Going public

One of the interesting aspects of living in a foreign country, especially doing the job I do, is that you often become very image conscious. This affects your life in a number of ways: the way you dress, your social media and even how you relate to those around you. You’re very aware of how you conduct yourself in public and what message you’re trying to put across.

So, for example, I would probably wear trousers (and maybe even a shirt) when going to the mall or someone else’s house. It also means you have to be conscious of what photos you are posed in on Facebook, etc. As I work in a Cambodian setting, I have to be aware of what behaviours would suggest in Cambodian culture. Furthermore, Cambodians are very social and very curious. This means that the Cambodians in your neighbourhood know everything about you.

I went to a Bible study for those who lived in my area of Phnom Penh. One lady who went lived a few streets down from me. Obviously, it would make sense if we travelled back together. However, because of what her neighbours would say if she was seen in a tuk tuk with a man, we would often travel separately. She had a tuk tuk driver she trusted and she knew he was safe, so she would often ask him to pick her up and she would go back alone. If he was busy, though, we would travel together, but she would be dropped off on the corner so none of her neighbours would see I was also in the tuk tuk.

Another occasion, I had to pick something up from the house of one of branch leaders when I lived in Siem Reap. The two branch leaders are a couple, and only the wife was home. We chatted for a bit, and the conversation ended with, “Anyway, my neighbours are watching, so I will see you later.” This is quite common, especially as Cambodians do a lot more outside than we would (prepare food, cook, wash up, for instance). So, you are far more visible than you would be in the UK.

In my previous apartment, I don’t think I was ever alone with a female for more than 5 minutes. That was usually only because we were waiting for someone else to arrive. One of the reasons I moved in with Vitou and his wife is so that I could invite people more freely as I’d always have a “chaperone”, so to speak.

In social occasions, too, you don’t hang out with those of the same gender. At a Khmer party, the women all usually sit together and the men sit together, sometimes on separate tables. The order of deciding who sits where goes in order of Khmer/foreigner (i.e. the Khmer sit with Khmer, the foreigners with the foreigners), then split again by gender. The children do their own thing entirely. If you’re a foreign couple with a group of Khmer people you often act as the bridge between the male/female split. You’d sit together, and the female Khmer would sit next to the woman and the male Khmer would sit next to the man.

This can be seen in my social media posts. If you’re my friend on facebook, you can look through my photos and see how often I’ll be photographed with a group of guys or a group of females. Also, if there are both genders present, look how they are arranged. It’s more likely that the men are all sat together. There are some wedding photos where there is a large group. The Khmer will be together; the foreigners will be together. There is very little mention of anyone, other than my mother, on Facebook who is not a guy and there will be very few photos of me alone with a female (even if we happen to be dating). Furthermore, any couple photos in Cambodia are basically announcements of intentions to be married. Even the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” are more akin to “fiancé”, but just at the stage when you haven’t set a date.

All this does mean that I am very careful. I want to have a good reputation here in Cambodia. Therefore, if you were to suddenly discover I had been dating someone for nine months and hadn’t announced it, this would be why.

You know you’ve lived in Cambodia when…

My girlfriend and I were listing things that show you’ve lived in Cambodia. We reached 110 different aspects of Cambodian life. If you’ve lived in Cambodia, check to see how many you have scored or if we have missed anything. If you don’t live in Cambodia, it might give you a humorous insight into daily life here.

Food and diet

  1. You think the most appropriate knife for any job is the biggest meat cleaver you own.
  2. Dinner for breakfast isn’t weird.
  3. You’ve knowingly eaten/drank bugs because you can’t be bothered to fish it out.
  4. You’ve knowingly eaten bugs because they were meant to be in your food.
  5. You’ve eaten soup from a bag.
  6. You’ve eaten the ear and rear of a pig and everything in between.
  7. You’ve had a dessert ruined by durian contamination.
  8. You’ve got something in your fridge people at home would never dream of keeping there.
  9. You’ve had to explain that you’re full even though you haven’t eaten rice today.
  10. You’ve eaten a chicken/duck that was alive when you arrived.
  11. The variety of food available amazes you.
  12. You only know the names of some fruits, vegetables or herbs in Khmer because you don’t have them where you live.
  13. You’ve eaten organs of animals you didn’t even know they had.
  14. Your order at a restaurant has been based on how many days you have available to recover if things go wrong.
  15. You’ve judged someone for not ordering ice in their drinks.

Transport

  1. You’ve had to drive through a herd of cows, past a truck and round children on bicycles at the same time.
  2. You’ve seen a whole house being driven down the road.
  3. You’ve driven through a field because it has less potholes than the road.
  4. You don’t even blink when someone is driving directly towards you the wrong way on the sidewalk anymore.
  5. You’ve thought, “dang it, I should’ve taken the sidewalk” when driving.
  6. You don’t even blink when you’re down the wrong side of the road anyone.
  7. You treat traffic lights like helpful advice.
  8. You’ve wondered what the road markings are actually for.
  9. You’ve driven through a tent.
  10. You’ve had your motorbike/car blocked in by a tent.
  11. You have been in a tuk tuk with more than 8 people.
  12. You have been on a motorbike with more than two people.
  13. You have carried something enormous or unwieldy on a motorbike, whilst driving.
  14. You have fallen asleep in a tuk tuk.
  15. A tuk tuk driver took you back to your house without you telling him where you live because he remembers you.
  16. You don’t think it’s weird to park your car or motorbike in your living room.
  17. You’ve transported furniture on the roof of a tuk tuk.
  18. You’ve had someone else push your motorbike by riding theirs and putting their foot on the back footrest.
  19. You know how difficult it is to push a motorbike with a flat.
  20. You know how to kickstart a motorbike.

Health, hygiene and safety

  1. You’ve woken yourself up with your own B.O.
  2. Your tolerance of getting dust in your eye has risen 1000%.
  3. You have stuck to multiple surfaces because of sweat or had multiple things stick to you.
  4. You worried more about eating that salad than the piece of food you dropped on the floor.
  5. You freak out when people drink from the taps in movies.
  6. You’ve sprayed yourself in the mouth/eyes with DEET on at least 10 occasions (one of which was just to get rid of the taste of durian).
  7. You’ve washed your raw chicken because you’re worried it’s been sprayed with insect repellent.
  8. On a really hot day, you’ve gone into a shower wetter than when you came out.
  9. You prefer cold showers over hot showers.
  10. You’ve pulled a wet money note or receipt out of your pocket and it’s not because you’ve been near water.
  11. You take Imodium before travelling just in case.
  12. You wondered “is that pee or water??” while using a squatty potty.
  13. You have slipped up on wet tiles.
  14. You have burnt your leg on a hot exhaust at least once.
  15. You’ve fallen off your motorbike while it stationary.

Wildlife and nature

  1. A herd of goats or cows are outside your house and you think nothing of it.
  2. Used a cockroach like a hockey puck.
  3. You saw a rat in a restaurant, said “hey there’s a rat in the restaurant” and kept eating.
  4. You have killed a rat.
  5. You appreciate the phrase “look like a drowned rat” even more after the rainy season.
  6. You’ve had to decide which to stand closest to: the fighting dogs or the rat in the bin.
  7. The main reason something goes in the fridge is to keep the ants away.
  8. You’ve frozen a bag of rice or cereal before.
  9. You killed more than 40 mosquitoes in 10 minutes.
  10. You had an ant/mosquito in your motorbike helmet whilst driving.
  11. You had some animal fall on you/run over your foot/hide in your shoe.
  12. You stepped over an escaping animal (fish/crab) in a market.
  13. You realised it’s better to be able to see a cockroach that to have seen a cockroach than not be able to see that cockroach.
  14. You’ve accidentally smuggled a dead animal back to your passport country in your luggage.
  15. You’ve been chased by a dog.

Daily life

  1. You regularly think “I nearly died”.
  2. You’ve slept on the floor during a power cut because it’s cooler than your bed.
  3. You’ve had to wear xxl clothes because you’re in Asia
  4. You’ve put your washing in and closed all the windows when the wind picked up.
  5. The water ran out while you still had shampoo in your hair.
  6. You had to change/shower again within an hour of changing/showering because you moved away from a fan.
  7. You get up really early to do something while it is cool and realise it is already too late.
  8. The sound of a fan turning off gives you the heebie-jeebies.
  9. You’ve handed over too much or too little money because working out something in two currencies is too hard.
  10. You find it strange that it’s easier to sleep in the day when it’s hot than at night when it’s hot.
  11. You take a jumper to the mall/cafe/cinema.
  12. You don’t want to go back to your passport country because the internet / mobile data is more expensive and not as reliable.
  13. You got a tan / sunburnt because you stepped outside for two minutes.
  14. You have realised that making a plan for today was the first mistake in your plan.
  15. The tasks that take 5 minutes in your passport country take 2 hours here, but the tasks that take 2 hours in your passport country take 5 minutes here.

Culture

  1. You’ve not been sure how high to sompeah so it looks like you’re practicing a yoga move
  2. You’ve almost dropped everything trying to sompeah with your hands full.
  3. You’ve done the moonwalk of shame: you entered a house with shoes on and slowly walk backwards hoping no one has noticed.
  4. You’ve had to sit down outside a neighbours/stranger’s/friend-of-a-friend’s house because they invited you to take a seat.
  5. You got up to do something while at someone else’s house and they almost rugby tackle you back into your chair.
  6. You’ve just sat in a chair in the middle of a room while everyone stares/smiles at you.
  7. Been told you look like a white celebrity you most definitely do not look like.
  8. You’ve been told you’re fat, have a big nose and really pale in the same week (which are all compliments here).
  9. You’ve been to the wedding of a couple you’ve never met before.
  10. You’ve been to funeral of someone you’ve never met before.
  11. You’ve visited the mother and new born baby within hours of them giving birth
  12. You attempted something for two hours only for a Cambodian to do it in 2 minutes.
  13. You had a random Cambodian save you in your moment of need.
  14. You’ve had a Cambodian come and give you advice on keeping safe.
  15. You’ve had a Cambodian grab you by the shoulders and move you in the right direction/away from danger.
  16. Your Cambodia friend/house helper/colleague performs some miracle on a daily basis.
  17. You’ve had a Cambodian give you the sweetest and most heartfelt compliment you’ve ever received.
  18. Your tiny Cambodian friend performed a superhuman feat of strength without thinking anything of it.
  19. You’ve had a Cambodian “telling off”, which is, “oh please next time do [insert what you failed to do this time]” whilst smiling sweetly.
  20. You’ve been told to “look after yourself” at least once a day.
  21. You’ve offered a Cambodian a cup of coffee, only for them to suddenly make one for you.
  22. You scared a Cambodian when you’ve told them the current temperature in your passport country.
  23. You confused a Cambodian when you said that your passport country doesn’t have that food/fruit/tree/animal.
  24. You have been told to go have a nap at a stranger’s house and obliged.
  25. You’ve not known who the market seller/shop owner was and who’s just a friend/customer because they’re all helping you with your purchase.
  26. A stranger knew your name/where you live/where you work/where you’re from because they have a vague connection to someone you know.
  27. You’ve been given a surprise massage at the hairdressers or other places.
  28. You have had children wave and say “hey-lo” to you.
  29. These children suddenly became very shy when you replied in Khmer.
  30. A Khmer child has played a game with your flip-flops.

If you have lived in Cambodia, tally up your scores and add a comment.

  • Food and diet: __/15
  • Transport: __/20
  • Health, hygiene and safety: __/15
  • Wildlife and nature: __/15
  • Daily life: __/15
  • Culture: __/30
  • Total: __/110

If you haven’t lived in Cambodia, what statement surprised you the most?