How to be Vegetarian in Japan

How to be Vegetarian in Japan

Although people had warned me that it might be a struggle to avoid meat and fish in Japan, I must admit I didn’t quite appreciate just how difficult it would be to find vegetarian food there before I went – that is to say, vegetarian food which constituted towards full, wholesome meals. For the first half of my trip I really struggled, and mainly survived on rice balls and pizza flavoured crisps (don’t tell Grandma). However, after slowly discovering more and more vegetarian and vegan options hidden in the corners of menus, by the end of the holiday I was fuller and fatter than ever.

I wrote this blog article so that you know what to eat if you’re planning on going to Japan and avoiding meat or fish when you’re there…there’s no time to be hangry when there is a beautiful country to explore!

Your Basic Vegetarian Food Groups

1. Onigiri

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Whenever you’re stuck for something to eat, get yourself to the nearest Family Mart or Lawsons and pick up some rice balls. They tend to either be plain rice with a small amount of filling wrapped with seaweed, or flavoured rice without the filling or the seaweed. Both versions are delicious and provide a great lunch or snack. The vegetarian flavours in the filled onigiri are seaweed (two varieties) which have a green label, or pickled plum. The rice balls without a filling tend to all be vegetarian – in any case you will be able to tell if there aren’t because you’ll see the bits of meat mixed in the rice from the outside.

2. Sushi

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Famously sushi often contains raw or cooked fish (apparently tuna mayo is extremely tasty) however you can usually find veggie versions in both supermarkets and restaurants. I really recommend conveyor-belt sushi restaurants for eating out – you can clearly see from the menu what you’re getting, and even better the vegetable sushi is the cheapest going! Keep your eye out for sushi with cucumber (my favourite), pickled radish, spring onion and egg, which seem to be common. Just whatever you do, don’t go for the bean stuffed sushi, it is terrible.

3. Inarizushi

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So technically this is a type of sushi, but since it is so delicious it deserves its own category. Inarizushi is made of abura-age (fried tofu pouces) stuffed with vinegared rice and flavoured with soy sauce. It has a pleasant sweet taste and is very moreish! You can find these in supermarkets on their own or in mixed bento boxes, making it very convenient as a picnic food, and are also found in some restaurants. This was my favourite savoury snack in Japan!

4. Vegetable Tempura

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I was told about this dream by my sister before going on holiday, and we discovered it on our second night there. Simple and effective, tempura is literally something on a stick which is deep fried, giving it a crisp batter and is often accompanied with a dipping sauce or salt. It turns out you can make tempura out of anything, including shrimp, sausage, meat, tofu, aubergine, potato, cheese, asparagus, onion, tomato and quail egg. At more casual tempura restaurants you can choose precisely what selection you want – giving you complete veggie freedom – however if you go to restaurants with set menus, sometimes they will only have an option for mixed tempura (including shrimp). I found that in this instance you can ask for only vegetables and they will happily accommodate your request, but it would be worth checking this before you all sit down and order drinks.

5. Okonomiyaki

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Basically a pancake made with the usual ingredients of eggs and flour as well as shredded cabbage, this dish makes a very hearty meal. It is often sold as a street food, but can also be ordered in special restaurants where you have designated hot-plates in front of you to cook it the way you like it: an extremely messy and fun experience! Hiroshima Okonomiyaki is another version of the pancake with added yakisoba noodles. You can find both of these pre-prepared in some supermarkets too – just be careful that they aren’t hiding pieces of pork, which are sometimes added for flavour.

6. Instant noodles

When you’re in dire straits, and you just need a big hot meal, turn to instant noodles. Japan has the biggest selection of instant noodles in one corner shop that I have seen in my lifetime, you are honestly spoilt for choice. Some have meat in, but if in doubt the curry flavour is a safe bet for since it only contains vegetable stock. There are also some pot pastas which are conveniently titled in English so you can get your tomato and basil fix too, and you can fill them up with boiling water provided by the supermarket. Convenient!

7. Tofu alternatives

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Japan doesn’t really do vegetarian meals on purpose, however often they do it accidentally by including tofu in dishes as a protein alternative to meat. Keep an eye out for these dishes, especially as part of soups or sides, because you are sure to find them on a few menus.

At our ryokan (traditional inn) the chefs kindly swapped my fish for tofu however with a week or so of warning – above is the delicious meat-free meal they made for my breakfast, featuring fried tofu.

8. Tomato Ramen

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This food is not particularly common, nor easy to find, however if you come across it you must try it, because it will change your life. A mash-up between Japanese and Italian cuisine, it basically features ramen noodles, vegetables and other ingredients in a tomato-based broth. Since being vegetarian means you can’t sample traditional ramen (which is made of a broth using meat or fish) this is a great alternative to try some of the food you’ve heard so much about, in a strangely familiar fusion dish. You can also add cheese, satisfying the dairy craving you’ve had since arriving!

9. Sweet Treats

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The deserts are to die for in Japan, and happily usually vegetarian friendly! Although the soft textures can take some time getting used to, the subtle sweet flavours are heavenly. I recommend shaved ice with syrup to cool you down in the hot weather, which is a traditional snack, and to have a matcha tea with a cake in a traditional tea house. It is a must-have for any stay in Japan!

Recommendations for vegetarians

1. Eat at western-inspired restaurants

I know you came here to sample the “authentic culture” and the “local cuisine”, but if you’re tired of accidentally eating bits of fish, then treat yourself to a nice big meal in an Italian restaurant or British pub (yes, they have those, and they are hilarious). There will always be a vegetarian choice of pizza, chips or garlic bread on the menu, and you will be very grateful for it despite being able to eat the same meal in Britain any day of the week.

2. Eat the sides, not the main course

Often in restaurants you can order your main meal and choose from lots of extras, just like in the UK. If you don’t mind confusing the waiter, order lots of sides instead of a dinner. You can make up a good meal out of grilled vegetables, salad, rice and noodles this way if you can’t find anything appropriate on the main menu.

3. Cook

One of my favourite meals there was when we tried cooking our own dinner in our apartment using the ingredients on offer at the local supermarket. It was loads of fun to work on something together and we saved some spending money too. Get yourself some sake and have a wild night in…

4. Bring a meat-eating friend

They will never get tired of eating free food, trust me. It’s super useful to have someone on your team willing to try the weird and wonderful things you spontaneously buy, and give them the okay. I really appreciated my sister taking on my unwanted food when I bought the wrong stuff, I hate wasted food!

5. Explain yourself

Don’t assume that restaurant staff know what ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ means – it is not a well-known diet choice in Japan! Always explain yourself fully when ordering food and be specific about what you want.

6. Your enemy…

…Is dashi (fish broth) and bonito (fish flakes). They are used in loads of dishes in Japan and are to be avoided at all costs if you want a pure veggie diet. You should be able to tell if a dish has them in though because of their smell.

7. Go pescatarian. Yes I said it.

If you’re not too fussy over what you want to eat, and want to concentrate on more important stuff than searching for a restaurant you can all agree on, then being pescatarian for your holiday would certainly make your life a lot easier. Since the Japanese diet is heavily based on fish, it would open up your options to accommodate most of the menu in any restaurant. However, using the pointers above you won’t have to go to this extreme if you don’t want to.

Useful Phrases

It’s worth learning these phrases before you go to save yourself some unpleasant mouthfuls…

I am vegetarian. Watashi wa bejitarian desu

Is this vegetarian? Kono bejitarian wa?

Does this contain meat or fish? Kore wa niku to sakana ga haitte imasu ka?

Does this contain fish stock? Kore wa sakana no dashi ga haitte imasu ka?

I don’t eat meat and fish. Watashi wa niku to sakana wo tabemasen

I don’t eat meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products. Watashi wa oniku to shīfūdo to tamago to nyūseihin wo tabemasen

Or if you can’t remember that: No meat or fish? Niku mo sakana mo nai?

Yes, it is okay. Hai, daijōbudesu.

I’ll have this please. *point at menu* kore kudasai

No thank you. Kekkō desu.

Obviously I was only in Japan for two weeks and have only scratched the surface of what delicious foods they have to offer the vegetarian community! If you have any tips and foodstuffs to share, please let me know.

Thanks for reading.

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First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.

 
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!

A Guide to Modern British Manners

A Guide to Modern British Manners

British etiquette is often difficult to understand and put into practise for people who have not spent long in Britain (and for a good portion of the British population too). However, being polite is important in any culture to communicate properly and to be able to get what you want without hassle. Although these manners are flexible and do not apply in more informal situations, they are still worth knowing for this reason.

I have written what I consider to be the important rules of politeness below. Hope you enjoy and feel free to give me your take on what British manners are in the comments below!

The Three Golden Rules

• Say the magic words. If you ask for anything, say “please”. If anyone gives you anything at all, whether it is your change, a cup of tea or a car, you must always say “thank you”. In British culture, you cannot say thank you too many times. Ideally you should be saying it before, during and after someone gives you something in order for the message to fully get across.
• Apologise. British people will apologise for the smallest thing, including for apologising too much. Sometimes, you say sorry not to acknowledge your own mistakes, but to acknowledge that someone else’s mistake is okay. For example if someone treads on your foot, you should say “sorry” to communicate “I acknowledge that you didn’t mean to hurt my toe, and I’m fine with that”.
• Don’t make a scene. Staying respectful and calm is an important part of fitting into British culture. People often comment that British people are more reserved than other cultures, and that’s mainly because talking loudly, squealing with laughter or arguing in public is seen as inconsiderate in the UK since it can bother other people around you.

Out and About

• Do not stare at people…unless you are having a conversation with them, in which case you should make eye contact when they are speaking.
• It is considered extremely rude to spit on the street, cough up phlegm, cough or sneeze on someone, and otherwise do something which could create mess or spread germs in public. Overall, personal hygiene is considered very important in Britain and being clean and presentable in public is essential to fit in.
• When on public transport with few seats left, it is polite to offer your seat to elderly people, or people with wheelchairs or babies, who would benefit from the seat more.
• It is polite to make room for other people. Being aware of your surroundings, and allowing for people to get passed you, is key to being the perfectly mannered person. For example, it is considered kind to hold the door for someone, to let other cars waiting at a junction onto the road, and to allow people to queue in front of you if their needs are greater than yours. Even the most subtle of movements to give other people more room will be noticed and appreciated by most British people!

How to treat strangers differs in different places in Britain – for example in the south strangers will rarely strike up a conversation with each other, whereas in the north chatting to people you don’t know on public transport is quite common. People in the countryside are also much friendlier than in cities. If you’re unsure, smile at someone and say hello, and allow them to make the next move.

Eating

Often these rules aren’t followed, especially when eating with peers. However if you’re in a fancy restaurant or with people you want to impress, sticking to these guidelines means you can’t go wrong:
• Use a knife in your right hand and a fork in your left for main meals, and a spoon in your right hand for pudding.
• Make as little noise as possible whilst eating, because is extremely annoying to British people when they can hear someone chew!
• Eat with your mouth closed. No-one wants to see your food after it has left your plate.
• Keep your elbows off the table (quite an old fashioned rule, but some people still follow it).
• When eating out, always try and pay for your meal. If someone offers to pay for your food, it is customary to have some back and forth conversation saying “I’ll pay”, “no don’t be silly”, “no I insist”, “well I am happy to contribute” etc. before someone submits. This is because often British people will offer to pay for someone else’s meal out of instinct when they don’t actually want to – this dialogue is essential for figuring out whether they are making a genuine offer or not.
• Get the waiters’ attention my making eye contact – not by waving your hand around. In Britain it is polite and expected to treat restaurant staff as equals, not as servants.
• Tipping. It is not essential to tip in the UK, although if you’re eating in a nice restaurant it is polite to give the waiter / waitress 10% of your meal price, which is usually a pound or two per person. If you are eating out around the Christmas period, it is nice to tip more, since these people are giving up their holidays to earn money.

Visiting Someone’s Home

Adults in Britain will often socialise by going to each others’ houses during an evening and having a meal there. I’m pretty sure that this kind of thing will apply to most cultures, but here’s a few tips for what to do in this situation in Britain:
• Bring something to the table. It is customary to bring a small gift for the host when visiting someone’s house. A good gift is food or drink that you can share around during the event, for example a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. Note: the host will probably have cooked a dinner, so don’t bring something which would affect the main course.
• Take your shoes off when you’ve entered the house.
• Compliment their home – this is a natural kind thing to do when entering someone’s home, although the compliment obviously has to be genuine.
• Engage in conversation (don’t look at your phone for long periods of time).
• Help to clear the table, and if you’re feeling particularly polite offer to do the dishes.
• Don’t overstay your welcome. You have to realise that the host can’t go to bed before you leave! Don’t stay too late, and look out for clues that the host is tired or is hinting for you to leave.

General last pointers

• Never insult anyone. It is extremely rude and inconsiderate to point out someone’s flaws both to their face or behind their back in Britain. For example, you should never call someone fat, ugly, annoying or boring. British people are quite sensitive and will take these things very personally. Of course people still do insult others, but it is generally considered petty.
• Don’t ask personal questions. If you don’t know someone very well, don’t ask things such as what their age is, how much they weigh, how much they earn, or their opinions on politics. When you’re friends with someone, naturally the closer you are the more you share this kind of information.
• Listen during conversations. Don’t interrupt what someone’s saying, and ask the person you’re talking to questions, or as some people call it “passing the ball in conversation”. To talk about yourself for long periods of time if considered bad etiquette in British culture.

British manners, like in most cultures, comes from a combination of tradition, old superstitions and consideration for other people around you. They are not set in stone and are adapting all the time.

Please comment below if you think of any more manners to add to the list!

If you like learning about my take on manners, read the article I made on Cambodian Table Manners! If you want to read more about my thoughts on culture, I have written a few articles including one discussing selfie culture and its roots in Are Selfies Bad? and about cultural stereotyping in Susceptibility to Single Stories.

Thanks for reading.

Susceptibility to Single Stories

I recently watched the TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she discussed how vulnerable we are to believing in single stories. A single story is one view of something which is repeated until it is accepted as fact. She described how in the past she has bought into single stories, and was in turn stereotyped due to other people’s belief in them about her native country Nigeria.

Adichie vocalised for me what has been at the back of my mind since returning from overseas. It is the worry that I not only believe in single stories in my day to day life, but more significantly that I have inadvertently created one.

From February to May 2016 I went to live with a family in a rural village in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. Since then, my friends and family have asked me about my experience: mainly what I ate, what the people were like, whether it is a very poor country, and how the locals reacted to me as a foreigner. I could potentially be their sole source of knowledge about the country, putting me in a sensitive position. What I say to people about it could be taken as fact – as a true and whole representation of the country rather than just my limited opinion.
The fact is that everyone is in danger of being an author of a single story – not only about the people and places further afield, but also about their home.

For example, when I was living in Cambodia my Cambodian friend Mony and I would often exchange information about each other’s culture. Mony originally knew very little about Britain, just like I knew little about her country. What she heard about it from me and the other UK volunteers may be the only information she would receive about it for a long while. From what we talked about, she probably got the impression that British people eat burgers every day, are mostly vegetarian and wear baggy, patterned trousers all the time.

When I was talking to Mony, I realised how much I summarised the UK in order to give her a broad idea of the place. Besides this, she had an idealised image of Europe and I didn’t want to admit that my country was not as nice as she imagined it to be. I gave her a story of a developed, secure nation which is a good place for a woman to live and have as many boyfriends as she likes. Despite having lived there all my life, I was not able to give Mony anything other than a single story about Britain.

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Shrines at a Buddhist pagoda: there are at least two sides to every story

Single stories are dangerous because they reduce a group of people down to one thing. Whether they appear kindly, such as: ‘people in Cambodia are really friendly,’ or harmless like: ‘British people love drinking tea,’ they feed into reductive stereotypes and do not acknowledge the broad variety of people who live in every community.

Someone who goes to a country having heard just one perspective about the place may have a certain perception in mind, and treat people differently because of it. For example, in Cambodia I was amazed when I met a monk who lives alone on a hill top, bathes every-day in a stagnant pool, and yet who owned a smart phone and whose passport was filled to the brim with stamps from all over Asia and beyond.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Single stories are also destructive since they dehumanise the people who are within the stereotype. It is much easier to ignore the suffering of a kindly, ambiguous mass of people than an individual like Mony, who is funny, playful, hardworking and in her fourth year at Battambang University. Adichie describes this eloquently in reference to America’s single story of Africa:

“In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her [Adichie’s American roommate] in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

How to Avoid Spreading a Single Story

1) Remind yourself, when hearing about another person, country or community from somebody else, that what the person is saying is just their own perspective of it, and does not account for the whole picture. Look beyond what is being said. It is impossible for one person to create a true representation of an entire community and every person within it. There are always multiple perspectives that are equally valid.
2) Be aware that, when you talk about a place or population, that you do not make sweeping statements such as ‘the people are very poor’. Instead describe specific people you have met, giving them humanity.
For example, when I talked about Cambodian people I tried to describe my host family specifically – who, by the way, I found to be kind, biased, hospitable, cheeky and shy, who ran out of water several times in the dry season but also hosted amazing parties and paid for their children to go to private school.
3) If you are confident enough, challenge misconceptions and stereotypes when you come across them. This doesn’t mean ripping the person who is talking to shreds, since anyone can support stereotypes without realising what they are doing. Kindly nudging them in the right direction, or mentioning that you encountered something that doesn’t fit into that stereotype would work more effectively.

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A group of monks taking a selfie

This article is also a disclaimer on my part. In my blog posts I have written a lot about Cambodia and my experiences of it – but I would like to express that my experiences are wholly subjective. I only lived there for three months in one relatively small community. My main intention when writing these articles is to share what I, as a Westerner going into South East Asia for the first time, have discovered so that you can get a glimpse of Cambodia from my perspective.

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

 

Thank you for reading.

Quotes from The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at 4:48, 9:25, and 18:16.

The Resettlement Curve

When you go to another country for a long period of time, you understand that you will suffer from culture shock and have to adapt to the new environment. However, returning home can be just as difficult, or more so, than going out to another country – mainly because you do not expect to encounter any problems. The re-adapting process can be known as the resettlement curve.

Often when staying in another country (especially one vastly different to your own) you miss your regular home comforts such as the national food, everyone speaking your language, and the people you left behind. Unexpected luxuries, such as privacy, rain, and internet connection can also suddenly seem much more valuable whilst away. That is why, after immediately returning home, you go through a honeymoon period of reunion with all of these things you love. This is the first stage of the resettlement curve.

For example, when I returned to the UK after three months in Cambodia I was so excited to meet everyone that I arranged to see my best friend, boyfriend and grandparents in turn immediately after landing. I ate avocado and poached (not deep fried) chicken (not duck) egg on toast (not rice), and walked around in a cagoule feeling great about life. I remember sitting on the grass at my grandparents’ house and marvelling at how lush and green everything was.

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Seeing my sisters for the first time in 5 months in the lovely countryside near Cheddar Gorge

This honeymoon period can be any length of time from a day to a couple of months. (Mine was a week or two.) However, once you get used to these everyday luxuries it is often followed by a period of reflection on the adventure you had in the country or countries just visited. At this stage, it is common to feel nostalgic about your experiences, and miss the people and the places where you stayed.

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Me, my volunteer counterpart Franzi and the children in our host home

Whether volunteering, working or travelling, usually when you are abroad you have a sense of purpose. Every day you have a task to do, whether that is a meeting with the village chief, writing a report, or climbing a mountain. You feel like an important contributor to your own and other people’s experience, and even the normal things like travelling from A to B can feel like a novelty. When returning home, it is difficult to readjust to a society which bases its success in future plans and long-term goals rather than living a day-to-day existence.

Since travelling requires a lot of money, often when people return they will move back in with their parents, potentially returning to their old job and/or their old routine. This can feel like a step backwards in life instead of moving forwards, and can seem very dull compared to the daily adventure of their life abroad. When I returned from travelling, I moved back into my parents’ house. Although I enjoyed their company, I was often on my own in the house for a lot of the day, away from the town centre and not doing very much, which was quite unsettling to me after being used to a busy household and little time alone.
Coming back can also strip you of the worth and responsibilities that you had whilst away. For example you may have been the one with insider knowledge of the area, the one who knew how to write project proposals, or the leader of a team, but when returning home it can be an unpleasant realisation that the winning traits you had in another country do not translate over the border. This can lead to a sense of purposeless and, in some cases, worthlessness for the person after returning.

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This information sharing workshop with community stakeholders was one of the events we held in Phnom Sampov Commune which the whole volunteer team contributed towards

Last week I went to a ‘return volunteers weekend’ with fellow volunteers of ICS (the organisation who sent me to Cambodia) and we discussed the methods that had worked for us in adjusting to life in our home country.

This was some of the advice shared in the workshop:

1) Make plans. Most fellow volunteers said that planning to go to festivals, see friends, or go travelling again was the quickest way to make them feel positive about leaving their adventure behind.
2) Be mindful about your motivations. Although point 1 is effective, planning to go away again often stems from the desire to relive the experience you just had. Remember that your memories are unique to that time and place, and if you go somewhere expecting the same outcome, you will no doubt be disappointed.
3) Take time to reflect. Don’t overbook your diary in order to busy out your blues. Taking time out to think things through is necessary to move onto the next chapter in life.
4) Don’t drink away your sorrows. A volunteer mentioned that they went out a lot more after coming home in order to alleviate their boredom. Apparently it didn’t help, and made them feel worse.
5) Accept that you’re miserable. Often feeling guilty about not settling in well into home life is what really gets to people. Accept that you feel bad, and that it’s natural, and then you can move on.
6) Talk to people who shared you experience. After spending so much time with people going through the same things as you, it can be isolating to return to a community which doesn’t share your new perspective. Chatting to people who have had a similar experience to you can make you feel much more positive about the situation.
7) Shake up your life. If you wanted to move house, get a job, go vegan, start martial arts, do some volunteering, get back in touch with a friend, write a song, or learn how to make a mean lasagne before going away, now is the time to do it. Change will lead to empowerment and will help you to focus on life ahead of you, rather than the memories behind.

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Catching up at our Return Volunteers weekend

Personally, the thing that made me get over my post-travelling blues was getting a job a month after leaving Cambodia and moving out of my hometown. Although I’m now living quite far away from my friends and family, I think that the change of scene has helped me feel more optimistic about the future and has given me new goals to work towards.

 

What Absolute Poverty Looks Like

Nath is an example of a woman living in absolute poverty in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. I met her after our team of VSO ICS volunteers conducted poverty surveys in the community where we lived, and she told us about her lifestyle. We thought that it was important to share her story so that other people could understand her situation.

Environment

This year there was a really bad storm in the area. Nath and her family had to shelter under some banana trees because they were scared that the house would fall on top of them. When the storm was over, their house was destroyed. Luckily, Nath’s brother was working away and has let them move into his house for now, which is comprised of one main room and several small storage rooms outside made from bamboo, palm leaves and thatch. However when he returns Nath and her family will have to move out and will have no-where to stay.

Nath and her husband have three children: a son (18 years) and two daughters (10 and 15 years). Having had bowel disease two years ago and breast cancer this year, Nath is too ill to work. Her husband has heart disease and is likewise too ill to do manual labour. Operations and health care are very expensive in Cambodia, even with a Poor ID card (which gives them a discount to health services) and Nath and her husband struggle to make ends meet. They have to forage in the nearby fields for food, and often go hungry. Nath’s daily challenge is asking to borrow money from her neighbours and family to in order to get by. The banks and microfinance companies won’t lend her money because of her situation, so she has to ask her family to borrow it for her under their name.

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Nath’s brother’s house and storage room

Support

Nath’s oldest son works at the popular tourist sight Phnom Sampov as a tour guide every evening after his studies in Battambang, contributing the family’s only income. Since English is so poorly taught in rural schools (see more information about education in Cambodia here) he picks it up from tourists he meets and tries to improve his language skills that way. He wishes to stay in his home town and look after his younger sisters – a rare ambition for youth in Cambodia, who often aspire to study and work abroad. Since buying school equipment is expensive, he was unable to afford it during some years of study and fell behind his peers in his level of education. This is often a struggle with poor children and teenagers in Cambodia, particularly girls, whose education is seen as less important than that of boys.

Four years ago, the village chief told the family about Anatta World Health and Education Outreach, a non-government organisation which supports children in developing countries. Anatta used to give Nath’s family a donation of rice every two months but have recently started a new scheme. When I asked Nath how important she felt education is for her children, she told me that Anatta had given her the option of a monthly cash donation, or to support one child’s education (e.g. buying books, stationary and school uniforms). She said she chose for them to support her eldest daughter in her education, because it is more important than money. Nath hopes that one day her daughters will go to University, get a good job, and be able to support their family with a better chance for their own futures.

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Plans for the Future

When Nath and her husband recover a little from their illnesses, they plan to improve their circumstances by going to work in Thailand. She will have to borrow money from her neighbours in order to pay for the travel. Nath cannot afford a passport or visa so she will have to travel and work illegally, by any means possible, with no guarantee that she will even find a job when she gets there or that she will be paid for any work that she does. There are far more risks working illegally, including being abused or not paid by employers, being imprisoned by the Thai government, and being victim of human trafficking. Her biggest fear is being found and sent to jail. She knows of people who have gone to Thailand to work – some have come back with money, some haven’t.

Nath can see no other option. The support given by NGOs such as Anatta may provide a vast amount of help – and hope – but unfortunately does not solve her problem. With no money to invest, no livelihood training available, and no means or knowledge of how to get a lawfully paid job, what other route can Nath take? This is the reality of people living in absolute poverty in Cambodia.

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Good luck to Nath and her family and we are hoping that they will be on the road to success soon!

Check out my blog about health in Cambodia and another NGO which works in Banan District, Cambodia.

My Personal Case Study: Reflecting on Working for Voluntary Service Overseas

The personal case study is what we were asked to complete for VSO to share our own experiences of the project and the placement. We spent eleven weeks in Cambodia working for Voluntary Service Overseas (part of International Citizenship Service) in teams of roughly ten UK volunteers, ten Cambodian volunteers, and two team leaders (one UK, one Cambodian), and placed in a target area of the country. Our group lived in Phnom Sampov Commune, Banan District, Battambang Province on a project which overall sought to create a youth co-operative and give this group the skills they need to become agents of their own change. I transcribed my case study from a speech I presented to fellow VSO volunteers and staff in a story sharing session at the end of our placement.

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Teaching English at Phnom Kroper Primary School

My placement with Voluntary Service Overseas did not drastically alter my personality or values, but it has given me a different perspective on some things which I hope will help me in the future. Before my placement with VSO ICS, I was more closed minded and strong-headed with my opinions, but now I feel more open and accepting of people’s values and customs, which is very important for cross-cultural working. This perhaps stems from my increased self-awareness during this trip, which has led me to understand my own strengths and weaknesses and to appreciate that, in turn, other people are only human too.

I have come to value different qualities in people. Whereas before my placement, I valued fun-loving, charismatic personality traits in people, during my time working on the project I came to appreciate people with a hard-working nature, who take initiative and are always willing to accept extra duties in order to get the job done.

I have greater knowledge about Cambodia and global issues due to our Community Action Days (where we put on events in the local area) Active Citizenship Days (where we researched topics and presented this to the team) and through independent research.

Overall I think everyone who has participated in the ICS programme has developed in either their knowledge or their own personality and/or perspective, and I think that this is where ICS’s strength lies as opposed to community or national development. Living amongst the community, sleeping in the same houses as Cambodian families, and working in a team with different backgrounds and abilities is what catalysed this change rather than the project itself. Although I may not have contributed to the community in Phnom Sampov, I feel that I am in a better position to actively help community development in the future and I hope that the next cycle of volunteers in Phnom Sampov will make a difference using the information we have left them.

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Chantel and Avex working during our last Community Action Day about health

However, I would not have got anything out of this placement without my exceptional team and team leaders. We have supported each other through difficult periods and worked together to make our time valuable here, having developed a close relationship and genuine care towards each other. We have constructively handled problems, for example investigating our project aim, and found a solution to the issues that we had with it. This has led us to change the project goal after thorough research, which was the main success of our group and will hopefully be taken on board by the next cycle of volunteers.

My key memory to demonstrate our team spirit was our first Community Action Day, an awareness-raising event about road safety. Due to a difficult relationship with the High School Director, none of the expected student participants arrived. However our team pulled through and the Khmer Volunteers went around the community in person to round up people to join. In the end we had over 60 participants, and the event was very successful due to the initiative taken by our team members.

“VSO ICS has taught me that the key to success and happiness is through my own hard work and the strength of my team.”

You Know You’ve Left Cambodia When…

• You had to check that tap water in a restaurant is free and drinkable after being used to bottled water.

• The idea of wearing flattering clothes is still rather baffling and makes you feel slightly naked.

• You feel cold all the time.

• You look around for a bin before remembering that you can put toilet roll down the loo.

• You have suffered the repercussions of returning to a rich Western diet. (Not pleasant.)

• You have become accustomed to physical contact with friends, creating discomfort amongst your loved ones in the UK.

• Being alone in the house for more than two hours is unbearable.

• You have already started planning your next travel adventures.

• You have consumed your body weight in toast over the past two days.

• You have a kilogram of dried mango in your fridge.

• You have had a few sentimental moments over your photos whilst transferring them to your computer.

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You have finally finished your travel journal

• The bland food and vegans you lived with in Banan District have inspired you to eat loads more vegetables (albeit alongside the Easter eggs your grandparents have been saving for you).

• Social media has suddenly become very boring.

• Everyday you thank the stars that you are not waking up to the sound of dreary Cambodian music.

• Your day feels a little unfinished without the evening cycle back to your host home along the main road.

• Brushing your teeth inside feels slightly claustrophobic.

• You have thanked several people in Khmer, which they have politely not commented on.

• You have been reunited with lipstick and regularly wear it around the house, just because you can.

• You have embraced your former Yorkshire accent.

• You now appreciate how much money you have, and how recklessly you spend it.

• You have re-joined the dog-eat-dog world of job applications.

• You have developed cynicism towards your volunteer organisation, but a deep love for Cambodia.

• You have come to appreciate the small things in your day-to-day life, such as sleeping under a duvet, the luscious green countryside, and your family.

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Goodbye for now, Banan!

See my previous list blogs about what its like adapting to Cambodian life in: Things You Come to Appreciate Living in CambodiaYou Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia For a Month When… and You Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia for Two Months When….

Daily Customs in Cambodia

An introduction to the manners and etiquette that you will encounter often in Cambodia, so that you can communicate with the people easier and without sticky misunderstandings!

The Formal Hello / Goodbye

This is appropriate when meeting anyone respected, especially if it is a formal meeting, or if you are interrupting something they are doing. The correct greeting is saying “chum reap sue” for hello, accompanied with putting your hands together as though in prayer, smiling and inclining your head.

The height your hands depends on the person you’re talking to: for your equal or someone younger you put your hands in front of your chest, for someone older you press your fingertips to your chin, for your mother and father your fingers to your lips, a monk your fingers on the bridge of your nose, and to the gods the heel of your hand should rest on your forehead. The same applies for goodbye, except you say “chum reap lear” instead. If in doubt of their age, fingers to the chin is respectful.

However perfectly you greet someone however, you should prepare to be laughed at because your pronunciation will be so cute to the person you are talking to.

The Touch Barrier

You must not touch anyone of the opposite sex except in rare circumstances. This includes holding your hand out to help them up, patting them on the back, putting your arm around them in photos, and hugging. It’s a hard habit to get out of since in the UK we are used to touching our friends, but it will give the wrong impression if you do!

Same-Sex Interaction

Although the touch barrier is so strict among men and women, it is the opposite when it comes to someone of your own gender. Friends will link arms, put their arms around each other, lean on each other whilst talking and put their hands on someone’s shoulder or knee – especially men. This can be a little uncomfortable to people from the UK who aren’t used to so much contact, but after a while you understand it as a sign of friendship.

Shoes Off

Most popular in Cambodia wear flip-flops or sandals, and as well as keeping your feet cool it also makes it easier when it comes to shoe etiquette. It is impolite to wear shoes indoors and most people will expect you to take them off before you go inside, even in the outhouse. (Usually toilets will have a pair of flip-flops for everyone to use inside the room due to this rule.) The exceptions are restaurants and most shops, but be careful to check before stepping inside for shoes outside the door in case the rule still applies.

Hands

It is rude to use your left hand when giving people things as, due to washing with water after using the toilet, it is considered unclean. Some Khmer will, but you will see a noticeable difference in their response when you give people money with your right hand, and even more when using both hands, which is very polite. You should always give and receive gifts with both hands.

Thank You

People in Cambodia rarely say thank you, and at first it can be a bit surprising and offensive to people from a culture where “thank you” is given for anything from a cup of tea to receiving change. Nevertheless it is still the most useful word you will learn in any language, including Khmer. “Arkun” is what we are told means thank you, but it actually translates as an informal “cheers” kind of meaning. If you want to say it with meaning, e.g. if someone has shown you kindness, adding “juran” to the end will show your gratitude.

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The Bamboo Bridge at Kompong Cham

Invitations

If you are ever invited to eat someone’s food or join a party, you should always accept the invitation as it is very rude to say no, unlike in British culture. Unless you have a pressing engagement, you should stay and eat. This may be because it can take all day to cook a meal and no-one wants their efforts to be in vain! If you aren’t hungry, eating a little is acceptable and you are free to leave when you like after the meal.

Modesty Rules

Most Cambodian people are accustom to tourists and their tendency to not wear much clothing. However, in Khmer culture it is still very inappropriate for people to wear revealing clothes, especially women. If you want to work with people in the local community and be respected, it is important to cover your shoulders, chest and legs to below the knee. In the cities wearing skimpy clothing is more accepted, but in the rural areas people who do may be criticised and given unwanted attention. When thinking about your dress sense, you should consider whether you want to be seen as a tourist or instead be accepted into the community you are staying in at the expense of a nice tan.

Body Language

Body language and tone of voice is an important factor in politeness in Cambodia. For example, you must signal people to come with your palm facing downwards because gesturing with your palm up signals aggression. Whistling is rude, as is standing with your hands on your hips. When talking to people, speaking with a quiet, soft voice and smiling is very polite, whereas raising your voice, making quick hand gestures or having an angry expression is considered very inappropriate and even shameful. If you want co-operation, speaking softly is the key!

British Customs

As well as there being lots of manners in Cambodia that are useful to learn, it is also good to familiarise yourself with the customs that we are used to which do not apply here. One thing is that people in Cambodia often chew with their mouth open, and very loudly, which is very rude in British culture and takes a while to get used to. Men especially spit a lot, and children will sometimes wee in their yard or next to the dinner table, men outside the bathroom even if the toilet is vacant.

On the other hand, strangers will approach you and strike up conversation, which is inappropriate in parts of Britain but very comforting when faced with an alien world of new customs where you are often the center of attention.

 

If you want to learn about the basics of good Cambodian table manners, you can see my previous blog post on it here.

Targeting Health Problems in Cambodia

Yesterday we had our last Community Action Day as part of the Banan team in Battambang Province, Cambodia working for Voluntary Service Overseas. We decided to theme our event on health after identifying this as a need in the community.

For our Community Action Day, we focused on three topics: diabetes, respiratory problems and general health, encompassing hygiene, dental health, diet and excersize. We chose these topics after asking the doctor in the local health center which were the most common health problems, and choosing which ones we could help reduce by teaching the community about their causes and prevention. We added the section about general health due to our own observations when living in rural Cambodia: for instance the condition of teeth, particularly in children.

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Soriya talking to a woman from our commune who also suffers from diabetes

Kov Soriya talked about diabetes during our event, since she was diagnosed with diabetes just after graduating from University (you can read about her story here). Diabetes has a high risk factor in Cambodia when considering that the majority of people are lean. A large contributor to this are the high levels of sugar in a normal Cambodian diet and a poor understanding of the health problems that eating sugar will lead to. Diabetes will often go unnoticed in its sufferers, although with increasing awareness and visits to health clinics diagnosis is improving, meaning more people are getting the advice and medicine that they need.

Respiratory problems, especially acute respiratory infections, are very common in Cambodia, and can be lethal due to the combination of poor nutrition and unhygienic conditions. This is particularly dangerous for children, since 1/3 of children in Cambodia are malnourished, which puts their immune system in jeopardy when they get an illness. There is very poor air and water quality, and a very high level of pollution which can also contribute towards infection and breathing problems. The local doctor of Phnom Sampov Heath Center addressed these issues during our event.

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Young children are the most vulnerable to infection and pneumonia

Knowledge about general health is very sparse in Cambodia. Most people, especially in poor areas, know very little about common health problems and their causes, meaning that active prevention of disease is rare. Some people are conscious of their health, for example wearing masks to protect themselves from dust, but are unaware of potentially more dangerous things that they are exposed to daily, such as burning rubbish and plastic. Healthcare is expensive in Cambodia, and although a “Poor ID Card” exists, this only gives the person a discount rather than free access to services due to corruption in hospitals. Especially in the rural areas, people are reluctant to visit the doctor and prefer to manage their illnesses in their homes, supported by their family.

During my time in Cambodia, my neighbour had a stroke and now is being cared for by his son. Neither can afford the cost of healthcare or medicine, and due to the time-consuming nature of care, the son’s business is suffering as a result. I met a family in absolute poverty with a myriad of health problems including heart disease, breast and bowel cancer, which made the mother and father unable to work. This meant that they had to borrow money from neighbours in order to pay for their children’s school equipment and forage for food everyday.

Health is a huge issue in Cambodia due to the regime of the Khmer Rouge, who persecuted and killed intelligent and educated people whilst in power, including health professionals. Therefore there is little healthcare infrastructure left in the country and few trained doctors and supporting staff, particularly in rural areas. Educated doctors and nurses are reluctant to live in isolated areas away from the main cities, and the people are equally reluctant to visit the doctor when they fall ill due to the costs of consultation and treatment.

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Raising awareness in Phnom Sampov

Raising awareness of general health is one step forward to improving people’s lives, but developing the infrastructure within healthcare and investing in the training of doctors and nurses is the only real way to solve this national issue.