a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

coffee shops and orchids

It's only Wednesday, our fourth day in Phnom Penh and Stephen has already been at work full-time since yesterday. The original plan was that we would spend the first week looking for an apartment and getting our bearings. So yesterday we had the MTI driver take us to apartment complexes to start the search. We looked at several and inquired at several more and were surprised to learn that all were full or nearly full.  In light of that information we thought we had better make a decision quickly if we found something we liked. Which we did. The second apartment we looked at felt very good. Large windows, terrace, two bedrooms, nice kitchen with gas stove, fully furnished...all brand new. So new in fact that they need 10 days to finish the remaining construction and cleaning. We put a deposit down in the afternoon!

Monday morning we both went to the office to meet the Cambodian office staff. We were greeted warmly but how much we were understood is uncertain. The staff have varying degrees of English proficiency. One of the staff yesterday said she would teach me Khmer (pronounced Kam eye) and asked me to help her with her English. I said to myself before arriving in Cambodia that I wouldn't commit to major projects early on, but already the wheels in my head are turning around the possibility of teaching English to the Cambodian office staff. As a volunteer I could provide some "staff development" in the form of English language tutoring sessions.  It could be really fun but right at this moment I have no idea what I would do. I guess just dive in and figure it out as I go.

I am typing in Gloria Jean coffee shop right now but yesterday I went to Cafe Fresco for lunch. I overheard a conversation among maybe a British woman and a couple of Khmer students. The woman was running some kind of program and these two students were in it. She was emphatic that the girl practice her English every single chance she got. She seemed to feel she was helping them but at the same time she was warning that should they not maintain or improve their English there could be quite severe consequences. I felt for the Khmer students. Such a cold world out there really. It's not easy to learn a second language but they have to try the best they can to master English; their mother tongue it not enough. I only know one language but that has not prevented me from acquiring an advanced degree, securing a well paying job, or having countless opportunities to pursue whatever kind of life I want. I can't change the world but I can give some Cambodians English skills that could open up opportunities for them to participate on the world stage if they want to. Recently I listened to a speech by Ted Danson and he said when we walk by problems, when we become aware of problems and we don't do anything, we kind of take a "hit to our soul". He said you don't have to work on every problem. But as soon as you start to work on solving one of the world's many problems "you can breathe again". I can relate to that. I definitely feel the "hit" part. And I want to feel the "breathe" part.

Simply being in Cambodia makes me feel like "breathing" is just around the corner. And I think I'm going to like it here. Phnom Penh has many western comforts. As I am a soft westerner,  these comforts take away a significant chunk of challenges. There are so many things involved in assimilating to a new culture; having some of them put on hold helps me focus on a few at a time. Like learning the language, and finding my way around the city. I am able to control to a degree the amount of newness and unfamiliarity I want to engage in on a particular day. Because at almost any point I can pop into a western style coffee shop and order my latte (in English) and then enjoy my well made western tasting coffee in an air conditioned environment. I think the knowledge of that is almost as helpful as the reality. It could be that I have some experience under my belt, or it could be that Phnom Penh, particularly the BKK1 area, caters especially well to expats, but whatever the reason I am finding Cambodia to be quite nice actually. Stephen and I were remarking at dinner how much more relaxed we are about the whole thing this time.

This morning as I was sitting on the 6th floor veranda of our hotel sipping some coffee, I could hear a mixture of traffic noise, construction work, and bird songs. Surround me in hanging pots were orchids of different colors. The air was humid but not too hot. On my walk to the coffee shop I stopped to take a picture of some tropical flowers cascading over the concrete wall and saw a giant black bumblebee flying from flower to flower. The young Cambodian men, guards for different entrances, were watching me with curiosity. I think they were amused that I would be interested enough to stop and look at a bee. :) It feels good here in this southeast Asian country. I think we are going to do alright.

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