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.
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.
Have a look at some of my arty posts.
Finally, follow me! Here are the places you can do that.
I’ve nearly completed my third year in Cambodia. One thing about doing it for a second time, is that the rhythms and seasons of life become more normal. The rains come, the rains go; the mosquitoes come, the mosquitoes go; the hot days come, the hot days go; the weddings come, the weddings go; the power cuts come, the power cuts go.
Now, we have nearly reached the wet season.
We have also reached the goodbye season. The cycles of the academic year bring people to the school and the country, and as the academic year ends, so people also leave. For the local staff at HOPE and for those who stay longer, goodbyes are hard. They don’t get easier and as a result first hellos can be also difficult.
In 2018, I began my job at HOPE school. That was for a season. That season is coming to the end now.
It makes me aware that Cambodia is probably only for a season. So far, it’s been three years. I’m not sure how long it’ll be, so I should make the most of enjoying it. One day, I might be saying goodbye to Cambodia for the last time. There is a time for that, as there is a time for everything.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
One of the interesting aspects of living in a foreign country, especially doing the job I do, is that you often become very image conscious. This affects your life in a number of ways: the way you dress, your social media and even how you relate to those around you. You’re very aware of how you conduct yourself in public and what message you’re trying to put across.
So, for example, I would probably wear trousers (and maybe even a shirt) when going to the mall or someone else’s house. It also means you have to be conscious of what photos you are posed in on Facebook, etc. As I work in a Cambodian setting, I have to be aware of what behaviours would suggest in Cambodian culture. Furthermore, Cambodians are very social and very curious. This means that the Cambodians in your neighbourhood know everything about you.
I went to a Bible study for those who lived in my area of Phnom Penh. One lady who went lived a few streets down from me. Obviously, it would make sense if we travelled back together. However, because of what her neighbours would say if she was seen in a tuk tuk with a man, we would often travel separately. She had a tuk tuk driver she trusted and she knew he was safe, so she would often ask him to pick her up and she would go back alone. If he was busy, though, we would travel together, but she would be dropped off on the corner so none of her neighbours would see I was also in the tuk tuk.
Another occasion, I had to pick something up from the house of one of branch leaders when I lived in Siem Reap. The two branch leaders are a couple, and only the wife was home. We chatted for a bit, and the conversation ended with, “Anyway, my neighbours are watching, so I will see you later.” This is quite common, especially as Cambodians do a lot more outside than we would (prepare food, cook, wash up, for instance). So, you are far more visible than you would be in the UK.
In my previous apartment, I don’t think I was ever alone with a female for more than 5 minutes. That was usually only because we were waiting for someone else to arrive. One of the reasons I moved in with Vitou and his wife is so that I could invite people more freely as I’d always have a “chaperone”, so to speak.
In social occasions, too, you don’t hang out with those of the same gender. At a Khmer party, the women all usually sit together and the men sit together, sometimes on separate tables. The order of deciding who sits where goes in order of Khmer/foreigner (i.e. the Khmer sit with Khmer, the foreigners with the foreigners), then split again by gender. The children do their own thing entirely. If you’re a foreign couple with a group of Khmer people you often act as the bridge between the male/female split. You’d sit together, and the female Khmer would sit next to the woman and the male Khmer would sit next to the man.
This can be seen in my social media posts. If you’re my friend on facebook, you can look through my photos and see how often I’ll be photographed with a group of guys or a group of females. Also, if there are both genders present, look how they are arranged. It’s more likely that the men are all sat together. There are some wedding photos where there is a large group. The Khmer will be together; the foreigners will be together. There is very little mention of anyone, other than my mother, on Facebook who is not a guy and there will be very few photos of me alone with a female (even if we happen to be dating). Furthermore, any couple photos in Cambodia are basically announcements of intentions to be married. Even the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are more akin to “fiancé”, but just at the stage when you haven’t set a date.
All this does mean that I am very careful. I want to have a good reputation here in Cambodia. Therefore, if you were to suddenly discover I had been dating someone for nine months and hadn’t announced it, this would be why.
My girlfriend and I were listing things that show you’ve lived in Cambodia. We reached 110 different aspects of Cambodian life. If you’ve lived in Cambodia, check to see how many you have scored or if we have missed anything. If you don’t live in Cambodia, it might give you a humorous insight into daily life here.
Food and diet
You think the most appropriate knife for any job is the biggest meat cleaver you own.
Dinner for breakfast isn’t weird.
You’ve knowingly eaten/drank bugs because you can’t be bothered to fish it out.
You’ve knowingly eaten bugs because they were meant to be in your food.
You’ve eaten soup from a bag.
You’ve eaten the ear and rear of a pig and everything in between.
You’ve had a dessert ruined by durian contamination.
You’ve got something in your fridge people at home would never dream of keeping there.
You’ve had to explain that you’re full even though you haven’t eaten rice today.
You’ve eaten a chicken/duck that was alive when you arrived.
The variety of food available amazes you.
You only know the names of some fruits, vegetables or herbs in Khmer because you don’t have them where you live.
You’ve eaten organs of animals you didn’t even know they had.
Your order at a restaurant has been based on how many days you have available to recover if things go wrong.
You’ve judged someone for not ordering ice in their drinks.
You’ve had to drive through a herd of cows, past a truck and round children on bicycles at the same time.
You’ve seen a whole house being driven down the road.
You’ve driven through a field because it has less potholes than the road.
You don’t even blink when someone is driving directly towards you the wrong way on the sidewalk anymore.
You’ve thought, “dang it, I should’ve taken the sidewalk” when driving.
You don’t even blink when you’re down the wrong side of the road anyone.
You treat traffic lights like helpful advice.
You’ve wondered what the road markings are actually for.
You’ve driven through a tent.
You’ve had your motorbike/car blocked in by a tent.
You have been in a tuk tuk with more than 8 people.
You have been on a motorbike with more than two people.
You have carried something enormous or unwieldy on a motorbike, whilst driving.
You have fallen asleep in a tuk tuk.
A tuk tuk driver took you back to your house without you telling him where you live because he remembers you.
You don’t think it’s weird to park your car or motorbike in your living room.
You’ve transported furniture on the roof of a tuk tuk.
You’ve had someone else push your motorbike by riding theirs and putting their foot on the back footrest.
You know how difficult it is to push a motorbike with a flat.
You know how to kickstart a motorbike.
Health, hygiene and safety
You’ve woken yourself up with your own B.O.
Your tolerance of getting dust in your eye has risen 1000%.
You have stuck to multiple surfaces because of sweat or had multiple things stick to you.
You worried more about eating that salad than the piece of food you dropped on the floor.
You freak out when people drink from the taps in movies.
You’ve sprayed yourself in the mouth/eyes with DEET on at least 10 occasions (one of which was just to get rid of the taste of durian).
You’ve washed your raw chicken because you’re worried it’s been sprayed with insect repellent.
On a really hot day, you’ve gone into a shower wetter than when you came out.
You prefer cold showers over hot showers.
You’ve pulled a wet money note or receipt out of your pocket and it’s not because you’ve been near water.
You take Imodium before travelling just in case.
You wondered “is that pee or water??” while using a squatty potty.
You have slipped up on wet tiles.
You have burnt your leg on a hot exhaust at least once.
You’ve fallen off your motorbike while it stationary.
Wildlife and nature
A herd of goats or cows are outside your house and you think nothing of it.
Used a cockroach like a hockey puck.
You saw a rat in a restaurant, said “hey there’s a rat in the restaurant” and kept eating.
You have killed a rat.
You appreciate the phrase “look like a drowned rat” even more after the rainy season.
You’ve had to decide which to stand closest to: the fighting dogs or the rat in the bin.
The main reason something goes in the fridge is to keep the ants away.
You’ve frozen a bag of rice or cereal before.
You killed more than 40 mosquitoes in 10 minutes.
You had an ant/mosquito in your motorbike helmet whilst driving.
You had some animal fall on you/run over your foot/hide in your shoe.
You stepped over an escaping animal (fish/crab) in a market.
You realised it’s better to be able to see a cockroach that to have seen a cockroach than not be able to see that cockroach.
You’ve accidentally smuggled a dead animal back to your passport country in your luggage.
You’ve been chased by a dog.
You regularly think “I nearly died”.
You’ve slept on the floor during a power cut because it’s cooler than your bed.
You’ve had to wear xxl clothes because you’re in Asia
You’ve put your washing in and closed all the windows when the wind picked up.
The water ran out while you still had shampoo in your hair.
You had to change/shower again within an hour of changing/showering because you moved away from a fan.
You get up really early to do something while it is cool and realise it is already too late.
The sound of a fan turning off gives you the heebie-jeebies.
You’ve handed over too much or too little money because working out something in two currencies is too hard.
You find it strange that it’s easier to sleep in the day when it’s hot than at night when it’s hot.
You take a jumper to the mall/cafe/cinema.
You don’t want to go back to your passport country because the internet / mobile data is more expensive and not as reliable.
You got a tan / sunburnt because you stepped outside for two minutes.
You have realised that making a plan for today was the first mistake in your plan.
The tasks that take 5 minutes in your passport country take 2 hours here, but the tasks that take 2 hours in your passport country take 5 minutes here.
You’ve not been sure how high to sompeah so it looks like you’re practicing a yoga move
You’ve almost dropped everything trying to sompeah with your hands full.
You’ve done the moonwalk of shame: you entered a house with shoes on and slowly walk backwards hoping no one has noticed.
You’ve had to sit down outside a neighbours/stranger’s/friend-of-a-friend’s house because they invited you to take a seat.
You got up to do something while at someone else’s house and they almost rugby tackle you back into your chair.
You’ve just sat in a chair in the middle of a room while everyone stares/smiles at you.
Been told you look like a white celebrity you most definitely do not look like.
You’ve been told you’re fat, have a big nose and really pale in the same week (which are all compliments here).
You’ve been to the wedding of a couple you’ve never met before.
You’ve been to funeral of someone you’ve never met before.
You’ve visited the mother and new born baby within hours of them giving birth
You attempted something for two hours only for a Cambodian to do it in 2 minutes.
You had a random Cambodian save you in your moment of need.
You’ve had a Cambodian come and give you advice on keeping safe.
You’ve had a Cambodian grab you by the shoulders and move you in the right direction/away from danger.
Your Cambodia friend/house helper/colleague performs some miracle on a daily basis.
You’ve had a Cambodian give you the sweetest and most heartfelt compliment you’ve ever received.
Your tiny Cambodian friend performed a superhuman feat of strength without thinking anything of it.
You’ve had a Cambodian “telling off”, which is, “oh please next time do [insert what you failed to do this time]” whilst smiling sweetly.
You’ve been told to “look after yourself” at least once a day.
You’ve offered a Cambodian a cup of coffee, only for them to suddenly make one for you.
You scared a Cambodian when you’ve told them the current temperature in your passport country.
You confused a Cambodian when you said that your passport country doesn’t have that food/fruit/tree/animal.
You have been told to go have a nap at a stranger’s house and obliged.
You’ve not known who the market seller/shop owner was and who’s just a friend/customer because they’re all helping you with your purchase.
A stranger knew your name/where you live/where you work/where you’re from because they have a vague connection to someone you know.
You’ve been given a surprise massage at the hairdressers or other places.
You have had children wave and say “hey-lo” to you.
These children suddenly became very shy when you replied in Khmer.
A Khmer child has played a game with your flip-flops.
If you have lived in Cambodia, tally up your scores and add a comment.
Food and diet: __/15
Health, hygiene and safety: __/15
Wildlife and nature: __/15
Daily life: __/15
If you haven’t lived in Cambodia, what statement surprised you the most?
When Christians back home think of missionaries, I expect they often think of sacrifice and what they’ve had to give up. God has been incredibly gracious to me, and has not asked me to sacrifice all that much (or at least has only asked me to sacrifice a few things that are important to me). I know that I have been abundantly blessed here in Cambodia.
However, recently I have moved house. I have gone from living on my own in a cute one bedroom flat to an entire house with an entire family. For the most part, it is great. But this means I’ve had to sacrifice something that is apparently very important to me: control.
They say that a British man’s home is his castle. There’s a sense of guarding it, controlling it and also isolating yourself within it. Living on my own and also back in the UK with my relatively introverted family meant that guests were invited, we knew when they would arrive and approximately when they would leave. It was very much within the realms of our control.
When I invited a family to move in with me, I forgot I would be inviting Cambodia into live with me as well. Previously I had managed to manufacture a British fortress, or enclave, my little colony. My apartment was a tiny Gibraltar jutting out into the sea that is Southeast Asian culture.
However, with British Imperialism long dead (despite nationalist attempts to flog that dead horse), it wasn’t going to last. So I now live in a Cambodian house. Yes, it’s more of a fusion of our two cultures. But it is a Cambodian family in a Cambodian style house living in Cambodia. Therefore, Cambodia has the upper-hand.
As a result, the come and go nature of Cambodian living (cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, brothers and sisters all appearing unannounced) is very much a part of my life. And I’ve found it hard. I’ve found it hard that the drawbridge to my fortress has been irrevocably lowered and the gates swung wide opened.
Then twitter post came along to convict me of my selfish thinking.
God has bought me to Cambodia not to set up impenetrable walls and to be at arm’s length from those around me. He called me to be his messenger, his ambassador and his hands and feet. Sometimes it will be messy and uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But me stepping into this situation is nothing compared to Jesus stepping from heaven into the mess and discomfort of our fallen world. So even when I’m tempted to pull up the drawbridge, I’ll remind myself that embassies don’t have them.
Life in Cambodia can be wildly different to life in the UK. There are different routines, considerations and skills needed in order to survive. There is so much I have learnt to do and there are also many skills I know I’m lacking. If I had the opportunity to do more research, receive more training or practise some skills before I came it may could have made quite a bit of difference and I wouldn’t feel quite at a loss at some points. These just cover the basics; I will probably write another one about cultural integration and awareness. Also, if you enjoy this post but haven’t read my A Million Questions post about learning about a new country, you might find that interesting too.
Are your vaccines up-to-date?
Do you know your blood type?
Do you know the locations of the nearest/best hospitals where you will be living?
Have you checked whether you can get hold of any medication you need?
Have you researched potential threats to health (e.g. malaria, dengue, Zika virus, parasites)?
Do you know how to prevent mosquito bites, insect bites and other local risks to health?
What foods are safe to eat and what should be avoided? (This varies from place to place, so the blanket advice for travellers may not be applicable. For example, ice is usually fine in Cambodia!)
How may the change in diet or climate impact your health?
Have you learnt how to adjust to a different climate?
Have you made plans in the case of emergency medical care? Does your family know your plans?
What are the main types of transport in the country you are moving to?
Is it the same or different to what you are used to?
Would it be worth getting lessons before you leave? (I would have loved to have motorbike lessons before I left; I completely feel as if I’m making it all up.)
Do you know basic vehicle maintenance?
Do you know about different types, brands or models of that vehicle?
What public transport is available in the country?
What conditions will you travel in when you take public transport? How might you need to prepare for this?
What clothing do you need for different seasons?
What clothing is available in the country? What will you need to bring more of? (For me – vests, socks and shoes)
What are locals’ attitudes towards different types of clothing choice? What image are you trying to convey? How do the clothes you wear convey this?
What clothing will be comfortable or practical for different reasons?
How will you keep your clothes clean?
Do you know how to hand wash clothes?
What type of clothes will you have to wear at work? What would be good to wear when out and about?
Can you sew?
What are the main components of that country’s cuisine?
Do you know how to eat it? (For instance, I still struggle to eat fish and prawns because I didn’t eat it a lot at home.)
What types of fruit and vegetables are there? Do you know how to eat, prepare and cook them? (For instance, can you cut up a mango?)
What type of food and ingredients will be available where you are living?
Can you cook some simple meals just on a stove?
Do you know how to wash vegetables and meats in an effective and hygienic manner? (Yes, I know that probably back at home you are told not to wash meats. That advice might not apply so much where you are.)
Do you know how to avoid foods that you are allergic too?
Do you know what substitutions for different ingredients you use often can be used?
Do you know which languages are used in the country and where you will be living?
Do you have a basic idea of language families and their features?
Are you aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet and its usage?
Are you familiar with the phonemes of your target language?
Have you researched language learning techniques?
Do you know what resources are available for your target language?
Do you know the pros and cons of the different resources (for example is the resource somewhat old-fashioned so now a bit offensive? Yes, FSI courses, I’m looking at you.)
Have you researched some of the dos and don’ts of the culture?
Are you aware of culture shock, what it is and what it looks like? Have you researched reverse culture-shock?
Have you researched your own culture so you are aware of some of the potential pressure points? (Privacy and personal space is a large pressure point for me.)
Have you found out what cultures you might be working with? Have you researched them? (You might be working in an international setting. I find more extrovert and say-what-you-mean cultures more difficult than Khmer ones most the time.)
Back at home
Have you planned how you will stay in touch with those back at home?
Have you researched what methods of communication there are available?
Have you spoken to others about how they should communicate with you?
Have you scheduled regular, committed time to communicate with various people?
Have you considered how you will communicate with younger family members? (I’ve found regular Skype calls with little people really hard to navigate.)
How will you negotiate import events like Christmas? Have you reflected on how this might affect you?
Have you taken time to think about how you as a person might affect your experience?
What do you enjoy doing in your home country?
What activities might be available in your new country?
How do you respond to stress?
What self-care techniques work for you?
What is your personality type? What Enneagram type are you? What does it say about you?
What are your reasons for going?
What do you hope to achieve?
How do you cope with frustrations and disappointments?
What bad habits should you try to deal with before you leave?
Where might you need to be more flexible in your thinking or world-view?
What stereotypes or presumptions might you need to deal with before you leave?
This is a pretty long list. A lot of it could be done with a google search or by watching a few YouTube videos. Some you might need to reflect on for longer. You may want to discuss a few with others who have lived abroad, or close friends and loved ones. I hope this list helps someone and if it does, like or comment! If I failed to add something (because these are only based on my experiences), let me know too.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. The old calendars are about to get chucked out, new shiny ones ready to be used. Youtubers, facebook walls and bloggers everywhere are reviewing their year. It’s especially essential for rubbish bloggers like me, who fail to write regularly, and my facebook posts are an eclectic mix mainly detailing my sleeping habits and the weather. So this is what 2019 looked like.
On January 1st, I headed off to Mondulkiri with Vitou. It was such a great time to spend with him and a great opportunity to explore more of Cambodia. It amazed me how comparatively cold it was. I bought a scarf. So, okay, it was only about 18C at night, but that was cold enough.
January was a month of mosquitoes. They were everywhere. And I don’t mean a few. I mean hundreds. Mosquitoes are not just an annoying pest. They are dangerous here. They carry dengue fever and although it usually just leads to something like severe flu, it can be fatal if complications arise. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for dengue, but so far I’ve escaped!
The first three or four months of 2019 were actually pretty hard. There were a few times when I had to have a moment’s moan.
January was also the month I melted a teapot. I actually did it again in April. But I eventually found a stove teapot with a louder whistle so you can’t forget about it.
February was quite intense and filled with ups and downs. The general struggles of living in Cambodia continued: mosquitoes and rising temperatures.
It was also the month when I turned 31! That was great. Vitou surprised me at 6:30 am with a birthday cake. Then, on the Saturday, we had a boat party. Read about that Saturday here. (Updates from that post- the hair cut turned out to be quite uneven around my ears; the money situation was fine; half the glow sticks spoiled in the Cambodian heat and couldn’t be used. Ah, Cambodia, you do make life interesting.)
The following week was camp week. This was a one-week residential, and I was on team middle school. Therefore, we took grades 6, 7 and 8 off to Shalom Valley, which is near Kep on the coast of Cambodia. It was a really good week. We did, however, have two hospitalisations (they weren’t life-threatening). You’d think the injury was from the dangerous looking obstacle course or the fire juggling or the mountain walk, wouldn’t you? No. One was at sustained at the butterfly farm and the other just walking from their room to dinner. It just goes to show that risk assessments never truly reflect reality.
Straight after this week was the WEC Cambodia prayer retreat. It was good to see everyone, but I was pretty out of it for a lot of the time. Also, I got (mildly) electrocuted having a shower and I then got very ill. Poor Vitou agreed to pick me up from the hotel. I didn’t tell him I was getting unwell, so he decided to take me on an errand another hour out of Phnom Penh. Then, I had to force myself to eat some of the food his aunt offered me, despite feeling ready to vomit everywhere. Finally, after an hour of waiting, I admitted I felt unwell and we went home. It turns out a few other people from my WEC team were ill as well and I probably got off quite lightly. I did have to take a few days off work.
The unrelenting march (see what I did there?) of difficulties continued. The temperature was soaring and power cuts were becoming a daily occurrence. My facebook posts reflected this as well as this blog post: It’s a hot mess.
However, there were great moments too. I went to Takeo a few times for the village ministry, which was always great fun.
March definitely taught me some lessons on how to be grateful despite difficulties.
April meant a two-week break. It was much needed. I explored the Cambodian countryside visiting various friends and family of Vitou. It was great. However, at some times it was difficult. I was the outsider and I didn’t feel as if I completely fitted in. I also ran over a dog (it was fine!). I also got to go to Khmer wedding number 7.
I bought my own motorbike! She’s called Makara and she’s my best friend.
I also had my first falling out with Vitou. Basically, someone died and I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t the first person everyone thought about. (If you’re judging me right now, please, go ahead. I am fully aware that I am a really terrible person.) Vitou was unnecessarily apologetic and I received a public facebook declaration from Vitou that he had done something terribly wrong. That was a bit of an insight into the shame-honour culture of Cambodia and how relationships exist in the public sphere rather than the being just between you and the friend. We’ve made up. Vitou still thinks it’s his fault, which clearly it isn’t. (Vitou, if you’re reading this: you’re the best!)
My brother visited! It was great for him to experience Cambodia, even if it was very brief. He met Vitou and the family. He also met some of my colleagues in Siem Reap. (Poor guy.) He loved it here. It did mean I had to sleep on the floor for a week.
I finished a year a HOPE. I passed my level 5 Khmer assessment with flying colours! I put a post up about these achievements on Facebook. Obviously, I could rely on my brother to be encouraging in this situation.
It was quite a tough academic year in some ways. Much of it was the bureaucratic and administrative aspect of schools. The kids are great. The colleagues are supportive. But meetings, grading, reports, admin just kills me. It makes it hard that HOPE school has bits from all across the globe so sometimes the systems seem nonsensical but do fulfil a purpose somewhere.
I returned to the UK for two weeks. It was a very quick trip but it felt like the right length. Any longer and I think I would have got itchy feet. It was great to catch up with friends and family and to gorge myself on British cakes and fried breakfasts.
The most significant part of that trip was meeting my little baby niece for the first time. Of course, it was great to see my older niece too and see how much she has grown. I managed to have some really nice time with family. My sister-in-law also did some amazing baking. She might have even robbed me of my status as “best baker in the family”.
Then there was the ten-day WEC Cambodia conference in Kampong Thom (a province in central Cambodia). It was nice to see another small part of Cambodia. One of the most difficult things I’ve faced over the last year was not feeling a part of the WEC team so much. There are a lot of reasons for this: most of the members I knew already are not in Phnom Penh and simply because school life can be all-absorbing. However, spending quality time with the WEC team was really helpful in reestablishing my sense of belonging in the team. That was a real blessing.
School started again, with some logistical difficulties (of course, it is Cambodia). This meant filling in for teachers and merging classes for a few weeks. I also started teaching drama, which was quite scary and daunting. I new the course requirements and I understood the syllabus and exams. However, translating that information into actual lessons was quite a challenge.
Rainy season started with dramatic results, and there was quite a bit of flooding across the country. Fortunately for me, Phnom Penh was not particularly affected.
The general challenges of life in another country continued too.
I also started dating someone.
School life seems to absorb everything, especially if you are a yes person. I was working on the school production, being proof-reader for various newsletters and things. However, I had another week off for Pchum Ben, which was an opportunity to sit and relax. I visited a zoo and got to relax on a boat, then went to visit Vitou’s family in Kandal province again.
I also started another level at G2K, this one was Christian Studies 2. It was unbelievably helpful and interesting. Over 10 weeks, I learnt about Khmer culture and barriers to the gospel, as well as learning to pray in Khmer and sing Khmer worship songs.
I think one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on this year is exploring my attitude towards cultures and learning more about them. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love its countryside; I love its vibrancy; I love its people. Yes, there are frustrations and difficulties. Most of the time they are funny or momentary.
I do believe missionaries have a God-given responsibility to honour the host culture they are in. They are to encourage and love the people they are interacting with. It challenged me how I can be a good guest in Cambodia.
This month introduced a new, exciting challenge into life in Cambodia: getting to school. Due to building works, bad weather, large factory trucks tearing up the surface and just construction workers dumping soil on the road, it was a daily challenge to arrive clean and in one piece. Also, at school we had to complete a lot of documentation for the Ministry of Education, which put extra pressure on all the teachers. It helped that we had a few days off dotted through the month.
This month was Water Festival month. I really love Water Festival and I got to go to the riverside with Vitou’s family to celebrate. There were fireworks and a procession of lit-up barges. It’s very crowded but great fun.
It was also just busy. First, the WEC Cambodia team had visitors from WEC UK, to do some filming of the various ministries of WEC missionaries here. This meant they were also visiting the school. It was great to have them here but also, in some ways, exhausting. They only visited me for one day, but as I had to sort cover etc. for my lessons it meant that there were logistical aspects that needed organising.
Also, the school production was drawing ever closer. This meant sources, painting, repairing props and things for back stage. Most of my life was spent in Japanese two-dollar stores or Japanese secondhand stores.
It didn’t help that I started suffering from insomnia. I again had to take a few days off because I just didn’t sleep for a number of consecutive days. It’s a lot better now, but I will still have the odd night when I don’t sleep.
The school play, reports and the end of the G2K course all hit at once. It was a crazy week and at some points it was a struggle to get to the end. Somehow I did it and now I’m on the wind down towards the Christmas holidays. The school production was a big success and the students who took part made us all very proud! It’s amazing that such a small school could have so many intelligent, wonderful young people.
Then there was the general election in the UK. It’s always strange being on the outside of such events. You get somewhat removed from the media circus and it means that perhaps you can stand back a bit and think about it in a different way. This led to me writing a post about how democracy will never save us.
I’m also going to be moving house. This will mean packing, cleaning my current apartment, buying new furniture, cleaning the new house, then unpacking and settling in. I’m lucky to have a few weeks off as well as a holiday to Kep booked.
2020 is going to see a lot of changes for me, and not everything is certain. The only thing, in fact, that is certain is that I will be making 2020-vision jokes until at least May. And of course, that God will continue to be faithful regardless of mosquitoes, power cuts, dust and other problems.
As a missionary, you get told “I couldn’t do what you do.” There is a belief that it takes a special type of person or a particular calling to make the move abroad and work building God’s kingdom there. I would say that isn’t true. (At least I don’t think I’m special but I do think I have calling.) It’s thought that it takes great sacrifice, bravery and zeal to do this.
What people who haven’t done this don’t see is the joy, the privilege and the real rewards of moving overseas.
You get such a rich experience of humanity and life. You suddenly see how great and broad and universal and varied the human race is. You hear such stories: heart-warming stories; heart-breaking stories; inspiring stories; terrifying and tragic stories; lovely stories, often from the same person’s life. You get to be a part of these stories and then your story and hundreds of other stories become permanently intertwined. The real privilege is when you get to see God beautifully transform these stories, redeeming, renewing, rewriting them into the story of his perfect kingdom.
Your understanding of God’s grace and goodness and glory grows. As you encounter the needs of nations and the cultural perspectives of different peoples, you see how the enormity of the gospel speaks into these different contexts, not just your own. The faith of believers that face difficulties and persecution and poverty you’ve never imagined challenges you and your mustard-seed faith. Worshipping alongside those from different nations, tribes and tongues gives you a small picture of heaven.
You see the beautiful humanity of the saints that go. Often missionaries are put on pedestals but when you’re among them you learn how human the Hudson Taylors and Jackie Pullingers are. I recently read a book Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield. I know his family as I work with his wife and their children attend the school where I teach. The family is as amazing and feisty and cool as they sound in the book. However, I also watched Nay, Craig’s wife, walk into a metal pillar today because she wasn’t watching where she was going. The sense of misplaced awe towards these people is stripped away and replaced with the sense of awe that God uses people like me. That is an amazing and also terrifying realisation to have.
Then, of course, are some of the beautiful sights and sounds that you grow to love.
Everyday, I get struck with a feeling of jaw-dropping confusion that I get to live here in Cambodia, serving God.
When you read the eye-watering statistics, it’s hard not to feel the pull. 3.14 billion people have never heard of Jesus. Over 70,000 people die everyday not having heard the gospel. For perspective 70,000 is about the population of Rugby and Shrewsbury. These people are living and perishing in darkness.
So, if you think you couldn’t go, well, I certainly couldn’t stay.
If you haven’t prayed and thought about joining global missions, then please do so. It’d be such a shame that you miss out on such blessings just because it hadn’t occurred to you to consider going.
Imagine you’ve lived in the same house for many years, with the same people. You’ve built up routines and traditions – every Christmas you do it the same way; every Sunday you sit down in the afternoon to watch a particular TV programme, usually with a similar TV dinner; you listen to the same radio station as you’re doing the washing up in the evenings. You’re comfortable. You’ve decorated your house how you like it. It’s pretty good.
Now imagine, all a sudden, some lodgers moved in. For some reason they were just there. You did your best to accommodate their needs. You made sure there was food they liked in the fridge. You checked whether their rooms were comfortable. You did your best to make them feel welcome.
Then you heard these lodgers talking among themselves. They were complaining about the food you provided and how it wasn’t the same as what you were used to. They grumbled how often you didn’t get hold of the things they really wanted or if you tried, it just wasn’t as good as back home. They didn’t like your taste in music and wished you’d stop playing it. They wanted to watch a different programme on Sunday evenings and found this tradition of watching the same show annoying. They wanted to redecorate because they found your taste garish. They joked about how simple, old-fashioned and, in someways, backwards you were.
Then it started to get really strange. They started to wear your clothes. And all the time they were complaining how the didn’t fit and how they were uncomfortable. You came home one day to find the kitchen gutted. They were remodelling it for you with “better” and “nicer” appliances – ones you never asked for. It was going to be in a more modern style.
Surely, you would think they are terrible lodgers! They’re rude, entitled and opinionated. Their remarks are arrogant and unnecessary.
So why is it that as expats living as guests in a country that is not our own, we often act like these lodgers. We complain that the foods or the amenities we are used to aren’t available. We mock their music or tastes or traditions. If we are inconvenienced by these things in the slightest, we act like they specifically designed it to irk us.
I know that I’ve been guilty of this. I joked to my Khmer friend about how difficult it was to understand how Khmer people don’t plan things. I explained British people always plan and sometimes it was difficult for me that they didn’t plan trips beforehand. He simply replied:
Oh, that’s because we’re poor.
He went on to explain that often they had to wait until a few days before the event to check whether they had enough money to actually go. There was no point in making plans just to be disappointed when you couldn’t afford to do it. Even if they were trying to save, illnesses or flat tires or running out of gas in your stove would mean you’d have to pay out. So, it is just easier to make plans when you know they could happen.
Obviously, I felt foolish and cruel. I had shown no understanding or kindness. I had not attempted to see things from their point of view. I’d thought I’d try their lifestyle a bit, put on their clothes and then complain when it didn’t fit. They were gracious enough to include me in their trips and their holidays, and I just focussed on how one aspect of it rubbed up against my cultural experiences.
There is also an arrogance when it comes how we treat Khmer people. If their worldview isn’t the same as ours, we dismiss them as simple or backwards. We forget that their ideas might just be as complex and meaningful, we just haven’t taken the time to explore them. Or that due to hierarchies and social roles, it’s not the employees’ job to solve the problem, it’s the bosses’.
We also forget that they are not stupid, they just haven’t had the same opportunities. They haven’t had piano lessons and ready access to a computer since they were a child. I know many of my Khmer friends, with their dedication and intellect, would have far outpaced me if we had attended the same schools. It’s just that we didn’t.
So, we often come in, high on our degree certificates and a book we read, thinking we have a solution. We demolish things that may have been working fine and decided they need an overhaul just because they don’t suit our “modern” tastes.
So, I’m trying to learn. Currently, I’m sat in my bedroom with a funeral happening outside. This means loud music, gongs, and my motorbike sometimes being blocked in. But I’m a guest. Why should I feel that they should change years of tradition just for me? Who am I to criticise or moan? So, for now, I’ll try to focus on the privilege it is to have been welcomed into this nation and how rich the experience is – weddings, funerals and all.
When have you been unfairly critical of a part of your host culture?
Where could you be more generous and understanding?
What areas of conflict between your culture and your host culture have you experienced? How did you resolve this?
What resources or experiences have been particularly helpful in feeling more integrated or at least understanding your host culture?