them?
  15. What is the attitude towards medical treatment?
  16. What traditional practises are used to treat illnesses?
  17. How do cultural beliefs impede improvements in health?
  18. What dangerous animals are a risk in that country?
  19. What is the safest way to travel?
  20. What do people feel afraid of? What makes them feel unsafe?

12. Communication

  1. How long is the dominant language’s alphabet?
  2. What are the main features of the language?
  3. What other languages are spoken?
  4. What gestures or facial expressions are important?
  5. What gestures or facial expressions are best avoided?
  6. Is the communication style direct or indirect?
  7. What honorific terms are used?
  8. How is status, hierarchy or social identity revealed through speech?
  9. How similar is spoken speech to its written language?
  10. What percentage of the population uses mobile phones?
  11. What are the major network providers?
  12. Is there a postal service and how do you use it?
  13. How is major news and important information distributed?
  14. What TV stations are there?
  15. What newspapers are there?

13. Development

  1. Is the country an LEDC (less economically developed country) or MEDC (more economically developed country)?
  2. What is the GDP per capita?
  3. What is the percentage of annual GDP growth?
  4. What factors have promoted economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  5. What factors have prevented economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  6. How has the life expectancy changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  7. How has the infant mortality rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  8. How has the literacy rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
  9. What is the country’s largest source of money?
  10. What is their biggest export?
  11. How many tourists visit a year?
  12. Where do the tourists come from?
  13. Who benefits most from tourism?
  14. Who benefits most from businesses?
  15. How is the country’s wealth distributed?

14. Summary

  1. What are major common themes in the various answers?
  2. What are the biggest trends in growth?
  3. What are the reasons for optimism for the country?
  4. Who is doing important working in promoting change for the country?
  5. What are the major challenges this country might face in the future?
  6. What are the possible solutions to such challenges?
  7. What changes do people predict for the country?
  8. What changes do you predict for the country?
  9. What could the outside world do for the country?
  10. What is your own personal relationship with the country?
  11. What are your thoughts and feelings about the various topics?
  12. What surprised you the most?
  13. What topics would you research further?
  14. How did you find the answer to the questions?
  15. What personal anecdotes do you have about adjusting to life in this country?
  16. What sources of conflict are there between your native culture and your second (or third) culture?
  17. What have been the major challenges for you adapting to this country?
  18. How do you feel about the country now having answered the questions?
  19. What discovery do you think will be the most helpful in integrating into this country?
  20. What mistakes have you made in the past that you now understand more fully having answered these questions?

I can probably answer about 40% of the questions with any accuracy. The answers would be too long for a single blog post, but I might try answering them. By the time I have finished them all, I would probably have a rather comprehensive research paper on my hands.

Hopefully, others that I intending to get to know a particular country more fully, or just cement what they know about a place more fully, will find this list interesting and helpful.