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.

Off to Cambodia

It’s about 48 days until I fly to Cambodia. (I’ve not been counting; I tried to book my insurance policy but it wouldn’t let me and told me I had to wait 18 days until I could.) That’s not long at all. That’s around six and a half weeks.

So, here are the answers to all the things you wanted to know about my trip!

Haven’t you already written a blog about this?

Well, yes. But as MI6 (who I secretly work for) thought it could expose some specific details of the operation they politely requested I take the blog down. Essentially, for one reason or another, I started the blog again. You can ask why, but you probably won’t get the truth: it makes for dull reading.

So Cambodia? That’s in South America?

No, that would be Colombia.

Africa?

You’re thinking of Cameroon or Comoros.

Asia. That’s what I thought first.

Uh huh. Sure you did. It is in Asia, between Thailand and Vietnam.

So what’s it like?

Well, I don’t know from personal experience just yet. That’s what this blog is for. I’ve heard it’s hot and tropical. It’s a poor country, ravaged by political turmoil during the twentieth century. Much of the country, however, is beautiful.

Have you got your jabs done?

Yes and no. I have got most my boosters done. I decided against getting the Japanese encephalitis vaccine due to cost and the limited likelihood of getting it. I also haven’t had my rabies vaccine. There were three reasons: the cost, I’d have to get treatment regardless of whether I got it or not, I’m in a city with a hospital. Also, I hate needles and they’re meant to be particularly painful, but that wasn’t a main reason (who am I kidding? It was the only reason). However, I’m now regretting this decision but it’s a bit too late to change it.

Last week I met someone who spent time in Vietnam and didn’t get their rabies on the same reasoning that I did. The conversation took a turn for the worse when she said, “what no one tells you is that the treatment is different if you haven’t had your jabs. If you had it done it’s just the one injection. If you haven’t had it it’s four needles, each as thick as your thumb: one in each thigh and one in each arm. I know because I got bitten by a dog. The injections were the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.” I nearly cancelled my flights then and there.

What are you doing?

Working for the secret services. In reality, I’m working for the Bridge of Hope school in Siem Reap.

For the first month or so I’ll be doing some training and language learning in Phnom Penh as well.

Where are you living?

Somewhere in Siem Reap.

What day do you actually leave?

Thursday 21st July. I fly via Amsterdam and Taipei.

How long are you there for?

A year.

What will you miss most?

I think it will be a bit of a surprise. The things you think you’ll miss you mentally guard yourself against, then I expect something really bizarre, like the look of our traffic lights, becomes something you long for (I’m sat looking out on a busy junction, which accounts for that ridiculous example).

I’ll probably miss the little people in my life. My niece is fantastic and provides a lot of joy when I get to see her. A lot of my friends have wonderful kids, and one couple has another due. It’s always a privilege to see children grow up, so I’ll be sad to miss a year of that. They’ll be so different by the time I return.

I’ll miss my year ten class a lot. I’m sad that I don’t get to see them finish their school journey and I know some of them might find it more difficult without me. It’s the only thing that has actually caused a tear. (Just the one, and no one saw it so it doesn’t count. I’m not sentimental at all).

How can I support you?

Comment on the blog! Please do. I know it sounds needy but I will really appreciate the kind words from other people, especially as the run up gets stressful and when I’m in a new and foreign country. Also, ask questions! Tell me what you want to know!