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Let’s Go Flaneuring in Battambang, Cambodia

Today we are flaneuring through Battambang in Cambodia with Allison Smith. I like saying that name. Battambang. Battambang. I also love how Allison reflects on returning to the city and seeing it again, fresh.

This is Battambang.

It’s a small city in northwestern Cambodia where I lived for a year, though I moved away a few months ago. Like so many people around the world, I was lured to the big city by the promise of better job opportunities and restaurants open later than 8pm.

Now I live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, but I visit Battambang often, and this is the street I spend much of my time on: Street 1 1/2.

Shopfront homes line the road, narrow buildings where families live upstairs and have shops downstairs, opening out onto the street. There are cars parked along the street, signs of increasing disposable wealth in Cambodia. Young children recite the alphabet — gau, kau, go, ko — at lessons held in a home. Tour groups pass on mountain bikes, wearing helmets and sweating. Mobile food carts selling ice cream or noodles go by. An art gallery opens and closes at seemingly arbitrary times. Power outages strike without warning, bringing the whirring fans to a halt and, even more upsettingly, cutting people off from wi-fi access.

When it’s sunny, women drive by on motorbikes wearing long sleeves to protect their skin from getting darker, no matter how hot it is. Cats sunbathe on the tin roofs and geckos scurry along the walls. When it’s raining, the street floods and cockroaches scuttle inside, searching for higher ground. Miraculously, the torrential showers never seem to dislodge the power lines, which criss-cross the street in a pattern right at home in a modern abstract painting.

On Street 1 1/2, I run into everyone I know. The Australian NGO workers, the Cambodian artists, the French teachers and everyone else. Sometimes the absences are more noticeable than the presences; the foreign community in Battambang is transient, with people leaving all the time.

When I last visited, I ran into a friend who had just returned from five weeks in Australia. He said Cambodia was different than when he left. I looked at the street we were on and felt the same about Battambang.

It’s cliché to personify cities, but it’s also understandable, given the complex and fragile relationships we have with them. Returning to a city after time away is like seeing a friend after a long separation: they’re familiar but different, and even the small changes are disorienting. A friend’s new hair colour means updating your mental image of what they look like; a favourite restaurant closing in a city means finding a new place to gather with friends on a Tuesday night.

When I visited, I could see all the small changes to the city. The coffee shop at the corner didn’t rent bikes anymore, though the staff let me borrow theirs. There were few tourists, and the tables outside the restaurant at the end of the street were empty. Hotels were being constructed and a new arts house was hosting a party that weekend.

This street was drier than the same time the previous year, when the flooding was so severe the highway from Battambang to Phnom Penh was impassable and the river running through Battambang nearly overflowed. In contrast, there’s been too little rain this “rainy” season. The drought will drive many rice farmers to Thailand to make ends meet, leaving their families behind in Cambodia.

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But though some things had changed, much was still the same. There was a power outage Sunday morning, geckos still ran past my feet, and motorbikes whizzed past, the women wearing long sleeves.

The changes were cosmetic, like a haircut. Battambang was still the same and still familiar, like an old friend.


Allison Jane Smith is a writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon and has had her work featured for ONE, Matador and the Ampersand Review, among others. 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.

What I Learned: How Pregnancy Brought Us Together

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (this is the last scheduled post, though is appears some emails have not come through. If you tried to contact me and didn’t hear back, please try again).

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Whitney Conard, writing about pregnancy in Cambodia. As a fellow expat who has been pregnant, scared about being pregnant, and given birth in a foreign country, I can relate to so much about this essay.

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A year ago this month, I did something I swore I’d never do in Cambodia: I got pregnant. And now I can’t imagine a better ending to the story of our three years here.

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In 2011, my husband and I moved to Cambodia to work with a non-government organization. We both agreed that Cambodia seemed like a good choice for long-term work and starting a family. My husband eventually signed contracts for three years.

But when we arrived in our new hometown of Poipet, a dusty, crowded, sprawling border town on the edge of Cambodia, I quickly decided having children here was the last thing I wanted.

Staying home with a baby – the only choice since there weren’t any viable childcare options – sounded isolating. There were no other young expat couples having babies. And I couldn’t imagine giving up my work as a nurse to stay home with a baby. I was afraid I’d be shut away from a life I found rewarding.

Every day, someone asked me when I was having a baby. I laughingly replied, “Next year’; always, next year. And people began to ask me, are you ever going to have children? Are you on birth control? Is something wrong?

I found it difficult to explain to them I was afraid to have a child here. I feared what it meant for my identity. I thought if the child got sick, I wouldn’t be able to give him the care he needed. The closest international-standard hospital was two hours away.

However, living here changed me. Slowly but surely, the culture broke down my resistance. God showed me that my hesitations to have a child here were based on fear. My husband and I realized becoming parents would give us better insight into Cambodian culture and help us understand the people around us. I knew it would be difficult, but we thought, why not give it a try? And less than two months after that, I was pregnant.

Pregnancy changed everything about how Cambodians related to me. They no longer saw me as a white stranger who wore different clothes and had a funny accent. They saw me as a fellow woman, who had a life growing inside of her, who was experiencing the same morning sickness, the aching back, and the fatigue they all felt as they bore children.

My pregnancy gave me a new way to connect with Cambodian women. Old Cambodian women would stop me on the street and ask me how many months along I was. They placed their hands lovingly on my stomach, eyes shining with memories of their own pregnancies. They too had experienced the pain and terror of the birth, and the unspeakably beautiful joy of holding their children in their arms.

Several of my neighbors and friends were also pregnant at the same time, and it gave us something new to talk about. I learned new Khmer words for nausea, babies, and pregnancy. It was fascinating to see how differently we dealt with the changes our bodies and emotions went through.

One month, I taught a newborn care class with a friend and a few of her neighbors. We talked about traditional Cambodian postnatal practices, like lying on a bed over a fire to heal the body after birth (called ‘ang pleung’ or ‘roasting’) and drinking rice wine. I encouraged them to find healthy ways of doing traditions that were meaningful to them.

In turn, they gave me tips on how to stay healthy – what foods to eat and what to avoid. They scolded me when they saw me carrying a package of water bottles, saying it was too heavy, despite the fact I was barely four months pregnant. They coddled me and made sure I rested – a new experience for this type-A overachiever.

My Khmer friends started wearing baggy floral shirts long before they started showing, while I continued wearing my regular t-shirts and stretchy pants into my third trimester. They reproached me for wearing “tight clothes”, saying it was bad for the baby. The other pregnant women watched me walking briskly up and down our dirt road every evening. They were shocked when I told them it was ok to exercise, even good.

After we gave birth in February 2014, our new son created even more opportunities for relationships with our neighbors. We compare our baby’s sizes, and they laugh at how bald my blue-eyed baby is. Our “aunties” watch the baby and fuss over him like he’s one of their own grandchildren.

I still feel like an outsider much of the time. Yet having a baby here has broken down barriers between Cambodians and myself. We learned from each other, as we became pregnant, then new mothers.

The love for our children bound us together in ways that went beyond culture. Maybe they expressed it in different ways, with traditions I don’t understand. But I know these traditions were done out of a love for their children and a desire for restored harmony with their own bodies and their community.

It made me realize how much I share in common with the women here, despite our differences – a valuable lesson I’m thankful for.

profile photo 2Whitney Conard is a tea-drinking, extroverted book nerd and travel junkie who loves Jesus. She hails from Kansas City, USA and lives in Poipet, Cambodia with her husband and son. You can find her blogging about faith, family, and life abroad at http://www.journey-mercies.com.

What I Learned: Friendships with Cambodians Come with Asterisks

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

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.

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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.

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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.

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