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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Life in Cambodia can be wildly different to life in the UK. There are different routines, considerations and skills needed in order to survive. There is so much I have learnt to do and there are also many skills I know I’m lacking. If I had the opportunity to do more research, receive more training or practise some skills before I came it may could have made quite a bit of difference and I wouldn’t feel quite at a loss at some points. These just cover the basics; I will probably write another one about cultural integration and awareness. Also, if you enjoy this post but haven’t read my A Million Questions post about learning about a new country, you might find that interesting too.
Are your vaccines up-to-date?
Do you know your blood type?
Do you know the locations of the nearest/best hospitals where you will be living?
Have you checked whether you can get hold of any medication you need?
Have you researched potential threats to health (e.g. malaria, dengue, Zika virus, parasites)?
Do you know how to prevent mosquito bites, insect bites and other local risks to health?
What foods are safe to eat and what should be avoided? (This varies from place to place, so the blanket advice for travellers may not be applicable. For example, ice is usually fine in Cambodia!)
How may the change in diet or climate impact your health?
Have you learnt how to adjust to a different climate?
Have you made plans in the case of emergency medical care? Does your family know your plans?
What are the main types of transport in the country you are moving to?
Is it the same or different to what you are used to?
Would it be worth getting lessons before you leave? (I would have loved to have motorbike lessons before I left; I completely feel as if I’m making it all up.)
Do you know basic vehicle maintenance?
Do you know about different types, brands or models of that vehicle?
What public transport is available in the country?
What conditions will you travel in when you take public transport? How might you need to prepare for this?
What clothing do you need for different seasons?
What clothing is available in the country? What will you need to bring more of? (For me – vests, socks and shoes)
What are locals’ attitudes towards different types of clothing choice? What image are you trying to convey? How do the clothes you wear convey this?
What clothing will be comfortable or practical for different reasons?
How will you keep your clothes clean?
Do you know how to hand wash clothes?
What type of clothes will you have to wear at work? What would be good to wear when out and about?
Can you sew?
What are the main components of that country’s cuisine?
Do you know how to eat it? (For instance, I still struggle to eat fish and prawns because I didn’t eat it a lot at home.)
What types of fruit and vegetables are there? Do you know how to eat, prepare and cook them? (For instance, can you cut up a mango?)
What type of food and ingredients will be available where you are living?
Can you cook some simple meals just on a stove?
Do you know how to wash vegetables and meats in an effective and hygienic manner? (Yes, I know that probably back at home you are told not to wash meats. That advice might not apply so much where you are.)
Do you know how to avoid foods that you are allergic too?
Do you know what substitutions for different ingredients you use often can be used?
Do you know which languages are used in the country and where you will be living?
Do you have a basic idea of language families and their features?
Are you aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet and its usage?
Are you familiar with the phonemes of your target language?
Have you researched language learning techniques?
Do you know what resources are available for your target language?
Do you know the pros and cons of the different resources (for example is the resource somewhat old-fashioned so now a bit offensive? Yes, FSI courses, I’m looking at you.)
Have you researched some of the dos and don’ts of the culture?
Are you aware of culture shock, what it is and what it looks like? Have you researched reverse culture-shock?
Have you researched your own culture so you are aware of some of the potential pressure points? (Privacy and personal space is a large pressure point for me.)
Have you found out what cultures you might be working with? Have you researched them? (You might be working in an international setting. I find more extrovert and say-what-you-mean cultures more difficult than Khmer ones most the time.)
Back at home
Have you planned how you will stay in touch with those back at home?
Have you researched what methods of communication there are available?
Have you spoken to others about how they should communicate with you?
Have you scheduled regular, committed time to communicate with various people?
Have you considered how you will communicate with younger family members? (I’ve found regular Skype calls with little people really hard to navigate.)
How will you negotiate import events like Christmas? Have you reflected on how this might affect you?
Have you taken time to think about how you as a person might affect your experience?
What do you enjoy doing in your home country?
What activities might be available in your new country?
How do you respond to stress?
What self-care techniques work for you?
What is your personality type? What Enneagram type are you? What does it say about you?
What are your reasons for going?
What do you hope to achieve?
How do you cope with frustrations and disappointments?
What bad habits should you try to deal with before you leave?
Where might you need to be more flexible in your thinking or world-view?
What stereotypes or presumptions might you need to deal with before you leave?
This is a pretty long list. A lot of it could be done with a google search or by watching a few YouTube videos. Some you might need to reflect on for longer. You may want to discuss a few with others who have lived abroad, or close friends and loved ones. I hope this list helps someone and if it does, like or comment! If I failed to add something (because these are only based on my experiences), let me know too.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. The old calendars are about to get chucked out, new shiny ones ready to be used. Youtubers, facebook walls and bloggers everywhere are reviewing their year. It’s especially essential for rubbish bloggers like me, who fail to write regularly, and my facebook posts are an eclectic mix mainly detailing my sleeping habits and the weather. So this is what 2019 looked like.
On January 1st, I headed off to Mondulkiri with Vitou. It was such a great time to spend with him and a great opportunity to explore more of Cambodia. It amazed me how comparatively cold it was. I bought a scarf. So, okay, it was only about 18C at night, but that was cold enough.
January was a month of mosquitoes. They were everywhere. And I don’t mean a few. I mean hundreds. Mosquitoes are not just an annoying pest. They are dangerous here. They carry dengue fever and although it usually just leads to something like severe flu, it can be fatal if complications arise. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for dengue, but so far I’ve escaped!
The first three or four months of 2019 were actually pretty hard. There were a few times when I had to have a moment’s moan.
January was also the month I melted a teapot. I actually did it again in April. But I eventually found a stove teapot with a louder whistle so you can’t forget about it.
February was quite intense and filled with ups and downs. The general struggles of living in Cambodia continued: mosquitoes and rising temperatures.
It was also the month when I turned 31! That was great. Vitou surprised me at 6:30 am with a birthday cake. Then, on the Saturday, we had a boat party. Read about that Saturday here. (Updates from that post- the hair cut turned out to be quite uneven around my ears; the money situation was fine; half the glow sticks spoiled in the Cambodian heat and couldn’t be used. Ah, Cambodia, you do make life interesting.)
The following week was camp week. This was a one-week residential, and I was on team middle school. Therefore, we took grades 6, 7 and 8 off to Shalom Valley, which is near Kep on the coast of Cambodia. It was a really good week. We did, however, have two hospitalisations (they weren’t life-threatening). You’d think the injury was from the dangerous looking obstacle course or the fire juggling or the mountain walk, wouldn’t you? No. One was at sustained at the butterfly farm and the other just walking from their room to dinner. It just goes to show that risk assessments never truly reflect reality.
Straight after this week was the WEC Cambodia prayer retreat. It was good to see everyone, but I was pretty out of it for a lot of the time. Also, I got (mildly) electrocuted having a shower and I then got very ill. Poor Vitou agreed to pick me up from the hotel. I didn’t tell him I was getting unwell, so he decided to take me on an errand another hour out of Phnom Penh. Then, I had to force myself to eat some of the food his aunt offered me, despite feeling ready to vomit everywhere. Finally, after an hour of waiting, I admitted I felt unwell and we went home. It turns out a few other people from my WEC team were ill as well and I probably got off quite lightly. I did have to take a few days off work.
The unrelenting march (see what I did there?) of difficulties continued. The temperature was soaring and power cuts were becoming a daily occurrence. My facebook posts reflected this as well as this blog post: It’s a hot mess.
However, there were great moments too. I went to Takeo a few times for the village ministry, which was always great fun.
March definitely taught me some lessons on how to be grateful despite difficulties.
April meant a two-week break. It was much needed. I explored the Cambodian countryside visiting various friends and family of Vitou. It was great. However, at some times it was difficult. I was the outsider and I didn’t feel as if I completely fitted in. I also ran over a dog (it was fine!). I also got to go to Khmer wedding number 7.
I bought my own motorbike! She’s called Makara and she’s my best friend.
I also had my first falling out with Vitou. Basically, someone died and I threw a tantrum because I wasn’t the first person everyone thought about. (If you’re judging me right now, please, go ahead. I am fully aware that I am a really terrible person.) Vitou was unnecessarily apologetic and I received a public facebook declaration from Vitou that he had done something terribly wrong. That was a bit of an insight into the shame-honour culture of Cambodia and how relationships exist in the public sphere rather than the being just between you and the friend. We’ve made up. Vitou still thinks it’s his fault, which clearly it isn’t. (Vitou, if you’re reading this: you’re the best!)
My brother visited! It was great for him to experience Cambodia, even if it was very brief. He met Vitou and the family. He also met some of my colleagues in Siem Reap. (Poor guy.) He loved it here. It did mean I had to sleep on the floor for a week.
I finished a year a HOPE. I passed my level 5 Khmer assessment with flying colours! I put a post up about these achievements on Facebook. Obviously, I could rely on my brother to be encouraging in this situation.
It was quite a tough academic year in some ways. Much of it was the bureaucratic and administrative aspect of schools. The kids are great. The colleagues are supportive. But meetings, grading, reports, admin just kills me. It makes it hard that HOPE school has bits from all across the globe so sometimes the systems seem nonsensical but do fulfil a purpose somewhere.
I returned to the UK for two weeks. It was a very quick trip but it felt like the right length. Any longer and I think I would have got itchy feet. It was great to catch up with friends and family and to gorge myself on British cakes and fried breakfasts.
The most significant part of that trip was meeting my little baby niece for the first time. Of course, it was great to see my older niece too and see how much she has grown. I managed to have some really nice time with family. My sister-in-law also did some amazing baking. She might have even robbed me of my status as “best baker in the family”.
Then there was the ten-day WEC Cambodia conference in Kampong Thom (a province in central Cambodia). It was nice to see another small part of Cambodia. One of the most difficult things I’ve faced over the last year was not feeling a part of the WEC team so much. There are a lot of reasons for this: most of the members I knew already are not in Phnom Penh and simply because school life can be all-absorbing. However, spending quality time with the WEC team was really helpful in reestablishing my sense of belonging in the team. That was a real blessing.
School started again, with some logistical difficulties (of course, it is Cambodia). This meant filling in for teachers and merging classes for a few weeks. I also started teaching drama, which was quite scary and daunting. I new the course requirements and I understood the syllabus and exams. However, translating that information into actual lessons was quite a challenge.
Rainy season started with dramatic results, and there was quite a bit of flooding across the country. Fortunately for me, Phnom Penh was not particularly affected.
The general challenges of life in another country continued too.
I also started dating someone.
School life seems to absorb everything, especially if you are a yes person. I was working on the school production, being proof-reader for various newsletters and things. However, I had another week off for Pchum Ben, which was an opportunity to sit and relax. I visited a zoo and got to relax on a boat, then went to visit Vitou’s family in Kandal province again.
I also started another level at G2K, this one was Christian Studies 2. It was unbelievably helpful and interesting. Over 10 weeks, I learnt about Khmer culture and barriers to the gospel, as well as learning to pray in Khmer and sing Khmer worship songs.
I think one of the biggest journeys I’ve been on this year is exploring my attitude towards cultures and learning more about them. I absolutely love Cambodia. I love its countryside; I love its vibrancy; I love its people. Yes, there are frustrations and difficulties. Most of the time they are funny or momentary.
I do believe missionaries have a God-given responsibility to honour the host culture they are in. They are to encourage and love the people they are interacting with. It challenged me how I can be a good guest in Cambodia.
This month introduced a new, exciting challenge into life in Cambodia: getting to school. Due to building works, bad weather, large factory trucks tearing up the surface and just construction workers dumping soil on the road, it was a daily challenge to arrive clean and in one piece. Also, at school we had to complete a lot of documentation for the Ministry of Education, which put extra pressure on all the teachers. It helped that we had a few days off dotted through the month.
This month was Water Festival month. I really love Water Festival and I got to go to the riverside with Vitou’s family to celebrate. There were fireworks and a procession of lit-up barges. It’s very crowded but great fun.
It was also just busy. First, the WEC Cambodia team had visitors from WEC UK, to do some filming of the various ministries of WEC missionaries here. This meant they were also visiting the school. It was great to have them here but also, in some ways, exhausting. They only visited me for one day, but as I had to sort cover etc. for my lessons it meant that there were logistical aspects that needed organising.
Also, the school production was drawing ever closer. This meant sources, painting, repairing props and things for back stage. Most of my life was spent in Japanese two-dollar stores or Japanese secondhand stores.
It didn’t help that I started suffering from insomnia. I again had to take a few days off because I just didn’t sleep for a number of consecutive days. It’s a lot better now, but I will still have the odd night when I don’t sleep.
The school play, reports and the end of the G2K course all hit at once. It was a crazy week and at some points it was a struggle to get to the end. Somehow I did it and now I’m on the wind down towards the Christmas holidays. The school production was a big success and the students who took part made us all very proud! It’s amazing that such a small school could have so many intelligent, wonderful young people.
Then there was the general election in the UK. It’s always strange being on the outside of such events. You get somewhat removed from the media circus and it means that perhaps you can stand back a bit and think about it in a different way. This led to me writing a post about how democracy will never save us.
I’m also going to be moving house. This will mean packing, cleaning my current apartment, buying new furniture, cleaning the new house, then unpacking and settling in. I’m lucky to have a few weeks off as well as a holiday to Kep booked.
2020 is going to see a lot of changes for me, and not everything is certain. The only thing, in fact, that is certain is that I will be making 2020-vision jokes until at least May. And of course, that God will continue to be faithful regardless of mosquitoes, power cuts, dust and other problems.
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?
This subject is possibly getting tedious, so I apologise. I know I have mentioned it previously and I probably will again. One of the most difficult areas of communication is with non-British English speakers. We are, indeed, divided by a common language.
I love reflecting on my British culture and how it has shaped me. Living in a foreign country highlights the differences and nuances of your culture that you normally take for granted. You also have to negotiate your own values and how they fit into your new setting. It’s helpful to know about your own culture as well as the ones you are interacting with. You are better able to pin-point why you respond to certain situations and why you feel the way you do.
Remember, with culture and any of these points, it is highly contextual and varies significantly from situation to situation and person to person. These are broad brushstrokes. It is a bit of a long read, so I have provided a summary at the end. Feel free to skip to it, but it may lose some of the nuance.
Privacy and personal boundaries
Two of the highest values in British culture is the sense of privacy and a need to respect personal boundaries. For example, when I told a Brazilian that no one talks to one another on public transport, he asked why were we so unfriendly. Actually, for Brits, that is being friendly. We assume the other passengers wish to maintain their personal space so we do not invade it. A small smile might be all you get and even that is a rare occurrence.
Therefore, you must be aware of this when communicating with British people. British people may not want to share details about something with you. Also as a result, English people may ask fewer questions about something and not seem interested. They are probably interested, but don’t want to seem nosy.
Communication in Britain can seem direct at times, but there will be a lot of indirect communication that goes alongside it that can easily be missed.
The implied meaning of words are extremely important. In fact, you can assume that any implied meaning is the actual intended meaning. Therefore, you have to be careful that there aren’t any unpalatable implied meanings behind what you say. Sometimes, our indirect communication goes as far to say the opposite to what we actually mean. One perfect example is the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” We say that when the only thinking we will be doing is reflecting on what a ridiculous suggestion it was. We’ve already made our minds up and we profoundly disagree. But we don’t want to insult you by telling you that.
You have to remember, this is not disingenuous and we are not lying as those not familiar with British culture might assume. A British person being told, “I’ll think about it,” knows perfectly well what it means. We just forget that those from other cultures (especially when English is their first language) will not pick up on the contextual cues that go with it.
There are certain subjects that are embarrassing and difficult to discuss. These are some of them:
You need to tread carefully when negotiating these subjects.
So, there are various ways to navigate these aspects of communication though.
When starting a conversation, ask general questions that don’t ask for details. Remember, you need to respect the other person’s privacy and personal boundaries. Some examples include, “Do you have any plans this weekend?” as opposed to “What are you doing this weekend?”; “Did you have a good holiday?” or “How was your holiday?” rather than “What did you do on your holiday?” The first type of questions allows your conversation partner to be as vague or as detailed as they wish. The second type of question traps your conversation partner into giving details they may not actually want to give. (Also, “What are you doing this weekend?” is usually reserved as a precursor to making plans.)
So, this becomes a bit of a dance, where meaningless fillers replace actual meaningful questions. Remember, we are indirect communicators. The fillers are intended to move the conversation on, but in a non-invasive way. Then gradually, you work towards the details.
“How was your weekend?
“Not bad actually.”
“Yes, we went to see my family.”
“Yeah, we took are kids to see their grandparents. We went to Corfe Castle for the day.”
“Yes, we went to this amazing little pub nearby. The food was delicious.”
“Yeah, we had the Sunday roast. The beef was pretty much perfect. And the roast potatoes were lovely. We could have done with a bit more gravy though.”
If you want to broach any of the taboo subjects, you have to take extra care. Let’s say, for example, a British friend is wearing a particularly dashing piece of knitwear. (All Brits love knitwear.) You want to find out how much it was. The easiest way to find out is simply ask another question then provide the cues until you get the details you want. So, for example, the conversation would go like this:
“That’s a lovely cardigan. Where did you buy it?”
“Oh, it was £35 at Topshop.”
You might possibly note that the price was offered pretty much straight away. This often what happens, as the “Where did you buy it?” is often heard as a non-threatening “How much was it?” If it doesn’t work straight away, you could try these techniques:
Make a general comment about TopShop “Oh, I love the dresses in there.”
Tell them about what you bought there, “I got some lovely shoes there for about £50”.
Allude to the topic of money: “Topshop can be a bit expensive, but it’s usually worth the cost. Sometimes you can find real bargains too.”
Once they tell you the price, don’t criticise it: “Oh, that’s too much!” You will not be popular. The best response would be, “Oh, really? I love the colour.” You’ve got the information you want, then move off the awkward topic as quickly as possible.
If this doesn’t work, then there’s the “You don’t mind me asking how much it is?” which is where the speaker pretends to be asking for permission to ask a personal question by, in fact, asking the personal question. Usually, the British person will begrudgingly acquiesce and tell you.
British people will refuse a request or a suggestion as politely as possible. They will often make an excuse or use indirect communication. “I’ll get back to you” or “I’ll think about it” is often a no. In a case when making group decisions, ideas may be rejected by giving an alternative. For example
“Why don’t we go to Dominoes tonight?”
“What about TGI Friday’s?”
Alternatively, the British person may just agree for the sake of agreeing, even if it makes life difficult for them. Sometimes, it’s worth checking if that is the case.
Let them speak
British people often find talking loudly, effusively and interrupting inappropriate. In a group setting this can be difficult because the Brits sometimes go without an opportunity to speak up. There have been times that I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve been spoken over or not had an opportunity to raise a point. The subsequent silence does not usually mean that my point has been made, it probably means I’m livid.
“I’m sorry to bother you…” This is used when asking questions or even when making complaints. I have walked up to information desks, where the person’s actual job is to answer my question, and apologised for interrupting them whilst all they were doing was waiting for someone to come and ask a question.
“I’m sorry but…” This phrase preludes any complaint, expression of annoyance or outright disagreement. You may raise the volume of what you are saying a notch and place a small amount of emphasis on the words. This means we’re getting serious.
“Oh, by the way…” This will signal the most important but also the most awkward part of a conversation. In order to minimise any emotional impact, we make it seem inconsequential and trivial.
“Oh, sorry.” If you bump into someone, interrupt someone, get in someone’s way or hold someone up, then say sorry.
Do what you want, we’ll just grit our teeth anyway
As British people don’t respond effusively to annoyances or complain you will get away with a lot. We may not like you or what you did as a result, but we will rarely tell you. So, you can easily ignore all these rules and carry on regardless. We’ll just grit our teeth and smile throughout.
Summary and other useful tips
Respect privacy and personal boundaries
Don’t force Brits to give details
Use filler phrases and filler questions to draw out more information
Avoid taboos: politics, religion and relationships
Brits will say “no” by offering alternatives
Use “sorry” like confetti
Don’t make a complaint unless absolutely necessary