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.
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.
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.
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.
Positive Cultural Trait
Aloof and cold
Respect for personal boundaries
Loud and brash
Open and welcoming
Disingenuous or dishonest
Rude or blunt
Honest and straighforward
Dramatic and intense
Passionate, responsive, empathetic
Intrusive or nosy
Interested, community orientated
Treats everyone with warmth
Unforthcoming and taciturn
Desires deep, genuine relationships
Over-familiar with superiors/elders
Obsequious or passive
Respect for authority and social rank
Relaxed and easy-going
Pompous or nitpicker
Respect 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?
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.
So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.
Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh
I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.
Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.
South versus North
Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.
Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.
Khmer versus Expat
Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.
My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.
A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.
Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.
Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.
However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.
Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.
I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.
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.