Brother from another motherland

Today is Vitou’s birthday! Our friendship goes back for more than five years and has been a really important and central part to my time here in Cambodia. He is a pretty amazing guy, so I thought I would give you a picture of how great he is and tell some of the stories of our friendship.

We first met outside a cafe called Jars of Clay, in the south of the city. That particular restaurant isn’t there due to COVID (but they have another site which is still running). He was a tuk tuk driver there. What I am going to say I mean literally: he was a godsend. If it wasn’t for Vitou, I think my arrival in Cambodia would have been extremely difficult. However, whenever I needed to find somewhere or something, I would ask Vitou. Two examples of how it would have been if I hadn’t found Vitou were etched on my mind.

The first is the attempt to find the office of the organisation I work with. I was, at that point, down some back alley in a confusing part of the city. I had a pin of the office’s location, however, the Google maps for Phnom Penh at that point was not particularly accurate (it has improved a little). It did not reflect the layout of the smaller side streets where the office was. However, I did not know this. So I tried to go there for a lunch that had been organised for a member of staff. It was close to where I was so I decided I could walk. It was in the middle of the day so that was a really stupid idea in the first place. But when it became apparent that I would not find the office and I could not find any shade in the heat, I realised the stupidity of the plan. My hands were so sweaty, I could no longer use my phone as I was just smearing the screen and my taps were not being registered. I had to flag a tuk tuk driver down to take me home before I passed out. After that, I had Vitou take me to the office. He phoned up the Khmer admin assistant that worked there, got the directions and we found it. (It was also reassuring that even after this, he still found it difficult to find it the first time and had to make a number of calls.) Every time I needed to go to the office, I would have to ask Vitou. To this day, I could still not tell you where it was, despite having been there a number of times.

Every year around September or October there is a festival called Pchum Ben, and during this time, Phnom Penh empties. Everyone goes to visit family in the provinces. This included Vitou. He was away for about three days, and during that time my life was so much harder. I was taken to the wrong locations at least twice, once on the complete opposite side of the city: I wanted to go to the south-west of the city and I was taken to the north-east of the city. Without Vitou, I imagine my first few months in Cambodia could have been a bit like that. Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh were very geared to take foreigners to tourist places, but sometimes struggled with helping foreigners with normal day-to-day living. Vitou’s English is very good (despite what he says to the contrary) and any task was made 100 times easier with him around.

He was also really protective of me during those first few months. He made sure I was okay in most situations. In Khmer culture, you call your friends older brother/younger brother depending on their age. Although I’m 9 months older than Vitou, I still call him older brother because of the way he looked after me during that time. One funny aspect of our relationship that has changed is that he refused to take me to places where Khmer people would normally eat. He was worried I’d fall ill. So, whenever I asked to go somewhere Cambodian, he would just stop outside a restaurant for foreigners and suggest I eat there. Some of my best memories during my first few months involve Vitou (including the incident where I nearly got a Cambodian girlfriend).

I moved to Siem Reap, but we still managed to maintain our friendship. This included going to his sister’s wedding in the province, which was a massive cultural experience. (It also included the bathroom incident in Savanna Mall). One of my favourite memories of the wedding was how Vitou’s two boys decided they liked me. They couldn’t speak any English then and I could barely speak Khmer. The way we communicated was the fist bump from Big Hero 6: they’d come up to me, give me a fist bump and I would do the “Balalalala” and they’d fall into hysterics.

Dressed up for a wedding.

Whenever I had to go to Phnom Penh during that time, he would be the first to know. He would pick me up and drop me off at the bus terminal, take me to where I needed to be and look after me. I even stayed at his family’s house a few times whilst I was here.

When my parents came to visit me in 2017, Vitou was the one that took us around. There was a few days when they were in Phnom Penh on their own and Vitou was their guide. He even introduced them to my aforementioned Cambodian not-girlfriend.

Vitou looking cool at Angkor Wat

During April is Khmer New Year. Vitou came to Siem Reap and stayed with me. We saw the temples at sunrise and enjoyed the festivities in Siem Reap together. It was really great having him with me. He said he was really scared to come to a city he didn’t know, but after a few days, he knew his way around it better than I did. (Vitou has an extremely good memory for places and routes and numbers, which is a very good thing for a tuk tuk driver.)

When I left Cambodia in 2017, not sure if or when I would be coming back, saying goodbye to Vitou was really hard. He gave me a photo of us at Angkor Wat to take home. (Funnily enough, a few years later a Chinese student that was staying at my parents’ house for Christmas asked if that was a photo of me and my twin.)

But I did return! I was really excited to see Vitou and his family again. I can remember arriving back in Phnom Penh and feeling like I was returning home. However, I quickly became frustrated. Previously, all my experience of Phnom Penh had been in the south: all the places I knew, all the memories were a 30-45 minute drive away. I felt like I was starting again in some ways. Little did I know that Vitou, his family and all his in-laws lived within a 10 minute drive of where I was living. Furthermore, his church (that his brother-in-law is the pastor of) was 3 minutes down the road.

This also meant that when his baby girl was born, I met her the very next day! So, over the last few years, I’ve been able to see her grow up.

I asked Vitou to give me some Khmer lessons and other days I gave him English lessons. With going to the same church, I probably saw him 4 days a week. Of course, when I had to be somewhere, he was the man I asked. He also installed my washing machine and helped me move any furniture and just generally looked after me. I remember him turning up to my door at 6:30 am to give me a birthday cake. We also went to Mondulkiri on holiday together, and this was one of my favourite holiday experiences ever. It was just easy and relaxing.

Vitou’s housing situation was getting a little bit crowded. In one house there were seven adults and five children, including two children under two. I could tell this situation was a bit difficult for everyone, which is understandable. So, I suggested the idea that we move in together. I would rent a whole house (which was relatively cheap), and Vitou and his family would provide me with free language and culture lessons and meals in return. It was also really helpful for my relationship with Kristi. In Khmer culture it would have been very inappropriate to invite Kristi over when I lived alone. However, living with a family provided an excuse. It was also great because Kristi got to experience the joy and blessing of knowing Vitou’s family like I did. (In fact, before Kristi knew them she thought I was a little too over-the-top in how I expressed how great they were. Once she got to know them, she realised I had actually be rather reserved about it.)

I loved living in that house with them. I loved seeing the children each day, and spending time with the family in the evenings, eating meals together. I learnt so much about Cambodian culture and about myself. That time also confirmed how generous, patient, kind, forgiving, caring and accepting Vitou and his family are. Anything that needed doing, any help I needed, Vitou was there for me. Bed bugs, illnesses, the death of my granddad, Vitou always was at my side. When it was my granddad’s funeral, which I had to watch online, Vitou stayed up and watched it with me so I wouldn’t feel alone. He always went out of his way to make sure that everything was good for me.

I previously had a suspicion that Vitou actually has superpowers but one incident confirmed it for me. Our house had a rat problem (as does a lot of houses here in Phnom Penh). I spotted one in the kitchen one evening. Vitou grabbed an oven glove, crouched by the fridge and waited. When the rat ran out, he grabbed it and knocked it against the wall. I did have to point out it wasn’t dead yet, so he just gave it another quick bash and the job was done. It was probably (compared to other methods I’ve used) a very humane way to dispatch of it. The fact that he did it with nothing but an oven glove amazed me.

One benefit of me paying the rent was that Vitou was able to start putting money towards building his own house. An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 was that a lot of builders were struggling for work, so he was able to start on it and finish it a lot sooner than we expected. My original plan was that he would get his house and I would find somewhere else to live. That was until he announced to me one day, “I have decided that you live with us.” So that was that.

I went to the UK for four months and we spoke most weeks. When I came back, I moved into Vitou’s new house. I love Vitou’s house and his family has that innate ability of making anyone that comes feel comfortable and welcome. We even had a few parties there (COVID-19 permitting) and inviting people to the house was easy.

Then, something crazy happened: I got engaged and then married within the space of about 5 months. This meant that I had to find a new house and prepare for the wedding. Who, of course, did I call on to help? My Cambodian brother, Vitou. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a new house. With Vitou’s help, we found the perfect house for us (with air con and washing machine to boot). Every time I needed to buy some new things for the house, Vitou was there helping us barter prices, or agree arrangements or stick it on the top of his tuk tuk (or in the back of his brother-in-law’s truck).

My wedding suit, our three-piece living room suit, our crockery cabinet, the crockery, all came about with Vitou’s help.

The online wedding (with 5 guests!) The actual main ceremony was 2 weeks later.

Of course, when it came to asking someone to be my best man at my wedding, who was I going to ask? Vitou! However, disaster struck. Sadly, Vitou came into contact with someone with COVID-19. He had to self isolate. It was a big disappointment for us both. Fortunately, he was able to isolate away from his family, so they all made it to the wedding.

Now, and throughout my time here in Cambodia, Vitou has been a source of encouragement, wisdom and advice. He has gently guided me through Khmer culture and introduced me to different parts of the country, events and celebrations. He’s allowed me to sit back and observe or participate as much as I wanted. He’s been patient when my British culture manifested at inappropriate moments and gently answered questions or corrected my misunderstanding. I’m very fortunate to have found a brother like Vitou here in Cambodia. So, have a very happy birthday.

Just a child: Mark 10: 13 – 16

One of the hardest aspects of coming to a new country, especially one which is so different to where you grew up, is how you are suddenly stripped of your competency. You suddenly need to relearn pretty much everything: how to talk, how to get around, even in some cases how to walk. (I had to learn to walk slower because of the heat, and not to flick my feet up, especially in the rain otherwise your trousers get really dirty). I had to learn how to ride a motorbike, how to cut up a mango, how to recognise fruit and vegetables, how to speak, my way around the city.

I had gone from being relatively competent in my life and being regarded as so by others, to then suddenly not being able to do anything. Khmer people recognised this; I was often guided or even prevented from doing somethings (like trying certain food, or helping out in a situation), lest my incompetency or weak stomach got the better of me. Suddenly, I had to learn to be vulnerable and unknowledgeable and weak again. There are still days and weeks, four years on, where Cambodia totally floors me. (In fact, that was pretty much the month of October.) I am once again reminded of my frailty and weakness.

This is what I think is the privilege of being a missionary. Being powerless and vulnerable in so many situations is perhaps the most important lesson we learn. It doesn’t feel like privilege at the time though. People don’t like feeling weak and powerless. In fact, we try anything to avoid it. We assert ourselves, become demanding, throw our weight around, become manipulative or passive aggressive. However, Jesus calls us constantly in to a posture of humility, weakness and vulnerability. Without that, we cannot recognise our huge need for him. Without realising our sinful, fallen, weak, even pathetic, nature, we have no need to run to the arms of a loving God.

Here in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples are once again reminded of this. (This has been a recurring theme in Mark.) They try to through their weight around again; this time they are using their power over children. They are preventing the children, who are, especially in this society but the same today, without status or influence, from getting to Jesus. The gospels are full of people obsessed with asserting authority and control (the disciples are no better than the Pharisees in this). However, Jesus clearly says that this is not the way of the kingdom.

The kingdom is for the weak, powerless and vulnerable. The kingdom is for the children, the blindman and destitute. The kingdom is for those who recognise their need of a good, powerful saviour. The more you try to assert your own power, the more you think your self as having authority, the more you care about status and influence, the less of the kingdom you will see. But humble yourself, and Jesus himself will welcome you in.

Other posts

Cambodia Online

A lot of life now takes place online, especially so after the pandemic. And that means multiple social-media accounts and detailing your life on Facebook. Some people will just happily post a status and engage in a care-free manner. But why do that when you can overthink everything?

I think very carefully about my posts and what I put up and what I don’t. (I’m not always happy with what goes up even after that.) I have thousands of photographs and videos of Cambodia on my camera reel but most of those never see the light of social media. This is because I am very aware of what it can portray and the messages that I’m giving out.

White saviour

I try very hard not to come across as the white saviour. Therefore, I can be reluctant to discuss negative experiences and also to portray what I do as anything incredible. (It really isn’t. I am not winning any prizes anytime soon.) It is also something that I have to really battle with personally. I could write a whole book about this and why I still do what I do and what I hope is achieved (note, not what I achieve) through the redistribution of experience and education. There are also very long books that have already been written that define poverty, but this is not the place to go into that.

To put it succinctly, I am not special, clever or a hero. The only difference is that I, through my birth, had been dealt a set of cards that gave me access to more opportunities. I know many Cambodians who, given the same opportunities that I have, would have got firsts at Oxford or been Hollywood movie stars or something amazing. And yet they did not have those opportunities. Two of the opportunities that I have had is easy access to higher education and the ability to speak fluently in English, both of which have currency. Teaching English is a relatively easy (although arguably not the most effective) way to redistribute some of this currency. (That is a very poor way to explain it, but there you go.)

Therefore, I don’t like to post photos up of me actually doing things. First of all, most English teachers will not put photos up of their job because it is, let’s be honest, rather dull. You won’t really see a tweet or instagram post saying “Here is my board of future continuous sentence examples! #teacherlife #adrenalinejunkie”. Secondly, it’s really hard not to do that and make yourself the hero of that story. Not all heroes wear capes. But often, those who don’t wear capes aren’t heroes.

White person’s playground

South East Asia is not a playground for white people. It’s not a place for us to go and party, try drugs, do adventure sports, have spiritual experiences and find ourselves. So, I’m not really up for posed photos on Angkor Wat or markets or villages. These are people’s countries and homes and lives. They are not to be objectified and made into curios for our consumption. There are times when I do, indeed, take photos of people living their normal life. And it often doesn’t sit easy with me. But I will try and do it in a way where some sort of judgment isn’t implied. Unfortunately, when anyone takes anyone’s photograph and posts it to social media (especially without permission), there is always an imbalance of power. There has to be a sensitivity to that.

Poverty porn

Before you get too upset by the use of the word porn, it’s actually a technical term. I used it class with some grade 8s when discussing this issue. However, while many focus on its use in the charity sector. My argument is that you are reducing someone’s humanity and whole existence to just their experience of poverty, you’re creating poverty porn. It’s deeply patronising and unfair. Furthermore, the narrative about Cambodia is generally just genocide and terrible poverty. The narrative of Cambodia and the lives of individual Cambodians are so much richer, bolder, nuanced, tragic, joyful, deeper than any photograph of them in poverty could ever show. My social media feed is by no means just affluent Phnom Penh, but I try to either have a balance or do it in a way that avoids judgement.

This also goes for phrases such as “They’re so poor yet they’re so happy.” It’s demeaning and again reduces their live to a romanticised view of the situation they are in. Their stories, their lives, their experiences are not yours to tell or to interpret on their behalf. If you want to write or convey something, use their words and attribute it to them. They don’t need some white person going around narrating their lives when they know next to nothing about it. Furthermore, if you’re making their poverty the defining feature of their lives, once again, you’re reducing them and their lived experiences to just one rather demeaning word. And yes, they may seem happy in front of you, a complete stranger. But what about the times you are not there? Even if you were trying to be humble and think about it from the perspective of learning to be grateful, that’s still bad. Only you benefit from that experience. Their situation doesn’t change. They’re still poor. You just feel better about your life and wealth and comfort and are more thankful for what you have. You’ve used their lives to make you feel good about yours.

Questions to ask yourself

Obviously, I try to think long and hard about what I put on social media and on the internet. It is sometimes the reason I don’t blog as much as I would like. I often have mixed feelings about what I do write. I also am aware that often, it’s not my story to tell. However, here are some ideas about how you can be critically reflexive about what you post.

  1. Who benefits from this image/post?
  2. If the person in the picture or a Cambodian person in general was to see what you posted, how would they feel?
  3. What narrative does this post tell about the subject/Cambodia?
  4. What narrative does this post tell about you?
  5. Am I reinforcing or perpetuating harmful or shameful stereotypes and narratives?
  6. Is there an imbalance of power? Can it be addressed?

Other posts I wrote

  • Answers to questions… where I discuss ideas about voluntourism, and why I never post photos of children (unless I have the parents’ permission or using natural censorship (i.e. they are facing away from me or obscured by an object).
  • A single story of Cambodia reflects on an amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how narratives are often reduced.
  • Being a good guest discusses how we should talk about and view a country we call home but isn’t ours.
  • The Mother-in-Law’s hat explains why there are some aspects of Cambodia I will never discuss online.

Why is living abroad so exhausting?

When I first moved to Cambodia, in pre-pandemic days that feel like centuries ago, I wrote a blog post about how exhausting living abroad was. I think it still caused confusion as to exactly why I felt so tired. It’s got better, in that I know how to manage it a bit better and I can push myself a bit further. But a new couple arrived in Cambodia recently and said how tired they were. They asked us to pray that their tiredness would get better. I didn’t want to tell them the truth that you are probably always just as tired, but you are simply more used to it.

There are lots of factors that can leave people more tired than normal. Some days I won’t be as tired but other days, I’ll do a little bit and then just go back to bed for an hour. Also, living abroad affects people differently. Some people don’t even find it exhausting, whereas some people will find some aspects more exhausting than others. It can also change depending on your life-stage, how long you’ve been in the country and how much you wish to integrate with the local culture. However, if you are finding life tiring, these might be some of the reasons.

The climate

Cambodia is hot and humid. So, unless you are sitting in a room with air-conditioning, or is very shaded and breezy, you are probably sweating. Even if you are in front of fan, you are probably loosing fluids (it’s just that the fan is doing it’s job and taking the moisture from your skin into the air, helping you cool down).

This means that any activity can be so much more draining. Yesterday, we were going from one shop to another. They were about 600 metres away from each other. However, it was midday, so there were no shadows being cast. It was very humid and we were already carrying shopping. So, we still had to take a tuk tuk, because we knew it would be too hot to walk. (Later in the day, I was able to walk a similar distance between shops because the sun was lower meaning one side of the road was shady.)

Unpredictable storms, sudden downpours, the dust picking up the wind all make the environment we live in different to what we grew up with and therefore different to what our body is used to. You do adapt a bit, but unless you move overseas when you are very young, it’s unlikely your body will get used to it completely.

Rules of life

Imagine you woke up one day and every rule about life had changed. Everyone knew but you somehow missed the memo. This included

  • Where you buy your shopping
  • What side of the road you drove on
  • Road rules (is it okay to cut corners or drive on the pavement?)
  • How you got to places
  • How you paid your bills
  • What money you used
  • The prices for things (what was cheap is now expensive, what was expensive is now cheap)
  • How you drink your water

These are just the practical elements. Then there are the cultural rules. Often people think learning about culture is just a little, often superficial thing (‘This is how you say hello in this country!’). Imagine if you had to learn the following all over again…

  • When and how to say please and thank you
  • What topics are taboo and what is now okay to talk about
  • Table manners
  • When and what you eat at different times of the day
  • How to give gifts
  • How to extend invites, and whom you should invite
  • How to apologise and make amends
  • When you go to bed
  • When you get up
  • How to negotiate prices
  • How to make a joke
  • When to arrive at scheduled events (which will differ for each type of event)
  • How to pass people you know on the street
  • How to interrupt someone
  • How to give advice
  • How you introduce and talk about yourself

Again, it’s very easy to say, “oh in Cambodia, you barter the price”. First, this is not always the case. There are some things you don’t barter for and some places you wouldn’t barter. You need to learn these rules. Second, how do you barter? Do you offer a different price? Do you simply ask if they can drop the price? Do you say about how the product isn’t as good as one you saw the other day from a different store? Do you simply wait? Do you pretend to lose interest? Do you only barter for each item individually, or do you buy a number of items and see if you can get a good price for them altogether? What is considered a good price for that product? What offer would be demeaning? Do you look serious or do you smile when you do it? Is it okay to check the product and take it out of it’s packaging? What questions should you ask (Where is it from? What if it is faulty? Will you replace it?)? How long should the process go on for?

Culture has rules, and these rules have rules. They have nuance that you should try to be aware of.

It’s not only about trying to operate in your host culture, which is exhausting enough, it’s about trying not to operate in your own culture. British culture has so many more rules about what is taboo and about table manners than Cambodia. For instance, in Cambodia, talking with your mouth full is perfectly fine with friends. Asking the price of a recent purchase is also okay. In British culture, these things are rarely acceptable. And it will grate on you. You will have an instant, visceral reaction to it. There have been so many times when I have had to really struggle against my immediate, innate response to situations. It’s usually when something has been said that if a Brit said it would have been rude or hurtful. The person did not realise that there was implied meanings to their words or actions. It is so hard, especially when you are tired, to switch off the part in your brain saying, “if they said that it means they are angry with you!” Sometimes it’s impossible to do it, and you just need to have a good cry and try to move on.

A simple example is the difference in the American/British version of the phrase, “I don’t care.” In American English it is the same as, “I don’t mind.” In British English, it can hold the connotations of “I don’t think much of this discussion. The topic bores me. Stop asking me questions about this. I’d rather not be here with you anyway.” I know that Kristi has learnt not to say it in front of British people. She said it once to her British friend after she asked “where do you want to go out to eat?” and slightly offended her. She said it to me once, and my immediate reaction was one of shock, but I managed to tell the little voice in my brain she just meant “I don’t mind.” However, doing this constantly can be tiring.

Decision fatigue

There is a reason why routines and cultures exist. They prevent you having to think about every small thing and your brain can just do it on autopilot. However, when you move to a new country, you have to think about everything. (When should I go to the shops or to the market? – First thing while it is cool is the answer. Do I drive to the shop or take a tuk tuk? Etc. Etc.)

It’s now recognised by psychologists that humans have a limited capacity for decisions within a day. We’ve all experienced when we’ve had a hard day and we can’t decide what to have for dinner. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we would normally eat or what we enjoy. We cannot even begin to process the options, let alone decide on one. This is decision fatigue.

The automatic decisions barely make a dent in this capacity, whereas when you have to consciously think about the choice it makes a larger dent. The more you’ve eaten into this decision-making capacity, the more difficult it is to make a good choice. (It’s interestingly why supermarkets have an over-abundance of exactly the same product and why car salespeople offer you all these bizarre added extras to your car. They are trying to diminish your capacity to make a good decision – a good decision for you that is.)

Now, when you arrive in a new country, many of those decisions that were once automatic now have to be conscious. This eats into your ability to make good, healthy, sustainable choices. It’s also hard when a lot of these decision have important consequences. The question “What do I have for dinner today?” in Cambodia can translate to “What’s the quickest route to a week of diarrhoea I have available to me?” When you make the wrong choice, it’s not just that you’re left with a dinner you don’t really fancy; this time you’re left with bilharzia.

Establishing routines that keep you healthy and happy can be a long process too. It also means that we can become reliant on comforts such as cafes and expensive supermarkets. They are familiar and easier, but often not sustainable. It can take a concentrated effort to get a sustainable routine in a world that is so different from what you knew.

Second language

Working in a language that is not your own, until you are fluent and comfortable with it, can be tiring. You not only have to think about words, but grammar, pronunciation and processing lots of information at once. This one gets considerably easier. When I first arrived, my 2-hour lessons were completely draining. Trying to speak Khmer for that length of time was so hard. Now, it’s relatively easy (unless the lesson involves completely new vocabulary or concepts).

What’s funny about this one, is when I have completely drained myself speaking Khmer, I lose my English too. It’s like my brain is just constantly buffering. I become a real-life version of a Zoom call on bad Wifi.

Just having a language barrier can make situations so much more stressful and confusing. Paperwork, any government or official dealings, buying expensive things such as vehicles, renting houses become so much more difficult when you’re trying to do it in a language you barely understand. And even day-to-day interactions have problems, from getting the wrong drink or food given to you at a restaurant to your tuk tuk driver dropping you off at totally the wrong part of the city.

Sensory overload

Have you ever tried to concentrate whilst there has been a flickering light or a crying baby nearby? It’s hard isn’t it. When your different senses are being stimulated, it can be tiring. There is a reason why we have a phrase “an assault on the senses”. It’s because we can feel like we’re being attacked by what is around us.

A new country will have lots of sights and sounds that you have not experienced. This will be tiring. However, even after a few years, you may still experience a wealth of sensory input. For example, a general tuk tuk ride will take you past a lot of sights, sounds and smells that you will be taking in, whether you choose to or not. You will pass a food stall frying garlic one moment, and a heaping pile of stinking garbage the next.

In the West, we have become very good at creating sensory bubbles. We drive in cars, with the music we want to listen to turned up. We have double-glazing and live in detached houses. We have zoning rules (or at least practices) so you don’t get houses next to loud workshops for example. This doesn’t happen in Cambodia. One of the main problems of Phnom Penh is the constant construction that is happening. Even as I write this blog post, my neighbours are building an additional floor to their house. This means there is drilling, and banging and hammering that is happening most of the day, everyday (even the weekends).

Also, Phnom Penh can smell really bad. A lovely combination of a sudden downpour flooding the sewage system followed by a burst of hot sunny weather makes for a very fragrant afternoon. And just the rubbish at the end of the day, the fish markets, the durian, the trash piles, the rubbish being burnt, the charcoal grills being used all make for a heady sensation.

Without double glazing and gaps in the sliding windows, or driving in a open tuk tuk, you’re exposed to all these senses. And it can make you really weary. Noise pollution has been linked to sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, stress and mental health issues.

Other things…

There can be loads of other things that are exhausting, but I have written about elsewhere. There can be cultural or interpersonal conflicts, culture shock, and many more.

What can you do?

If you know those living abroad such as missionaries, there are things you can do to help.

First, don’t expect too much of them. If all they’ve done is gone to a language lesson then spent the rest of the day in bed, it’s probably what they needed to do. Language learning can be so draining.

Pray for them. Pray for energy, wisdom, time management, and that they get used to things.

Chat with them about their stresses and see if there is anything you can do about them. Sometimes, just having a listening ear can make a huge difference.

For the missionary, there are some great books and resources out there. It’s also really important to realise that you are not a martyr and your life is not necessary more difficult than what the people back at home are experiencing. They have their own problems and stresses, they just look different to yours. It may be hard when you feel like they don’t understand your problems, but make sure you’re not guilty of the same thing! You can be as much a listening ear to them as they can be to you.

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”