The Return

I’m currently on day 3 of 14-15 days of quarantine at a hotel in Phnom Penh. This means that I am back in the Kingdom of Wonders! It did take quite a bit of effort (from various people including my long-suffering parents) to get me here.

Pretty much as soon as arrived in the UK in September, I booked flights back to Cambodia. This flight was taking the relatively simple and common route of Heathrow to Seoul, Seoul to Phnom Penh. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. There were all the other obstacles that prevented returning to Cambodia that needed to be sorted, chiefly the PCR swab test and having the results in the appropriate format. However, I got that all booked and sorted. That was reassuring.

Then December came and the UK started going into stricter lockdowns. This obviously caused some anxiety. However, because I was travelling for medical appointments and work, I still had legal reasons to leave my house and go to London. So, it seemed that it would be fine.

Then, it was announced that the UK had it’s own variant of COVID-19. Countries started closing their borders to the UK. First Europe, then, the kicker: Korea. This meant that my flight to Seoul was cancelled. However, because France had only shut its borders for a set duration, I would possibly be able to fly through Paris after this. So, my flights were changed to transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport.

All packed and ready to go!

I packed and sorted all my things. I reached London, staying a few nights to sort out my tests. However, it was announced that there would be restrictions to entering France even after opening their border. I wasn’t sure what this meant and whether it applied to those who were transiting through France. I would phone the airline. They said it was fine but I should check with the embassy. I rang the French Embassy in the UK and the UK embassy in France, to be put onto an automated system telling me to check the government website. I looked up the government website. The government website said check with your airline. I was on a never-ending loop. After searching through pages on various websites, and opposite to the reassurances of the airline that I could fly, I decided to cancel the ticket. Basically, UK citizens could only enter France if they had a reason to be in the EU. I wasn’t looking to go to the EU, so I couldn’t enter.

So, whilst also taking my COVID test and only having a few days to go, I had to search through all the possible ways to get to Cambodia. When I found a potential route, I then had to check the entry requirements for each country. Various countries were not possible (Singapore being the main hindrance) and others had transit visas and other hurdles. I finally found one through Doha and Kuala Lumpur. It meant a massive lay-over in Kuala Lumpur. We then discovered an airside hotel in the terminal building! That problem was sorted, so I booked a room in that.

Then, the day before I was due to fly, I got an email. The flight between Malaysia and Cambodia was cancelled. There were no other options, it was too late to go through the process again and the prices had risen prohibitively. The only option was to turn around, head home and start again.

Attempt one was not to be.

With the potential of Korea opening up to direct flights from the UK, I booked another direct plane to Korea. This seemed to be going smoothly, until two days before, I went onto the airline’s website. There was a small ticker going across the top with a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it notification saying flights from London had been suspended. I phoned up the booking company to ask if this was the case. I explained that I was having a second rather expensive COVID test the next day and I needed to know in the next hour whether I should postpone the test or not. I asked them to check three times and they assured me that the flight was still running. We checked the Heathrow website and that suggested the flight was still going ahead.

At three o’clock in the morning, I was dozing in between sleep and wakefulness. I managed to form the thought that, because of the time difference, Korea would be beginning its day about now. If the airline had indeed cancelled its flight, I would have received an email by now. So I checked my phone. And there it was: the cancellation email. I knew there was little I could do at this point so I tried to go back to sleep. That effort was as successful as all my previous flight bookings.

At about 7:30 that morning, I had to leave for my COVID test. I had that drunken feeling after not sleeping well for a few nights. We drove the clinic through the grey, wintery, frost and fog. I arrived and the clinic was empty except the doctor doing my test. It was all done in about five minutes. The doctor even congratulated me on how well I did the test. (He didn’t know that internally I was screaming, “Oh God, please help me! Please, Lord, get me through this!”) I did struggle to use the card machine, mainly because I was still so tired.

Once I had arrived home and had a strong coffee in my hands, I started looking at potential flights. Now, in-between attempted flight number one the week previous and this second attempt, something significant had happened: Brexit. This meant that some routes previously available were no longer an option (mainly any through the Netherlands). That was another country to add to the ever-growing list of ‘places that don’t allow Brits’. After about an hour of searching, I finally purchased a new ticket. This was through Dubai, Seoul then to Phnom Penh.

It was Saturday and the day of the flight had come. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. My dad drove for the third time in two weeks to London and back trying to get me back to Cambodia. The roads towards London were mostly empty due to lockdown. It seemed too good to be true.

Heathrow was surprisingly full. There seemed to be a lot of travellers milling about, a lot looking confused and somewhat stressed. Quite a few people were trying to print various pieces of paperwork (such a health declaration forms) at a small shop in the corner of the main atrium. There were queues for some desks, but there were very few people waiting at mine. I went through the check-in process, which is more arduous now due to restrictions. “Do you have your test certificate? Do you have the correct visa? Which visa type is that? Do you have the receipt for your medical insurance?” I managed to get through all those. It seemed as if this was actually going to happen and it was going to be pain free!

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can check in your luggage all the way to your destination.” What? Apparently, because I was flying with two airlines, I couldn’t get the boarding passes for all parts of the journey or the luggage label all the way to Phnom Penh. Due to regulations, I wouldn’t be able to leave the airside part of any of my transit airports to pick up the luggage and check it in again. I was considering just throwing my luggage in the bin at that point and buying everything again when I arrived in Phnom Penh. However, after a bit of waiting and speaking to the flight supervisor, it was sorted. The check-in attendant told me that it was quite a stressful time and she had to deal with a lot of crying passengers. I didn’t tell her that if it hadn’t worked out, I may have been another one.

I still only had the boarding passes up to Korea. So, at this point my baggage was more likely to reach Phnom Penh than I was. It was progress and in the right direction. A few hours later, I got on my first flight.

The next bits of the flights were actually relatively easy. Apart from long queues for the health screening in Korea, both airports in Dubai and Seoul were pleasant. The cafés were open and you could wonder about without fearing COVID too much. I found the transfer desk in Seoul easily. I did have to get all the paperwork out again, answer all the questions and hand over a large wad of money to be counted and checked. All was in order. I got on my plane and was on my way to Cambodia.

The Cambodian side involved very long queues and was naturally a bit chaotic. However, as I had all the paperwork sorted together, whenever I got to the desks, I was done in about 2 minutes every time. Then there was the queue for the tests. This again was relatively simple. The test was done. All I had to do was get to my hotel. I was practically there. No more problems. No more difficulties. No more confusions. So I thought.

As soon as I had my test done, a young Khmer man came and told me to follow him. He took my photo on his iPhone then dragged me through the crowds queuing for the bus. He seated me on my own, on the front of an empty bus. He did not explain why I was there, where I was going and why I was on my own. Staff outside the bus were obviously talking about me but I can’t lip read in English, let alone Khmer. I sent a few anxious messages to my parents before my phone battery died.

I was reassured when other foreigners started getting on the bus too. The bus was full; suddenly, I heard the word, “Come.” I was taken off this bus and just left to stand by the side of the airport while I watched it drive away. I was then taken to another bus and sat there, once again on my own. I was very tired and very confused. However, the driver said, “Your hotel is far from the other one. This one goes closer.” So, apparently, I was going to a hotel on my own.

After ten minutes of waiting in an empty bus, thirteen other passengers all boarded. They were all Khmer. Now, to some people this may have made them even more worried. However, all of a sudden I definitely realised I was in Cambodia. The Khmer were all chattering among themselves. Cambodians can quickly form bonds with others they haven’t met before and are often quite happy to chat with strangers. One of the staff in head-to-toe PPE came with a clipboard and asked the driver, in Khmer, how many people he had on board. The driver responded, in Khmer, “Thirteen Khmer, one barang.” Barang technically means ‘French’ but is used as word for foreigner. The man with head-to-toe PPE was standing right in front of me. Despite this, he asked (again in Khmer), where is the foreigner. To this I put my hand up. All the Khmer people laughed and it was now obvious I understood the conversation.

By the time we left the airport it was 2 am. The drive to the hotel was very Cambodian. The driver asked the passengers if they wanted food before the hotel (the food isn’t nice there, he told them). They ordered 6 packs of fried rice from a stall. The first attempt to park was thwarted by there not being enough room. The driver honked his horn a few times to no avail. We continued down the three lane road to do a u-turn, heading back up toward the airport. Upon nearly reaching the airport, we did another u-turn back down the road. More honking (despite the time of night) but we managed to stop. The fried rice was passed through the driver’s window and then handed to me. I then handed it to one of the Khmer passengers who distributed it to those who wanted it. There was one spare, so they let me have it for free.

The driver was chatting away, driving through red lights whilst honking his horn to show that he had no intention to stop. I was completely unfazed by this and just chuckled to myself. I arrived at my hotel (called Okay Boutique). I had another photo taken on the driver’s iPhone. And then I went to reception. All the instructions were given to me in Khmer. I understood all of it but forgot some details by the time I got to my room. I finally sat down, with my fried rice, relieved by the fact that I had finally made it back to Cambodia.

My room for 2 weeks.

Communicating with Brits

This subject is possibly getting tedious, so I apologise. I know I have mentioned it previously and I probably will again. One of the most difficult areas of communication is with non-British English speakers. We are, indeed, divided by a common language.

I love reflecting on my British culture and how it has shaped me. Living in a foreign country highlights the differences and nuances of your culture that you normally take for granted. You also have to negotiate your own values and how they fit into your new setting. It’s helpful to know about your own culture as well as the ones you are interacting with. You are better able to pin-point why you respond to certain situations and why you feel the way you do.

Remember, with culture and any of these points, it is highly contextual and varies significantly from situation to situation and person to person. These are broad brushstrokes. It is a bit of a long read, so I have provided a summary at the end. Feel free to skip to it, but it may lose some of the nuance.

Privacy and personal boundaries

Two of the highest values in British culture is the sense of privacy and a need to respect personal boundaries. For example, when I told a Brazilian that no one talks to one another on public transport, he asked why were we so unfriendly. Actually, for Brits, that is being friendly. We assume the other passengers wish to maintain their personal space so we do not invade it. A small smile might be all you get and even that is a rare occurrence.

Therefore, you must be aware of this when communicating with British people. British people may not want to share details about something with you. Also as a result, English people may ask fewer questions about something and not seem interested. They are probably interested, but don’t want to seem nosy.

Indirect communication

Communication in Britain can seem direct at times, but there will be a lot of indirect communication that goes alongside it that can easily be missed.

The implied meaning of words are extremely important. In fact, you can assume that any implied meaning is the actual intended meaning. Therefore, you have to be careful that there aren’t any unpalatable implied meanings behind what you say. Sometimes, our indirect communication goes as far to say the opposite to what we actually mean. One perfect example is the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” We say that when the only thinking we will be doing is reflecting on what a ridiculous suggestion it was. We’ve already made our minds up and we profoundly disagree. But we don’t want to insult you by telling you that.

You have to remember, this is not disingenuous and we are not lying as those not familiar with British culture might assume. A British person being told, “I’ll think about it,” knows perfectly well what it means. We just forget that those from other cultures (especially when English is their first language) will not pick up on the contextual cues that go with it.

Taboos

There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:

  • Money
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Personal relationships

You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.

Practical tips

So, there are various ways to navigate these aspects of communication though.

When starting a conversation, ask general questions that don’t ask for details. Remember, you need to respect the other person’s privacy and personal boundaries. Some examples include, “Do you have any plans this weekend?” as opposed to “What are you doing this weekend?”; “Did you have a good holiday?” or “How was your holiday?” rather than “What did you do on your holiday?” The first type of questions allows your conversation partner to be as vague or as detailed as they wish. The second type of question traps your conversation partner into giving details they may not actually want to give. (Also, “What are you doing this weekend?” is usually reserved as a precursor to making plans.)

So, this becomes a bit of a dance, where meaningless fillers replace actual meaningful questions. Remember, we are indirect communicators. The fillers are intended to move the conversation on, but in a non-invasive way. Then gradually, you work towards the details.

“How was your weekend?

“Not bad actually.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yes, we went to see my family.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, we had the Sunday roast. The beef was pretty much perfect. And the roast potatoes were lovely. We could have done with a bit more gravy though.”

If you want to broach any of the taboo subjects, you have to take extra care. Let’s say, for example, a British friend is wearing a particularly dashing piece of knitwear. (All Brits love knitwear.) You want to find out how much it was. The easiest way to find out is simply ask another question then provide the cues until you get the details you want. So, for example, the conversation would go like this:

“That’s a lovely cardigan. Where did you buy it?”

“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”

You might possibly note that the price was offered pretty much straight away. This often what happens, as the “Where did you buy it?” is often heard as a non-threatening “How much was it?” If it doesn’t work straight away, you could try these techniques:

  • Make a general comment about TopShop “Oh, I love the dresses in there.”
  • Tell them about what you bought there, “I got some lovely shoes there for about £50”.
  • Allude to the topic of money: “Topshop can be a bit expensive, but it’s usually worth the cost. Sometimes you can find real bargains too.”

Once they tell you the price, don’t criticise it: “Oh, that’s too much!” You will not be popular. The best response would be, “Oh, really? I love the colour.” You’ve got the information you want, then move off the awkward topic as quickly as possible.

If this doesn’t work, then there’s the “You don’t mind me asking how much it is?” which is where the speaker pretends to be asking for permission to ask a personal question by, in fact, asking the personal question. Usually, the British person will begrudgingly acquiesce and tell you.

Hearing “no”

British people will refuse a request or a suggestion as politely as possible. They will often make an excuse or use indirect communication. “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll think about it” is often a no. In a case when making group decisions, ideas may be rejected by giving an alternative. For example

“Why don’t we go to Dominoes tonight?”

“What about TGI Friday’s?”

Alternatively, the British person may just agree for the sake of agreeing, even if it makes life difficult for them. Sometimes, it’s worth checking if that is the case.

Let them speak

British people often find talking loudly, effusively and interrupting inappropriate. In a group setting this can be difficult because the Brits sometimes go without an opportunity to speak up. There have been times that I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve been spoken over or not had an opportunity to raise a point. The subsequent silence does not usually mean that my point has been made, it probably means I’m livid.

Useful phrases

“I’m sorry to bother you…” This is used when asking questions or even when making complaints. I have walked up to information desks, where the person’s actual job is to answer my question, and apologised for interrupting them whilst all they were doing was waiting for someone to come and ask a question.

“I’m sorry but…” This phrase preludes any complaint, expression of annoyance or outright disagreement. You may raise the volume of what you are saying a notch and place a small amount of emphasis on the words. This means we’re getting serious.

“Oh, by the way…” This will signal the most important but also the most awkward part of a conversation. In order to minimise any emotional impact, we make it seem inconsequential and trivial.

“Oh, sorry.” If you bump into someone, interrupt someone, get in someone’s way or hold someone up, then say sorry.

Do what you want, we’ll just grit our teeth anyway

As British people don’t respond effusively to annoyances or complain you will get away with a lot. We may not like you or what you did as a result, but we will rarely tell you. So, you can easily ignore all these rules and carry on regardless. We’ll just grit our teeth and smile throughout.

Summary and other useful tips

  • Respect privacy and personal boundaries
  • Don’t force Brits to give details
  • Use filler phrases and filler questions to draw out more information
  • Avoid taboos: politics, religion and relationships
  • Brits will say “no” by offering alternatives
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Use “sorry” like confetti
  • Don’t make a complaint unless absolutely necessary
  • Don’t be too effusive or emotional
  • Don’t come across as arrogant
  • Be self-deprecating

Other resources

I’ll be writing a British culture vs. Cambodian culture post soon.