This is not a Jenny Craig or Subway ad. Nor is this a weight loss ad expounding the benefits of living in Cambodia for weight reduction. The raised hands are a language win celebration, not a weight win celebration. Notice I’ve lost some hair too.
I’ve had numerous Cambodians and foreigners remark on my weight and how I’m looking good. For some foreigners this is an expression of thankfulness that I seem to be doing well in a hostile climate. For Cambodians, it’s more complicated and so I’ll save my remarks for below. All the more so because they can smell a kilo change up or down like a bloodhound.
What’s the reality? In the first year of living in Cambodia, I dropped nearly 12kg. Partially this was through riding a bike daily in what can only be described as a sauna on the coolest of days. But a fair bit of my weight loss that first year was through sickness, new diet, new place, new bugs. The heat also stifled my appetite. Not to mention those lovely power cuts. One night in a power cut I was standing above my daughter at 10pm fanning her to sleep and I could feel the sweat dripping off me as I just stood there.
So when people comment positively on my weight, in some ways I appreciate it. But there’s more to the story. Cambodia is a place where it is easy to both lose weight and gain it or constantly be in a state of flux, weight wise. For me I’ve made the most of this situation. My tennis background and many afternoons running around in the summer sun have prepared me in a way that I didn’t realise until I got here. Remarks on how I look good are welcomed, to be sure. But when these remarks are made with the assumption that my time in Cambodia must have been a breeze, that’s when I internally react. I haven’t just spent my whole time at the gym. The trick is how to share with others just how hard it has been.
I come from a very supportive organisation. Exercise is a priority, for relieving stress and preventing brain farts (doing something stupid) that come from being in a constantly stressful environment. Like troops working out in a compound while at war, exercise is a vital part of living safely cross culturally. Thus one of the reasons I exercise is as part of my mental health plan, to reduce the risk of doing something stupid from all the stress of living here. The reality is that even after journalling and exercise and trying to be smart, there is still an underlying stress that doesn’t get removed until we go out of country. So I exercise to make sure we leave Cambodia for good reasons, not brain explosions.
For the sake of honesty, there is a little bit of vanity that plays into my exercise routine as well. But this is a minor, rather than major driver.
That’s the reason for my exercise routine (mostly mental health). The result is that I get a lot of comments, particularly from my Khmer friends. They are often just trying to be encouraging. Remarks on weight for them is not a taboo subject. It’s more like chatting about the weather. Also, their weight scale is sometimes the opposite of us. Cambodia and other Asian countries often see weight gain as a good thing because it’s a sign of wealth. So I wonder when they see a missionary arrive and lose and lot of weight what they think about that. They certainly have no problems mentioning it. Weight is definitely not taboo (neither is age and how much you earn). So if I come here and lose weight, I wonder if they associate that with wealth or not. There is also a growing understanding of health and the importance of exercise, but this is certainly in its infancy.
So when I lose weight they comment. I anticipate gaining weight in Australia and so I’m prepping myself for the comments of how I have gained weight when I return to Cambodia; “Oh brother, your face is fatter than before.”
Hope this gives you glimpse of what it’s like to think about weight as a missionary in Cambodia.