Culture lessons from Zoom

Like a lot of people, I have been living my life via Zoom. I’ve had the privilege of working in multiple international teams, across different contexts and Zoom meetings seem to provide a great way to observe some of these cultural differences. Zoom meetings can be difficult at the best of times, especially as a lot of the social behaviours we rely on in different settings are not available to us. Also, because everyone is being watched all the time (if in gallery view), you seem to be able to observe a lot more at once. This makes cultural differences seem even more apparent.

A part of it is the newness of frequent Zoom calls. One thing I have learnt is that no matter how long you have been in a culture, is that you will never understand all of it. New contexts often have a totally different set of rules. As frequent Zoom calls are a relatively new social phenomenon, we’re still creating Zoom protocols in our own cultural context, let alone working out the others. Also, as behaviour is mostly dictated by our internalised cultural values, these work their way out fairly intuitively in different situations. However, if it is not your own culture, you will have to go through a process of observing how different cultures do it. (You can make some guesses, but there will always be surprises!)

Also (and this is the really tricky part of working cross-culturally), if you are unaware of a particular behaviour, you may not even notice it happening. This means that you might be blissfully unaware of how your behaviour is going against what everyone else is doing.

It’d be interesting to do a study (or, if I’m honest, briefly read the conclusion of one as I don’t have to for that) that looks into these particular behaviours. However, from what I have observed, it seems that culture may affect the following aspects of a zoom call:

  • When you join. Does the meeting start before, dead on time or after? When
  • How you enter. Do you speak straightaway to reassure the host of your arrival or do you wait to avoid interrupting conversations? Do you have your camera on straight away or do you wait until you know who has already entered the call?
  • The role of the host at the start. Do you say hello to everyone as they enter? Do you wait until everyone has arrived to speak?
  • Muting your mic. Do you put your microphone on mute so that you don’t distract or interrupt others? Do you use the unmuting of the microphone to indicate that you want to speak? Do you keep your microphone on so you can interact more naturally and conversationally?
  • Pausing to answer. Do you wait to see if others unmute their mic or indicate in another way they want to speak or do you answer straightaway to avoid awkwardness?
  • Body language. Do you use body language within Zoom calls? What body language do you use and what does it indicate?
  • Leaving a call. Do you say goodbye? Who do you say goodbye to and how many times? Or do you just leave as soon as it ends?
  • Offering technical advice. Are you willing to suggest how to solve technical problems in the Zoom call? Do you remind people to mute/unmute?

Now, obviously, some of this will be personality and some of this will be based on how proficient people are on Zoom.

Understanding Brits on Zoom

I’m only an expert on British culture, so I don’t want to assume things about other cultures and get it wrong. It may have been wiser to say this was “English” culture as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have subtle but important differences. Also, these are generalisations, so individuals may do all of these or some (and sometimes none). Another good thing to remember, is that native English speakers from different cultures may not share your culture. The cultures of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand can be vastly different, for example.

However, here are some things that Brits will have a tendency to do:

  • Arrive between two minutes or two minutes after the time. They want to be punctual and not keep people waiting. However, they may not feel comfortable joining on their own, so may try be acceptably late. An alternative option is that they may arrive early but not turn on their mic or video straightaway. It means “I’m here and ready, but don’t feel the need to talk to me.”
  • They will not announce their arrival. They will wait until they know how many people are there and whether there are conversations going on already. They will wait for a break in conversation before talking to avoid interrupting others.
  • They will usually mute their mic. They don’t want to interrupt others or distract the call with things going on around them. Also, you can indicate you want to speak next by turning on your mic. It get’s a little frustrating if people don’t notice this and jump in and cut the conversation queue. Also, those who don’t mute their mics may make Brits a bit stressed as we can’t tell if they want to speak or not.
  • Body language is still important for Brits. We will usually pause before answering a question to the group to watch who wants to speak. We will look for unmuted mics, people sitting up or leaning forward to show they want to speak. Give Brits a chance to go through this process, because sometimes they might not get a chance to talk at all.
  • We will say a few goodbyes and thank yous. We will probably not say goodbye to individuals but to the group. We will then leave. Sometimes, in very large meetings, we will leave without even announcing it.

This is because of our values of politeness, being fair, not causing a fuss and being private. These will influence how we do Zoom. Other cultures will have different values and they will do it differently. Therefore, openness, equality, spontaneity, hospitality and others might have a role to play. So remember, if they do it differently, they are not being rude or doing it wrong. They are trying to practise other values which their culture says is the priority.

  • If you are a Brit, do you agree with these?
  • How do people from your culture use Zoom?

Ask a Missionary: Host Culture

I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.

What is the predominant host culture? 

Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.

Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 

I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.

What do you like most about your host culture? 

Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.

What has surprised you most about your host culture? 

How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)

What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 

Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomes in, you’re set.

How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 

I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.

What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 

The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.

How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 

I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien.

What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 

There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.

Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 

I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.

What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 

I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.

Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?

My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. This is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?

Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 

The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)

What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 

I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.

Which language / languages are you having to learn? 

Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).

How is language learning going? 

It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which Khmer keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various combination.

What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 

I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.

I thought I was doing well! Then I asked for corrections…

What challenges have you faced in language learning? 

The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.

How do you feel about language learning? 

I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.

Welcome back bingo

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.

Useless barang…

One of the most humbling things about moving to Cambodia is how useless I often feel. Being a barang (the slang word for foreigner), I watch Khmer people and how resourceful and competent they are. There seems to be a few reasons for why I feel Khmer people .

  • I simply don’t understand the culture or ways things are done. Sometimes, the way things happen are extremely different to that in the UK, from sourcing things you want to buy, paperwork or cutting obscure tropical fruit.
  • Cambodians have had to be resourceful. They can use what they have to get the job done. In the UK, we often rely on specialist tools such as mandolins for thinly sliced fruits or specific saws with specific frames for specific tasks. They’ll just use a normal knife and a saw blade for most of what they have to do. Sometimes it takes extra effort or care, but they’re content to put the work in.
  • A sense of confidence in their abilities. Khmer people are very humble and very down-to-earth people. But sometimes, they seem blissfully unaware that sometimes they shouldn’t be good at something. We seem to have a mindset in British culture that this is the realm you are good at and this is what you aren’t good at. However, Cambodians seem to just assume they might be able to do it. It’s probably because in the UK we are able to outsource things we couldn’t do. We even had to come up with a name for when you did it yourself (DIY), because that wasn’t perhaps the norm. But in Cambodia, you tend to try to fix it yourself.
  • Certain skills are highly legislated. In the UK, if you were not confident you could plumb or wire something in correctly and to exact specifications, you wouldn’t even think of doing it. Here, there is less emphasis on this, but for the most part it does seem to work.

As a result of these things, I’m often in awe of the speed and ability of Khmer people to do what they need to do. I’m often not at all confident in doing things, such as DIY or even some cooking tasks, so I will often leave it to the Khmer people to do it. And even when I do have a go, what often will have taken me ages to just attempt is done in a fraction of the time by a Khmer person.

One day, I hope I will be more confident in my abilities to negotiate Cambodia and all the challenges it has for me. But until then, I’ll just be another useless barang.

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.

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.

Moving abroad skills/preparedness audit

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.

Health

  • 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?

Transport

  • 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?

Clothing

  • 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?

Food

  • 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?

Language learning

  • 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?
  • Do you know your learning style?
  • 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.)

Cultural adjustment

  • 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?

Yourself

  • 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.

Being a good guest

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.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • 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?