Cambodia · Expat

Sharing a memory: reflecting on 2 years in Cambodia

two years in cambodia
Thanks for the reminder, FB.

 

// I love milestones because they give me a chance to reflect and disrupt my day-to-day routine and forward-oriented thinking.

// The things that initially shocked me the most about Siem Reap was the poverty, specifically, fewer infrastructures (i.e. the lack of paved roads, how dirty it was), and how much better Cambodians spoke English. Later I would learn that Siem Reap is the second poorest province in Cambodia. I found this rather shocking considering how much money comes in to this little city due to Angkor Wat.

// Thailand, on the other side of the border, has a bigger middle class, better infrastructure, and of course, a very different history. They didn’t experience the genocide of two generations of their population due to extreme ideologies, execution, torture and social engineering.

// Cambodia is a young country with 50% of the population under 22.

// Wedding parties circumventing traffic and baby shops dominating the landscape certainly add to the feeling that Cambodia is literally a growing country.

The happy bride & groom

// When I lived in Thailand, I was acutely aware of the two-tiered pricing, one for foreigners and the other for locals, with the foreign rate being minimally twice as much as what the locals paid. I learned to bargain and figured out what I should be paying versus being ripped off or cheated. I think this is quite common among many Asian countries. So, when I moved to Cambodia, I brought this skill-set, if you can call it that, here.

Embarrassingly, I remember trying to bargain with a motorbike driver to take me home from the gym. We argued and I walked away and then I started again with other group, only to walk away again feeling angry at the thought of being duped into paying an unfair rate. I decided to walk home only to get caught in the pouring rain. At the end, the realization that I was arguing over 50 cents (or 2000 riel) sat sadly in my soaking wet hair and clothes. I didn’t need to be a miser. Sure, I wasn’t flush with cash as many locals saw foreigners, but it wasn’t necessary to bargain down to pennies either. So, these days, I don’t haggle the price before I get in a tuk-tuk, I just tell them where I want to go and give them a little more than a fair rate, say thanks and walk away.

Phnom Penh a-moto-a-cyclo-and-a-tuk-tuk
Phnom Penh, 2016

// I was in for more culture shock between the countries than I anticipated, and I think this mainly derived from going from a comfortable environment (after all, I lived in Thailand for about 5 years) and knowing the language (enough to be functional and lightly conversational) to being uncomfortable (new, lost, learning) and having to rely solely on English (and even though, the BF knew enough Khmer to impress the locals, in Thailand, we were a stronger team when it came to navigating the local language).

// It’s funny because I thought I was “roughing it” by living in Thailand because compared to the US, Thailand has a lot of catching up to do. But during the years that I lived in Thailand, it developed and changed a lot, and I got used to those creature comforts. I also had gotten, for the most part, used to the cultural differences and the way things are done in Thailand.

// In other words, I was attached to my lifestyle in Thailand whether I recognized it or not. It’s kind of crazy, actually, how slow we are to adapt and then how quickly we accept something as a “norm”.

// This reminds me of how often we quit or move on before the tide turns. It’s a damn tricky decision, no doubt, when do you hang on or when do you cut your losses and pack your bags? For me, there was no other place to go. I didn’t want to go back to Thailand no matter how much I hated adapting here. Perhaps there was some pride mixed in, but I think there was also this push for I want more.

Love working with people around the world (Australian, Irish, and British are represented here 😛 but we have others!).

// More, as it turned out, was not where I expected it to be. Because living in Cambodia has turned out to be a huge resume booster. I was given IELTS (International English Language Testing System) preparation courses which initially scared the bajeezus out of me. Then I was asked to teach the Public Speaking and Debate classes. These are not only more challenging classes from the General English program, they pay more, too. Cha-ching!

I also adore working with fellow Khmer teachers and staff. Kino and I wear our t-shirt gifts from the students. (Well, mine was technically from another teacher. Phektra couldn’t fit into his so he gave it to me! :D)

// But if I had quit Cambodia a year ago, these opportunities would not have likely come my way. More time here and money has also allowed me to still travel to Thailand to see family and friends, but also to new places like Penang Malaysia and Southern Cambodia.

// My latest trip actually made me realize that if my experience of Cambodia had just been Siem Reap, I’d have such a limited and inaccurate view of the country. There are cities with better infrastructure. Even though intellectually, I know how different cities can vary within a country, I believe we often construct our worldview based on what we physically see.

Through the Kampot countryside with Saavid.

// This is probably why we are enamored with first impressions and ideas about something, and hold on to them long after it has held its use. That is to say, you think you know someone because you see them act a certain way, but what about all those other things you don’t see that make a person more complete and complex?

// I think about this because I wonder who expats were before they became expats. Who was an accountant? A police officer? Who had this whole other life in this whole other world before I met them for a slice of time?

// Who were you, Cambodia, before the Khmer Rouge? Who are you now? And where are you going?

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29 thoughts on “Sharing a memory: reflecting on 2 years in Cambodia

    1. Heyyyy. I like hearing that! Thanks. You know, lately I’ve been scared to share my posts on FB. I suppose these things never really go away! Why am I afraid to be judged? Thanks for your kind words, maybe I’ll just take the damn leap anyway.

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  1. I agree with what Linda said, that you speak from the heart and I truly felt that this was a very honet post about the expat life, and life about moving around and adapting in general. Haha, you sound very no-nonsense these days when you get in a tuk-tuk and then give what you feel it is worth and walk away. Very strong attitude and hope your honesty has served you well and hasn’t seen you get into arguments with the driver anymore.

    ‘how often we quit or move on before the tide turns’ I found this such a profound phase. Makes you think when you should stay, and when you should go. And I suppose it depends on what you are looking for and what you want.

    I can sooo imagaine you teaching Public Speaking and you’ve always seem to be able to express your opinion very clearly – and in your photos you look like the kind who is very confident, at least in your photos at the school and colleagues. Like you are the life of the party 😀

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    1. Thanks, Mabel. My heartfelt appreciation for your words!

      Yeah, I’m still very much on guard in Asia, nobody likes to feel ripped off or cheated. But I’m definitely more generous and forgiving. This last trip to Southern Cambo, really brought this idea home as I paid what felt like ‘healthy amounts’ to use taxis. But I told myself that I can’t say I’m going to be generous and let it go if I’m still fidgeting over the amount. It’s still a conversation in my head. 😀

      But day-to-day, yeah, I know what is fair, so I’m much more confident.

      Public Speaking is sort of up my alley because I often daydream giving amazing TED talks. I love the idea of speaking in front of a crowd. The debate part is much more fun for me to sit back and watch my students. They are so good! And when they struggle, I love helping them. US education served me well…I feel capable in this regard!

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      1. I am sure you will do well on a TEDtalk. I can just see you being the star of attention…and inspiration. And I’m sure your students will agree 😀

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  2. I sometimes think wisdom is really just trying to figure out when to quit and when to persevere (as well as when to keep silent and when to speak up). Sometimes we get comfortable in a niche and miss other opportunities, and sometimes we jump ship right before stuff gets exciting. So congrats on having the wisdom to recognize why you wanted to bail on Cambodia and sticking it out and reaping the rewards!

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    1. I’m afraid you are giving me too much credit. But thank you. I didn’t know where else to go. Plus, there is this quote that haunts me, “don’t mistake movement with progress”. I try to keep it in mind when I feel itchy. I think life is helping me make these decisions, too. Okay, so I will say there was a turning point where I did make life improvements and the conscious decision, ‘let’s make the best of this’.

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  3. Wonderful reflections & insight! I think your statement: “That is to say, you think you know someone because you see them act a certain way, but what about all those other things you don’t see that make a person more complete and complex?” is a critical component to life and something everyone should adopt as a mindset when interacting with others! Coming from someone, like you, who has lived and traveled abroad, meeting and encountering so many different people and cultures, proves to me; experience and reflection are necessary for understanding and being excepting of our fellow human beings. Thanks for your wonderful insight, Lani! ~Anne

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    1. Thanks. Absolutely, we are much more than our bodies or this moment. I try to remember the latter when life gets tough. Which I realize is seemingly contradictory to ‘being in the moment’, but I think life is full of these opposities. Maybe the key lies in knowing which one to use when 😛

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  4. You have had many learning experiences Lani! Good for you. Living in Asian countries is a big challenge but Cambodia seems to present much more. I am glad you have so many good words to say about people and their culture. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Balroop.I suppose this is what I signed up for, living abroad is often portayed as an playful adventure, but there are many struggles within and without.

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      1. True Lani, living away from where we grow up is less of an adventure and more of a struggle but a great learning experience. Wishing you all the best. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I love these ruminations. Congrats on your anniversary.

    On the topic of haggling, I just want to make sure I understand this (as someone who is a terrible haggler): Are you saying that rather than asking a tuk tuk driver in advance how much he will charge, that instead you just get in and then pay him a reasonable fare (of your own choosing) at the end? If so, does that generally work (i.e., the drivers don’t try to argue with you at the end)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. That’s exactly what I do and it works like a charm.They never (not yet!) argue with me. Sometimes, they don’t even look at what you’ve given them. I think it’s about not wanting to appear eager or rude.

      If the trip is out of the ordinary, I’ll ask, “Is this okay?” because I don’t want to short-change anyone. It’s tough. I know as an expat I pay WAY more than the locals, but I figure, I’m doing alright, everyone is trying to make a living. You know, I try to keep this all in perspective.

      *I just answered Marta’s question about haggling if you’re interested in learning more just look at the comments 🙂

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  6. Great reflections, Lani, and a lot of interesting data. 50% of the country being under 22 is just mind boggling… Out of curiosity, I searched for the median age in China; it is 37.

    How is that about foreigners paying more for the same things? I assume it is only for things that don’t have a fixed price, right? Here bargaining used to be more common but nowadays most shops and restaurants have the prices clearly displayed, taxis use the taximeter, Uber or similar apps automatically calculate the fare based on the distance… so basically the only time I wonder if I am paying the foreigner price is when I buy from street vendors, which is not very often.

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    1. Great question. As far as two-tiered pricing, there is this idea that foreigners have more money, therefore, they can give more. It’s very common to enter a national park in Thailand, let’s say, and pay 200-500 baht whereas the locals pay 20 baht. Or the aquarium in Chiang Mai…I forgot the foreigner rate, but I remember getting away with the Thai rate: 100B.

      When it comes to tuk-tuk rides or market/shopping bargaining, often Thais ask for twice as much. So you can cut the asking price in half, and haggle from there. And it really depends on the amount. I’m not going to haggle for things that are naturally inexpensive.

      But I often heard ‘red truck taxi’ drivers in CM, ask for 400-500 for what would cost 20-30 for locals. This is considered smart and clever and if the customer is dumb enough to pay it, then, all the better.

      It also gets a little more complicated because many Thais are doing just fine – financially. It was frustrating to see a car roll up of rich Thais and they got away with the local rate and your with a bunch of low-salary teachers or students visiting.

      So, you can imagine how that makes travellers feel and even expats who have lived in the country for over 10 years. In the West, we have a completely didn’t mindset and this is at the core of what we feel is “UNFAIR”. Yeah, folks get really angry over this, and debate it.

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      1. In China many people also think foreigners swim in money, but still, it’s hard to rip people off when most places have prices clearly displayed! Or maybe I am not affected by it because I can read Chinese xD Although everybody can see the numbers…

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      2. Ha! Yeah, that’s the thing. We can tell by looking at the numbers what the price difference is. And all you really have to do is learn to read their numbers, if they get sneaky, and see what it is!

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  7. Many congrats on the expat anniversary! Years fly by, so it’s good you celebrate each and every milestone.

    There’s a lot in here I felt myself nodding in agreement with, especially the part about how quickly we adapt to the “norm”. I feel like that’s happening with me in Bahrain, and when the day comes that I eventually leave the country, I’ll have to adapt again and forget what I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a hard time believing I’ve been here this long. Then again, lots has certainly happened. I guess I saw myself leaving much sooner. So much for that.

      Speaking of ‘adapting’ I was riding my bicycle to work and one of my former colleagues yelled at me (in a nice way) for driving down the wrong way. I replied back, “it’s just for a little ways”. Yeah, I get angry when others do it, but when I do it, I justify it. Ugh.

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  8. Happy anniversary. It’s nice to do a little looking back and taking stock. Every year I write a Christmas letter. When the time rolls around to start, I usually drag my heels, thinking nothing much has happened. By the time I finish, I have a better sense of the shape of my year and the feeling that, despite ups and downs, things really did work out and I have much to be grateful for.

    I loved your summing up of your two years in Cambodia. Things really have worked out for you–not like magic, of course. You put a lot of effort into it.

    During our time in the Philippines, I didn’t put a lot of effort into bargaining. It didn’t seem right since my husband had a good salary. It pays to know what the fair price is, though. Usually, I found, people asked for a reasonable amount plus a little bit.

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  9. Thanks! Christmas letters are great for that. And they are nice to receive. My friend from high school still does that. 🙂

    Bargaining is sticky. We all like our money and we all want to get our monies worth. So my relationship with money has definitely changed since living in Asia, as has my worldview of how money is valued. Actually, a few comments, including yours, has made me wonder if I should write more about it!

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  10. Great post Lani! I admire your courage. You have managed to adapt, thrive, and make a difference educationally in environments so different from the United States where you grew up, and you have obviously learned a lot. I have lived here in the United States all my life and sometimes feel like it is all I can do to adapt to Florida. Bravo for taking risks and writing so eloquently about them! 🙂

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    1. Thanks. It doesn’t feel courageous though, it just feels like life. Hahahhaa. You know, it takes a lot these days to live in the United States, let alone anywhere. I think the only difference might be what challenges life throws our way and how much we try to grow and change ourselves. Sometimes, I think I put myself in these situations so that I’m forced to self-reflect. I don’t know. Maybe I like the adventure and then the rest naturally follows!

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  11. really appreciated this post and reading your reflections, Lani!
    it’s so interesting to read about how shocked you were by the poverty and poor infrastructure in cambodia. in many ways, i made similar comparisons while i was growing up here in the US, comparing the khmer-american community to other southeast asian communities. but now i realize i wasn’t comparing apples to apples- because many of my southeast asian,non khmer peers, their families didn’t suffer through a genocide with mass starvation, torture, and killings. it’s just not the same.

    on another note, i’ve seen clips on youtube of movies produced in Cambodia from the 1950-1960’s… Khmer rock n roll was thriving, people dancing in some pretty hip clothing, men wearing suits and ties, and fancy cars on the streets. i asked my parents about life back then and they describe city life to be very nice, orderly.. most people rode bikes and there were few cars, but it was clean (no trash littering the city as there is now), and people obeyed traffic laws on the streets. sounds unbelievable right?

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    1. I think what’s interesting with Cambodia is that the Khmer Rouge not only wiped out the people, but the culture. This is not unlike what happened during China’s “Cultural Revolution”. Much of the culture and beliefs that we admire (Lao Tsu, martial arts, the dress and dynasties), if not all, pretty much came before the cleansing of ideologies that differed from Communism.

      The BF lived in China and since we live in Cambo together, we talk about what happens after a “culture” has been destroyed. There are intersting similarities between the two which I don’t feel comfortable getting into here, but feel free to email me if you’d like. But I think between you and your parents you’d probably figure it out.

      In any case, I am familiar with early Cambodian music, those swinging 60s and famous singers! There’s a documentary that I’ve been meaning to watch that covers this amazing period of music. It’s utterly tragic, really.

      The longer I live in this area, the more I appreciate the history and the differences between the countries. And let’s face it, the war that America waged against Vietnam created the wave of SE Asians that immigrated to the US during the 70s. But, yeah, I understand what you are saying, there are similarities between the Asian communties and then there are big differences, too.

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