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

Friday, August 12, 2011

a drive to the country

This was the first weekend where we had our own car so Stephen wanted to take advantage of that and take a drive into the country. He decided we should take drives on the national highways in order. So on Sunday we drove out on highway No. 1. :), which is driving east out of Phnom Penh toward Vietnam. We went about 30km just to see what we could see.

As we were driving out of the city, I saw a sight that is extremely common but still never fails to amaze me: women sitting side-saddle on the back of a moto with one sandal dangling. I can hardly imagine staying on a motorcycle straddling it, but balancing side saddle? It's a law that the driver has to wear a helmet but the passenger is not required to. And obviously protecting your feet is not a big concern. During Stephen's motorcycle training in Portland, his instructors taped up his ankles because he was wearing shoes and not the required boots.
Just out of the city we started seeing traditional houses. They are built up on stilts to minimize flooding damage during the rainy season and to provide a shaded cooler area during the hot dry season.
And we noticed more ways in which motorcycles are versatile vehicles in Cambodia. People use them to carry so many things we in the states would think you'd need a truck for: chickens, pigs, family of four or even five people.
When we started seeing fields we also started seeing lots of cream colored cows. Brahman cattle. I've never seen these floppy eared cows before so they were really interesting to me. I started taking pictures of every cow we saw and Stephen teased me that our drive to the country had turned into a cow photo shoot. 
And though it was Sunday we saw people working everywhere. Several of the pictures above show people working. Cambodians work hard. Six-day work weeks are the norm but people work seven out of necessity. This field was full of workers on a Sunday afternoon.
It was a short drive but at least we got out of the city for the first time. I want to paint some scenes of the Cambodian countryside so I look forward to our next drive and more photo opportunities. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Angelina Jolie does a video on Cambodia

I like the tone of this video. As Angelina Jolie says here, Cambodians have a terrible history. A terrible recent history. And yet they are able to be friendly and welcoming, even serene. At least on the surface. I think it's definitely part of their culture to be peaceful and serene, influences of Buddhist beliefs and practices, but the horrors of war and conflict leave scars. And while Cambodians and anyone who cares about Cambodians work to move forward and past their history, it's important not to forget it.

But first I had to learn this history. Before Stephen and I decided to move here I knew very little about Cambodia. In the past months I've learned about Pol Pot and his regime, the Khmer Rouge. During the four years he ruled Cambodia, an estimated 2 million people were executed or died from disease and/or starvation (out of a population of about 8 million). I learned that previous to Pol Pot's rule the United States, led by Nixon and Kissinger, dropped more tons of bombs across the Cambodian countryside  than the US dropped on Japan in WWII. I learned that the Vietnamese were the ones to finally end Khmer Rouge control of the country but then continued fighting them for decades. The Vietnamese "K5 Project" forced Cambodian peasants to bury millions of landmines along the Thai-Cambodian border as part of this fighting. These landmines continue to kill and maim to the present day.

Horrific stuff. And these are only a few pieces of the awful story. When I learn things like this, many questions form in my mind. And so I try to read as much as I possibly can to try to find the answers. We have many books on our shelves about Cambodia. And we watched The Killings Fields which was the story of Dith Pran's (a Cambodian journalist) survival during the Khmer Rouge. It's not easy to watch and the books are not easy to read. But I'm compelled to watch and read so that I can make informed choices and decisions. I want to do something useful. I want to do something here that will really improve people's lives. I definitely don't want to do something that seems good to me but in reality doesn't help Cambodians, or even worse, harms them. And there is really no way to do this without studying Cambodia's history and immersing myself in the current culture.

I'm glad that Angelina Jolie is using her celebrity status to draw attention to this country. Cambodia could use some good publicity. Tourism is an important industry for this very poor country. But tourism has its downside too. It's kind of nice to be in a place that doesn't have a long history of rich tourists coming in and out. People who beg on the street more often than not just hold out their hands or hat and gently mumble something. Stephen and I almost always give them a few hundred Riel (the Cambodian currency) and they respond with gentle smiles of thanks and walk away. We only give them the equivalent of pennies, but they are appreciative of our small gesture. In other parts of the world, people who beg or even those trying to sell us something are very aggressive. Even several "no thank you" responses do not deter them. I remember some quite young children in Ethiopia following us for several blocks using English phrases the whole time, pestering us for money.

Cambodia has experienced the damaging effect of well-meaning but uninformed outsiders. Angelina Jolie was able to adopt her son from an orphanage, but she was one of the last to be able to do so. Orphanages have been used to exploit children. Well-meaning families wanted to adopt Cambodian children so they could provide these children with a better life. Well-meaning people want to volunteer in an orphanage short-term as part of a popular trend called "voluntourism". People spend their vacation "doing something good". It's a nice concept but too easily corruptible. Poor Cambodians were selling their children to orphanages either for adoption or to help raise money for the orphanage. So the Cambodian government responded to this by suspending all adoption since 2003. And this week Stephen attended a meeting on the new NGO law that the government is considering. Stephen thinks this law is partly a response to the rash of these "voluntourism" orphanages that have sprung up all over the country.

This knowledge can be so depressing. But life today in Cambodia offers bright spots juxtaposing its history. This morning, one of the employees of our apartment complex rang my doorbell wanting to arrange the flowers on my terrace again.(Yesterday he brought three more baskets of plants to add to the ones I already had and hung them all on the bars he had just installed. Later he came back to move them so I could "see out".)  He left and a few minutes later arrived with a beautiful flowering plant not yet blooming. We both laughed at how much time and effort he was putting into the flower arrangement on my terrace. With his limited English he said, "your apartment, remodeling flowers". :)

Cambodia's history shapes who they are but it doesn't have to define who they are or who they will be. Despite only a recent end to war in their country, Cambodians have resiliently begun to move forward from their dark past. What kind of a society would Cambodians have built if they hadn't endured all these years of devastation? They have much to offer and we have much to learn and maybe Stephen and I can be part of efforts that help some Cambodians realize their potential.

Monday, August 1, 2011

one month

Stephen and I have been in Phnom Penh for a month now. So I guess it's time for me to talk about the W-curve. :) I just looked back at my posts from South Africa and saw that it was only in our second week there that I was already feeling myself slide down the curve.

This week Stephen met with an American who has been living and working in Phnom Penh for the past 18 years, and he described phases that people go through that are along the same lines as my W-curve. The way he describes the process of cultural immersion is: The New Deal, The Raw Deal, and The Real Deal. The New Deal is when you first enter the culture and you are excited about all the newness. This corresponds with the top of the W in my professor's framework. The Raw Deal is basically you hate everything and you want to go home (the bottom of the W). And The Real Deal is when you see that there are good things, and they are really good, and you see there are bad things, that are really bad. People cycle through these phases a few times but from his own experience and having watched many others, he says that two years is a critical point. After two years people either decide they've had enough and go home or decide they want to stay on for the long term.

After one full month in this completely foreign culture, Stephen and I are still in "The New Deal" phase. So far we are still interested in and enjoying the newness. We like noticing how things are done differently here, instead of being annoyed that they aren't done the way we do things in the states. We are still adventurous; trying a different restaurant nearly every time we go out and shopping in the markets instead of just the conventional grocery stores or indoor mall. Hearing only Khmer spoken all around hasn't started to annoy or frustrate us and we enjoy practicing our few Khmer phrases with everyone we meet. This feels like a very good sign.
There are many reasons why our movement through the phases (or along the W-curve) is slower this time compared to when we moved to South Africa, but I think that the people of this Asian culture have played a large role. Cambodians are welcoming and kind. They are quick to smile, similar to their Thai neighbors, as I experienced when I spent a month in Thailand. But Cambodians radiate a real genuineness in their friendly demeanor. In almost all of my interactions with Cambodians since we arrived, I noticed an attentiveness and observant helpfulness I've rarely experienced anywhere in the world. There are so many examples. When our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at our home we had several packages and one of the items was an ironing board. I was awkwardly trying to grasp the board with both hands when the driver showed me the handle so that I only needed one hand. The fare had already been agreed upon before we started so this helpfulness wasn't motivated by hopes of a bigger tip. He didn't need to help us at all really. But he did. A simple thing but it made my day a little easier. Another time Stephen and I bought an Italian soda from a place called "Bread is Ready, Coffee is Done". We ordered it for "take away" and when the barista brought it to us he said, "When you get home, you need to stir it first before you drink it." He didn't assume we would know, or that we'd had an Italian soda before. He wanted to make sure we enjoyed our drink. In the states this kind of helpfulness is often mocked. I actually remember ordering an Italian soda once, years ago, at 17th Street Station in Billings, MT where it wasn't stirred. It was the first time I'd been served an Italian soda that way and I didn't know that I should stir it so I drank it just as it was. It wasn't very good. I would have appreciated instructions then. A few nights ago Stephen and I were trying to cross a very busy multi-laned road near Independence Monument. We hadn't been standing very long looking into the sea of traffic when a man touched my arm and indicated we cross with him. He stood between us and the traffic and without stopping traffic completely, he slowed it enough for us to weave our way through it. He might have been a crossing guard of sorts but I don't know. What I do know it that he notice that we needed help and jumped right in to assist us.

This is a cultural characteristic. Maybe it stems from the predominant religion Buddhism, or maybe it's just an Asian value of community. People look out for each other. It isn't just me against the world. The way they drive here also reflects a community value. Two tenets of driving are 1) people will slow down 2) and be patient. I've seen it so much in the month that we've been here that I'm starting to understand how to merge into traffic. You just get on your moto and start driving. You don't look and wait for an opening to race into. You just start going and people will make room for you.
Stephen bought our car on Friday. But we haven't driven it yet as it needed a few repairs. We also got our Cambodian driver's licenses. Really, I don't think this will change my life much. I don't intend to drive any time soon. I've just figured out how to cross the street! It's kind of the same as driving. You just start walking and traffic flows around you. You go slowly, moving out of the way of that car or those motos. They watch me and swerve either in front of me or behind me.

People look out for each other. And I like that. It makes me feel acknowledged. It makes me feel like I exist as part of a community. Despite barriers of language and culture, Cambodians have made Stephen and me feel welcome. I think we'll stay awhile. :)