This is not the first time I’ve got this hand hold wrong. I think I have photographic evidence another time as well. Do you know what it stands for? Its not the standard V shape that you make with your 2nd and 3rd finger. Its not a symbol for money like I originally thought it was (and like my hand hold assumes). It is, as far as I know, a symbol for love: a heart. Contextually, it makes sense: a wedding.
I don’t think I realised how little culture I knew til I was back in a culture I knew well. Granted, I knew that it would take years to learn some culture and I’d still be only scratching the surface. But you don’t realise the storehouse of culture that we imbibe from our home culture. Decades of exposure, compared to a shallow immersion in Khmer culture.
In my home country I understand clothing trends: jean styles moving from bell-bottoms to bleached to straight to tight to so-ripped-there-is-barely-any-jean-material-left. I’m not even a fashion expert, and I know that basic transition. I would have no idea of the current clothing trends in Cambodia or where they have been or where they are going in Cambodia. I feel the lack of culture even more in relation to movies and songs. Being back in Australia and being able to reference lines from movies we share in common like “I’ll be back” or “How’s the serenity” without a strange look of “What did you just say?” Or being able to start a line and not need to finish it, like, “From little things ….”
Does this make me feel despondent, the shallow nature of my cultural understanding in Cambodia? Nah. Does that mean I just feel like giving up? Nah. Two things. I appreciate more my Australian culture and the depth that I have there. And I look forward to days, not when I can know all the cultural references made in a conversation down to the last proverb, but when I can share some of them with my Cambodian friends. The beauty of sharing a joke together. It seems to me that culture is a form of sharing.
One of the things that I am looking forward to about being back in Australia is a bit of anonymity. Not that I’m going to hide away in my room the whole time (those who know this slightly-less-raging-extrovert-than-before will know this not to be the case). Nor does this relate to sharing about our time here in Cambodia with our partner churches. I’m looking forward to blending in a bit more.
Life in Cambodia means always being on display. Now, in some sense this is true anywhere. But this is a different sort of being on display. For starters, in Cambodia I often get thumbs up for riding my bike. In Australia, there is no thumbs up for riding. In fact in Sydney, quite the opposite.
Or there are the obligatory pictures of kids that are wanted just because of the colour of their skin, eyes and hair. When my family goes out we are on display. Sometimes I wish we weren’t.
Part of the recognition we receive is an encouragement. Locals give me a thumbs up for riding as a way of approval. But often the looks are either of confusion or curiosity; “Why is this westerner riding his bicycle when he has money for a car?”
Sometimes we are on display for the mistakes we make in public because we don’t know what to do in many scenarios here in Cambodia. Part of our way of combating this on-displayness has been to laugh at ourselves, particularly in our mistakes. Sam and I have coined a phrase for ourselves when we make foreigner mistakes. We mutter “stupid foreigner” under our breath to relieve some of the tension in making a mistake and standing out. Whether we have mispronounced yet another local word, or eaten the food at a restaurant the wrong way, or watched as a local just cannot get their message through to us, we are often the stupid foreigner, who has much to learn in this place. We either need to laugh or cry, so we choose to laugh.
So I am looking forward to walking or riding down the street and not being the centre of attention. I’m looking forward to having more of an idea of what to do in different situations in Australia (a culture that we know better than Cambodia, though this may not always be the case). In short, we’re craving some anonymity.
The Wat near our house. It encapsulates the feeling of this post, BELOW.
‘First impressions’ or ‘Settling in’. I’ve had these two taglines rummaging around in my brain, peering at me from my notes when I make observations about myself or about Cambodia. Since before we arrived in Cambodia I’ve been hoping to do a series that gives you a sense of how it’s been for us in these early days. I kept coming back to these two phrases, again and again.
The more that I observed and reflected, the more these two phrases separated in my thinking. Early on they’d almost been synonymous. But as we’ve ‘settled in’ (so far) over these last three months they’ve taken on different meanings. This separation helps to explain where I’m currently at.
I wanted to give you a taste of what Cambodia is like for us, through our new eyes. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet. The more I reflect on our life here, the more I am able to talk about what we were experiencing. Yet at the same time I also feel less able to speak confidently about Cambodia. Not because I don’t like it here, but more because I want to give time to my observations and reflect some more before I make some of them public.1 The Wat (think temple, i.e., Angkor Wat; pictured on the flag above) near our house provides an apt illustration. We’re used to the Wat, we’re settled. However, I don’t feel I could really say much that is helpful about it, just yet. I hope to soon.
So… I feel I’m able to speak about our experience and how we’re going–settling in–in a way that has clarity and is hopefully helpful. Thus, I lean closer to the term ‘settling in’. ‘First impressions’ seems to require more local knowledge than I have yet to do it well; context sensitive.
So this first series will be about our settling in. There will be glimpses of Cambodia in this series, but mostly it will be about our experience in a new culture. In that sense, the learning will be more general than specific to Cambodia. Although I’m sure it’ll have a Cambodian flavour. So in this series you’ll hopefully get a sense of what it’s been like for us so far – some of the joys and challenges as we’ve settled in to Cambodia.
The proverb that has been running around in my head is ‘In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.’ (Prov 18:17) Not that I feel I’ll be cross examined for what I say by others. This is more just a cross examining from my later ‘me’ (which is bound to happen anyway). ↩