Meeting in Cambodia

I’ve worked in a variety of very multicultural teams. It is always interesting to see the dynamics of how it works (or doesn’t work). I’m also doing a module on multicultural leadership, which has given some interesting insights about what perhaps has been going on when things fell apart. Being one of the few Cambodian speakers in one team team, I managed to gain some interesting views from both sides: the Cambodian staff and the foreign staff. One fascinating situation that seemed to cause problems were staff meetings. I heard both these phrases said quite a few times in different ways:

  • “Cambodians never offer any ideas! They show no initiative.”
  • “The foreigners never listen to our ideas. Our opinions don’t matter.”

It was hard to know what to do about this and find the root of the problem. Looking at some cultural aspects has been really helpful. Hopefully, if you’ve heard either of these or even said them yourself, you will find this helpful.

Purpose of meetings

Some of the problems arise because different cultures have different expectations of what staff meetings should look like. These are some questions that perhaps can be asked:

  • Are meetings for discussion and the mutual sharing of ideas, resources and knowledge?
  • Are meetings for the dissemination of information and sharing of instructions and directives from those in leadership?
  • Should discussion of ideas happen outside of a meeting context (i.e. before)?
  • Does each individual have a responsibility to share their own opinions?
  • Does one person have the responsibility to share the opinions of the group (i.e. a team leader represents their team)?
  • Do attendees have a responsibility to participate?
  • Do attendees have a responsibility to listen and accept decisions?
  • Can the meeting leader be interrupted and corrected?
  • Should mistakes, problems or corrections be addressed in another context?

When you realise that different cultures may say “yes” and “no” (or even “sometimes”) to different questions, you start to see where these problems can arise. People in the same meeting may arrive with different expectations of what should happen. The answer to these questions will be affected by certain cultural values. Therefore, these decision will have been made already by their cultural context, rather than perhaps attempts to create a certain organisational culture. So it helps to be aware of dynamics and factors that might influence expectations.

High power and low power distance

All cultures have ideas about power and how power and authority should be structured. Hofstede uses a scale he calls the Power Distance Index:

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.

Hofstede Insights

There are some interesting aspects of that definition and I could discuss it word by word. Don’t worry; I won’t. However, I will explain it. High power distance contexts accept that there is a large gap in power between leaders and subordinates. Japan and South Korea, for example, have a high power distance. Low power distance is that the distance between leaders and subordinates is minimised (sometimes to the point of almost becoming non-existent). The US and Netherlands will fit in here.

Meyers defines it in terms of egalitarian (low power distance) and hierarchical (high power distance). It’s quite easy for those from an egalitarian culture to assume that it’s the best, most honouring option. (But, as my lecturer said, you are enacting a power imbalance if you are force those from a hierarchical culture to become ‘egalitarian’. Therefore, you might not be as egalitarian as you originally thought.)

Whichever terms you use or prefer, these concepts will impact how meetings are conducted. Low power distance contexts will probably have a more discussion based meeting, where opinions are offered, decisions are discussed and challenged and ideas are proposed. In a high power distance it is the leaders’ responsibility to come up with ideas, make plans and decide which option is best for all. If the meeting leader is from a hierarchical context, the participants might find their approach too autocratic and bossy. If the meeting leader is from an egalitarian context, the participants who come from hierarchical contexts might wonder why the leader is abdicating responsibility and asking them to do their job by asking for their ideas.

Individualism vs. collectivism

I’ve written about this before, but it has an implication in meeting contexts, too. It also interplays as well with the power distance aspect of culture. In some cultures there will be representative for a particular group. This may be a middle-man between those in higher and lower status positions. Or it could just be someone with a relationship between groups.

Individualists will hear one person offering an opinion and only think “oh, only one person thinks this.” However, if this person is from a collectivistic context, they may actually be speaking on behalf of a whole group. This would be more likely in where there is a clear hierarchy. Those lower in the hierarchy may not feel able to speak directly to someone much higher than them. They may need to rely on someone in-between them and the boss to speak on their behalf. Therefore, it is important to know whether the opinion is just theirs or if it is shared by others.

A comparison of cultures

These are potential out-workings of how these cultural differences might appear in meetings. These are hypothetical cultures, although may resonate with cultures you have worked with. Cambodia is definitely more like culture 2, but it would be good to get a Cambodian’s perspective on this rather than make assumptions. But this is just to show you how there could be highly conflicting expectations.

Culture 1: egalitarian and individualisticCulture 2: hierarchical and collectivistic
Meetings can be a time to discuss ideas, plans and share opinions.Meetings are a time for leaders to give instructions and information.
It is fine to interrupt the leader to ask clarifying questions or make suggestions.The leader’s responsibility is to make the decisions and to think of all the factors.
All members can participate.You should listen to those senior to you.
You should voice your own concerns, ideas and feelings.It is a middle manager’s responsibility to share the consensus of their team to the boss.
Public discussion is preferred so others it is clear if others agree or not.Discussion should not happen in an open format, to avoid appearing critical.

Let’s go one step further, and see how these expectations could play out.

Leader (culture 1)Response of staff (culture 2)Consequences
Asks for suggestions from the staff.Staff reticent to share, as they are not willing to take responsibility for decisions made.Leader assumes that the staff don’t care, are unimaginative or show no initiative. Staff feel as if they are put under undue pressure.
Task not communicated something clearly.Staff do not ask for clarifications, especially in a public setting, and therefore do not do the task correctly.Leader frustrated that no one asked for clarification, or, worse, thinks their staff is incompetent.
Leads meeting as a workshop or with interactive activities to foster participation.Staff do not get involved and wait for the ‘correct answer’.Leader frustrated at the stubbornness or unwillingness of the staff. Staff feel under pressure to perform in front of their leader.
Leader asks whether the staff are in agreement.The representative of the group voices concern and disagreement.The leader interprets it as only one member of staff having concerns whilst the rest are happy with it. The staff feel like they are not heard.
Leader criticises suggestion from staff.The staff member will be mortified. The rest of the staff will be embarrassed about the situation.Relationship with the leader will be potentially damaged with all staff from culture 2. Staff will be even more reluctant to share in future.

Again, these are only hypothetical scenarios, that involve two hypothetical cultures. Cambodians might not necessarily think in this way. Also, we must remember that all Cambodians are also individuals. They aren’t exact carbon copies of each other, so some might behave more ‘typically Cambodian’ than others and they will do this in different ways. But you can perhaps see how the two opposing sides of the story that I mentioned at the start of the post could come about. Therefore, leaders need to be aware of the cultural nuances of what they are dealing with and the implications it might have in different situations. Also, it’s a helpful reminder that in every situation, you will have a set of expectations and these expectations may be different to those around you.

Sources

Cambodia Online

A lot of life now takes place online, especially so after the pandemic. And that means multiple social-media accounts and detailing your life on Facebook. Some people will just happily post a status and engage in a care-free manner. But why do that when you can overthink everything?

I think very carefully about my posts and what I put up and what I don’t. (I’m not always happy with what goes up even after that.) I have thousands of photographs and videos of Cambodia on my camera reel but most of those never see the light of social media. This is because I am very aware of what it can portray and the messages that I’m giving out.

Again, I would like to say, I get it wrong. I will sometimes go back and read blog posts, Facebook statuses or see photos that I’ve put up and cringe. I’ve deleted a fair share of ill-advised, poorly worded posts. Also, others will not agree with me about how I do things or they will have entirely different approaches. But, these are some of the thought processes and how I view my relationship with Cambodia. It obviously comes from the perspective of a white guy that was born in a country with a very deep and terrible colonial past.

White saviour

I try very hard not to come across as the white saviour. Therefore, I can be reluctant to discuss negative experiences and also to portray what I do as anything incredible. (It really isn’t. I am not winning any prizes anytime soon.) It is also something that I have to really battle with personally. I could write a whole book about this and why I still do what I do and what I hope is achieved (note, not what I achieve) through the redistribution of experience and education. There are also very long books that have already been written that define poverty, but this is not the place to go into that.

To put it succinctly, I am not special, clever or a hero. The only difference is that I, through my birth, had been dealt a set of cards that gave me access to more opportunities. I know many Cambodians who, given the same opportunities that I have, would have got firsts at Oxford or been Hollywood movie stars or something amazing. And yet they did not have those opportunities. Two of the opportunities that I have had is easy access to higher education and the ability to speak fluently in English, both of which have, for want of a better word, currency. Teaching English is a relatively easy (although arguably not the most effective) way to redistribute some of this currency. (That is a very poor way to explain it, but there you go.)

Therefore, I don’t like to post photos up of me actually doing things. First of all, most English teachers will not put photos up of their job because it is, let’s be honest, rather dull. You won’t really see a tweet or instagram post saying “Here is my board of future continuous sentence examples! #teacherlife #adrenalinejunkie”. Secondly, it’s really hard not to do that and make yourself the hero of that story. Not all heroes wear capes. But often, those who don’t wear capes aren’t heroes.

White person’s playground

South East Asia is not a playground for white people. It’s not a place for us to go and party, try drugs, do adventure sports, have spiritual experiences and find ourselves. So, I’m not really up for posed photos on Angkor Wat or markets or villages. These are people’s countries and homes and lives. They are not to be objectified and made into curios for our consumption. There are times when I do, indeed, take photos of people living their normal life. And it often doesn’t sit easy with me. But I will try and do it in a way where some sort of judgment isn’t implied. Unfortunately, when anyone takes anyone’s photograph and posts it to social media (especially without permission), there is always an imbalance of power. There has to be a sensitivity to that.

Poverty porn

Before you get too upset by the use of the word porn, it’s actually a technical term. I used it class with some grade 8s when discussing this issue. Many focus on its use in the charity sector. My argument is that when you are reducing someone’s humanity and whole existence to just their experience of poverty, you’re creating poverty porn. It’s deeply patronising and unfair. Furthermore, the narrative about Cambodia is generally just genocide and terrible poverty. The narrative of Cambodia and the lives of individual Cambodians are so much richer, bolder, nuanced, tragic, joyful, deeper than any photograph of them in poverty could ever show. My social media feed is by no means just affluent Phnom Penh, but I try to either have a balance or do it in a way that avoids judgement.

This also goes for phrases such as “They’re so poor yet they’re so happy.” It’s demeaning and again reduces their live to a romanticised view of the situation they are in. Their stories, their lives, their experiences are not yours to tell or to interpret on their behalf. If you want to write or convey something, use their words and attribute it to them. They don’t need some white person going around narrating their lives when they know next to nothing about it. Furthermore, if you’re making their poverty the defining feature of their lives, once again, you’re reducing them and their lived experiences to just one rather demeaning word. And yes, they may seem happy in front of you, a complete stranger. But what about the times you are not there? Even if you were trying to be humble and think about it from the perspective of learning to be grateful, that’s still bad. Only you benefit from that experience. Their situation doesn’t change. They’re still poor. You just feel better about your life and wealth and comfort and are more thankful for what you have. You’ve used their lives to make you feel good about yours.

Questions to ask yourself

Obviously, I try to think long and hard about what I put on social media and on the internet. It is sometimes the reason I don’t blog as much as I would like. I often have mixed feelings about what I do write. I also am aware that often, it’s not my story to tell. However, here are some ideas about how you can be critically reflexive about what you post.

  1. Who benefits from this image/post?
  2. If the person in the picture or a Cambodian person in general was to see what you posted, how would they feel?
  3. What narrative does this post tell about the subject/Cambodia?
  4. What narrative does this post tell about you?
  5. Am I reinforcing or perpetuating harmful or shameful stereotypes and narratives?
  6. Is there an imbalance of power? Can it be addressed?
  • Answers to questions… where I discuss ideas about voluntourism, and why I never post photos of children (unless I have the parents’ permission or using natural censorship (i.e. they are facing away from me or obscured by an object).
  • A single story of Cambodia reflects on an amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how narratives are often reduced.
  • Being a good guest discusses how we should talk about and view a country we call home but isn’t ours.
  • The Mother-in-Law’s hat explains why there are some aspects of Cambodia I will never discuss online.

Quarantine: A Day in the Life

Unless you’ve missed my recent posts, facebook updates and instagram pictures, you’re probably aware that I am currently in Cambodia. If you want to know about my somewhat tumultuous return, read here. I’m about halfway through my quarantine. I want to point out that my quarantine experience has not been the same as everyone else’s. I have been very fortunate in the hotel I have ended up at. The food is pretty good and the location is amazing. The room is comfortable and I can’t complain really. So this is a day in the life of someone in a rather comfortable quarantine.

6:30

My alarm will go off. Depending on how kind the jet lag was to me and how well I slept, I might get up then. I might hit the snooze button a few times (by a few times, I might mean six times). Then I get ready for breakfast to arrive.

7.00-8:30

Sometime between those times, I will get a knock on the door and I will receive breakfast. This has been a wide range of things: fried rice, fried noodles, noodle soup, toast, omelette, boiled eggs, fruit. I even got two slices of cake with my breakfast one day! (I had the first slice for morning tea, then the next slice as a reward for not sleeping during the day.)

The time varies, but what can be guaranteed is this. If I’m not showered and ready early, the breakfast will come early and I’ll have to scramble to make myself presentable enough to answer the door. If I am up bright and early, I will have to wait for my breakfast.

Somewhen after breakfast, a little bag of coffee sachets, tea bags, bin liners and bottles of water will be hung on our door handles. It’s like waiting to open the gifts in your Christmas stockings.

I will probably chat with Kristi some point before the next part of the day at ten.

Wednesday’s food. I got cake!

10:00

I have to go to the hotel lobby, with my mask on, for temperature checks. It’s quite good that we can actually wonder the hotel during the day. The lobby has a little shop, with snacks, a little coffee bar and wine. Usually I will take the ten flights of stairs down and up for a little bit of exercise.

10:00 – 12:00

Lunch will arrive. Again, there will be a knock on the door and the calls of “Hey-lo! Hey-lo!” You take your food and sign the clipboard. Lunch is usually quite substantial. Normally, there is a lot of rice. Then there are three dishes, often one being all veg, one veg and egg, one meat. You might get a soup or a sauce with it. Stir-fried cucumbers have been a particularly regular occurrence. You also get some fruit, watermelon, papaya or dragonfruit. I have probably eaten more fruit and vegetables in the last week than I did in the whole of 2020.

Afternoon

This time is pretty much your own. There is a Skybar on the roof with great views, so I’ve gone up there to take photos a few times. I’ve mostly kept myself to myself, though. I’ve been getting on with MA work mostly, sat on my little balcony. Sometimes I will just watch Phnom Penh go by. There is a very small backstreet opposite my balcony, which leads to a school. It’s funny watching the kids come and go – especially watching some of the boys annoy the other students. There’s also a Wat and the Royal University of Fine Arts. It’s great to just watch people come and go.

When I first arrived, the early afternoon was when the drowsiness really kicked in. However, I think I’ve managed to break that cycle a little bit.

5:00-7:00

Dinner will arrive! It is very similar to lunch in size and make-up. There have been a few days which have been more Western, with pasta or potatoes. But for the most part it’s been Asian.

Evening

Again, this is my free time and once dinner has arrived, there’s nothing else for me to wait for or worry about. I might have another wonder around the hotel, or might just watch a movie and relax.

The views

The Royal Palace sits near the riverside where the Mekong and Tonle Sap meets.
The hotel is aboyt 100m from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Here, they preserve some of the unique cultural arts of Cambodia. Behind it, is the National Museum. You can also just about make out the Foreign Correspondants Club (FCC). The large white hotel in the distance, behind the museum, sits where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. This is the site of the boat races and fireworks during Water Festival. Wat Ounalom, to the left, is quite important. It is sort of the Canterbury Cathedral of Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is where the name if the city comes from. You can just about see it here. It’s the white stupa- a sort of cone shaped structure. Vattannac Tower isn’t famous as such, just very distinctive with the curved front and the large balcony. You can’t see Central Market, which is close by.

There have been times when I’ve been really bored. I think it was the mix of jet lag and just being stuck inside. There are points during the day when you have no energy and your brain is a fog. But you know you have to stay up. When no one seems to be online or your internet is intermittent and can be a bit frustrating. Apart from this, I have quite enjoyed my little (but somewhat expensive) hotel break.

Ask a Missionary: Out and about

In January, I wrote a blog post with a series of questions called Ask a missionary. It was essentially for anyone who knows a missionary and isn’t sure what to talk about. It goes through a couple of topics, and I answered the one about where I live. I will tell you a bit about what I do when I get out and about.

How do you travel about? 

My two main modes of transport are motorbike and tuk tuk. I use a motorbike for short or easy journeys, especially if I’m not carrying much. Tuk tuks are for long journeys, when I’m shopping, when I’m lazy, when it is raining or for more than one person.

Continue reading “Ask a Missionary: Out and about”

August

I know it’s nearly the end of September, but I’ve been busy, so please be nice.

The first week was just dedicated to my Gateway 2 Khmer assessment. I had some reading, writing, listening and a presentation. I might be a little bit obsessive when it comes to the presentations. That week was really intense so I purposely booked myself a staycation in the centre of Phnom Penh. I stayed at the White Mansion Hotel and just spent two days exploring the area and trying new places.

The next week was not so good. I attempted to do some training at HOPE, but unfortunately, none of the technology worked and it was a terrible shambles. It didn’t help that I had a very sleepless week. Then that weekend, I had a family bereavement back in the UK. It was one that I had emotionally prepared for in coming to Cambodia, it was more the sleepless nights that led to it that were causing problems.

However, on the day that I heard to news, Vitou arrived home very – er – merry. (As was pretty much 90% of the Cambodian population as it was a national holiday.) He was hilarious in his attempts to console me, so that was a welcome distraction. The Khmer New Year holidays had been postponed from April due to the pandemic, and therefore fell at when I needed them most. It was great to have a time to just relax and recuperate.

We went to the provinces a few times with Vitou and his extended family. First we went to the Phnom Baset on the Kandal Provice/Phnom Penh border.

The next day, we went to Vitou’s dad’s house in Kampong Speu.

I led some more training, which was far more successful (possibly because it was paper based and practical). This time it was at LEC, looking at techniques on how to teach pronunciation by breaking up the phonemes and all that good stuff.

The rest of the month was spent reading the material for my sending mission’s course and for my MA.

Ask a missionary: some answers

Back in January, I wrote a blog post called Ask a missionary. Basically, it was a series of different questions that someone could ask a missionary as ice-breakers. I did create a video answering this first set of questions, but it was a while ago and it’s somewhere buried on my facebook page. I am currently in the UK, but this is only temporary, so the answers are still valid.


Where do you live?

I live in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I live quite far in the north of the city, in an area called Phnom Penh Thmei (New Phnom Penh).

Phnom Penh Thmei

How would you describe your neighbourhood / village/ city / area?

I live in a borey, or a gated community. Basically, it is a set of uniform houses and there are guards the man the entrance and exit, especially at night. The houses are typical phteah lveng, or town houses. There are mango trees lining the roads, shops and cafes in this borey and it is just lovely. (Except the smelly stream through the middle and the rats.)

Phnom Penh Thmei is great but a bit far from the rest of the city. Phnom Penh city centre is vibrant, exciting, often chaotic, but also filled with oases of calm. I love the city. I feel so privileged that I get to call it my home.

Continue reading “Ask a missionary: some answers”

Welcome back bingo

In a few months, I will be in England. This is a temporary stop-over. (Just a side note: I will be very, very busy. This isn’t a holiday. So, I won’t be able to meet up with as many people as I would like. Oh, and social distancing.)

Of course, there is much to look forward to when returning to your passport country. But, it’s not all sun and roses. There are some really hard, complex and baffling emotions going on that can make it really daunting.

I created this “Welcome Back! Bingo” card, which will hopefully give a chuckle to those who have been in my position as well as shed a bit of a light on some of the pit falls that those welcoming us back can fall into. (I think I’ve experienced all but one of them.)

First, don’t assume where home is. The expat or missionary has probably been working really hard to settle into their new country, putting loads of effort into building relationships, understanding the culture, creating routines, familiarising yourself with your surroundings. This emotional investment, and the fact that a large portion of their life has been spent in a different place, might mean that their new home feels like home. Hopefully, they feel welcome in their passport country and their new host country. But it can be a bit of a confusing rollercoaster as you try to find your roots. (Of course, my parents’ home feels like home. So, I’m looking forward to that!)

Second, reverse culture shock is a thing. Here’s a video from someone else’s perspective.

For example, I went away for a year. When I came back, suddenly there were some unexplainable crazes, namely pineapples and unicorns. They were everywhere. Why, people? What is so amazing about pineapples?

Third, now this is where I try to avoid humble bragging. Our experiences as the same as yours. Markets in the UK are not like markets in Cambodia. And the differences are often unexpected: mall bathrooms are way cleaner in Cambodia than the UK. (Petrol station bathrooms seem to be universally grim, though.) Service is generally quicker in Cambodia (mainly because supermarkets and restaurants tend to have so many staff). It just means conversation can be a bit difficult as you navigate the common ground. Take an interest and ask stupid questions.

Lastly, we are not special. Although our experiences are different, they are the experiences of the millions of people in your host country. There will be some experiences that are universal to the most of the continent (e.g. eating loads of rice in Asia), so that means it’s normal for potentially billions of the world’s population. Therefore, the things we do are normal for a lot of people, just not those back at home. This means that we aren’t in anyway superheroes or extraordinary. We just have a different ordinary. (Which I can assure you, is often dull or sweaty.) Also, the process of moving to a different country is really similar to getting on a plane for a holiday. Just the gap between the inbound flight and the outbound flight tends to be a lot longer.

But making mistakes is okay. But being genuinely interested, intentionally welcoming and seeking to bless can make a world of difference.

July

Well, this month is almost done. It’s mostly been taken up with language learning. I’ve been doing about 22 hours per week. I’m not going to lie, that’s quite full on. Of course, it’s not without it’s funny moments- mixing up the word Samdech (which would roughly translate as “the right honourable”) and sandaech (bean).

At the beginning of the month, Kristi went back to the US for six months. So a lot of the week running up to that was me accompanying her to goodbye meals. I ate very well that week.

I’ve also been enjoying venturing around Phnom Penh and even revived my instagram account.

I also had an adventure with a bird flying into my house. Fortunately, birds fell down the chimney back in the UK on a regular basis so I’m rather skillful with the old tea towel.

It was rather cute.

Have a look at some of my arty posts.

Finally, follow me! Here are the places you can do that.

There’s a season for everything

I’ve nearly completed my third year in Cambodia. One thing about doing it for a second time, is that the rhythms and seasons of life become more normal. The rains come, the rains go; the mosquitoes come, the mosquitoes go; the hot days come, the hot days go; the weddings come, the weddings go; the power cuts come, the power cuts go.

Now, we have nearly reached the wet season.

We have also reached the goodbye season. The cycles of the academic year bring people to the school and the country, and as the academic year ends, so people also leave. For the local staff at HOPE and for those who stay longer, goodbyes are hard. They don’t get easier and as a result first hellos can be also difficult.

In 2018, I began my job at HOPE school. That was for a season. That season is coming to the end now.

It makes me aware that Cambodia is probably only for a season. So far, it’s been three years. I’m not sure how long it’ll be, so I should make the most of enjoying it. One day, I might be saying goodbye to Cambodia for the last time. There is a time for that, as there is a time for everything.

There is a time for everything,

    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
     a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
     a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8

Who knows what this next season will bring?

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.