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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.
However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.
For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.
British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.
I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.
However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.
As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.
Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.
I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.
One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.
Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)
If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.
I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.
This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.
One of the hardest aspects I have found with being abroad is the relationships with those back at home. There are often awkward attempts either way but sometimes it feel like attempts to communicate fall flat. I’ve think I’ve identified one of the problems.
I’ve often invited others to ask questions about life in Cambodia, but either I get asked the same questions (“What do you miss most…?” “Cheese.”) or they’re hard to answer (“What flowers are in bloom at the moment?” “Er… the pink ones.”) or just silence. I think a part of the problem is knowing what questions to ask. So, I thought I’d help. I’ve also given them a chilli rating on how spicy the questions and possible answers are. One chilli 🌶 is the basics (they’re possibly things you should know already, but it’s worth checking if you don’t know.) Two chillis 🌶🌶 gets a bit more detail. Three chillis 🌶🌶🌶 are more personal and could give rise to painful answers. They could also reveal some of the failings or difficulties the missionary is facing. If you are a very close, you can go in for the deep three chillis 🌶🌶🌶 but perhaps otherwise stick to the one or two chillis. Also, this is not meant to be a hard-and-fast interview. Your aim is not to go through the list and tick them off. These are ideas to help start the conversation.
Where they live
Where do you live? 🌶
How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area? 🌶 – 🌶 🌶
What is your favourite thing about your area? 🌶🌶
What amenities or resources do you have close access to? 🌶
What problems are there in your area? 🌶🌶
What grieves you about the area where you live? 🌶🌶🌶
How should I pray for where you live? 🌶🌶
What is your house/accommodation like? 🌶
What’s your favourite thing about your accommodation? 🌶
What would you change about your accommodation? 🌶🌶
What daily hassles or frustrations do you have with your accommodation? 🌶🌶
Who do you live with? 🌶
What are they like? 🌶🌶
How do they bring you joy? 🌶🌶
What relational problems are there between you and those you live with? 🌶🌶🌶
How can you serve those you live with better? 🌶🌶🌶
How can I pray for those you live with? 🌶🌶
Who are your neighbours? 🌶
What are they like? 🌶🌶
What type of relationships do you have with your neighbours? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶
How can you better serve your neighbours? 🌶🌶🌶
How can I pray for your neighbours? 🌶🌶
Out and about
How do you travel about? 🌶
Describe a typical journey. 🌶🌶
Do you feel safe when you travel? 🌶🌶
How often do you go out for leisure? 🌶
What is there to do where you live? 🌶
What do you do to relax? 🌶
Tell me about your ideal day off. 🌶🌶
Where are your favourite places to visit? Why? 🌶🌶
Where would you like to visit? Why would you like to go there? 🌶🌶
What activity do you hope to do? Why do you wish to do that? 🌶🌶
What place did you find the most interesting or rewarding? Why was that? 🌶🌶
What activities would you like to do but can’t? 🌶🌶 How does that make you feel? 🌶🌶🌶
What do the locals do when they have free time? 🌶
What is your opinion of how locals spend their free time? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶
Do you feel bored or stressed where you are? If so, how could you change this? 🌶🌶
What unhealthy habits do you have when it comes to spending your free time? 🌶🌶🌶
Are you stewarding your money wisely? 🌶🌶🌶
Daily life and healthy routines
What is your daily routine? 🌶
How is this routine similar to that back at home? 🌶🌶
How is this routine different to that back at home? 🌶🌶
What do you eat most days? 🌶🌶
Do you have a good work / relaxation balance? 🌶🌶
Do you eat healthily? 🌶🌶
Have you been well? 🌶🌶
What has prevented you from being healthy at the moment? 🌶🌶
What common illnesses or health problems are there in your country? 🌶🌶
What daily challenges do you face? 🌶🌶
Are you exercising regularly? 🌶🌶
Are you sleeping well? 🌶🌶
What changes to your routine could you make to help you stay well and healthy? 🌶🌶🌶
What do you do? 🌶
Where do you work? 🌶
How do you get to work? What is that journey like? 🌶 -🌶🌶
Tell me about your average day. 🌶🌶
Describe your place of work. 🌶🌶
What is your favourite thing about your job? 🌶
What is your biggest frustration about your job? 🌶🌶🌶
What is a daily challenge you face in your job? 🌶🌶🌶
Do you enjoy your work, overall? 🌶🌶🌶
How does your work make you feel about yourself? 🌶🌶🌶
Do you work with locals, foreigners, Christians, non-Christians? 🌶 Do you like this set up? 🌶🌶🌶
Who are your colleagues?🌶
What positive relationships do you have at your job?🌶🌶
What relational problems do you have at your job?🌶🌶🌶
How can you resolve any problems or issues you are facing?🌶🌶
How can I pray for you as you do your work?🌶🌶
How can I pray for where you work and those you work with? 🌶🌶
What is your predominant host culture (the culture that they now live in, which is not their own culture)? 🌶
Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 🌶
What do you like most about your host culture? 🌶🌶
What has surprised you most about your host culture? 🌶🌶
What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 🌶🌶
How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 🌶🌶
What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 🌶🌶
How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 🌶🌶🌶
What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better? 🌶🌶🌶
Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 🌶🌶🌶
What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 🌶🌶🌶
Which language / languages are you having to learn? 🌶🌶
How is language learning going? 🌶🌶
What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 🌶🌶
What challenges have you faced in language learning? 🌶🌶
How do you feel about language learning? 🌶🌶
Where is the country? 🌶
What climate does it have? 🌶
How have you adjusted to the climate? 🌶🌶
What are the cities like? 🌶🌶 What is the countryside like? 🌶🌶
What sites do you enjoy in the country? 🌶🌶
What animals are there in your country? 🌶
How do you and the locals live alongside these animals? 🌶🌶
What seasons are there? 🌶
What new things to enjoy does each season bring? 🌶🌶
What new challenges does each season bring? 🌶🌶
Where are the top tourist places to visit? 🌶🌶
What is the food like? 🌶🌶
Tell me a bit about it’s recent history. 🌶🌶
How do most people make a living? 🌶🌶
What struggles to local people face in their lives? 🌶🌶
What problems are (somewhat) unique to the country? 🌶🌶
How can we pray for the country? 🌶🌶
How do you maintain relationships with those back home? 🌶🌶
Do you have Christian friends in your host country? 🌶🌶
Do you have local friends in your host country? 🌶🌶
How are you relationships with family / spouses etc. who you live with? 🌶🌶
Do you feel like you have meaningful connections with others? 🌶🌶🌶
Have you formed any unhealthy dependent relationships? 🌶🌶🌶
How do you make sure your strong relationships include rather than isolate others? 🌶🌶🌶
Are you lonely? 🌶🌶🌶
What causes you to struggle with maintaining relationships with those back at home? 🌶🌶🌶
Do you feel listened to and understood by those back at home? 🌶🌶🌶
How can you improve your situation in terms of relationships? 🌶🌶🌶
How can I pray for you, your friends, your family, etc. ? 🌶🌶🌶
What answers to prayers have you had recently? 🌶🌶
What encouraging news do you have for those praying for you? 🌶🌶
What has God been teaching you recently? 🌶🌶
How regularly are you praying? 🌶🌶🌶
How regularly are you reading the Bible? 🌶🌶🌶
What are you reading in the Bible at the moment? 🌶🌶
How can you apply what you have been reading to your situation? 🌶🌶🌶
How regularly do you worship with other believers? 🌶🌶
Which church / churches do you attend? 🌶
How do you serve the churches you attend? 🌶🌶
How could you serve them better? 🌶🌶🌶
How do you feel about your faith at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
How do you feel towards God at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
How do you feel towards Christians at home and supporters at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
How do you feel about your calling at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
What is bringing you anxiety, grief or pain in your faith at the moment? 🌶🌶🌶
What can you do to change this? 🌶🌶🌶
What can we pray for? 🌶🌶 – 🌶🌶🌶
If I ever get around to it, I might make videos answering some of these questions and the questions on my a million questions post.
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.
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.
My friend mentioned that mosquitoes are our true friends in Cambodia: they are always there when you go home and they never leave you nor forsake you. In Cambodia, mosquitoes are carriers of both malaria and dengue fever. Malaria is only present in the most rural areas and I am not at risk of catching it in my day-to-day life. Dengue, however, is an urban illness.
Dengue was first detected in Cambodia in 1963. (I don’t think that means it first arrived in Cambodia then, but I’m not an expert.) Since then its occurrence has been rising steeply. In 2018, there were over 15,000 reported cases of dengue. There are sometimes epidemics, for example in 2017, there were around 39,000 reported cases. There have already been over 1,000 cases of dengue reported in 2019.
Dengue fever can be just like a really bad case of the flu. However, there are deadly complications, which include dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome. Also, it can take weeks to recover from.
Even when not considering the general risks, mosquitoes make life somewhat uncomfortable and annoying. They like dark places and seem to hide in clothes.
Opening your bag and a dozen mosquitoes fly out.
Going to put your underwear on and a dozen mosquitoes fly out.
Squashing a mosquito and realising you killed it too late because your hands are now smeared with your own blood.
Waking up because a mosquito flew into your ear canal.
Getting too excited with the mosquito bat and realising you’ll be living in a mosquito graveyard for the next month.
Spraying the bathroom with insecticide then instantly needing the toilet. You have to choose between suffocation or wetting yourself.
Spraying insect repellent in front of a fan and getting it in your eyes.
Spraying your hands with DEET then touching your lips.
Inhaling a mosquito.
Getting a tuk tuk and realising that a cloud of mosquitoes are also hitching a ride.
Wanting to sleep with your back to the fan but knowing you’re creating a windshield that will allow stealthy mosquitoes to get to you.
Using a mosquito coil too near to your clothes so you smell of smoke for weeks.
I love my time in Cambodia. It’s great and the country and its people are beautiful. So often I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I am here. However, that’s not to say there are challenges. Here are some of the biggest ones.
3. Cultural clashes
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but I am English. In fact, I am quintessentially so. If you wanted a stereotype of an introverted English man, look no further. This means that I am awkward, embarrassed, and uptight. I obey a needlessly endless string of social rules and conventions and social politeness and etiquette is relatively important.
What is difficult is that it is easy to forget that other English speakers are not necessarily English in culture. They probably have lower blood pressure and negotiate social situations with a lot less stress as a result. However, despite the shared language, their relaxed attitudes and happiness to discuss various subjects sometimes translates poorly into English culture. It can come across as overly familiar, nosey or insensitive.
My Khmer is developing, but it’s at the stage where actually it sometimes makes it worse. When I was first learning, what I understood was so limited, that I could often rely on the fact that I probably misunderstood the communication, or wasn’t able to make myself understood. This meant hand gestures, repetition and double checking were necessary. Therefore, often everything was tedious but you seemed to have a better sense of when you arrived at an understanding (or when you didn’t, which was the more frequent of the two scenarios).
What I understand has grown and what I don’t understand has shrunk a bit. However, this means that often the two parts overlap. Sometimes, I think I have understood, but actually I didn’t. This is this language danger zone. You go away satisfied that everything is fine, but find out later that you have unwittingly unleashed a disaster of confusion. I accidentally refused an invite to a wedding because I thought the guy was asking something else.
I can’t wait to get to the part where what I understand is far larger than what I don’t.
1. Communicating with home
This is probably one the hardest parts of living abroad. And it’s not me, it you. Well, actually it’s communicating with you.
Life in Cambodia is different, both in big, drastic ways and in subtle, difficult to perceive ways. Even if you have been to South East Asia or Cambodia itself, the day-to-day reality can be a lot different to the tourist’s or visitor’s experiences. When communicating with people who have never been, it can be even harder.
For example, let’s say I wanted to tell you about my visit to a market. The word market possibly conjures up lots of different images. For the typical westerner, it might mean a farmers’ market, full or organic food and artisanal breads and shiny round wheels of cheeses. The market in the UK is a middle-class day out. It’s clean; it’s sterile; it’s a bit dull.
In Cambodia, the market is the heartbeat of daily life. You can buy most things at the market, especially the bigger ones such as Central Market or Orussey Market. It will have fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, motorcycle parts, jewellery, souvenirs, homeware, incense, flowers, stationery, books and stands selling hot food. They are great, but they are hot, sweaty, and often really smelly. If it’s outside, you get the fumes of motorbikes and tuk tuks as they idle while their riders negotiate prices; inside the air is fetid with the smell of fish and blood and dank water that runs down the open gutters through centre of the market. The experience is also dependent on which market you go to.
To communicate these differences and the experiences are lengthy and time consuming. The market is just one example. My walk to work, a general journey through Phnom Penh, a Cambodian mall, a Cambodian village, a Cambodian home, the Cambodian countryside: these are all experiences that are quite difficult to articulate. It sometimes feels that just to have a meaningful conversation, you have to spend an hour explaining and describing the nuances of Cambodia. And that’s hard and can be isolating.
Also, there’s sometimes an unintentional power to words. Cambodia is great. I also know most of my friends here feel the same way. But sometimes we moan and we vent and we laugh about our experiences (such as nearly being stampeded by water buffalo on the way to work, a mosquito flying up our nose, the panic induced by thinking your air-conditioner is broken, getting misunderstood at a market, ending up at the wrong destination in a PassApp). But they are not really that significant. Yes, they can be annoying and sometimes it gets on top of us when we are tired or there is one too many mosquitoes buzzing around our head. But it’s just a fleeting complaint. We dust ourselves off (sometimes literally- Cambodia is really dusty in the dry season) and carry on. We don’t cry (every time); we don’t self-pity for too long; we don’t dwell. We let it out; we move on and we do the same again tomorrow.
However, often, by communicating it to people back home, suddenly it’s become something bigger than you intended. It’s suddenly the front-page news or the big issue. But that’s not how you wanted it to work out. A simple rant or joke can sound like a life-time trauma to those not in the midst of it.
Now, it’s my blog, so I can say what I want to. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the radio silence from the home end. It feels like we’ve set up a one-way radio system. I transmit updates, details and newsletters, and blogs, and Facebook posts. I actually have to work quite hard at it. A blog post may take an hour or so. The Fact Fridays or Words of the Week take 30 minutes. The newsletters can take up to three hours. Just a “It was great to hear from you!” is all it takes to feel like someone is out there and interested. Otherwise, all I’m getting is static at this end and it makes me wonder if it’s worth doing. Let me know you’ve read it. Ask questions (I know that’s hard, sometimes the lack of knowledge means it’s really difficult to know what to ask). Find out about something and ask me my thoughts on it. Challenge me to do something. Invite me on a Skype date. Tell me three things that have happened to you in the last week. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just let me know you are out there.
I’m trying to build up my repertoire of Khmer songs. Christian ones are particularly helpful: I know the tunes and I can get the gist of what they are singing as it’s pretty close to the English. Therefore, I’ve been using simple and rather repetitive songs to build my knowledge of Khmer words and phrases.
Again, I’ve transcribed it and transliterated it twice, using two different systems. Read (or don’t) about some of the thought processes behind how I’ve done it here. It goes some way to explain why what you read might not be exactly what you hear, especially in songs.
It’s 30˚C, it’s hot, it’s sticky, but it’s also Christmas. This time of year, I feel a little bit disorientated. The calendars say it’s December but the weather outside is not exactly frightful. I actually enjoy Christmas here in a way. Apart from shops having some decorations, it passes without too much attention. There’s no pressure to cook the perfect turkey, to buy the perfect presents and to make sure that you’ve sent out cards before the last post. Ironically, the lack of celebration perhaps allows more focus on what the story of Christmas is about.
After my Khmer lessons in the evening, I will often drive (well, get driven) down a long road that passes behind the international airport. It’s called Street 2004. In the day, it seems to be mostly metal workshops. However, when the evening comes, the metal workshops are mostly closed and the street is transformed. Karaoke bars turn on their bright lights and restaurants start blaring music. There must be at least twenty karaoke bars along this street. It’s amazing that the workshops seem to wholly disappear (they are just tucked away in the darkness) and that the bars were there all along during the day.
Karaoke seems like an innocent enough past time. However, these bars often act as brothels or at least where girls get paid to entertain and host men. Each bar has a row of chairs outside, seating about a dozen girls, all in glamorous dresses and makeup, just waiting. Sometimes, these are school girls, pressured by family members – even their own parents – to earn extra money by selling themselves. Abject poverty can lead to terrible choices. Sometimes the eldest daughter, for the sake of her siblings or perhaps someone struggling in the family, is forced into prostitution. There is no free NHS, there is no social welfare, there is no bursary to fall back on. There is only sexual trafficking, petty crime or begging in order to survive.
So, at least twice a week, I am confronted by the brokenness of this country and the sin of this world. Cambodia provides a lot of opportunity for this type of wakeup call: the victims of mines begging at tourist sites, young children pulling rubbish carts and collecting cans and wires and anything that can be stripped and sold for a few riel. Cambodia’s beauty and vibrance is also mixed with sadness and hardship. Sometimes they are so intermingled its hard to know where one ends and the other starts.
My heart breaks to see the rows of girls; or the begging children; or the trash collectors sitting in among bags of rubbish searching for scraps; or the victims of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge still forty years on. Where is God in all this? Where can I find the Merry Christmas, or joyful tidings or season’s greetings in the dirt, destitution and degradation? It’s near impossible to reconcile a Cambodian Christmas with the picturesque Victorian images of Christmas the UK has inherited: a plump baby Jesus asleep in the serene manger, while the silent stars looked on over a quiet, orderly and clean Bethlehem. It seems so wrong and confusing.
But I think that the Cambodian Christmas is more akin to what actually happened in first century Palestine.
Jesus came to this damaged world. He didn’t arrive to live a life of cozy Christmas cards, tacky tinsel and steaming stuffing. Nor did he come to reject the poor, condemn the prostitute (or even the pimp) or to hang out with the rich and powerful. Nor did he, perhaps which is most confusing to us, come to wave a magical omnipotent wand and clean up the mess. That would just be sanitising the world, much like our cute version of the nativity does.
No, instead, Jesus (who had, for eternity, been dwelling in heavenly bliss) stepped down into the hurt and pain and hardship of this world. He visited the dead and dying, he invited the rejected, he blessed the outcasts. Jesus – the refugee, the carpenter, the rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee, the trouble-maker – had came to heal, to transform and to restore. Jesus, that little baby, had come to die so that a world reeking with death and decay could come alive once more.
Simply, Jesus came because God’s heart broke.
God saw the pain and suffering far more than my fleeting glimpses as my tuk-tuk trundles along Street 2004. God knows everything from time’s beginning to time’s end. He sees the whole of humanity’s pain. God knows it and God’s love for his children and his creation surpasses anything that we could ever reach.
And so he sent his son.
And because of Jesus, everything changed. We live in a changed and new world.
We live in the promise that we can be reconciled to God, our Father and creator. We live in the promise that Jesus can indwell within us and can provide us with the peace and the strength and the wisdom to navigate the hardships of this world. We now live in the promise that one day all tears will be gone and the world will be renewed.
This is the gift of Christmas. This is the good news. This is the news available for all, those at home and those in Cambodia. The priest, the prostitute, the pimp can all receive this gift. Not one person is too far gone or too broken or too unsightly that God’s love cannot reach them. For, the Bible tells us, whoever calls on the name of the Lord, can be saved.