Getting to know you… cultural orientation

Phew, well, today was another full on romp through orientation at CWF.  It was good though, but so much to take in.  The day began with a corridor rendezvous at 7.25 between me and my two CWF compatriots.  Mutually spooked by our efforts at walking in to the CWF premises yesterday, we opted to go in a little convoy together today.  I managed to do that thing of waking up really early and faffing around so I ended up nearly missing the crocodile out!  Eek.

Two things were noticeable.  Firstly, one of our number, a Brit who has been living out in Hong Kong for some years, took the lead and was super-confident striding out.  Me and the super tall Canadian with the girlfriend who has yet to be seen –  exchanged glances of awed admiration.  He created a useful slip stream behind him, in which we trotted gratefully, me in the middle, the Canadian as tail marker bringing up the rear.  The second thing that happened though, was that inexplicably there was nothing like the intensity of traffic yesterday, it was normally chaotic, with potential for moving through the traffic if you shut your eyes and kept your nerve. Yesterday you literally had to push through stationary motorbikes, relying on them to sort of jump themselves to one side to allow you to pass.  Today it was more a question of just holding your nerve.  Result.  I felt loads more confident.  Also, I do take reassurance from being around other volunteers.  I’m generally pretty independent, but negotiating the traffic is not for the faint hearted, and I like to think that were I to be crushed beneath a tuk tuk, or somersaulted off the bonnet of a four by four into the path of a motorbike laden with a refrigerator and four passengers, at least there would be a witness to my demise to let CWF know I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my teaching commitments for the forthcoming semester.

We arrived to the CWF premises and found we were among the early arrivals.  We had coffee and tried to hear ourselves above the incredibly loud industrial drilling that was going on directly into the outside wall of where we were standing.  I was exceedingly relieved that we migrated upstairs for our first Khmer language lesson of the course.  I expected it to be quieter up there.  Not so, this tall, thin building with its hard stone walls seemed to act as a giant sound box, the higher we ascended the more deafening the din.   Painfully so.   Adding to the assault on the senses, was the fact that I am convinced the stairs in the building all have slightly different tread depths, and they are also very steep.  Either that, or I am developing an inner ear infection which gives me shocking balance and spatial awareness right now!

So, our teacher for the next hour was sporting a rather nice CWF pale blue shirt.  I wish we got them, they looked much smarter than anything I have and would save so much decision making and ‘what to wear’ miscellaneous angst.  I felt really sorry for the poor Cambodian guy trying to coach a rabble of confused westerners some Khmer basics.  It was made much worse by the overall sensation of being caught in the middle of a two speakers blasting out construction sounds, plus he was softly spoken, and there were a fair few sub-conversations going on.  To which one of our number took exception, and expressed as much quite forcefully.   She was right in a way, but I did wonder if her interjection was undermining to the teacher and may have been interpreted as a bit of a telling off by the rest of the group. Well I cringed.

Learning a language when you can’t hear the sounds being modelled, and the transcript onto the white board is also a little unfamiliar in terms of reference was not the ideal learning environment.  However, I tell myself that it is good to struggle with simple things in this way because our students may feel similar disorientation and confusion.  It will remind us to take things very slowly.  Also, however stressful and disruptive this noise is to us, it is infinitely preferable to experiencing it in our first days of teaching when we are trying to create a favourable and competent first impression.  It was exhausting though, and frustrating too.  However, some hilarity as we stumbled through our first steps.  We basically covered:

Hello – Suez Day or

Formal hello – Jim reap sewer

How are you?  Sok sabay te (the ‘te’ at the end is a sort of soft ‘t’ sound a hybrid between tea/day)

I’m fine knhom sok sabay te

and you?  cho nak vinh

I’m good!  Knhom soksabayte

You cannot possibly comprehend how bad we were at this, how hard it was to grasp, and how much we stumbled over what no doubt looks deceptively simple seen written down. It didn’t help that we kept throwing in supplementary questions which sort of shifted the trajectory of the class (is the ‘he’ universal for men and women?   How do you greet someone if you don’t know how old they are? (lean towards polite side) and what if there is a crowd of people?)  Nevertheless, our teacher gamely pressed on, against the rising din of the drill and the raising temperature of the room.  I don’t think it would be accurate to say we progressed as such, but we did move on to:

My name is … knhom ch-um-oh

What is your name?  Tar nak chmore r-way

Then a massive and confusing detour around I. You.  He. My.  You.  which I could make no sense of at all.  It was an attempt to respond to a question from the group, but led to a level of complexity we couldn’t unravel.  Our teacher gamey did a recap of what was on the board and then we moved on again to:

Where are you from? niak moo pi nah (though lonely planet says niak moo prateh  noa?

I am from Knnyom mao pii

Some of the group engaged, moving into experimentation even.  Some just drew back, it was impossible to hear.  One of the group looks like a wax work. She does not speak, or smile or appear to be present.  I’ve tried to talk to her and she is not unfriendly, but just monosyllabic.  Is she shy?  Is she sick or jet-lagged?  I don’t know.  Hard to imagine her teaching tough.  Others are really up for it, wrapping their tongues round the unfamiliar sounds and in agonising slow replay practising to get it right.  Me?  I have no idea.  I need to practice in the privacy of my own room I think, and with reference to Lonely Planet language section.  Our teacher really worked hard, writing out English language versions of the words, but our pronounciation didn’t tally wtih his, I suppose there isn’t a direct equivalent.  It was a struggle.

Thank you – or koon – can be made thank you big big (I think as a sort of joke, but not sure, but adding tom tom, so it becomes or koon tom tom.

Please – som

Excuse me?  som ah pey to(s)

Sorry som tos

The ‘som tos’ may be useful.  I do not subscribe to the school of ‘never explain, never apologise’ and also, should conform to the British stereotype by apologising as much as possible at every possible opportunity, when I’m not smiling and doing exaggerated Suez Day type greetings.


The lesson lasted an hour.  We did make some progress, but it wasn’t an ideal situation. We were all relieved to break for breakfast I think.  Breakfast, seemed to be a lavish affair, with a wide range of sweet Cambodian delicacies, rice muffin things, sticky black rice and sticky rice cake with beans.  Some were delicious but didn’t feel a healthy start for the day, though it was a colourful one. There was also fruit and we could make tea or coffee.  I asked our host how made the cakes.  She said they are really cheap to buy from the Russian market.  You can buy more than you can eat for a fraction of a dollar.


After breakfast, we had a 9.15 start for a talk by the Director of CWF.   We entered the classroom to find a video playing promoting Cambodia as a tourist destination.  It was quite fun to see (apart from the shots of elephant riding) and I sort of got a mini recap of many of the things I’ve just experienced with Intrepid.

He was a good speaker, and has spent some time in the UK so had good language skills and also a sense of the enormity of culture shock.  He described being cold, and trying to make sense of a launderette.  It was coin operated and he’d never used coins, he was fearful of breaking it, and the concept of a washing machine and then transferring to a drier was all very alien. It was a helpful analogy.  He was really great, enthusiastic and friendly.  He too had to compete against the ridiculous background noise, and said he’d tried to get contractors to wait but they wouldn’t/ couldn’t.  He gave a lot of background to the project, how it links to the NGOs Volunteer in Cambodia and the CRDA.  It is ten years old, and he was a founder member.  He started it with some people he was at university with, I think two of them had studied management adn two rural development.   I found him persuasive in terms of his vision, of how the school is able to raise funds that go towards community projects in a sustainable way.  It keeps control within the communities they try and support by not making it conditional on a particular grant application say, which might require compliance with some particular initiative.  Having said that, they have shifted a bit from initially helping rural communities with income generation, towards educational programmes linked to provision of clean water for drinking, basic hygiene and plumbing for toilets.  There was loads of good stuff, and I genuinely felt enthused about being part of this initiative.

I was also very taken with the clarity with which he explained that in Cambodian culture, if someone says ‘teacher you are fat’ (which happened to me often in Vietnam) it really isn’t an insult.  That much I knew already, but I’d taken it as a factual observation albeit not one intended to be rude.   There is more. What I did not know, and now choose to believe, is that it may actually be a compliment.  To be fat is to be healthy and prosperous.  Well, that is a pleasing change in perspective.  Get me and my positive reframing!

So the director went through organisational charts, mission statements, lots of cheery photos.  It sounds dull, but really it was a good presentation.  I have a much clearer understanding of the organisation, and some things were really reassuring.  Like, they want to use volunteers within their skill set, hence the conversational English.  Most/ many students have learned grammar and reading and writing from Khmer teachers, what they lack is inter-cultural exchange and speaking and listening. This we can help with.  Just by being willing to engage.  I also liked the attention to detail.  On the topic of volunteers, there appeared a photo of all of us!  A team shot taken yesterday.  He also emphasised the difference in the approach of CWF (small groups, circle formation, interactive style, relevant curriculum) to more conventional teaching – which was very like that I experienced in Vietnam.    We were also told that after parents, teachers are the most respected people, so we need to be role models and behave accordingly of course, but should find some status within the role too.  Which is interesting in the context of the turbulent history of this poor ravaged country.  How things turn full circle?

Incidentally, we learned Kratie never happened because it was not an economically sustainable model.   There were not enough students who could afford to pay for lessons, without that basis the initiative would draw on CWF reserves rather than generate income for the CRDT.  HOwever, the project would potentially like to extend its reach, maybe to Thailand or Vietnam, if it did so, money paid in that country would go to beneficiaries within that country. They certainly have bold ambitions.

It might have been after this, or maybe the next session, when we were asked to write down a little intro about ourselves that could accompany our pictures on the teachers notice board.  I ended up agonising over what to say, and then others laughed at me for writing so much…. spot a pattern anyone?  I didn’t know what to write, but put in stuff about always wanting to come to Cambodia because of beauty of country and friendliness of people, and then a bit about looking forward to getting to know students and locals to share experiences, and then about running (badly ) and being vegetarian (I’ve learned from Vietnam, tell students this early, saves a lot of meal time embarrassment later on).  I handed it over sheepishly, and told them to edit back if they wished. The administrative staff gigged as they perused it.  We also had to sign a sort of universal disclaimer, that I have decided is surely just standard practise and does not at all mean that they will do nothing to assist me if I end up abducted or injured.

To be fair, all the presenters emphasised again and again how they ‘did not want us to keep in our hearts‘ any concerns, we can phone any time, day or night.  I think they mean it, they take their responsibilities very seriously.   There were funny photos used to illustrate the presentation on aspects around keeping safe.  It can flood, so be careful of infections for example, was illustrated by a photo of the area around the monument at riverside flooded, together wtih a graphic shot of a nasty foot based fungal infection.  Nice.  Sensible reminders though,  also watch out for bag snatchers in tuk tuks – not only westerners are targeted locals are too.  More talk about safety at volunteer house – people have broken in there before.  I’m so glad I’m not living there.  Image of hands coming through open windows feeling on window sills for carelessly placed possessions was not a comforting one!

We had a great session on Khmer culture, from the financial director of CWF.  She is a really good speaker and covered so much of really useful stuff.  The different levels of greeting wtih the ‘sampean’ the closed palm little bows.  there are five levels apparently, how high your hands go up your face being an indicator of how much respect.  She did say at the end that in modern Cambodia in some contexts ‘nobody cares’ but I got the impression that a little deference would be appreciated by older people we might meet in the countryside.  She went through traditional rural dress.  I saw this at hte homestay.  Basically the men have a thin ‘towel’ wrapped round their waist and that’s it.  The women have a sort of skirt they step into which is then folded across their front.  The towel/scarvey thing, can also serve to protect a woman’s modesty when washing outside, be rolled into a pad that goes on the head so she can carry something on her head if required, and/or used as a protection from teh sun when going to market.  Our ambassador effortless demonstrated all these variations with a few neat folds of fabric.  It looked easy, but I know I’d never be able to recreate these effects myself.  She explained that small children often are naked in the rural areas, which again I’ve noted.  She was basicaly preparing us for our trip out to Kratie I think, but it also helped me make sense of what I’ve already seen.

She then showed photos of wedding outfits. Bride and groom often where colourful matching outfits and will have many over the three days of the tradiitonal celerations (though now just 1 1/2 days is usual).  She explained that most people will simply hire what they need to wear, and hence a multitude of outfits is no problem.  A huge wedding party at the end of the more intimate ceremonies, might be up to 1000 people!  It is now wedding season apparently, we may be invited to some. She went through what to wear (men wear business suit, women party frock western style – but not black, or hire something.  She said ask them, they will help).  A cash gift of between 20 – 50 US dollars would be usual.  This could get expensive. If you don’t go, to avoid causing offence you should still send the cash gift.  I am genuinely worried about this, I’d love to go to maybe one or two weddings, but I don’t want to be forking out for random people who issued invitations I’ve declined as I really don’t have a budget for that.  I need to get over myself though, the wedding in Vietnam was just great, and quite an experience.  I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

We were told about traditional food – amok is the main one that keeps cropping up, we had it at the volunteers house for lunch, I had the tofu one and it was absolutely delicious. It was described as curry, but not at all like that to my taste buds.  An almost floral and light flavour, I could have eaten loads.   Boiled eggs on a stick (still in their shells) were a new one on me, and the skewer of half a dozen bananas which is very cheap apparently, would seem to me overkill as breakfast food. Still, good to know the options.

She also went through body language, difficulties young female students may have making eye-contact with male teachers; don’t pair monks with women in a class.   It was explained that pointing was VERY rude (pointing at things is OK, but pointing at people is really not).  Also, crossing your fingers (as we do for good luck in many Western countries) is extremely inappropriate.  This was told to me in Vietnam, and I thought it was because it simulated sex, but no.  Rather obliquely this was explained, so opaque was the explanation that a fellow student clarified… they consider that the gap between crossed fingers looks like a woman’s lady bits basically. Well, who knew?  I suppose that’s sort of true, but not obvious until pointed out.  Bet you check now… there you go, see what I mean?  Good to know, and easy enough to remember I hope!

lunch was scrummy, but again, the volunteer house is not somewhere to linger.   I came ‘home’ alongside the Russian market.  There were loads of marquees set out for weddings (one may have been a funeral, I’m not sure), it is definitely wedding season here!  These are just a couple, but there may have been a dozen or so easily, just along this one stretch of road.  I tried to snap a shot so you can see how they are quite literally erected in the midst of traffic, which then just weaves around them.  It is amazing to behold.  I actually saw motorbikes just drive straight through the middle of one tent that had been erected but not yet completely laid out!

I was on a mission to get toilet paper, but failed.  I guess local people don’t use it, favouring the squirty hose things that are in every loo everywhere, but I’m not sure what to do with.  Maybe I’ll experiment on my last day.  If you don’t use toilet paper, the idea must be pretty gross to be fair, especially as if you can’t flush it down the loo (as is often the case here) you end up having it sitting in a bin ‘maturing’ until emptied.  Nice.  I tried at one shop, that I was taken with.  It was amid a line of shops mostly selling motorbike parts as far as I can tell, but this one stood out, partly because there were two roosters under wire in the forecourt (possibly for fighting I wondered), and partly because it seemed to sell odds and ends like shampoo, phone top ups.  The person I spoke to had no idea what i was talking about, and offered up tissues in a box.  Eventually he understood, and shouted loudly through to the back ‘any toilet paper here’ in Khmer, nope ‘we do not have‘.  Oh well.  Defeated, back to my apartment to chill for a bit.

I headed out in good time to get back for 2.00 but, again, I somehow hit insane traffic levels, so that was a bit scary.  I just don’t know how I got there without losing a limb.  The afternoon was another session on child safety, policies in general (we had to sign various stuff, and actually it was here we did our little mini bios).  The school administrator (I think that’s who it was) went through basics of organisation.  We are a large group of volunteers apparently, so will only have two classes each (plus back up classes), some may have only one!  They have not recruited as many students as they’d hoped. I don’t know how I feel about this.  I’m cool about having more time to do stuff outside teaching, on the other hand, the whole point of being here is to be useful.  I just want my classes not to be a split shift.  We have the same students throughout, they come in for 90 minutes a day monday – friday.  We ought to build a relationship with them all in that time.  As we were shown course materials and our very own pencil cases made of folded bamboo, I began to feel enthused and excited.  I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.  The organisation is really good, and I’m hoping the course materials will be sufficiently well done that I won’t have to spend hours and hours in preparation.

The session finished rather suddenly, and it was only 3.30.  I ended up going off with another volunteer, first to check the gym – it is near, and reasonable value, but I fear not air-conditioned.  Oh gawd, this marathon malarkey is going to be so, so hard.  I will join anyway, because of the convenience factor, and there is a discount so with that, and a family deal you can get if two of you join together, it will only be $110 for 3 months.  I think just join and then if a better training option comes up, so be it.  We then went to find another place for coffee/ mango smoothie.  We went to a lovely place opposite the cellphone shop and near to the market.  One of the long-standing volunteers who we’ve not properly met yet was already there, we acknowledged one another but didn’t join him.  He looked like he was enjoying his own space.  We then spotted other volunteers, and one came to join us.  A nurse from Cairns, who is currently living in the house, but rather regretting his choice.  He was good company, we shared stories and apprehension about teaching.  Upshot was he came back with me to look at my flat, which was handy, as we also bumped into my tall neighbour who was with his invisible partner who apparently does exist and was not after all being held against her will.  Plus, he could view both our flats to get a feel for the block.  He then went off with the volunteer with whom I’d originally headed out to view her block.  She has a stunning, brand new apartment for just $400 per month – though it is a bit further out, and therefore requires tuk tuks from time to time.  Does look lovely though.  I don’t know what the practicalities are of extricating himself from the volunteer house, but I couldn’t stay there, cheap as it is, and handy too with food and position in relation to the CWF premises, I need my own space, and a clean bathroom.

So there we are, another day down. It’s going quickly, but it’s going well.  Don’t worry too much, I’m sure these entries will tail off in due course, but writing it all down is helping me to process and reflect on it all.  I hope too, if I have days when there is a bit of a wobble, it will help put them in context.

Summary, all good.


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