Big Brown Eyes at the Leeds Zine Fair

Who are we?

Big Brown Eyes is a comic and illustration collective made up of the three Lambert sisters – Emily, Freya and myself. Individually we have been interested in reading and drawing comics for sometime, but in 2015 we teamed up to create our collective, releasing our debut zine Beginnings at the Bristol Comic and Zine Fair that year. Since then, Big Brown Eyes have been touring the UK to distribute our books and get in touch with the comic community from the other side of the stall.

Emily is an award-winning illustrator and commissioning comic artist, who works primarily in pencil and dry ink which she combines with colour and texture digitally. She has self-published two books: Dreamscape and the very popular Four Days in Budapest.

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Emily manning our stall with a little friend

I am a fine artist by trade, specialising in ink and oil painting and pen drawing. I published Cats and Wine last year, a book of funny comics about university life.

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Me in my element i.e. surrounded by artwork

Freya is currently a veterinary science student, soon to become the first Doctor Lambert of the family. Her style is influenced by anime and manga, and having written practically a graphic novel at age 18, she has since published a series of funny How To mini-zines.

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Freya drawing her contribution to Footprint’s zine-in-a-day

 

What is the Indie Comic Scene?

‘Indie comic’ refers to artwork which has been produced by a single artist or small collective, which is printed by the artist or a printing company, and then distributed by the artist or through small publishing houses. The material produced can take any form, from standard paneled comics to narrative or sequential illustration, books of artwork, postcard collections, poetry and collage zines etc. and can feature any subject – superheroes, aliens, cats with many eyes, feminist mantras, adult colouring books, visual dictionaries, species of plants, fan art or abstract art.

Once you start looking for the indie comic community, you will find it everywhere. There are loads of events which go on across the UK including Thought Bubble in Leeds (which Big Brown Eyes will be at next), the East London Comic Arts Fair (ELCAF) in London and Small Press Day which is a pop-up festival in comic shops across the country.

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Three completely different zines which were sold at the Leeds Zine Fair

As an artist or visitor to the indie comic scene, you are instantly part of a community. Whether an established collective, first-time artist or comic enthusiast, there are always people around who share similar interests to you and who are happy to strike up a conversation. Fellow stall-holders I’ve found to be friendly, open and supportive. At the Leeds Zine Fair, we sat next to two lovely independent artists Saffa and Dimitri who had come on their own to brave the day without toilet breaks or coffee. We ended up exchanging wares and opportunities: comic artists understand that collaboration is key, and are happy to promote and support each other throughout the day and beyond.

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A fellow stall-holder chatting about his work to a visitor

Going to festivals such as the Leeds Zine Fair also puts you in touch with all sorts of opportunities which you would otherwise not hear about. For instance, whilst at the fair all of the Big Brown Eyes Collective contributed to a project by Footprint Workers Coop to make a zine in a day. This involved hurriedly drawing on scraps of paper behind our stall and giving it to their staff to print on a massive risograph printer before binding it together. With over 40 contributing artists, the five-colour zine was pretty fantastic and a really cool project to be part of.

Freya also created a card for a prisoner who has been wrongly accused of murder, whilst I made a mixed media piece to contribute to the Leeds Art Library exhibition themed on ‘Identity’.

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Our contributions to Footprint’s zine-in-a-day: my Zine Zen, Emily’s plant pattern and Freya’s unicorn

Due to the indie comic subculture not being very large at the moment (although it is definitely a developing community) the network is close and we often bump into people who go to them regularly, such as Travelling Man who stock our indie comics among others in Leeds, York, Newcastle and Manchester. We have a running gag with the talented illustrator Kristyna Baczynski since Emily always seems to run into her at these fairs as though she is chasing her across the country.

The indie comic industry is not one to pursue for fame and riches. However it has a wealth of other opportunities, including a warm welcome to an inclusive and positive creative community (abundant with dip-dyed hair and badges) and the happy knowledge that our zines are in the hearts and bookshelves of a few other people dotted around the UK.

 

What’s ahead for Big Brown Eyes?

For a sneak-peak of what’s to come for us three:

Emily is planning to continue her travel-journal series as well as create two autobiographical comics in the upcoming year.

I am developing Cats and Wine 2 (yet untitled) which will feature the funny and somewhat harsh reality of gap-years.

• Freya is working on illustrations to make into prints, as well as a collection cute zines based on her veterinary experience.

Big Brown Eyes as a whole is moving forward with its second zine, Myths and Monsters, which will feature a whole host of comics and illustrations from the Lambert trio. For our third zine we will be looking to feature emerging talent in the comic world alongside our own work – but more of that later!

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The BBE Collective in action

What this space!

Barriers to Embracing Feminism in Modern Society

Feminism is a very simple notion: that men and women are equal, and that our structure of society and the way that they are treated should reflect this. The majority of people would agree that this is a good idea, particularly in Western society, however despite this feminism has become despairingly difficult for the new generation to really identify with and embrace – particularly among men. In fact, the word often evokes negative associations which generates criticism and judgement towards both the ideology and the people who openly support it.

Why Is This?

Feminism is not a new thing. The desire for women to be treated as equals among men has been about for a very, very long time, brought into light most notably by the suffragette movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although equality has come on in leaps and bounds since then in a lot of places, the cold hard truth is that men and women are still not treated equally in any part of the world, and in some places female empowerment is even decreasing. (You can see the facts and figures in the Global Gender Gap Report.)

Everyone knows that changing the very foundations of patriarchal society is a very lengthy process, but for most feminists the progress is agonisingly slow. Besides this, feminism is continually contested by people all over the globe who patronise the ideology and dismiss the oppression of women in society, which makes people very angry (and quite rightly so). However, this unhappy mood has coloured feminism, and the result of this is often the association of feminism with anger and bitterness as opposed to liberation and peace.

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A Personal Approach

Feminism has become very personal. For men and women, feminism means freedom. It means being able to be one’s true identity with no restrictions from society. Feminism is the power of choice, and a lot of people use it as a medium to support their voice and their personal choices – which is not a bad thing.

However, when feminism mixes in with someone’s personal life, it can be tricky to distinguish the two from an outsider’s perspective. For example when someone uses it to explain their motives to do certain things, or their feelings towards certain things, their actions can be misconstrued as an act of feminism itself, rather than an act of theirs which is perhaps inspired by self-empowerment as well as other personal qualities.

The root of a lot of hatred towards feminism (and the concept of ‘anti-feminism’) is the assumption that these personal views are what feminism stands for, rather than what the person who is feminist stands for.

When one person shouts: “I hate all men, and by the way I am a feminist,”  people may read it and think that other feminists also hate men. And so that feminism stands for men-hating. This association between personal qualities in individuals and the qualities of feminism blurs the definition of the word, and can make it seem like an illogical or self-righteous escapade with no real merit. It is important to remember that an opinion voiced by one person is not necessarily shared by the community.

The Shock Tactic

Feminism often works on the confrontational approach: whereby when sexism is come across, it is challenged and shouted down. This can be very effective, especially if the person is gifted with good reasoning power, but in daily life it can be more intrusive than operative. For example, when talking to someone who is openly a feminist, other people in the group may feel (wrongly or not) uneasy or cautious in-case they say something out of turn with the other person’s feminist ideals.

This is built upon the assumptions that feminism is:

  • a complex idea with many pitfalls, and
  • that all feminists are inherently ‘picky’ and quick to judge.

This of course is not true. However, it is true that sexism is a complex, many-layered thing. This is why there are so many sexist incidences that occur in everyday life, and so what may seem commonplace to us will annoy a more observational person – such as not looking a woman in the eye during a business meeting or expecting a man to buy his date a drink.

For someone who identifies as being feminist themselves, being told they are acting in a way that is sexist can be very distressing. Being on guard in conversation does not make feminism an inviting community to be part of, and makes people associate the threat of external judgement as a cornerstone of the ideology.

An Unwelcoming Community

Because feminism is surrounded by controversy, people who are feminist are often questioned about it. The fact is, if you expose yourself as identifying as a feminist, you feel like you will be put under undue scrutiny by other people. And because so many articles and manifestos are written about feminism, the rules and expectations of what a feminist is can seem endless and incompressible.

This leads to you questioning whether you fit into the feminist community at all. What if you aren’t ready to defend your opinions to drunken strangers? What if you still want to shave your armpits? What if you still want to be a housewife, or be a masculine man? What if you love looking at boobs? Surely according to the rules of feminism that means you can never one of them!

Someone I met who obviously supports gender equality said she opposed to being called a feminist because she didn’t feel that she fit into the “feminist image”.  She was not prepared to discuss her views with people, and didn’t want to be associated with the brunt of bad press that feminists are given. Sadly this is a very real barrier to people embracing the identity of feminism.

Barriers to Male Feminists

Feminism is particularly perilous for men. Even though the blame for sexism, misogyny and patriarchy is rooted in society as a whole, men are sometimes individually treated as being guilty of sexism even if they themselves have not acted in this way. For example, the ridiculous notion that ‘all men are part of rape culture’ (a topic which deserves its own article).

In general, men are subject to more scrutiny than women in terms of potential sexist comments or behaviour. This can be very intimidating for a man, particularly for someone who identifies himself as being feminist. Even if this is avoided, men are further ostracized from feminism by things such as ‘women only’ feminist events and the generalisation of men as being sexist pigs who are unfeeling towards the suffering and oppression of women – a stereotype which is sexist and therefore very un-feminist.

Things to remember:

  • Feminism is a simple idea that men and women are equal (not the same) and should be treated equally, which the opportunity and right to make their own life choices.
  • There are no rules to being feminist, other than that you agree with the above.
  • You don’t have to tell people that you are a feminist if you don’t want to.
  • Self-identified feminists may not act in a feminist manner all of the time. This is because sexism is inherent in our society, and is therefore sometimes part our personality without realising it.
  • It can be more difficult for men to ‘come out’ as feminists due to the controversy surrounding the topic.
  • Both men and women are subject to stereotypes and generalisations which negatively affect both parties.

 

A Small Solution

No one person or group of people is to blame for the unwelcoming nature of feminism in today’s culture – it is just the product of a long-contested history of feminism which has struggled to survive throughout its lifetime.  The voices of feminism are strong and passionate, and should continue to be so.

What we can do individually is to take a more positive approach to equality in our daily lives. Embrace our identity. Be supportive and kind to each other at all times, and give each other room for error. (That means no judging on either side of the debate!) Above all, remember that men and women are equal, and act accordingly. (Don’t hug girls and dither at the guy in the group. Give him a squeeze!)

It is time to cheerfully and wholeheartedly accept gender equality as a fact, and work on making it a more welcoming world for all of us.

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Peace to the world and all that.

 

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.

 

Are Selfies Bad?

Selfie culture has taken over our social media and become a part of everyday life. But should we embrace the fad or take a step back from this strange segment of online culture?

The growing prevalence of taking selfies does not mean that our culture is getting more vain or more image conscious – pride and vanity in our appearance has always been there, in every culture, in every time period. It is just that now we have found a new way to express it. However, showing our vanity through the medium of selfies is much more acceptable now, to the point that it is celebrated and encouraged through systems of approval such as ‘liking’ photos and posts on social media.

Selfies are after all a way of controlling our appearance, and therefore how we are perceived by others. It is only natural to want to show our best side in order to represent ourselves well. However, controlling our own image to the extent that we now take it only makes our standard of beauty (for ourselves and others) much higher. This promotes negativity about natural, uncontrolled, unflattering images of people, to the point that we will criticize and try to disassociate ourselves from “ugly” pictures by ‘untagging’ ourselves or censoring which photos we share. This high standard for our own image creates dissatisfaction about how we really look and an unwillingness to embrace our whole self, warts and all.

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My selfies

Whatever the consequences to our mental health, the fact is that taking selfies is now part of our culture. As sociable animals, it is a natural instinct to want to fit into our society and associate with our peers. Avoiding being in photos can result in people thinking that you do not fit into normal society or that you are purposely isolating yourself from it. This may lead to further social exclusion, meaning participating in selfies is in some way necessary for our social survival.

Furthermore, the act of taking selfies has become a bonding experience for people. It is a way of documenting and celebrating our relationships with people – whether long-term or fleeting – and showing other people that we have accepted them into our social circle. When we look back at the photographs, we get pleasure from remembering the connection and the happy memories that we associate with the image.

Like the act of taking a photo brings us closer together, sharing it gives us confirmation that we have been accepted by our society. Sharing a selfie is a way of getting direct feedback on the way we present ourselves through comments and ‘likes’ on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Receiving this (usually positive) feedback reinforces the idea that we are valued by, and fit into, our society.

It is definitely not healthy to need to receive this feedback, since it means our sense of self-worth is determined by something external to ourselves. A much better attitude would be to be comfortable in our own skin and to not need other people to openly tell us that we are looking great to believe it. However, such confidence is not so easily obtained, and therefore it is only natural to seek it from people who we also admire and who’s opinions we value.

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Documenting friendship through selfies

In the long run, the world is changing, and as animals who live in a complex and highly social society, we must adapt to fit into it. The alternative is to be left behind by our peers, and potentially to be considered as old fashioned, stubborn, strange or unsociable. When we stop to consider the act of taking selfies, we realize how shallow and strange the concept actually is. However, it only stems from a natural and very important desire to belong in human society.

In general, selfies do not harm anyone, they are not evil or cause cancer or destroy rainforests. However, neither do they promote acceptance about the way we naturally look and can actually diminish our sense of self-worth. Overall, we should not over-indulge in this modern pastime. We should not take ourselves or the images of ourselves too seriously, and remember that the number of ‘likes’ on our latest profile picture does not equate to our level of beauty.

Your true friends will be the ones enjoying your body positivity (and probably ‘liking’ all of those photos), but equally will be the ones who couldn’t care less if you never took a selfie in your life.

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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.