Control

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.

My favourite things about Cambodians

In my previous post I spoke about cultural clashes. I want to remind you that they are not reasons I look down on Khmer people, but rather where our cultural values conflict. Neither is right or wrong; it’s dependent on whose perspective you see it from. Also, there’s a propensity to see only the differences, and more often than not, the negative ones. I love Cambodia and its people. Yes, there are times when that’s tested more than usual, but I still try and celebrate Cambodians and enjoy living here. So here are things I love about Cambodian culture.

The joy

Cambodians are famous for their friendliness, their laughter, their smiles. Their parties are loud and exuberant. Things are colourful. Their chatter playful. They love games and silliness, even as adults.

The word for play is leng /leːŋ/ លេង. It’s often attached to other words to suggest an element of fun or relaxation:

  • daer leng /ɗaᵊ leːŋ/- to go out for fun (to walk + to play)
  • niyiey leng /niʔjiᵊj leːŋ/- to joke or tease (to speak + to play)
  • angkoy leng /ɑŋkoj leːŋ/ -to sit and relax (to sit + to play)
  • keng leng /keːŋ leːŋ/- to nap (to sleep + to play)

Celebrations, such as weddings and other festivals, are bright, loud affairs. There are games and food and drinks. Cambodians love to laugh and joke and play.

The hospitality

Hospitality in the UK and hospitality in Cambodia is somewhat different. (If you want to see how this difference caused me reverse culture shock read my post melamine plates.) It’s slightly more relaxed (those not used to it would say chaotic) than in the UK. It’s far more easy-come easy-go (like much of Cambodian life, it seems). There’s a vague arrival time and people turn up and plates of food appear.

The welcome is always warm (although sometimes a bit shy and nervous around foreigners) and the beer is always on ice. The cheers “juol muoy!” happens regularly. Basically, any time someone goes to have a swig of beer, you have to clink glasses with everyone then every takes a good swig of their glass, often drain it entirely.

There seems to be an endless conveyor belt of food. There are multiple dishes, ranging from soups, seafood, snails, bbq meat, stir fried greens and, of course, rice. It’s a relaxed affair and you just sit eating. This can go on all day. During this time, neighbours, friends, family, passing acquaintances will be invited in or appear and eat then go. There’s a lot of greeting and farewelling or others popping to the nearby store to pick up another case of beers.

There can be (very loud) music and karaoke and children playing.

This hospitality is more casual than in the UK. There are no napkins (maybe some tissues to wipe your fingers), you can use fingers or lettuce leaves or chopsticks or spoons to eat with, there are few manners to worry about. The karaoke doesn’t matter on the prowess of your singing voice. (This can make it entertaining for all sorts of reasons.) This is the type of hospitality I love. Hospitality that is devoid of social barriers such as etiquette (etiquette is always designed to divide people between social status, so think about that when you next tell your child to take their elbows off the table) and special talents. You come, you eat, you sing. It is hospitality designed to welcome.

The bonds

Cambodians can be naturally shy and a bit hesitant with foreigners, but once you are in, you are very much in.

Social networks are important in Cambodia, and often the connections made can be long lasting and strong. Also, when you’ve made a strong friendship with others, you adopt many of their connections as well. There’s a concept of bong-p’oun. This little means older and younger siblings, but it really refers to your circle of close friendships and family members. There’s a sense of responsibility to care and look out for those in this circle. It’s a tight, reciprocal bond.

I’ve been seen grateful for the connections and friendships I’ve been able to make. There’s a definite sense that I have a collection of people who have my back and will care for me whatever happens.

What do you find hardest about Cambodian culture?

When talk about culture neither is wrong, right, better or worse. Culture gives us a set of tools to easily and sometimes automatically negotiate social situations, able to make quick judgements and accurate predictions, bypass long-winded communications because of an assumed understanding of the process and expectations.

However, when dealing with other cultures these tools are often robbed away, and this is what can cause stress and anxiety.

For me, there are a few things that cause me stress. First, it is the lack of planning. Things often happen seemingly spontaneously and without a huge amount of forewarning. There is an economic aspect to this; things happen when you can afford them. There was one time Vitou phoned me to ask if I was free. I told him I was, so he told me to pack clothes for three days as we were visiting his relatives.

British culture usually revolves around well-planned and confirmed events. This is also true of my school culture, it being an international school. Many social events among my expat friends are planned in advance s as well. I try to have one foot firmly rooted in my surrounding Cambodian culture; whilst the other in my British or international expat culture. It seems that the former foot is doing the foxtrot beat of slow, slow, quick, quick (no planning or activity until a rush at the last minute) while the latter leg is doing the quick, quick, slow of the polka (organise everything at first, then ease into the event later). With each foot moving to a different beat, it can make life somewhat complex.

I’ve learnt to prepare for this Cambodian pace by leaving my schedule free. However, this means often saying no to things I would otherwise go to due to the possibility something else might happen. Often, when people ask “do you have plans for the holidays” the answer is no, but in reality I know some plan will probably suddenly materialise. Generally, I cope quite well.

However, I don’t cope well when I’m stressed. If I’m already busy and my schedule is already packed or if some significant event is coming up, the thought that something might suddenly crop up our plans might change make me very anxious. I cope with stress by planning. I will plan things to the last detail and I need to know some days in advance how things will work out. This helps me feel in control of the situation. However, as Cambodians don’t plan, they inadvertently make situations worse for me.

As I gradually get more involved in Khmer life and my priorities move in that direction, hopefully scheduling conflicts and time of stress will reduce.

Another strong value in British culture is privacy and personal space. In Cambodia, especially as often many people live together sharing bedrooms and even beds, this it’s not often a priority. Vitou is very aware and helpful, and will often ensure my privacy is maintained at home. However, there are times when this cultural conflict can’t be escaped. There is one example that sticks clearly in my mind. I had just been shopping at Aeon Mall, of course. I had the day off as a school holiday but also forget it happened to be a Cambodian national holiday too. Therefore, Aeon Mall was exceptionally crowded. Because of this, shopping had been tiring and stressful. My capacity to deal with cultural conflicts was vastly diminished.

I left Aeon Mall, glad to be escaping, and at the exit I bumped into some Cambodian acquaintances. They literally pounced on my trolley and started peering into my bag, cataloguing everything I had bought and announcing it to the group. I can’t imagine that happening in England. Even if my parents had been shopping for anything other than the weekly groceries, I wouldn’t open their shopping bags to have a look.

One time in Siem Reap, I went out for the evening to get food. There was a group of tuk tuk driver that would wait on the corner of the road for customers, so I walked up and asked them to drop me off at Pub Street, where the restaurant was (I was friends with one of the waiters there). The next day, I went to the shop just opposite where I lived, and the shopkeeper, who I also had conversations with regularly, asked if I enjoyed Pub Street the night before. The whole neighbourhood knows your comings and goings, which makes me very careful on the reputation I try to make for myself in my borey.

Another area where my idea of privacy is often invaded surrounds prices of things. In UK, you would rarely directly ask the price of something. In Cambodia, it happens a lot. People ask about clothes, motorbikes, rent, everything. To a British person, that’s personal information. Here, it’s acceptable public knowledge. The next stage can be a bit annoying, when they evaluate whether you got a good price or not. It’s not so bad if they think it’s a good price. To be told it’s too expensive comes across as rude. (That’s okay to do before the point of purchase; it’s of no use after and seems to only serve to undermine the person who bought it.)

If I get asked the price of something, I will usually say that I can’t remember. That usually stops the conversation in its tracks.

I think the reason that this happens is that Cambodia is far more group orientated. Therefore things happen together, so privacy gets put aside as a result. Things happen together, you live in close proximity to each other, communities have the proverbial grape vine running down each street, so naturally your business becomes everyone else’s business.

This might seem like a bit of a rant, but it isn’t. I know I’m extremely blessed to be here. If my main gripes are that people invite me to things (how very dare they) a bit last minute, or they show an interest in this stranger that has landed in among them or they are asking questions a quick google search could probably answer about prices, then I don’t have a lot to complain about. I love so much about Cambodian culture and the people here. I’m also glad for the opportunity to put a mirror up against my own values and beliefs and examine where they come from or why they’re like that. So, come to Cambodia; just expect things to be last minute and for everyone to be very curious about you.