By DCJ Wardle, May 8 2016 09:05AM
From 2000 to 2003 I worked in Cambodia for an NGO, initially on a flood response project in Khampong Cham, and then for a village water supply project in the north of the country. Towards the end of that period I made one of my regular trips by pick-up down the dusty, unkempt laterite road from Preah Vihear to Khampong Thom, and then on to Phnom Penh.
That weekend, the group of expats I was spending the evening with had met up at a restaurant, and then moved on to a couple more bars as the night wore on. At the pool table a young guy on his travels was arrogantly holding court, giving a definitive explanation of what ‘Cambodia’ was all about for the benefit of those who were in earshot. The person next to me remarked, and I’m very much paraphrasing here, ‘that enthusiastic young gentlemen has barely been here a month and considers himself to have grasped a full understand of the people and their culture’. Or, as I say, words to that effect.
The implication of course was that we were old hands travelling through this mysterious land, and the naive,overly confident guy with the pool cue and can of Angkor beer didn’t really have a clue what this part of the world was all about. Unbeknownto the old, mildly sozzled hand next to me, he was preaching to the wrong choir. For sometime I’d lost any confidence in my ability to claim a deep or even a shallow understanding of where I was. Indeed I’d noticed a tendency for my convictions on cultural insight to ebb and flow from misguided semi-confidence to total bemusement at a moment’s notice. In 2009, after working for a few years in other parts of the continent, as well as a few jobs in Africa, I returned to SE Asia. Even now, despite a further six years,I don’t think my confidence in cultural enlightenment has changed very much.
After a time, there is a belief amongst expats that we understand. It’s easy to forget that we are always on the periphery, however hard we think we’ve tried to immerse. We know that ‘loss of face’ is a thing. We know this means that raising voices and showing anger is not considered appropriate, unless done in a deliberate way to demonstrate strength. We know that laughter can often be more about embarrassment or uncertainty rather than hilarity. We know that a crisis can be communicated as an understated piece of trivia, with the true problem almost undetectable. Meanwhile a trivial incident can become the topic for hours of intense controversial discussion. However, despite applying these and other cultural sweeping statementsand generalisation to a complex society of nationalities and ethnicity, I’m still largely aware of my overall ignorance in ‘understanding’.
Fortunately, unlike those playing pool thirteen years earlier, I’m nolonger overly concerned about my grasp on cultural enlightenment. It is the delight of the surprises that each new day brings, playing to my ignorance that delivers the greatest pleasure, and reminds me of my privilege to be here at all. I have come to terms, almost, in managing my expectations of the degree to which I can fully understand what’s going on. I choose to enjoy, and have tried to abandon the need to compartmentalise, categorise and label, accepting unanswered day to day questionsas unanswered. Where is the evident extreme joy of eating papaya salad that has more intensely-hot chili than actual papaya? Why is a long journey a series of short hops to the next village, evidently as famousas the previous village for selling fruit or barbequed meats, rather than a concerted effort to get from A to B? Why must Karaoke be the same three songs, out of tune, and why must it be on the bus? How is the distance between two petanque balls more important than anything else in the entire world? Why is there so much trust, but so little surprise when that trust is broken?
These are amongst the many queries for which I choose ignorance over wisdom, and it seems to make my experience in SE Asia so much richer for doing so.