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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Two years: a significant milestone

So it turns out my adjustment to living in Cambodia has followed the predictable pattern that the majority of people go through. We've read and heard a number of times from different sources that it generally takes most people two years to adjust to a new culture. Stephen adapts and adjusts more easily than the norm and really has not experienced the huge shifts that I have. But for me, passing the two year mark has resulted in dramatic shifts.

LAUNDRY. This is my washing machine.

It is manufactured for a Thai market. And just like with my Panasonic blender from Thailand, instruction on the machine and online are in Thai.

So when our clothes kept coming out still smelly and dirty I could not find out if I was using the machine incorrectly. It's been a two year adventure in experimentation in a fervent effort to get our clothes clean. I tried putting in three times the normal amount of detergent. I used Tide and Arm and Hammer, two brands I recognized and used in the states. Then I tried Earth, an Australian brand. Minimal success. I read about vodka's cleaning properties. And tried soaking our clothes in vodka overnight. Ok, so that worked, but who can afford vodka as a laundry detergent?! Then one day about two months ago now, Stephen went to the store for me and came home with this bag of detergent because there was nothing else.
And voila, clean and fresh smelling clothes! The words on the bag are in Khmer script. This is a detergent that Cambodian people use. I think perhaps the lesson learned here is, "use what the locals use". Trying to use detergent designed for the US, where conditions are all together different, proved a miserable failure for me. In a climate like this, laundry is an important nearly daily activity. Now that I've discovered this detergent works beautifully with my washing machine, my daily life is free of that constant frustration and my whole outlook is improved as a result.

COOKING. This is my kitchen.

Two gas burners and one electric one in the middle. My gas tank is here under the counter.

I have a nice refrigerator/freezer but it is smaller than what I'm used to in the US. A microwave with more Thai script I can't understand.

But no oven, standard in most American kitchens and an appliance I use extensively. Before moving to Cambodia, I had never cooked with gas. Of course now I love it: I can walk into the kitchen and, in under three minutes, set an omelet on the table in front of Stephen. But I had to adjust to cooking with gas and I had to learn to cook without an oven.

I come from a long line of good cooks. My mother is a good cook, my grandmother is a good cook, and my great-grandmother (I'm told) was a good cook. Despite this legacy of delicious from scratch cooking, I had little interest in cooking as an adult. I mostly baked as a child. It wasn't until I married my husband that I decided that I wanted to become a cook. And I decided the best way to go about this was to buy cookbooks and follow the recipes to the letter. I love Giada de Laurentiis. I have three of her cookbooks and I've made dozens of her recipes. I also bought a Rachel Ray cookbook, one of Kathleen Daelemans's cookbooks, and Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious". The recipes I decided to make had fairly long lists of ingredients often including items I had never heard of and had to look up on the internet. At the time that I was beginning this self-training to be a gourmet cook, we lived in Seattle where there are wonderful markets stocked with a wide variety of...well...everything. To make just one meal I would shop at three different markets to hunt down the required ingredients. Then it would take hours for me to actually make the recipes, constantly reading and rereading instructions. This was my education. This was my foundation as a cook when we moved to Cambodia: following recipes from a cookbook. I had not been cooking for many years, I had not experimented with recipes let alone made anything up on my own.
Lucky Market is the high end grocery store in Cambodia. It's where I can buy produce, beef, eggs, and poultry with a degree of assurance that it is safe for consumption. Lucky, in addition to local products, stocks many imported items from around the world including the US. However, the number of products imported from the US are far outnumbered by products from many other countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. Meaning that the vast majority of items on the shelves are unfamiliar to me and more often than not in a language I cannot read.

My cookbooks and their recipes were now useless to me.

As I struggled to figure out cooking, we ended up eating out a lot. And I started to take note of what we were eating. There is a Cambodian dish call "Lock Lack" that is pieces of pan fried beef over a bed of fresh tomatoes, onions and cucumbers served with rice and a pepper lime sauce. It's pretty simple ingredients but oh so delicious. So I started to make it at home. Slowly I have added to my repertoire looking everywhere for ideas and then making note in the grocery store what I can and cannot get. But it has only been since July this year that I've been able to cook every single meal every day for weeks on end. I now regularly buy New Zealand butter, German boxed milk, Malaysian tomatoes, Thai pepper sauce, boxed orange juice from Cyprus, Italian olive oil...and I've learned to season with just salt, black pepper, lemon, garlic, and olive oil. The food that I prepare now looks like this.

Since eating out in Cambodia is roughly the same cost as buying groceries and cooking at home, my primary motivation for wanting to cook and eat at home is health not finances. MSG is widely used here and food safety is poorly regulated. We have seen rats scurrying around in most of our favorite restaurants. Though I have only been violently sick twice since moving here, Stephen, as you know, has suffered through long illness. By cooking at home, I have more control of what goes into our food and our bodies. And my goal is now to build up our immune systems to be as strong as they can be.

HEAT AND HUMIDITY. i.e. Debilitating fatigue and constant perspiration. Stephen and I have been to several countries in Africa. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is very hot and humid. Though there are parts of South Africa that have absolutely lovely weather, Tugela Ferry was hot and dry. As I have survived those conditions, I really didn't think much about the climate of Southeast Asia before moving here. In reality Cambodia is actually worse than those places in Africa. Not because it has the highest one day temperature but because there is little variation from one month to the next. It's either hot and dry or hot and wet year round. And then in April and May just before the rainy season starts, is gets really hot. After the first year I was really fed up with being so uncomfortable all the time so I decided I was going to actively participate in and perhaps speed up my acclimation to the climate. As we began our second year in July 2012, I started turning off the air conditioning and tried to just suffer through the heat as long as I could. Our electricity bill went down, I sweat buckets, but at the end of August I could not tell a bit of improvement. So it was with no small degree of surprise when sometime mid-February of this year I noticed that I wasn't sweating! Since the start of the new year I had been spending 1-2 hours a day working out in the gym.

It was about an hour after one of these long workouts that I noticed how cool and comfortable I felt. Halleluia! I had once again stumbled onto a solution to a major challenge. For a few minutes of the day I could get relief from the relentless heat. Fast forward to July of this year. I'm sitting on my couch working on something when I suddenly realize, wow I just had a shiver. And the air conditioning isn't even ON! Holy cow! This is incredible. I never would have believed it a year ago. But there you go. It only took two years.

People make general statements like "it takes two years to adjust" but it's hard to have an idea of what that means before you actually go through the time and see for yourself. But these few examples illustrate what two years here has meant for me. This experience of moving to and adapting to an entirely different culture and climate has given me a sense of self-efficacy like no other. I feel stronger and healthier now than at any other time in my life. And I wouldn't trade that for the world.

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