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

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. :)

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