Loving Cambodia

Many years ago, someone said to me that you haven’t truly settled in a country until you can talk about what is wrong about it. Now, this person has probably forgotten they said this by now. But I remember it because I remember my strong reaction to it. My exact immediate thoughts would be too strong to write here. Fortunately, I managed to hide my feelings somewhat. (I’ve actually written about this incident on the blog already, so 10 stars if you can find out where it’s mentioned before!)

Also, I sometimes find it hard to be around expats. This is because expats like to moan and complain and I hate it. I have actually had to walk away from a group of people because of what they said about Cambodia. Also, I was quite blunt with someone when they said that they didn’t get the sense of recipes being passed down through the centuries when eating Khmer food. I did point out that a genocide may have been a contributing factor. (It’s also really not true; if you actually go to eat nice Khmer food, you’ll realise it’s really nice.)

This frustration around criticising Cambodia is because of a simple reason. God called me to love Cambodia. “Well, you can still love Cambodia and find it hard!” you might cry. This is true. I often find it hard and I will be honest about it. But that, most of the time, it isn’t Cambodia’s fault. It’s just life. And it isn’t an excuse for a critical attitude. It is easy to become cynical and weary, especially when you’re sweaty, hot and tired. But, as I like to say, cynicism is just a Poundland version of wisdom. It’s cheap, easy, and worth very little.

There’s also a very clear Biblical passage on what love is meant to look like. It’s often now used for weddings, but its use was not isolated to just that.

Love is patient with Cambodia and Cambodians; love is kind (in thought, word and deed) to this country.
Love does not become jealous with Cambodians' ease in this country.
Love does not boast about its own customs or country. Love does not think itself better than Cambodia.
Love is not rude to Cambodians. It does not demand that it's own needs, culture and customs be respected above that of the Cambodians.
Love does not keep a record of the wrongs of Cambodia and discuss them endlessly.
Love does not delight in the injustice of global wealth and poverty and rejoice in our own unfair opportunities and privileges.
Love delights when the truth of God's love and justice wins out in this nation.
Love does not give up on Cambodia; love never loses faith in the gospel in Cambodia, is hopeful for transformation, and endures through every circumstance Cambodia throws at it.

Prophecy and speaking Khmer and Mnong and Kraol and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever.
How can you not love a country with sunsets like this?

Podcast: Phnom Penh in Lockdown

I have a new project (which will probably be short-lived)! A podcast. I chose this format because I have done videos in the past but trying to do them when you’re not sweaty and gross has been hard. Podcasts are easier as you only have to worry about the microphone and not what you look like.

I had a few problems with getting WordPress to agree to this (it’s still on-going – it decided to change the embed code to a random link). This is about attempt number 6 to get it to publish here, so rather than embed it, just follow the link below!

https://thomasincambodia.buzzsprout.com/1755649/8361125-phnom-penh-in-lockdown

(Just a note, this was recorded when the COVID-19 cases were somewhat lower than they are now.)

Quarantine: A Day in the Life

Unless you’ve missed my recent posts, facebook updates and instagram pictures, you’re probably aware that I am currently in Cambodia. If you want to know about my somewhat tumultuous return, read here. I’m about halfway through my quarantine. I want to point out that my quarantine experience has not been the same as everyone else’s. I have been very fortunate in the hotel I have ended up at. The food is pretty good and the location is amazing. The room is comfortable and I can’t complain really. So this is a day in the life of someone in a rather comfortable quarantine.

6:30

My alarm will go off. Depending on how kind the jet lag was to me and how well I slept, I might get up then. I might hit the snooze button a few times (by a few times, I might mean six times). Then I get ready for breakfast to arrive.

7.00-8:30

Sometime between those times, I will get a knock on the door and I will receive breakfast. This has been a wide range of things: fried rice, fried noodles, noodle soup, toast, omelette, boiled eggs, fruit. I even got two slices of cake with my breakfast one day! (I had the first slice for morning tea, then the next slice as a reward for not sleeping during the day.)

The time varies, but what can be guaranteed is this. If I’m not showered and ready early, the breakfast will come early and I’ll have to scramble to make myself presentable enough to answer the door. If I am up bright and early, I will have to wait for my breakfast.

Somewhen after breakfast, a little bag of coffee sachets, tea bags, bin liners and bottles of water will be hung on our door handles. It’s like waiting to open the gifts in your Christmas stockings.

I will probably chat with Kristi some point before the next part of the day at ten.

Wednesday’s food. I got cake!

10:00

I have to go to the hotel lobby, with my mask on, for temperature checks. It’s quite good that we can actually wonder the hotel during the day. The lobby has a little shop, with snacks, a little coffee bar and wine. Usually I will take the ten flights of stairs down and up for a little bit of exercise.

10:00 – 12:00

Lunch will arrive. Again, there will be a knock on the door and the calls of “Hey-lo! Hey-lo!” You take your food and sign the clipboard. Lunch is usually quite substantial. Normally, there is a lot of rice. Then there are three dishes, often one being all veg, one veg and egg, one meat. You might get a soup or a sauce with it. Stir-fried cucumbers have been a particularly regular occurrence. You also get some fruit, watermelon, papaya or dragonfruit. I have probably eaten more fruit and vegetables in the last week than I did in the whole of 2020.

Afternoon

This time is pretty much your own. There is a Skybar on the roof with great views, so I’ve gone up there to take photos a few times. I’ve mostly kept myself to myself, though. I’ve been getting on with MA work mostly, sat on my little balcony. Sometimes I will just watch Phnom Penh go by. There is a very small backstreet opposite my balcony, which leads to a school. It’s funny watching the kids come and go – especially watching some of the boys annoy the other students. There’s also a Wat and the Royal University of Fine Arts. It’s great to just watch people come and go.

When I first arrived, the early afternoon was when the drowsiness really kicked in. However, I think I’ve managed to break that cycle a little bit.

5:00-7:00

Dinner will arrive! It is very similar to lunch in size and make-up. There have been a few days which have been more Western, with pasta or potatoes. But for the most part it’s been Asian.

Evening

Again, this is my free time and once dinner has arrived, there’s nothing else for me to wait for or worry about. I might have another wonder around the hotel, or might just watch a movie and relax.

The views

The Royal Palace sits near the riverside where the Mekong and Tonle Sap meets.
The hotel is aboyt 100m from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Here, they preserve some of the unique cultural arts of Cambodia. Behind it, is the National Museum. You can also just about make out the Foreign Correspondants Club (FCC). The large white hotel in the distance, behind the museum, sits where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. This is the site of the boat races and fireworks during Water Festival. Wat Ounalom, to the left, is quite important. It is sort of the Canterbury Cathedral of Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is where the name if the city comes from. You can just about see it here. It’s the white stupa- a sort of cone shaped structure. Vattannac Tower isn’t famous as such, just very distinctive with the curved front and the large balcony. You can’t see Central Market, which is close by.

There have been times when I’ve been really bored. I think it was the mix of jet lag and just being stuck inside. There are points during the day when you have no energy and your brain is a fog. But you know you have to stay up. When no one seems to be online or your internet is intermittent and can be a bit frustrating. Apart from this, I have quite enjoyed my little (but somewhat expensive) hotel break.

Ask a Missionary: Host Culture

I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.

What is the predominant host culture? 

Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.

Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 

I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.

What do you like most about your host culture? 

Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.

What has surprised you most about your host culture? 

How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)

What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 

Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomed in, you’re set.

How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 

I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.

What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 

The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.

How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 

I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien. Of course, that sounds obvious but when I’m a stranger in Cambodia I tend to stick out like a sore thumb.

What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 

There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.

Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 

I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.

What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 

I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.

Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?

My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. “Gift-giving and relationship building” is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?

Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 

The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)

What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 

I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.

Which language / languages are you having to learn? 

Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).

How is language learning going? 

It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which English keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various wacky combinations of keys.

What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 

I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.

I thought I was doing well! Then I asked for corrections…

What challenges have you faced in language learning? 

The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.

How do you feel about language learning? 

I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.

A time of reflection

No one would be surprised if I was to say that 2020 has been hard. Of course, it has been — we’ve all been in the midst of a global pandemic. And as I have seen the devastating impact this virus has had around the world — on societies, economies, the lives of individuals as they see their loved ones’ or their own health diminish — it’s been tempting to dismiss my problems as insignificant. I’ve been healthy, protected in Cambodia and by my youth from the worst and, for the most part, financially stable enough not to fear what would happen next.

But, as the end of 2020 comes towards us, and as I have more opportunity to reflect, I have realised various things. I have lived 2020 (and even, to some extent, the end of 2019) in survival mode. Yes, there has been so much joy and things to be grateful for. But, I have felt, for the most part, as if I have been lurching from one crisis or difficulty to the next. I also need to be able to be okay with living with feelings of grief, disappointment and frustration. Sometimes too quickly, I will brush those feelings off, as if I don’t deserve to be experiencing them, because, of course, someone has it far worst than me.

In my new MA course, we are being encouraged to reflect. I thought I would write a post about my experiences of 2020, as a way to perhaps get them out my head and maybe to process them a bit better. This may be a bit of a long one, so perhaps grab a cup of tea, coffee or comforting drink and take a seat.


I started 2020 already exhausted. In 2019, I had taken on a new subject: iGCSE drama. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I also took on responsibilities with the school play and continued with my language studies in the evenings. Furthermore, that semester, the Ministry of Education in Cambodia demanded that the school submit a ridiculous amount of paperwork, including every scheme of work within the school. Fortunately, the English department only needed to make a few adjustments, but I spent quite a bit of time helping the Khmer teacher with his. (He had to produce schemes from preschool to grade 10 all by himself.) I also decided that I should move house. So, I found a new place and in the last few weeks of December, I packed up all my belonging and found a new fridge, stove, washing machine and bed. Just writing all that out was exhausting enough, so I’m not surprised I was a little tired.

Removing shrines and Chinese good luck charms from the house
Continue reading “A time of reflection”

Ask a Missionary: Out and about

In January, I wrote a blog post with a series of questions called Ask a missionary. It was essentially for anyone who knows a missionary and isn’t sure what to talk about. It goes through a couple of topics, and I answered the one about where I live. I will tell you a bit about what I do when I get out and about.

How do you travel about? 

My two main modes of transport are motorbike and tuk tuk. I use a motorbike for short or easy journeys, especially if I’m not carrying much. Tuk tuks are for long journeys, when I’m shopping, when I’m lazy, when it is raining or for more than one person.

Continue reading “Ask a Missionary: Out and about”

August

I know it’s nearly the end of September, but I’ve been busy, so please be nice.

The first week was just dedicated to my Gateway 2 Khmer assessment. I had some reading, writing, listening and a presentation. I might be a little bit obsessive when it comes to the presentations. That week was really intense so I purposely booked myself a staycation in the centre of Phnom Penh. I stayed at the White Mansion Hotel and just spent two days exploring the area and trying new places.

The next week was not so good. I attempted to do some training at HOPE, but unfortunately, none of the technology worked and it was a terrible shambles. It didn’t help that I had a very sleepless week. Then that weekend, I had a family bereavement back in the UK. It was one that I had emotionally prepared for in coming to Cambodia, it was more the sleepless nights that led to it that were causing problems.

However, on the day that I heard to news, Vitou arrived home very – er – merry. (As was pretty much 90% of the Cambodian population as it was a national holiday.) He was hilarious in his attempts to console me, so that was a welcome distraction. The Khmer New Year holidays had been postponed from April due to the pandemic, and therefore fell at when I needed them most. It was great to have a time to just relax and recuperate.

We went to the provinces a few times with Vitou and his extended family. First we went to the Phnom Baset on the Kandal Provice/Phnom Penh border.

The next day, we went to Vitou’s dad’s house in Kampong Speu.

I led some more training, which was far more successful (possibly because it was paper based and practical). This time it was at LEC, looking at techniques on how to teach pronunciation by breaking up the phonemes and all that good stuff.

The rest of the month was spent reading the material for my sending mission’s course and for my MA.

Ask a missionary: some answers

Back in January, I wrote a blog post called Ask a missionary. Basically, it was a series of different questions that someone could ask a missionary as ice-breakers. I did create a video answering this first set of questions, but it was a while ago and it’s somewhere buried on my facebook page. I am currently in the UK, but this is only temporary, so the answers are still valid.


Where do you live?

I live in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I live quite far in the north of the city, in an area called Phnom Penh Thmei (New Phnom Penh).

Phnom Penh Thmei

How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area?

I live in a borey, or a gated community. Basically, it is a set of uniform houses and there are guards the man the entrance and exit, especially at night. The houses are typical phteah lveng, or town houses. There are mango trees lining the roads, shops and cafes in this borey and it is just lovely. (Except the smelly stream through the middle and the rats.)

Phnom Penh Thmei is great but a bit far from the rest of the city. Phnom Penh city centre is vibrant, exciting, often chaotic, but also filled with oases of calm. I love the city. I feel so privileged that I get to call it my home.

Continue reading “Ask a missionary: some answers”

Welcome back bingo

In a few months, I will be in England. This is a temporary stop-over. (Just a side note: I will be very, very busy. This isn’t a holiday. So, I won’t be able to meet up with as many people as I would like. Oh, and social distancing.)

Of course, there is much to look forward to when returning to your passport country. But, it’s not all sun and roses. There are some really hard, complex and baffling emotions going on that can make it really daunting.

I created this “Welcome Back! Bingo” card, which will hopefully give a chuckle to those who have been in my position as well as shed a bit of a light on some of the pit falls that those welcoming us back can fall into. (I think I’ve experienced all but one of them.)

First, don’t assume where home is. The expat or missionary has probably been working really hard to settle into their new country, putting loads of effort into building relationships, understanding the culture, creating routines, familiarising yourself with your surroundings. This emotional investment, and the fact that a large portion of their life has been spent in a different place, might mean that their new home feels like home. Hopefully, they feel welcome in their passport country and their new host country. But it can be a bit of a confusing rollercoaster as you try to find your roots. (Of course, my parents’ home feels like home. So, I’m looking forward to that!)

Second, reverse culture shock is a thing. Here’s a video from someone else’s perspective.

For example, I went away for a year. When I came back, suddenly there were some unexplainable crazes, namely pineapples and unicorns. They were everywhere. Why, people? What is so amazing about pineapples?

Third, now this is where I try to avoid humble bragging. Our experiences as the same as yours. Markets in the UK are not like markets in Cambodia. And the differences are often unexpected: mall bathrooms are way cleaner in Cambodia than the UK. (Petrol station bathrooms seem to be universally grim, though.) Service is generally quicker in Cambodia (mainly because supermarkets and restaurants tend to have so many staff). It just means conversation can be a bit difficult as you navigate the common ground. Take an interest and ask stupid questions.

Lastly, we are not special. Although our experiences are different, they are the experiences of the millions of people in your host country. There will be some experiences that are universal to the most of the continent (e.g. eating loads of rice in Asia), so that means it’s normal for potentially billions of the world’s population. Therefore, the things we do are normal for a lot of people, just not those back at home. This means that we aren’t in anyway superheroes or extraordinary. We just have a different ordinary. (Which I can assure you, is often dull or sweaty.) Also, the process of moving to a different country is really similar to getting on a plane for a holiday. Just the gap between the inbound flight and the outbound flight tends to be a lot longer.

But making mistakes is okay. But being genuinely interested, intentionally welcoming and seeking to bless can make a world of difference.

July

Well, this month is almost done. It’s mostly been taken up with language learning. I’ve been doing about 22 hours per week. I’m not going to lie, that’s quite full on. Of course, it’s not without it’s funny moments- mixing up the word Samdech (which would roughly translate as “the right honourable”) and sandaech (bean).

At the beginning of the month, Kristi went back to the US for six months. So a lot of the week running up to that was me accompanying her to goodbye meals. I ate very well that week.

I’ve also been enjoying venturing around Phnom Penh and even revived my instagram account.

I also had an adventure with a bird flying into my house. Fortunately, birds fell down the chimney back in the UK on a regular basis so I’m rather skillful with the old tea towel.

It was rather cute.

Have a look at some of my arty posts.

Finally, follow me! Here are the places you can do that.