So, this is the blog that Bev asked for. How I’m getting on with people and how they are finding me. It’s a tricky blog to write as it hard to generalise a population or really know for sure what people think of me, but here are a few musings about my experiences so far.
For starters, because I walk everywhere (because I cannot ride a bike – yet!), I encounter a lot of people. Most of whom wonder why on earth anyone in their right mind would be wandering around in this heat, especially a barrang (foreigner) who is ‘rich’ and could afford to take a tuk tuk anywhere she wanted to go, which of course I cannot. So generally, as I’m strolling round the streets I get stared at quite a bit. Faces are often blank and I imagine it would be easy to mistake Cambodians for being grumpy or unfriendly but that is certainly not my experience. I’ve found as soon as you smile at anyone here, their face breaks open into the warmest smile you’ve ever seen and most will graciously answer my badly pronounced Khmer. Alongside this are children who giggle and holler “HELLO” at every opportunity, even from a moving moto.
Secondly its strange to be in a minority, but one that everyone is trying to look like. It’s difficult to find skin care products here for women that do not contain ‘whitening’. I can’t imagine what is in a product that would whiten your skin but I’m not keen to find out. I think the skin colour here is beautiful and it’s sad that people are trying to lighten their skin tone. Most people while out and about are fully covered to protect against suntans, while I on the other hand am rocking the t-shirt and sandal tan lines, and not tanned, am enjoying a slightly healthier looking skin tone than I usually have. I imagine this has more to do with showing you do not have a manual outside job than actually wanting to be European. I’m told that is why men here grow their fingernails long (but I don’t know that for fact). And while I’m clearly not a fashion trend setter, the other day at the market a friend and I started looking through a clothes stall, within seconds the stall was crowded (if barrangs are looking, it must be good). So, we helped with business that morning.
The expats I’ve met here are amazing – here for all the right reasons and committed to doing their bit, this may be different in bigger or more touristy towns. The expats here are generous with their time and knowledge, offering tips and tricks so you don’t have to completely fumble your way through all new tasks from scratch.
There are some interesting cultural differences. For example, Cambodians tend to be quite tactile and have a different sense of personal space than I’m used to. Most men and women walk round holding hands cuddling or leaning on friends of the same gender, but it’s very uncommon to see members of the opposite sex be tactile in public. Shame or embarrassment here is different too. Take my dreadful excuse at karaoke Friday night. Here there is no shame in being a bad singer, people love that you’ve giving things are try and having fun. There is a lot of laughter about things but this seems to be more in the spirit of ‘with you’ rather than ‘at you’, although it doesn’t always feel like that (ie our tandem bike!).
All in all, I would have to say I love it and I feel very welcome here. I find people warm and friendly and a smile is the universal language for hello. People are generous with the little they have and seem generally grateful we are here in their country. I believe we could do with a little more of this generosity of spirit in other parts of the world.