That date means I left Canada one month ago (and that it’s my Cub’s 23rd birthday!!). How in the world has it already been one month?! That means I’ve only got three to go and a mere a month and a half more in Cambodia! Mon dieu!
Right now, I feel like there are almost as many questions as there are answers. What do I say about having lived–like, genuinely lived–in a city on other side of the world for a month? Sure, I’ve figured some things out but I still feel very green-horned and there’s so much left to experience. I simultaneously feel like a tourist and a local since I feel like I’ve thrown myself into my new home as fully as I can (barring street food–I still can’t believe they don’t have any blocks of tofu on spits over their grills!) but I will always stand out as a foreigner and I can’t speak the local language.
This post is going to be a little, shall I say, exploratory. Usually, my posts are fairly planned out and I’ve had ideas swimming around in my head for a few days; themes, things I want to include under that theme and what the best way to tell the story I want to tell. For this one, though, I haven’t been able to decide on a particular theme or things I want to include. It’s going to be one that just comes out how it comes out. Apologies if I ramble.
As I was about to start writing my daily journal entry–a habit I’ve somehow stuck to for 10 years now–I was leafing through some of my older journal entries and I, coincidentally flipped to the entry for the first day I was here in Phnom Penh and continued reading for a couple days. I wrote about the heat, all the different smells, the mini bananas, taking my shoes off whenever I needed to go inside WITHOUT exception, the overwhelming markets and how excited I was to ride in a tuk tuk.
Now, all these things just feel normal. If I need to go somewhere far away, I call my driver, Raath, or just walk down the street to hail one of the many moto drivers waiting to pick up a fare. If a few of us want to go somewhere, we go find a tuk tuk. It’s just that simple. I feel like the impulse to seek out a moto will stay with me for awhile after returning to Canada–it’s just so convenient!
I’m excited that all of these things feel normal to me, it means that I’ve learned and I came into this with my mind open enough to absorb all there is to learn here, although this wasn’t fully intentional. I did some research into Cambodia before I came but, it was by no means extensive so I was still uncertain what to expect when I arrived. Somehow, I accidentally approached Cambodia in the best way possible and just accepted it for what it is–hot, a little dusty, bustling, friendly, crowded, crazy and beautiful all at the same time. Even though Phnom Penh has a population that’s double that of Winnipeg’s squeezed onto a tract of land that’s only a few hundred square kilometres larger, it doesn’t feel as squished and frantic and one might think.
I’ve spoken to others who admitted to not knowing a thing about Cambodia before they came and were a little too accustomed to the comforts of the Western world to fully enjoy this country. First, I don’t understand why anyone would decide to visit a country without knowing the first thing about it. Second, I don’t understand why anyone would expect anything close to Western standards in a developing country. I’ve heard people complain that it’s dirty, disorganized, that they “expected more from Cambodia’s capital city” and hang out in the tourist areas as much as possible.
Although I didn’t experience this next woman first-hand, I heard from very credible sources that a woman who came a couple weeks ago was extremely paranoid about germs on everything. After orientation, CVF took the new recruits to a restaurant and this woman ordered a Sprite. Her Sprite came in a glass, as is pretty standard most places but she refused to drink it simply because her beverage had left the bottle and hopped into a sterilized glass. Then, she ordered some watermelon, which, according to government and travel websites is one of the few fresh things that’s considered “safe” to order because you only eat the inner part of the fruit, not the outside, which could have been exposed to contaminated water but the inside will not have been. Witnesses say that she then started washing the watermelon with her bottled water. I also heard that she only lasted one more day before leaving.
I mean, what do you expect when you come to a developing country? Even if you do experience culture shock, which I imagine is quite common for Westerners, there’s so much to learn and experience that, if you just give it a chance, I’m sure most would be able to see the beauty in it–or at least have fun trying.
So, what have I learned since coming to the other side of the world? Let’s separate my lessons into categories, shall we?
Locals don’t walk anywhere. As my pal TM pointed out, they must only walk the 10 metres required to get to their moto and then they’re done for the day. They are very friendly and kind people. In fact, my server at this cafe just asked if I have Facebook so he could talk to me because his written English is better than his speaking.
Motos and stall-tenders at markerts tend to overcharge foreigners but, hey, that’s just the name of the game and they probably need the extra dollar more than I do.
They’re pretty into badminton.
Cambodian kids are incredibly cute and love to talk to yell “Hello!” to me if they see me walking around or on my bike. Some of the older kids do it, too, but get shy when I say “Hello!” back. Sometimes, if they’re feeling really adventurous, they like to ask “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”. I’ve heard from my friends that area teaching English that the kids are incredibly eager to learn and love to practice speaking English.
They love to party for any reason at all.
The most visible customs are those regarding how members of different genders interact. Men are allowed to hug and touch each other in an affectionate manner without being labelled as “gay”. It’s common to see women holding hands or for women I’ve just met to touch my arm or link arms with me. It is, however, generally not cool for men and women to touch for any reason. I found this particularly visible when I attended KYA’s workshop I’ve mentioned a lot. At one point, all the participants were to join hands in a circle and I saw, many times, where the chain would be broken because a young man and woman were standing adjacent to each other.
I don’t know how much this rule applies to foreigners or if S over at CVF was just lying to us, but he told us that PDA is a really big no-no. According to him, if the police catch a couple kissing in public, they have to take them to the police station and call their parents. I think I’d be willing to pay more taxes for the RCMP to start doing that.
In terms of niceties, it’s necessary to bow your head. A lot. Saying hello, goodbye, thank you, passing old people, passing monks, walking in front of people–when it doubt, just bow your head.
Another thing that’s important is the manner in which you hand things to others. If they are older than you or you don’t know them, hand objects (such as things you want to buy or money) with both hands. It was a hard thing to get used to and is still hard at times because it’s difficult to hold my wallet, a bag of my stuff and hand over money with two hands all at once. It is possible to get around the two hand thing, though, if you touch the arm that you’re using to hand over the object. After talking to locals about what they think of foreigners and some of the strange things they do or wear (such as my “crazy” haircut), they seem to understand that, if we slip and accidentally hand something over with one hand, it’s just our culture and they’re not so deeply offended.
As I’ve said before, locals wear a lot of jeans and pants. Rarely do I see an older Khmer person wearing shorts. Some of the younger generation wear them, along with their Starbucks shirts. There’s an expectation that people, particularly women, cover their shoulders and their knees and not show too much cleavage. I was aware of this before I came and it’s not hard to dress accordingly when it’s all you have. What I didn’t expect was how much this unwritten rule would become normalized to me. During the summer in Winnipeg, it gets really hot, probably close to as hot as it is here, so it’s perfectly normal to see women walking around in tank tops, tube tops, short shorts and bottoms that toe the line between short shorts and underwear. After being here for a month, if I see women–foreigners or locals–showing their shoulders or wearing short shorts, it’s a little shocking. There was one notable occasion where I saw a couple guys, who I would describe as Cambodian gangsters, riding their motos with their girlfriends. While it was weird to see Khmer men dressed like they just walked off the set of Kanye West’s latest music video, my first thought when I saw that their girlfriends were wearing short shorts and tank tops was “I feel sorry for your parents”.
I hope it’s not surprising that they eat a lot of rice here. I swear that the rice cooker is always going at our house. Even though health experts, magazines, body builders and the general public in North America seem to think it’s the root of all evil, they only eat white rice here. I’ve seen brown rice but only at the vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio/fair trade store in Siem Reap. It makes me wonder how the staple food of an entire continent could be that unhealthy if all these people have been eating it for so long…
One of the things that surprised me was the ubiquitous presence of meat. That’s not to say that they eat a lot of meat, they don’t by any means, but just that it’s always a part of the meal. They treat meat differently than they do in North America; it’s served in smaller portions either mixed in with veggies or served as a side dish. It’s never the main focus of the meal and it’s interesting.
Also, their fried bananas and rice-jelly-filled-with-sweet-coconut-wrapped-in-palm-leaf desserts are SO GOOD. Edit: I just looked this up and I think these delectable desserts are called num koum. If anyone gets good at making them, you let me know.
I previously described the traffic here as (*PARENTAL WARNING**) a clusterfuck with no rules to speak of but, now that I’ve walked through and biked in traffic, I’ve come to learn what few rules actually exist and it’s surprisingly important to follow them. By and large, you drive in the right lane, unless it’s more convenient to drive into oncoming traffic. If you have a bike, as I do, you’re required to stay as far to the right as possible.
Reasons to drive in the left lane include: being unable to cross the mass of traffic into the correct lane immediately or your destination is on that side of the street…somewhere up the line. In this case, the rules of the road are reversed and British rules apply–those travelling with traffic stay on the left to allow those travelling into oncoming traffic to stay on the right. It took a couple close calls to figure that one out.
Even though it seems that everyone rides the exact same bike model from the 1970s (yes, including 10 year old children that have a very difficult time reaching the ground when they need to stop) everyone would really benefit from mountain bikes since the roads are awful. My bike has a sticker on it that’s in Japanese so I don’t know for sure, but, judging from the picture, I’m fairly certain it means not to ride over broken ground. Ha! Like that would ever be possible in this city!
When I first arrived, I knew I had to bargain. That doesn’t mean I did or, if I tried, I wasn’t very effective. I’ve since become pretty good at bargaining with people at the markets and tuk tuks/motos. It’s a fine line between working together to arrive at a price we can both live with and being a bit of a jerk. Sometimes, walking away is the best thing to do when you really want a bargain. If you’re lucky, they might start yelling prices at you that get lower and lower until it’s a fraction of what they first offered.
I’ve learned to check my food for ants before I eat it. Those things are everywhere. I find this to be true at non-Western style restaurants. You just pick it out and hope you don’t see anymore.
To see the architecture of this city, you need to look up.
People don’t train their dogs or let them in the house. They hold choir practice in the middle of the night. Once in awhile, the cat choir decides to compete with them.
I’ve learned that our amazing housekeeper, H (below), enjoys joking around. There was a memorable incident where we were changing my bedsheets and I asked if I could keep the extra sheet she brought with her to use as a blanket. Long story short, we had an exchange where I tried to explain that I wanted a blanket and she ran off with the sheet so I had to give chase for her to finally give it to me. It was hilarious if you were there, I promise!
She also loves Chips Ahoy and Oreos. Despite the fact that she speaks very, very little English, she still manages to ask me to buy her some every time I go out.
I never want to work for an NGO. Possibly more on this in a later post.
The Winnipeg effect happens everywhere. With 98% of the volunteers here being Australian, what are the chances of another Winnipegger being here in Phnom Penh? In fact, A was here for a year and just went back to Winnipeg yesterday where she’ll be gearing up to start university at U of W in January!
There are chickens everywhere.
My hate towards mosquitoes has grown 10 fold. I thought I’d be okay, being from The Peg and all, but the mosquitoes here are tiny and more vicious than the ones in Manitoba. My feet (usually the only skin that I dare leave uncovered at night) look like they’re diseased from all the bites. No wonder they’re the only thing that monks are allowed to kill.
If I take a moto with my Sri Lankan friend, people stare even more than they do if they see me on moto. I’m pretty sure it’s because there’s some kind of punchline to “A Cambodian, brown girl and white girl get on a moto…” On a side note about the same incident, it’s unpleasant to take a moto in the middle of a downpour. There exist some hilariously awful pictures of that event that nobody will ever see.
Given that I’ve learned so much, what else is there for me to learn? I’m sure there are a ton of things but the two that stand out in my mind right now are:
1.) I want to learn how to ride a moto and drive it around the city for at least a day.
2.) I really want to learn more Khmer. I’ve already been lucky enough to have one Khmer lesson from a friend so I need to get studying verbs and then get even more lessons!
Then there’s the ever-growing list of restaurants I want to try. Oh, the foodie in me!
In just one short month, this city has really become my home and part of me is already dreading having to say goodbye in six short weeks. I experienced this feeling acutely when K and I came home after being in Siem Reap. After a long day of bus travel and a long tuk tuk ride from the bus station, we wanted nothing more than to collapse onto our beds, just like anyone would. But the calmness and joy that came over me when I recognized that we were almost home was a little surprising, especially because I’d only been here for two weeks at that point.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that my host family is incredible, the CVF staff are really fun and helpful, the other volunteers (by and large) are really cool, the incredibly friendly locals or the fact that I’ve quickly established myself as a regular at this cafe but Phnom Penh is certainly home.
Bye bye, Internets.