Today’s What I Learned post comes from Allison Jane Smith, writing about the early struggles and joys in developing cross-cultural relationships with Cambodians.
I’ve lived in Cambodia for over eight months, in a small city called Battambang. It feels even smaller than it is when you’re limited to interacting with other expats and the Cambodians who speak English.
That’s one of the appealing things about Battambang; its small size makes it easy to get to know everyone else.
Yet that doesn’t mean it’s easy to establish a diverse group of friends that includes Cambodians.
About a month ago I had a housewarming party in my new apartment, which overlooks a soccer pitch. We opened beers, ordered pizza and watched the game.
There were people from around the world: Australia, England, France, New Zealand, Ecuador, America, and yes, Cambodia.
The foreigners came and stayed till eleven, twelve, two. The Cambodians stayed until nine or ten. One had promised his uncle he would be home by nine, another had to get up early for university the next day, and another didn’t want to be locked out of the pagoda where he lives.
They were gone before many of the foreigners, blessed with the carefree schedules that accompany lives free of responsibilities, had even arrived.
It’s hard to even get us at a party together, much less to navigate the language and cultural barriers that exist when we’re in the same room.
Being a single, twenty-something Canadian woman means my life is drastically different from the lives of Cambodians, and these differences get in the way of genuine friendships, the kind that come easily with Australians or Americans.
Over time, I’ve learned friendships with Cambodians come with asterisks.
I’ve got friends* where:
*we only interact during the day, usually at their place of work, because they are women. Women my age are usually married and have families, but regardless of marital status are expected to be home by 8pm.
*I don’t feel I can share the problems in my life, as they are dealing with serious issues. A while ago, a friend was considering taking on a second job that pays 75 cents an hour so he could find another $30 to pay a bill; another friend is now responsible for his younger siblings, essentially becoming a father; another cares for her children while her husband is away working for three weeks every month.
*I have to be careful about how friendly I am and what I say, so as not to give men the impression I am interested when I am not. (To be fair to Cambodians, this can be an issue with men regardless of nationality.)
*certain subjects are off-topic because the cultural gap is so wide. We are not necessarily coming from the same perspective on core political concepts, like democracy, nor on social issues like prostitution or gender equality.
*we can only engage on a superficial level because their English isn’t great and neither is my Khmer. However, a Cambodian friend recently commented I know many of the bad words, so I do know how to insult people.
Yet while friendships with Cambodians are different from friendships with other foreigners, and can have limitations, they are still deeply gratifying.
Cambodian friends have taken me to their home villages, where I’ve met their families and high school friends. They’ve explained political and social undercurrents I didn’t understand. When I was in a moto accident last year, Cambodian friends delivered meals and first aid supplies.
Last week, I grabbed a coffee at my regular cafe before leaving Battambang for a week. Some Cambodian friends were there. They complimented my new clothes, asked about my plans for the week, and teased my poor Khmer.
Before I left, a suitcase in one hand and coffee in the other, a friend gave me a hug. Our conversations are inevitably exercises in jumbled miscommunication, but I always enjoy them. “I will miss you,” she said.
“I’ll miss you too,” I said, and it was true.
Though my friendships with Cambodians are accompanied by asterisks, my life would be emptier without them.
Allison Jane Smith is a Canadian writer and communications professional. She is the Editor-in-Chief of whydev.org and a contributor to Beacon. Her work has been published in Killing the Buddha, Matador, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia, where she drinks a lot of coconut water and even more iced coffee. For more Allison, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.