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.
Life in Cambodia can be wildly different to life in the UK. There are different routines, considerations and skills needed in order to survive. There is so much I have learnt to do and there are also many skills I know I’m lacking. If I had the opportunity to do more research, receive more training or practise some skills before I came it may could have made quite a bit of difference and I wouldn’t feel quite at a loss at some points. These just cover the basics; I will probably write another one about cultural integration and awareness. Also, if you enjoy this post but haven’t read my A Million Questions post about learning about a new country, you might find that interesting too.
Are your vaccines up-to-date?
Do you know your blood type?
Do you know the locations of the nearest/best hospitals where you will be living?
Have you checked whether you can get hold of any medication you need?
Have you researched potential threats to health (e.g. malaria, dengue, Zika virus, parasites)?
Do you know how to prevent mosquito bites, insect bites and other local risks to health?
What foods are safe to eat and what should be avoided? (This varies from place to place, so the blanket advice for travellers may not be applicable. For example, ice is usually fine in Cambodia!)
How may the change in diet or climate impact your health?
Have you learnt how to adjust to a different climate?
Have you made plans in the case of emergency medical care? Does your family know your plans?
What are the main types of transport in the country you are moving to?
Is it the same or different to what you are used to?
Would it be worth getting lessons before you leave? (I would have loved to have motorbike lessons before I left; I completely feel as if I’m making it all up.)
Do you know basic vehicle maintenance?
Do you know about different types, brands or models of that vehicle?
What public transport is available in the country?
What conditions will you travel in when you take public transport? How might you need to prepare for this?
What clothing do you need for different seasons?
What clothing is available in the country? What will you need to bring more of? (For me – vests, socks and shoes)
What are locals’ attitudes towards different types of clothing choice? What image are you trying to convey? How do the clothes you wear convey this?
What clothing will be comfortable or practical for different reasons?
How will you keep your clothes clean?
Do you know how to hand wash clothes?
What type of clothes will you have to wear at work? What would be good to wear when out and about?
Can you sew?
What are the main components of that country’s cuisine?
Do you know how to eat it? (For instance, I still struggle to eat fish and prawns because I didn’t eat it a lot at home.)
What types of fruit and vegetables are there? Do you know how to eat, prepare and cook them? (For instance, can you cut up a mango?)
What type of food and ingredients will be available where you are living?
Can you cook some simple meals just on a stove?
Do you know how to wash vegetables and meats in an effective and hygienic manner? (Yes, I know that probably back at home you are told not to wash meats. That advice might not apply so much where you are.)
Do you know how to avoid foods that you are allergic too?
Do you know what substitutions for different ingredients you use often can be used?
Do you know which languages are used in the country and where you will be living?
Do you have a basic idea of language families and their features?
Are you aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet and its usage?
Are you familiar with the phonemes of your target language?
Have you researched language learning techniques?
Do you know what resources are available for your target language?
Do you know the pros and cons of the different resources (for example is the resource somewhat old-fashioned so now a bit offensive? Yes, FSI courses, I’m looking at you.)
Have you researched some of the dos and don’ts of the culture?
Are you aware of culture shock, what it is and what it looks like? Have you researched reverse culture-shock?
Have you researched your own culture so you are aware of some of the potential pressure points? (Privacy and personal space is a large pressure point for me.)
Have you found out what cultures you might be working with? Have you researched them? (You might be working in an international setting. I find more extrovert and say-what-you-mean cultures more difficult than Khmer ones most the time.)
Back at home
Have you planned how you will stay in touch with those back at home?
Have you researched what methods of communication there are available?
Have you spoken to others about how they should communicate with you?
Have you scheduled regular, committed time to communicate with various people?
Have you considered how you will communicate with younger family members? (I’ve found regular Skype calls with little people really hard to navigate.)
How will you negotiate import events like Christmas? Have you reflected on how this might affect you?
Have you taken time to think about how you as a person might affect your experience?
What do you enjoy doing in your home country?
What activities might be available in your new country?
How do you respond to stress?
What self-care techniques work for you?
What is your personality type? What Enneagram type are you? What does it say about you?
What are your reasons for going?
What do you hope to achieve?
How do you cope with frustrations and disappointments?
What bad habits should you try to deal with before you leave?
Where might you need to be more flexible in your thinking or world-view?
What stereotypes or presumptions might you need to deal with before you leave?
This is a pretty long list. A lot of it could be done with a google search or by watching a few YouTube videos. Some you might need to reflect on for longer. You may want to discuss a few with others who have lived abroad, or close friends and loved ones. I hope this list helps someone and if it does, like or comment! If I failed to add something (because these are only based on my experiences), let me know too.
I don’t think until I arrived in a different country and worked in an extremely international setting that I realised the extent of how different cultures could be. Furthermore, what is perceived as a positive and significant value in one culture is easy to dismiss as negative, rude or backwards in another. Stereotypes, conflicts and miscommunications often arise when these cultural values clash. However, if you take what can be seen as a negative cultural trait and try and flip it to its positive cultural value, it can be helpful in seeing why people behave how they do.
Positive Cultural Trait
Aloof and cold
Respect for personal boundaries
Loud and brash
Open and welcoming
Disingenuous or dishonest
Rude or blunt
Honest and straighforward
Dramatic and intense
Passionate, responsive, empathetic
Intrusive or nosy
Interested, community orientated
Treats everyone with warmth
Unforthcoming and taciturn
Desires deep, genuine relationships
Over-familiar with superiors/elders
Obsequious or passive
Respect for authority and social rank
Relaxed and easy-going
Pompous or nitpicker
Respect for ceremony and rules
I’ve seen in forums or heard in meetings people talking about how Khmer people are dishonest or don’t mean what they say. However, it made me laugh. As a Brit, diplomacy or tact is quite important (unless you’re a considered a close friend, then we’re really rude), so multiple times a day I would say something that other cultures would perceive as a lie. I did once try to point this out to those that said this, but I’m not sure if I was direct enough.
I’m definitely having to learn to be generous to others in terms of how I perceive them. I’m trying but it’s still very much a work in process. Which cultural traits values do you align with? Which negative traits do you see in others?
Wow, 2018 has been quite a year. It’s had two British royal weddings; a FIFA World Cup in Russia; the Commonwealth Games in Australia; Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress; 4 UK citizens were poisoned using the nerve agent Novichock killing one; the northern white rhinoceros became extinct; Indonesia was hit by both an earthquake and a few months later a tsunami, together leaving tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands injured; and a children’s football team and their coach were rescued from caves in Thailand. When considered next to this global perspective, my life is not nearly as significant or dramatic, but 2018 was an important year for me, just the same.
It’s also really difficult to look back on: not emotionally but in terms of ordering and placing certain events that happened. My brain did this weird thing when I arrived back in Cambodia. The previous year in Cambodia and the subsequent year back in the UK seem to have gone through this strange cognitive shift. My brain seems to have arranged them so that UK life and Cambodia life maintain a contiguous narrative. So thinking about early 2018 is really hard, because I have to make a mental effort to tell my brain those events did happen at that point in time. I’ve currently got a Facebook poll going to see if anyone relates to this. If I’m on my own, I’ll let you know.
Seeing as this blog is as much about recording memories for me as it is about sharing them with you all, I thought I would try to sum up the whirlwind that was my life.
In December 2017, I applied for a position at HOPE International School in Cambodia. On 11th January, I was offered an interview. This would be a Skype interview at 6.00 am on a Wednesday, before I went to work. The interview was a success and I was offered a job two days later. I was returning to Cambodia. However, at this point, I did not know whether I was going to be living in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. HOPE has two campuses and there was a suitable position at both. I had told the school I did not mind which one I went worked at so had to wait for their decision.
I turned 30! I’m not really a huge birthday person (my own, that is- I get more excited about other people’s), but with some reluctance I arranged a celebration. I had to endure the cake being bought in by waitresses singing and shaking tambourines. It was awful. My friends delighted in how terrible I found the experience. The cake was great, though!
I also found out that I would be in Phnom Penh, teaching International Baccalaureate and iGCSE English and English literature. There was a little bit of grieving for the future I would not have in Siem Reap. However, I loved Phnom Penh (I still do), and I reminded myself that I would love it just as much.
It started snowing at the end of February, but eventually got deep enough to have a couple of snow days.
I enjoyed the snow, but I decided I definitely had enough to last me for the next two years in Cambodia. I remember the winter of 2017-2018 as very long, dark and cold. It may be because I had skipped the winter of 2016-17, so I was less prepared, but I remember driving home each day after school and it being very bleak.
I booked my plane tickets: Heathrow to Bangkok (with a change at Moscow); and then Bangkok to Phnom Penh a day later. However, because of the Russian involvement in the US elections, and heightened tension between the UK and Russia due to the recent poisonings in nearby Salisbury, my mother did not approve of my route and airline choice (Aeroflot). However, I was more than happy to exploit the post-World Cup plane prices.
My mum turned 60. I created a “old ladies starter kit” for her. She was overwhelmingly pleased with the gifts, which was concerning as the aim was to buy useless, unwanted presents. The only thing she was particularly horrified by was the pearl chain for her glasses.
April, as it was the holidays, was also a time to start sorting out a lot of my stuff. Most of my belongings went to charity shops.
I also made some បបរ (babar, or Cambodian rice porridge) and Cambodian styled coffee.
“Go to dentist” was one of the first things on my “Return to Cambodia to do list”. I finally ticked it off! I was needlessly anxious about needing more fillings, and I was problem free. (Well, at least my teeth were.)
I remember May was a particularly beautiful month. The sun seemed to shine a lot and it reminded me how beautiful Britain was.
May saw the royal wedding. I baked a lemon and elderflower cake, as that was what Harry and Meghan were having. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever baked.
There are perils of nice weather and living in the New Forest. The excursions into the countryside bought me too close to the local wildlife, and I got my third tick since returning from Cambodia.
The hot weather did bring some spectacular storms, which I hated driving in. However, I braved it, and drove to a hill in an open area of heathland to get a panoramic view of the lightening. Unfortunately, storms don’t film well on iPhones, so what I captured didn’t do it justice.
I drove to Cornwall and back to visit the Bemrose family. It nearly killed my car and I remember there being sand everywhere. It was a great time. It was also a blessing going to the Bemrose’s church and people offering to pray for me.
I also went on a zombie-run with my work bestie. I found out I was no-nonsense and a bit cut-throat in survival situations.
There was a heatwave and everyone seemed to lose their mind. However, it reminded me very much of teaching in Cambodia. I was able to implement some of my hot weather tricks (including wearing t-shirts under you shirt, which everyone thought was crazy, but it isn’t).
The end of the month saw the year 11 prom. I love proms, possibly more than the kids.
I find out that I would not be teaching the International Baccalaureate. This is simultaneously frustrating (I had bought and begun reading the set texts) and a relief as I had little previous knowledge of the system and it was causing me some anxiety.
On the last day of June, I drove up to Coventry and back, for the Bagg-Lowe wedding. It was great to see them get married and to catch up with some old friends!
This was the last month I had to prepare for leaving to Cambodia, as I was leaving on the last Monday of July. So, I intentionally left it quiet. There was only my dad’s massive 60th birthday party, my farewell party, a church goodbye, cooking a Cambodian meal for my church small group, and the various end-of-year goodbyes at school; as well as trying to pack within my baggage allowance. So, July, was in fact, a crazily busy month. I think that was useful in a way, because I just had to get on with it and not think about what was happening.
The last day of school was emotionally charged. A lot of the kids cried. Some of them only came in because it was my last day (missing the last day of school is quite common…). They filled my car with balloons (they spied an opportunity when I was returning somethings from my car to my classroom and hadn’t locked it again). They also designed and bought me a horrible, garish t-shirt and it remains one of my very favourites.
After this whirlwind, I finally packed and was ready to leave…
Early on Monday 23rd July, I headed off towards Heathrow Airport on a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. At last, I was heading back to Cambodia.
I enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of Bangkok (except the part when they tried to sell me expensive jewellery and suits). Bangkok had enough that was familiar to make me feel I was definitely getting close to my goal, but there were enough differences to know I was not quite there yet. Perhaps its because I wasn’t seeing the familiar sights and didn’t have a sense of my bearings, like I do when in Cambodia. The temple tours were fun, though. You definitely get the sense that Thailand (then Siam) was a grander nation than Cambodia in the last few centuries.
After 24 hours in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Phnom Penh. I was already excited in the airport when I realised, whilst queuing for security, that I was in a line with a group of Cambodians. Then at the departure gate, there were more Cambodians. I did debate for a while whether to try and strike up a conversation, but I think that jet-lag would have made it too hard.
After about an hour, the plane turned and tilted, revealing the meandering Mekong River. I could see Koh Dach (Silk Island) in the centre. Then I could see Chaktomuk (the four faces). Its where the Tonlé Sap river, the Mekong and the distributary Tonlé Bassac all join; the centre of Phnom Penh lies on the banks of this 1 km stretch of water.
We swooped over the north of Phnom Penh. Comparing Bangkok and Phnom Penh as you flew over them, you definitely saw how Phnom Penh was smaller and less dense than the other capital. However, as I saw the familiar grid pattern and boreys (neighbourhoods), I definitely knew which I had the emotional connection to. I did manage not to cry.
I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, a bit dazed and tired. A new colleague took me to my new apartment for the first time. It looked great, but a little bare. I had about a week to sort myself out.
Of course, one of the highlights was being reunited with my Cambodian brother, Vitou.
In the week I had to sort myself, I squeezed in a visit to Siem Reap. I left 11pm on 31st July, to arrive in the town I used to live on 1st August. I had breakfast at my friends’ house, then attended a team prayer meeting, visited the school I worked at and (I think, shared lunch with them), then had another team meeting then went for dinner. The next morning, I was heading back to Phnom Penh. It was definitely a whirlwind. It felt good to be back, but it didn’t make me regret the fact I was now in Phnom Penh.
I started at my new school. The first few weeks were a confusing barrage of alien acronyms and systems. I begun teaching my new classes and it quickly became clear that the students at HOPE has as much life and personality as the ones in Sholing (although it manifests in slightly different ways).
There were also humorous incidents (getting a new gas bottle; being chased by a dog; etc.). I also have a placement test for Khmer classes at G2K. I was tired, somewhat stressed and anxious. They advised I entered at level 3.
I also visited Takeo province for the first time, to visit the Good Neighbours team. They are a part of my sending organisation, WEC, and they run a pre-school and a church in the village. I really enjoyed my time here.
In September, Vitou’s family grew. His wife gave birth to a lovely baby girl!
September was a time of getting into new routines and settling into the new life at HOPE school and north Phnom Penh. I started attending Vitou’s church, which was conveniently right down the road to where I live. I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
I had my first lesson at G2K. My fears were unnecessary, as I really enjoyed the process. I also discovered all the words were on an online shared area, so I could swot up beforehand.
A friend visited from Malaysia with another of her friends. I took them on a brief tour of Phnom Penh, including Wat Phnom and Central Market.
On the last weekend of September, the new staff had a boat trip along the Tonle Sap and Mekong. It was a great way to see Phnom Penh. On the Saturday, a group of us also went up Phnom Penh Tower, to see the view at the top. With all these night-time photos, they don’t do it justice.
This was again quite a busy month. I was continuing with my Khmer lessons. I also watched a Cambodia vs Singapore football match (Cambodia lost). It was the Pchum Ben holiday. I taught at the rural villages for the first time.
It was also Vitou’s wife’s birthday, so there was a party.
November was Vitou’s birthday, so another party. I had also introduced him and his family to Carl’s Jr. Vitou also began tutoring me Khmer. So, I was doing Khmer at G2K on Mondays and Wednesdays and with Vitou on Tuesday and Thursdays. This did mean that a lot of time on Saturdays was spent retreating to a cafe and tackling the marking and planning I had to do.
Vitou, his whole family and I attempted a trip to Kirirom mountain. We didn’t make it that far as the car broke down. I spent most of the day at Vitou’s dad’s house and then in a car getting towed back to Phnom Penh. Despite not arriving at our intended destination, it was still quite a fun adventure.
The end of November and December were quite stressful and this meant I lost some sleep. This is because it’s marking and reporting deadline time and also I had my Khmer assessment. There were various events going on, and I was often double booked as a result. Also, there’s a difference in western style planning and Khmer style planning for events which often are at odds. However, it was still a really enjoyable month.
It was Vitou’s twin’s birthday. So, again another party. (Next year there will be a party every month from September-December in Vitou’s family.)
There was also the wonderful wedding of my friend, Jonathan. It was great, as I was invited to both the morning and the afternoon session. It was really fun and interesting to see a Christian Khmer wedding ceremony. (I’ll try to blog about it later.)
There was another boat cruise, this time with my WEC team.
I passed my level 3 assessment. I still need to work on some aspects of my pronunciation. I’m going to write myself a plan of action and each week focus on a particular set of sounds. (Sounds geeky, doesn’t it.)
Of course, then there were the various Christmas celebrations. Again, on Christmas Eve I had to negotiate being in two places at once. However, it went without too much problems.
Wow, I’ve been busy
Looking back at it all, I’ve been really busy. 2018 has been a crazy year. The events at the beginning seem a different life-time away. 2019 might be a little bit calmer, but I’m not so sure.
Before you get excited and jump to the conclusion that I’m paying for everyone to come to Cambodia with me, I’m not. That’d be absurd.
But you are invited to something! I’m having a farewell picnic. So, join me and my friends, colleagues, relatives and members of the general public who have meandered into the group. Here are the details:
When? Saturday 9th July, 4 pm
Where? The Common. Probably at the top because there’s a music festival on at the same time.
There’s a large open space near the top. If you’re coming from The Cowherds, continue up the tree-lined path that starts to the right of it. Pass the boating pond (the concrete hole full of algae with filthy dogs splashing in and out), and onto a clear area with a cross roads. I’ll be somewhere there.
If you’re starting from the Highfield side, go under The Avenue via the underpass, and you’re pretty much there. If you’re starting anywhere else… you’re on your own.
What should I bring? Cakes, drinks, picnic things.
Please don’t feel the need to bring gifts or anything else. First, because I really appreciate you just being there. Second, I have a limited amount of space in my luggage so I might not be able to keep it anyway!
It’d be great to see you there! If the weather looks rubbish, stay tuned for a change of plan!