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?
I don’t think until I arrived in a different country and worked in an extremely international setting that I realised the extent of how different cultures could be. Furthermore, what is perceived as a positive and significant value in one culture is easy to dismiss as negative, rude or backwards in another. Stereotypes, conflicts and miscommunications often arise when these cultural values clash. However, if you take what can be seen as a negative cultural trait and try and flip it to its positive cultural value, it can be helpful in seeing why people behave how they do.
Positive Cultural Trait
Aloof and cold
Respect for personal boundaries
Loud and brash
Open and welcoming
Disingenuous or dishonest
Rude or blunt
Honest and straighforward
Dramatic and intense
Passionate, responsive, empathetic
Intrusive or nosy
Interested, community orientated
Treats everyone with warmth
Unforthcoming and taciturn
Desires deep, genuine relationships
Over-familiar with superiors/elders
Obsequious or passive
Respect for authority and social rank
Relaxed and easy-going
Pompous or nitpicker
Respect for ceremony and rules
I’ve seen in forums or heard in meetings people talking about how Khmer people are dishonest or don’t mean what they say. However, it made me laugh. As a Brit, diplomacy or tact is quite important (unless you’re a considered a close friend, then we’re really rude), so multiple times a day I would say something that other cultures would perceive as a lie. I did once try to point this out to those that said this, but I’m not sure if I was direct enough.
I’m definitely having to learn to be generous to others in terms of how I perceive them. I’m trying but it’s still very much a work in process. Which cultural traits values do you align with? Which negative traits do you see in others?
Living in Cambodia for an extended period has somewhat ruined travel for me. The idea of going to another country and only skimming the surface of the cultural and historical vastness of a country seems a bit incomplete and, inherently by its nature, superficial. The tantalising glimpses of another culture and life only create further questions. It also makes me feel foolish because I used to feel I had a somewhat complete view of a country I had merely visited. I suppose the maxim is true: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
It made me think about what questions someone should know the answer to in order to feel like they had a basic grasp on a country. Many countries require a citizenship test, that ask seemingly arbitrary questions, for those wishing to become a citizen of this country. I thought about what questions I would include if I wrote a citizenship test. So far I’ve come up with about 260 questions. Some of them could be a dissertation topic in themselves; some of them would just require a quick google search. Hopefully, some of them would get people to ponder a bit more about the country they live in, are studying or wish to integrate in.
1. The basics
What is the name of the country?
Who leads the country?
What type of government is it?
Who are its nearest neighbours?
What are its major languages?
What is the population of the country?
How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?
What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?
How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population.
How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?
What are the different people groups in the country?
Where can they be found?
What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?
Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?
What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?
Which people groups live alongside one another?
What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?
What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?
What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?
What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?
What are the main differences between the groups?
What is the average age of the country?
What is the average life expectancy of the country?
How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?
What is the population growth of the country?
What are the consequences of this growth?
Are some people groups growing quicker than others? What could be the impacts of this change in demographics?
What are the effects of emigration and immigration on the population?
What are the factors causing emigration and immigration?
What are the attitudes towards emigration and immigration?
3. Geography, climate and landmarks
What landscapes are there in a country?
How do the landscapes influence the lifestyle of those living there?
What is the climate of the country?
What seasons are there?
How do the climate and seasons effect the culture and daily life?
How do the landscapes look different according to the seasons?
Is the climate and weather different in different regions?
How do the seasons affect nature, wildlife, crops and harvests?
How have the seasonal changes been affected by climate change?
How has this affected the people?
What natural landmarks are there in the country?
What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
What manmade landmarks are there in the country?
What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
4. Culture and values
What is the dominant culture?
Is it a individualistic or communal culture?
Is it a guilt culture, shame culture or fear culture?
What are the significant cultural values?
What of the consequences of breaching these cultural values?
How do others respond to social deviance?
How is social order and the status quo maintained?
What behaviours are considered polite or impolite?
What do they celebrate?
How do they celebrate?
How do they respond to major life events (births, deaths, sickness, marriage, new job, job loss, moving house)?
What are the general fears of the culture?
What do they do to alleviate these fears?
What secular holidays or national celebrations are there?
How are the holidays and celebrations linked to the climate, geography or nature of the country?
What do these holidays and celebrations tell us about what is important to this culture?
What are the influences of minority cultures, neighbouring cultures or other cultures on the culture of this country?
What social hierarchies and class systems are there?
How can you tell the difference between those of difference social status?
Is it easy to gain social status?
What generational differences are there in terms of cultural values?
What are the traditional arts, songs, instruments and dances of the country?
Are these traditions being preserved or are they dying out?
What other traditional cultural artefacts are there?
Who performs or creates these cultural artefacts?
Where can you see them displayed or being created?
What are the myths and legends of the culture?
What stories are famous and often told?
What proverbs are there?
What are the major events to affect the country within living memory?
How are these events remembered and commemorated?
What effect do these events have on the national psyche and sense of identity?
How do different generations view the events?
How do the different people groups view these events?
How widespread was the effects?
How does the global community view the events?
How is this similar or different to how it is viewed in the country?
How are these events taught in schools?
How are they talked about?
What historical events are still celebrated or commemorated in the country?
How are they remembered?
What does the remembrance of these events suggest about nation values and identity?
How are these historical events viewed across generations and people groups?
How have these historical events been mythologised over time?
How are they taught in school?
What is the dominant religion of the country?
How does it affect the social structure of the country and of communities?
What religious buildings are there in the country and in the average community?
How does religion affect daily life?
What religious festivals and observances are there?
How does faith affect views towards major life events?
How do they believe the world was created?
Where do humans come from according to their beliefs?
How do they explain other natural phenomenon?
What happens when people die?
Will the world end? How will it happen?
How do people interact with the spiritual domain?
Who is able to interact with the spiritual domain?
What hierarchies does religion create or enforce in the country?
What role does religion have in maintaining the status quo?
How is this country’s religion different from its neighbours?
How do people of this country worship in a way that is different to other adherents of that faith?
What superstitions are there?
What objects, animals or natural phenomenon have spiritual significance?
What beliefs are there in fate or luck?
How can you change your fate or luck?
7. Family life
What is the size of an average family unit?
Who makes up an average family?
How many people will live in the same house?
What is the size of an average house? How many rooms does it have?
How many children does an average woman have?
What are the roles of each member of a family?
Do families live within the same communities?
What are the attitudes towards care for the elderly?
How are children raised, disciplined and nurtured?
What is the average age to get married?
When are you considered past your prime?
Who haves the economic power or responsibility in a family?
What traditions and practices are there relating to pregnancy and birth?
What traditions and practices are there relating to death and illness?
How do they celebrate birthdays?
What ceremonies are related to courting, engagements and weddings?
What is the attitude towards divorce and infidelity?
What are the rates of domestic abuse?
Are there differences in family life between urban and rural areas? What are they and why are there these differences?
How has the look of the family changed between generations?
What does a family meal look like?
How often do extended families eat together?
8. Daily life
What time do people get up?
What time do they go to bed?
How many people share a bed?
What are the children’s/babies sleep routines? Are they different from the adults?
How many days a week do they work?
How long are their work hours?
What are the household tasks or chores that need doing?
Who does them?
Where do they do their shopping?
How many meals do they eat a day?
What do they eat for each meal?
Do they eat at home or do they eat out?
How much money do they spend on grocery shopping?
What do they do with their free time?
Who do they spend their free time with?
What is the most popular non-alcoholic and alcoholic drink in the country?
What sports are popular in this country?
What music do they listen to?
Do they use social media? Which sites do they use?
Do they have access to television, radio or films? What do they watch?
What objects would you find in the average house? What are they for?
What daily struggles or frustrations might a person face?
What transportation do people use on a daily basis?
What do people wear on a daily basis?
What influences the fashions and what is worn?
How far do people travel on a regular basis?
What are the names for community units? How are they structured?
What hierarchies are in place? Who has authority within a community?
Where do communities gather?
When do communities gather?
Where do communities interact?
Where is the heartbeat of community life?
What is the relationship between private and public life?
Who are the gatekeepers to the communities?
Who knows everyone’s business in a community?
What social ties are there within communities?
How do people feel about spending time with others?
How do people feel about spending time alone?
How many people have visited other countries?
10. Education and employment
What level of the population are literate?
What is the education system of the country?
What is the attitude towards education in the country?
How many children attend school?
How big are the average classroom sizes?
How do the following factors affect educational attainment: gender, region and affluence?
Which educational establishments have the best reputation?
What is the most common type of degree, certification or training?
How do most people find work?
What is the rate of employment in the country?
What are the consequences of unemployment?
Which sector is the largest provider of employment in the country?
Which company is the largest employer?
What is considered a good job in the country?
What is the average wage?
How many people live in poverty?
What sectors are growing in the country? How is this impacting employment?
11. Health and safety
Does the average family have a fresh water supply? Where do they get their water from?
Does the average family have access to electricity? What are the sources of electricity?
How do they maintain cleanliness and hygiene?
Does the average family have access to a toilet?
What illnesses are common in the country?
How are they treated? How are they prevented?
Is prevention, treatment and health education widespread?
What is the infant mortality rate?
How many people per doctor are there in the country?
What is the leading cause of death?
What is the rate of alcohol addiction?
What is the rate of substance abuse?
Where are the best hospitals?
Who has access to them?
What is the attitude towards medical treatment?
What traditional practises are used to treat illnesses?
How do cultural beliefs impede improvements in health?
What dangerous animals are a risk in that country?
What is the safest way to travel?
What do people feel afraid of? What makes them feel unsafe?
How long is the dominant language’s alphabet?
What are the main features of the language?
What other languages are spoken?
What gestures or facial expressions are important?
What gestures or facial expressions are best avoided?
Is the communication style direct or indirect?
What honorific terms are used?
How is status, hierarchy or social identity revealed through speech?
How similar is spoken speech to its written language?
What percentage of the population uses mobile phones?
What are the major network providers?
Is there a postal service and how do you use it?
How is major news and important information distributed?
What TV stations are there?
What newspapers are there?
Is the country an LEDC (less economically developed country) or MEDC (more economically developed country)?
What is the GDP per capita?
What is the percentage of annual GDP growth?
What factors have promoted economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
What factors have prevented economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the life expectancy changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the infant mortality rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the literacy rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
What is the country’s largest source of money?
What is their biggest export?
How many tourists visit a year?
Where do the tourists come from?
Who benefits most from tourism?
Who benefits most from businesses?
How is the country’s wealth distributed?
What are major common themes in the various answers?
What are the biggest trends in growth?
What are the reasons for optimism for the country?
Who is doing important working in promoting change for the country?
What are the major challenges this country might face in the future?
What are the possible solutions to such challenges?
What changes do people predict for the country?
What changes do you predict for the country?
What could the outside world do for the country?
What is your own personal relationship with the country?
What are your thoughts and feelings about the various topics?
What surprised you the most?
What topics would you research further?
How did you find the answer to the questions?
What personal anecdotes do you have about adjusting to life in this country?
What sources of conflict are there between your native culture and your second (or third) culture?
What have been the major challenges for you adapting to this country?
How do you feel about the country now having answered the questions?
What discovery do you think will be the most helpful in integrating into this country?
What mistakes have you made in the past that you now understand more fully having answered these questions?
I can probably answer about 40% of the questions with any accuracy. The answers would be too long for a single blog post, but I might try answering them. By the time I have finished them all, I would probably have a rather comprehensive research paper on my hands.
Hopefully, others that I intending to get to know a particular country more fully, or just cement what they know about a place more fully, will find this list interesting and helpful.
I love my time in Cambodia. It’s great and the country and its people are beautiful. So often I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I am here. However, that’s not to say there are challenges. Here are some of the biggest ones.
3. Cultural clashes
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but I am English. In fact, I am quintessentially so. If you wanted a stereotype of an introverted English man, look no further. This means that I am awkward, embarrassed, and uptight. I obey a needlessly endless string of social rules and conventions and social politeness and etiquette is relatively important.
What is difficult is that it is easy to forget that other English speakers are not necessarily English in culture. They probably have lower blood pressure and negotiate social situations with a lot less stress as a result. However, despite the shared language, their relaxed attitudes and happiness to discuss various subjects sometimes translates poorly into English culture. It can come across as overly familiar, nosey or insensitive.
My Khmer is developing, but it’s at the stage where actually it sometimes makes it worse. When I was first learning, what I understood was so limited, that I could often rely on the fact that I probably misunderstood the communication, or wasn’t able to make myself understood. This meant hand gestures, repetition and double checking were necessary. Therefore, often everything was tedious but you seemed to have a better sense of when you arrived at an understanding (or when you didn’t, which was the more frequent of the two scenarios).
What I understand has grown and what I don’t understand has shrunk a bit. However, this means that often the two parts overlap. Sometimes, I think I have understood, but actually I didn’t. This is this language danger zone. You go away satisfied that everything is fine, but find out later that you have unwittingly unleashed a disaster of confusion. I accidentally refused an invite to a wedding because I thought the guy was asking something else.
I can’t wait to get to the part where what I understand is far larger than what I don’t.
1. Communicating with home
This is probably one the hardest parts of living abroad. And it’s not me, it you. Well, actually it’s communicating with you.
Life in Cambodia is different, both in big, drastic ways and in subtle, difficult to perceive ways. Even if you have been to South East Asia or Cambodia itself, the day-to-day reality can be a lot different to the tourist’s or visitor’s experiences. When communicating with people who have never been, it can be even harder.
For example, let’s say I wanted to tell you about my visit to a market. The word market possibly conjures up lots of different images. For the typical westerner, it might mean a farmers’ market, full or organic food and artisanal breads and shiny round wheels of cheeses. The market in the UK is a middle-class day out. It’s clean; it’s sterile; it’s a bit dull.
In Cambodia, the market is the heartbeat of daily life. You can buy most things at the market, especially the bigger ones such as Central Market or Orussey Market. It will have fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, motorcycle parts, jewellery, souvenirs, homeware, incense, flowers, stationery, books and stands selling hot food. They are great, but they are hot, sweaty, and often really smelly. If it’s outside, you get the fumes of motorbikes and tuk tuks as they idle while their riders negotiate prices; inside the air is fetid with the smell of fish and blood and dank water that runs down the open gutters through centre of the market. The experience is also dependent on which market you go to.
To communicate these differences and the experiences are lengthy and time consuming. The market is just one example. My walk to work, a general journey through Phnom Penh, a Cambodian mall, a Cambodian village, a Cambodian home, the Cambodian countryside: these are all experiences that are quite difficult to articulate. It sometimes feels that just to have a meaningful conversation, you have to spend an hour explaining and describing the nuances of Cambodia. And that’s hard and can be isolating.
Also, there’s sometimes an unintentional power to words. Cambodia is great. I also know most of my friends here feel the same way. But sometimes we moan and we vent and we laugh about our experiences (such as nearly being stampeded by water buffalo on the way to work, a mosquito flying up our nose, the panic induced by thinking your air-conditioner is broken, getting misunderstood at a market, ending up at the wrong destination in a PassApp). But they are not really that significant. Yes, they can be annoying and sometimes it gets on top of us when we are tired or there is one too many mosquitoes buzzing around our head. But it’s just a fleeting complaint. We dust ourselves off (sometimes literally- Cambodia is really dusty in the dry season) and carry on. We don’t cry (every time); we don’t self-pity for too long; we don’t dwell. We let it out; we move on and we do the same again tomorrow.
However, often, by communicating it to people back home, suddenly it’s become something bigger than you intended. It’s suddenly the front-page news or the big issue. But that’s not how you wanted it to work out. A simple rant or joke can sound like a life-time trauma to those not in the midst of it.
Now, it’s my blog, so I can say what I want to. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the radio silence from the home end. It feels like we’ve set up a one-way radio system. I transmit updates, details and newsletters, and blogs, and Facebook posts. I actually have to work quite hard at it. A blog post may take an hour or so. The Fact Fridays or Words of the Week take 30 minutes. The newsletters can take up to three hours. Just a “It was great to hear from you!” is all it takes to feel like someone is out there and interested. Otherwise, all I’m getting is static at this end and it makes me wonder if it’s worth doing. Let me know you’ve read it. Ask questions (I know that’s hard, sometimes the lack of knowledge means it’s really difficult to know what to ask). Find out about something and ask me my thoughts on it. Challenge me to do something. Invite me on a Skype date. Tell me three things that have happened to you in the last week. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just let me know you are out there.
So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.
Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh
I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.
Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.
South versus North
Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.
Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.
Khmer versus Expat
Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.
My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.
A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.
Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.
Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.
However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.
Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.
I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.
I’m attempting to answer some of your questions, or questions that I’ve had asked of me by others or perhaps questions I’ve perceived or felt were implied.
One question I’ve not been directly asked but it seems to hang in the air a bit is “are you fluent in Khmer yet?” The answer to that is no. That’s the short answer and if that satisfies you, you can stop reading here. If you would like a fuller explanation of why not and why it probably isn’t happening anytime soon (despite my best efforts), then carry on.
First, the idea that Khmer can be learnt within a short time is usually expressed only by people who have never attempted to learn Khmer. They may have experienced learning another language, maybe French or German or Spanish. However, this is not quite the same.
There’s the “fluent in 3 months” idea that is bandied around the internet or people who have a vague awareness of foreign languages. And yes, it is perhaps possible to learn a language to a level of fluency in just three months. It is not possible, however, to learn all languages to fluency in three months. It depends on what your mother tongue is, your previous knowledge of language learning and your knowledge of linguistics. Also, it depends on what type of fluency you are aiming for.
The idea I think somewhat originated from the US Foreign Service Institute. That is the governmental body that heads up the training of diplomats and other foreign service workers. They rank different languages according to how long it would take an English native speaker to acquire that language to various levels of fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The end goal for this scale is for an overall professional fluency, which would be more demanding than a conversational fluency. And when they determine how long a professional fluency would take, that is how long it would take someone with 25 hours of class time a week, with an addition three to four hours of self-directed study a day (so around 45 hours of study a week). These classes are conducted by a team of linguistic experts, native speakers trained to teach and training specialists.
Even with that amount of dedication, the shortest amount of time it would take to meet their required standards for a language is 24 weeks, or 6 months. That’s for languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. These languages are considered closely related enough to English to make it easier.
Japanese on the other hand is considered one of the hardest and would take around 88 weeks.
So, where is Khmer? It’s in the group that would take about 11 months to learn. 11 months of 25 class hours a week. That’s 1,100 hours of Khmer class. Khmer is significantly distinct from English. It has a plethora of sounds that English does not have and are difficult to produce, it has a script that seems to read in spirals and comprises of the longest alphabet in the world, as well as a complex system of social registers.
You may say, but you’ve been in Cambodia 16 months already. That should have been more than enough time. I would like to remind you that the Foreign Service Institute provide 25 hours of class time a week. At my most intense learning stage, I did ten weeks of ten hours a week. That’s 100 hours. So, after that, I only had 1000 more hours to go. During my first year in Cambodia, I probably did a further 70 hours and another 5 hours of classes in the year I returned to the UK. Recently, I have done 10 weeks of 4 hours a week at G2K, 1 hour a week at school (a maximum of 18 hours) and a further 10 hours with Vitou helping me.
Therefore, I have around a further 897 hours of classes to go until I reach the Foreign Service Institute’s required standard.
Of course, I have the additional benefit of living in the country. However, my work means that I often live in a very English-speaking bubble and the Khmer I do get to use tends to be very repetitive and doesn’t progress beyond what I know already. (How long have you lived here? Where are you from? Do you like Cambodia? I would like to go to AEON Mall II. Yes, I went there yesterday.)
I shall persevere as much as I can. I need to not put too much pressure on myself and not to expect perfection straight away. I have definitely made progress since being back but there are still constant and daily struggles and mistakes. Once I am fluent, I will let you know.