FAQ Thursday: What are the biggest challenges?

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.

2. Miscommunication

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.

Gerald England / Mrs Kirkham’s Cheeses

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.

Orussey Market

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.

FAQ Thursday: Are you fluent yet?

I’m attempting to answer some of your questions, or questions that I’ve had asked of me by others or perhaps questions I’ve perceived or felt were implied.

One question I’ve not been directly asked but it seems to hang in the air a bit is “are you fluent in Khmer yet?” The answer to that is no. That’s the short answer and if that satisfies you, you can stop reading here. If you would like a fuller explanation of why not and why it probably isn’t happening anytime soon (despite my best efforts), then carry on.

First, the idea that Khmer can be learnt within a short time is usually expressed only by people who have never attempted to learn Khmer. They may have experienced learning another language, maybe French or German or Spanish. However, this is not quite the same.

There’s the “fluent in 3 months” idea that is bandied around the internet or people who have a vague awareness of foreign languages. And yes, it is perhaps possible to learn a language to a level of fluency in just three months. It is not possible, however, to learn all languages to fluency in three months. It depends on what your mother tongue is, your previous knowledge of language learning and your knowledge of linguistics. Also, it depends on what type of fluency you are aiming for.

The idea I think somewhat originated from the US Foreign Service Institute. That is the governmental body that heads up the training of diplomats and other foreign service workers. They rank different languages according to how long it would take an English native speaker to acquire that language to various levels of fluency in reading, writing, listening and speaking. The end goal for this scale is for an overall professional fluency, which would be more demanding than a conversational fluency. And when they determine how long a professional fluency would take, that is how long it would take someone with 25 hours of class time a week, with an addition three to four hours of self-directed study a day (so around 45 hours of study a week). These classes are conducted by a team of linguistic experts, native speakers trained to teach and training specialists.

Even with that amount of dedication, the shortest amount of time it would take to meet their required standards for a language is 24 weeks, or 6 months. That’s for languages such as French, Italian and Spanish. These languages are considered closely related enough to English to make it easier.

Japanese on the other hand is considered one of the hardest and would take around 88 weeks.

So, where is Khmer? It’s in the group that would take about 11 months to learn. 11 months of 25 class hours a week. That’s 1,100 hours of Khmer class. Khmer is significantly distinct from English. It has a plethora of sounds that English does not have and are difficult to produce, it has a script that seems to read in spirals and comprises of the longest alphabet in the world, as well as a complex system of social registers.¬†

You may say, but you’ve been in Cambodia 16 months already. That should have been more than enough time. I would like to remind you that the Foreign Service Institute provide 25 hours of class time a week. At my most intense learning stage, I did ten weeks of ten hours a week. That’s 100 hours. So, after that, I only had 1000 more hours to go. During my first year in Cambodia, I probably did a further 70 hours and another 5 hours of classes in the year I returned to the UK. Recently, I have done 10 weeks of 4 hours a week at G2K, 1 hour a week at school (a maximum of 18 hours) and a further 10 hours with Vitou helping me.

Therefore, I have around a further 897 hours of classes to go until I reach the Foreign Service Institute’s required standard.

Of course, I have the additional benefit of living in the country. However, my work means that I often live in a very¬†English-speaking bubble and the Khmer I do get to use tends to be very repetitive and doesn’t progress beyond what I know already. (How long have you lived here? Where are you from? Do you like Cambodia? I would like to go to AEON Mall II. Yes, I went there yesterday.)

I shall persevere as much as I can. I need to not put too much pressure on myself and not to expect perfection straight away. I have definitely made progress since being back but there are still constant and daily struggles and mistakes. Once I am fluent, I will let you know.