No one would be surprised if I was to say that 2020 has been hard. Of course, it has been — we’ve all been in the midst of a global pandemic. And as I have seen the devastating impact this virus has had around the world — on societies, economies, the lives of individuals as they see their loved ones’ or their own health diminish — it’s been tempting to dismiss my problems as insignificant. I’ve been healthy, protected in Cambodia and by my youth from the worst and, for the most part, financially stable enough not to fear what would happen next.
But, as the end of 2020 comes towards us, and as I have more opportunity to reflect, I have realised various things. I have lived 2020 (and even, to some extent, the end of 2019) in survival mode. Yes, there has been so much joy and things to be grateful for. But, I have felt, for the most part, as if I have been lurching from one crisis or difficulty to the next. I also need to be able to be okay with living with feelings of grief, disappointment and frustration. Sometimes too quickly, I will brush those feelings off, as if I don’t deserve to be experiencing them, because, of course, someone has it far worst than me.
In my new MA course, we are being encouraged to reflect. I thought I would write a post about my experiences of 2020, as a way to perhaps get them out my head and maybe to process them a bit better. This may be a bit of a long one, so perhaps grab a cup of tea, coffee or comforting drink and take a seat.
I started 2020 already exhausted. In 2019, I had taken on a new subject: iGCSE drama. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I also took on responsibilities with the school play and continued with my language studies in the evenings. Furthermore, that semester, the Ministry of Education in Cambodia demanded that the school submit a ridiculous amount of paperwork, including every scheme of work within the school. Fortunately, the English department only needed to make a few adjustments, but I spent quite a bit of time helping the Khmer teacher with his. (He had to produce schemes from preschool to grade 10 all by himself.) I also decided that I should move house. So, I found a new place and in the last few weeks of December, I packed up all my belonging and found a new fridge, stove, washing machine and bed. Just writing all that out was exhausting enough, so I’m not surprised I was a little tired.
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.
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.
Living in Cambodia for an extended period has somewhat ruined travel for me. The idea of going to another country and only skimming the surface of the cultural and historical vastness of a country seems a bit incomplete and, inherently by its nature, superficial. The tantalising glimpses of another culture and life only create further questions. It also makes me feel foolish because I used to feel I had a somewhat complete view of a country I had merely visited. I suppose the maxim is true: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
It made me think about what questions someone should know the answer to in order to feel like they had a basic grasp on a country. Many countries require a citizenship test, that ask seemingly arbitrary questions, for those wishing to become a citizen of this country. I thought about what questions I would include if I wrote a citizenship test. So far I’ve come up with about 260 questions. Some of them could be a dissertation topic in themselves; some of them would just require a quick google search. Hopefully, some of them would get people to ponder a bit more about the country they live in, are studying or wish to integrate in.
1. The basics
What is the name of the country?
Who leads the country?
What type of government is it?
Who are its nearest neighbours?
What are its major languages?
What is the population of the country?
How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?
What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?
How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population.
How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?
What are the different people groups in the country?
Where can they be found?
What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?
Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?
What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?
Which people groups live alongside one another?
What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?
What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?
What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?
What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?
What are the main differences between the groups?
What is the average age of the country?
What is the average life expectancy of the country?
How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?
What is the population growth of the country?
What are the consequences of this growth?
Are some people groups growing quicker than others? What could be the impacts of this change in demographics?
What are the effects of emigration and immigration on the population?
What are the factors causing emigration and immigration?
What are the attitudes towards emigration and immigration?
3. Geography, climate and landmarks
What landscapes are there in a country?
How do the landscapes influence the lifestyle of those living there?
What is the climate of the country?
What seasons are there?
How do the climate and seasons effect the culture and daily life?
How do the landscapes look different according to the seasons?
Is the climate and weather different in different regions?
How do the seasons affect nature, wildlife, crops and harvests?
How have the seasonal changes been affected by climate change?
How has this affected the people?
What natural landmarks are there in the country?
What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
What manmade landmarks are there in the country?
What are the attitudes towards these landmarks?
How are these landmarks a part of the national identity?
4. Culture and values
What is the dominant culture?
Is it a individualistic or communal culture?
Is it a guilt culture, shame culture or fear culture?
What are the significant cultural values?
What of the consequences of breaching these cultural values?
How do others respond to social deviance?
How is social order and the status quo maintained?
What behaviours are considered polite or impolite?
What do they celebrate?
How do they celebrate?
How do they respond to major life events (births, deaths, sickness, marriage, new job, job loss, moving house)?
What are the general fears of the culture?
What do they do to alleviate these fears?
What secular holidays or national celebrations are there?
How are the holidays and celebrations linked to the climate, geography or nature of the country?
What do these holidays and celebrations tell us about what is important to this culture?
What are the influences of minority cultures, neighbouring cultures or other cultures on the culture of this country?
What social hierarchies and class systems are there?
How can you tell the difference between those of difference social status?
Is it easy to gain social status?
What generational differences are there in terms of cultural values?
What are the traditional arts, songs, instruments and dances of the country?
Are these traditions being preserved or are they dying out?
What other traditional cultural artefacts are there?
Who performs or creates these cultural artefacts?
Where can you see them displayed or being created?
What are the myths and legends of the culture?
What stories are famous and often told?
What proverbs are there?
What are the major events to affect the country within living memory?
How are these events remembered and commemorated?
What effect do these events have on the national psyche and sense of identity?
How do different generations view the events?
How do the different people groups view these events?
How widespread was the effects?
How does the global community view the events?
How is this similar or different to how it is viewed in the country?
How are these events taught in schools?
How are they talked about?
What historical events are still celebrated or commemorated in the country?
How are they remembered?
What does the remembrance of these events suggest about nation values and identity?
How are these historical events viewed across generations and people groups?
How have these historical events been mythologised over time?
How are they taught in school?
What is the dominant religion of the country?
How does it affect the social structure of the country and of communities?
What religious buildings are there in the country and in the average community?
How does religion affect daily life?
What religious festivals and observances are there?
How does faith affect views towards major life events?
How do they believe the world was created?
Where do humans come from according to their beliefs?
How do they explain other natural phenomenon?
What happens when people die?
Will the world end? How will it happen?
How do people interact with the spiritual domain?
Who is able to interact with the spiritual domain?
What hierarchies does religion create or enforce in the country?
What role does religion have in maintaining the status quo?
How is this country’s religion different from its neighbours?
How do people of this country worship in a way that is different to other adherents of that faith?
What superstitions are there?
What objects, animals or natural phenomenon have spiritual significance?
What beliefs are there in fate or luck?
How can you change your fate or luck?
7. Family life
What is the size of an average family unit?
Who makes up an average family?
How many people will live in the same house?
What is the size of an average house? How many rooms does it have?
How many children does an average woman have?
What are the roles of each member of a family?
Do families live within the same communities?
What are the attitudes towards care for the elderly?
How are children raised, disciplined and nurtured?
What is the average age to get married?
When are you considered past your prime?
Who haves the economic power or responsibility in a family?
What traditions and practices are there relating to pregnancy and birth?
What traditions and practices are there relating to death and illness?
How do they celebrate birthdays?
What ceremonies are related to courting, engagements and weddings?
What is the attitude towards divorce and infidelity?
What are the rates of domestic abuse?
Are there differences in family life between urban and rural areas? What are they and why are there these differences?
How has the look of the family changed between generations?
What does a family meal look like?
How often do extended families eat together?
8. Daily life
What time do people get up?
What time do they go to bed?
How many people share a bed?
What are the children’s/babies sleep routines? Are they different from the adults?
How many days a week do they work?
How long are their work hours?
What are the household tasks or chores that need doing?
Who does them?
Where do they do their shopping?
How many meals do they eat a day?
What do they eat for each meal?
Do they eat at home or do they eat out?
How much money do they spend on grocery shopping?
What do they do with their free time?
Who do they spend their free time with?
What is the most popular non-alcoholic and alcoholic drink in the country?
What sports are popular in this country?
What music do they listen to?
Do they use social media? Which sites do they use?
Do they have access to television, radio or films? What do they watch?
What objects would you find in the average house? What are they for?
What daily struggles or frustrations might a person face?
What transportation do people use on a daily basis?
What do people wear on a daily basis?
What influences the fashions and what is worn?
How far do people travel on a regular basis?
What are the names for community units? How are they structured?
What hierarchies are in place? Who has authority within a community?
Where do communities gather?
When do communities gather?
Where do communities interact?
Where is the heartbeat of community life?
What is the relationship between private and public life?
Who are the gatekeepers to the communities?
Who knows everyone’s business in a community?
What social ties are there within communities?
How do people feel about spending time with others?
How do people feel about spending time alone?
How many people have visited other countries?
10. Education and employment
What level of the population are literate?
What is the education system of the country?
What is the attitude towards education in the country?
How many children attend school?
How big are the average classroom sizes?
How do the following factors affect educational attainment: gender, region and affluence?
Which educational establishments have the best reputation?
What is the most common type of degree, certification or training?
How do most people find work?
What is the rate of employment in the country?
What are the consequences of unemployment?
Which sector is the largest provider of employment in the country?
Which company is the largest employer?
What is considered a good job in the country?
What is the average wage?
How many people live in poverty?
What sectors are growing in the country? How is this impacting employment?
11. Health and safety
Does the average family have a fresh water supply? Where do they get their water from?
Does the average family have access to electricity? What are the sources of electricity?
How do they maintain cleanliness and hygiene?
Does the average family have access to a toilet?
What illnesses are common in the country?
How are they treated? How are they prevented?
Is prevention, treatment and health education widespread?
What is the infant mortality rate?
How many people per doctor are there in the country?
What is the leading cause of death?
What is the rate of alcohol addiction?
What is the rate of substance abuse?
Where are the best hospitals?
Who has access to them?
What is the attitude towards medical treatment?
What traditional practises are used to treat illnesses?
How do cultural beliefs impede improvements in health?
What dangerous animals are a risk in that country?
What is the safest way to travel?
What do people feel afraid of? What makes them feel unsafe?
How long is the dominant language’s alphabet?
What are the main features of the language?
What other languages are spoken?
What gestures or facial expressions are important?
What gestures or facial expressions are best avoided?
Is the communication style direct or indirect?
What honorific terms are used?
How is status, hierarchy or social identity revealed through speech?
How similar is spoken speech to its written language?
What percentage of the population uses mobile phones?
What are the major network providers?
Is there a postal service and how do you use it?
How is major news and important information distributed?
What TV stations are there?
What newspapers are there?
Is the country an LEDC (less economically developed country) or MEDC (more economically developed country)?
What is the GDP per capita?
What is the percentage of annual GDP growth?
What factors have promoted economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
What factors have prevented economic growth in the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the life expectancy changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the infant mortality rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
How has the literacy rate changed over the last decade, twenty years or fifty years?
What is the country’s largest source of money?
What is their biggest export?
How many tourists visit a year?
Where do the tourists come from?
Who benefits most from tourism?
Who benefits most from businesses?
How is the country’s wealth distributed?
What are major common themes in the various answers?
What are the biggest trends in growth?
What are the reasons for optimism for the country?
Who is doing important working in promoting change for the country?
What are the major challenges this country might face in the future?
What are the possible solutions to such challenges?
What changes do people predict for the country?
What changes do you predict for the country?
What could the outside world do for the country?
What is your own personal relationship with the country?
What are your thoughts and feelings about the various topics?
What surprised you the most?
What topics would you research further?
How did you find the answer to the questions?
What personal anecdotes do you have about adjusting to life in this country?
What sources of conflict are there between your native culture and your second (or third) culture?
What have been the major challenges for you adapting to this country?
How do you feel about the country now having answered the questions?
What discovery do you think will be the most helpful in integrating into this country?
What mistakes have you made in the past that you now understand more fully having answered these questions?
I can probably answer about 40% of the questions with any accuracy. The answers would be too long for a single blog post, but I might try answering them. By the time I have finished them all, I would probably have a rather comprehensive research paper on my hands.
Hopefully, others that I intending to get to know a particular country more fully, or just cement what they know about a place more fully, will find this list interesting and helpful.
I love my time in Cambodia. It’s great and the country and its people are beautiful. So often I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that I am here. However, that’s not to say there are challenges. Here are some of the biggest ones.
3. Cultural clashes
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention, but I am English. In fact, I am quintessentially so. If you wanted a stereotype of an introverted English man, look no further. This means that I am awkward, embarrassed, and uptight. I obey a needlessly endless string of social rules and conventions and social politeness and etiquette is relatively important.
What is difficult is that it is easy to forget that other English speakers are not necessarily English in culture. They probably have lower blood pressure and negotiate social situations with a lot less stress as a result. However, despite the shared language, their relaxed attitudes and happiness to discuss various subjects sometimes translates poorly into English culture. It can come across as overly familiar, nosey or insensitive.
My Khmer is developing, but it’s at the stage where actually it sometimes makes it worse. When I was first learning, what I understood was so limited, that I could often rely on the fact that I probably misunderstood the communication, or wasn’t able to make myself understood. This meant hand gestures, repetition and double checking were necessary. Therefore, often everything was tedious but you seemed to have a better sense of when you arrived at an understanding (or when you didn’t, which was the more frequent of the two scenarios).
What I understand has grown and what I don’t understand has shrunk a bit. However, this means that often the two parts overlap. Sometimes, I think I have understood, but actually I didn’t. This is this language danger zone. You go away satisfied that everything is fine, but find out later that you have unwittingly unleashed a disaster of confusion. I accidentally refused an invite to a wedding because I thought the guy was asking something else.
I can’t wait to get to the part where what I understand is far larger than what I don’t.
1. Communicating with home
This is probably one the hardest parts of living abroad. And it’s not me, it you. Well, actually it’s communicating with you.
Life in Cambodia is different, both in big, drastic ways and in subtle, difficult to perceive ways. Even if you have been to South East Asia or Cambodia itself, the day-to-day reality can be a lot different to the tourist’s or visitor’s experiences. When communicating with people who have never been, it can be even harder.
For example, let’s say I wanted to tell you about my visit to a market. The word market possibly conjures up lots of different images. For the typical westerner, it might mean a farmers’ market, full or organic food and artisanal breads and shiny round wheels of cheeses. The market in the UK is a middle-class day out. It’s clean; it’s sterile; it’s a bit dull.
In Cambodia, the market is the heartbeat of daily life. You can buy most things at the market, especially the bigger ones such as Central Market or Orussey Market. It will have fruit, vegetables, clothes, shoes, motorcycle parts, jewellery, souvenirs, homeware, incense, flowers, stationery, books and stands selling hot food. They are great, but they are hot, sweaty, and often really smelly. If it’s outside, you get the fumes of motorbikes and tuk tuks as they idle while their riders negotiate prices; inside the air is fetid with the smell of fish and blood and dank water that runs down the open gutters through centre of the market. The experience is also dependent on which market you go to.
To communicate these differences and the experiences are lengthy and time consuming. The market is just one example. My walk to work, a general journey through Phnom Penh, a Cambodian mall, a Cambodian village, a Cambodian home, the Cambodian countryside: these are all experiences that are quite difficult to articulate. It sometimes feels that just to have a meaningful conversation, you have to spend an hour explaining and describing the nuances of Cambodia. And that’s hard and can be isolating.
Also, there’s sometimes an unintentional power to words. Cambodia is great. I also know most of my friends here feel the same way. But sometimes we moan and we vent and we laugh about our experiences (such as nearly being stampeded by water buffalo on the way to work, a mosquito flying up our nose, the panic induced by thinking your air-conditioner is broken, getting misunderstood at a market, ending up at the wrong destination in a PassApp). But they are not really that significant. Yes, they can be annoying and sometimes it gets on top of us when we are tired or there is one too many mosquitoes buzzing around our head. But it’s just a fleeting complaint. We dust ourselves off (sometimes literally- Cambodia is really dusty in the dry season) and carry on. We don’t cry (every time); we don’t self-pity for too long; we don’t dwell. We let it out; we move on and we do the same again tomorrow.
However, often, by communicating it to people back home, suddenly it’s become something bigger than you intended. It’s suddenly the front-page news or the big issue. But that’s not how you wanted it to work out. A simple rant or joke can sound like a life-time trauma to those not in the midst of it.
Now, it’s my blog, so I can say what I want to. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the radio silence from the home end. It feels like we’ve set up a one-way radio system. I transmit updates, details and newsletters, and blogs, and Facebook posts. I actually have to work quite hard at it. A blog post may take an hour or so. The Fact Fridays or Words of the Week take 30 minutes. The newsletters can take up to three hours. Just a “It was great to hear from you!” is all it takes to feel like someone is out there and interested. Otherwise, all I’m getting is static at this end and it makes me wonder if it’s worth doing. Let me know you’ve read it. Ask questions (I know that’s hard, sometimes the lack of knowledge means it’s really difficult to know what to ask). Find out about something and ask me my thoughts on it. Challenge me to do something. Invite me on a Skype date. Tell me three things that have happened to you in the last week. It doesn’t have to be huge, but just let me know you are out there.