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!

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.

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.

You Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia for Two Months When…

• You are no longer offended if someone answers a phone call in the middle of a meeting, a speech or the night. Or when someone spits noisily out of a window.
• You finally understand who is related to whom in your host family.
• You automatically check your dinner for ants before eating.
• You have planned the date of your wedding and first child for the benefit of curious neighbours, despite intending to have neither.
• You have now set up a black-market trade in hand sanitizer, baby wipes and phone chargers with your fellow volunteers.
• You are no longer indignant when people laugh every time you say “hello”, “goodbye”, or any other word in Khmer for that matter.
• You have established a rudimentary conversation with your host family, which mainly consists of “how are you?” (nek socksabai dtay) “it’s hot!” (k’dow), “wind” (howee), “I’m hungry” (khnyom kleeun), “eat rice?” (nyam bai?) and “delicious” (chnyang).

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A standard dinner at our host home

• You are now famous around the community from that one time you danced at the pagoda.
• You greet the frog that lives in your bathroom upon entering.
• You have promised your host family that you will dance for them before leaving because they missed that one time you danced at the pagoda.
• The owners of your favourite cafe now prepare your iced coffee when you sit down before you have even asked for one.
• You have experienced the highs and lows of living on a volunteer allowance, but have still not learnt that food should come before second-hand books and bags made out of rice sacks.
• You have finally caught a gecko after two months of chasing them across walls.
• You no longer consider situations like clutching ten trees and a set of shelves whilst riding home in a tuk-tuk strange.
• It no longer unnerves you to see the neighbours’ dogs wander through your garden at night looking for food.
• You can now open a tin of condensed milk using a cleaver.
• You have learnt that anything can be strapped onto the back of a bike using the right amount of string.
• The fight for the power socket has become a daily struggle.
• The smell of your own sweat has now become comforting, like the presence of an old friend.

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Me with my host great Aunty, host nephew and counterparts Mony and Franzi

• You have grown to love Cambodia and are sad that in twelve days you will leave the country and the lovely people you’ve met here when you finish you placement with VSO.

Beauty Culture in Cambodia

As much as we would like to believe that beauty is subjective to each individual, how we perceive what is beautiful is very much dictated by our culture. What is deemed as beautiful is subject to trends of fashion throughout generations and cultures, leading people of similar backgrounds to value similar traits in themselves and people around them, and people of different backgrounds to be attracted to people of different body shapes, complexion, style, age, face shape, and even personality. It is not surprising therefore that Cambodian people have a standard of beauty which contrasts vividly with the UK.

In Cambodia it is fashionable for women to have a small, thin body. It is also seen as elegant to have hands which curve back, replicating the style of traditional Khmer dancers: children from a young age will stretch and bend their fingers every day in order to achieve this. Long fingernails are also traditionally a sign of being wealthy, particularly among men, because people who work on the land (and are generally quite poor) have to cut their fingernails for practicality due to their physical job. Often men in Cambodia will have long fingernails, or a single long nail on the little finger of each hand, although this fashion is losing popularity in the younger generations.

The most prominent difference however is that pale skin is highly prized in Cambodia, especially among women. Often young women will go through extensive measures to keep their skin from tanning, such as wearing lots of layers – even hats, scarves and gloves – in 40° heat. Whitening products are also hugely popular, to the extent that it can be difficult to find non-whitening shower creams and moisturisers in shops. These products are very harmful to the body. The lotions can contain corticosteroids, and molecules such as hydroquinone (which are carcinogenic) or even mercury salts which are highly toxic. Every year women die from using these products, often when using them in excess in order to look more ‘beautiful’.

The fashion of pale skin is consolidated through the media. On television, every celebrity (male and female, although women are visibly lighter) has extremely pale skin, and even in televised competitions involving people from the public, such as The Voice Cambodia, the contestants are rarely more than a shade or two darker. In advertisements, and even paintings, illustrations and wedding photographs, everyone is depicted with white skin. A contributing factor to this may be because Cambodia idealises Korean culture, admiring their literature, television programmes, music scene, and fashion, including the Korean complexion. The prevalence of pale skin in popular images including the media strengthens the idea that to be pale is fashionable, and that the colour of your skin can dictate how successful you become.

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Setting an example: talking about these topics should begin with the youngest generations

Dangerous and simply quite strange practises in order to look more beautiful prevail in every culture however. In the UK, we have our own beauty extremes which includes the culture of tanning. It is attractive to have bronze skin in Britain because a tan proves that someone has spent their leisure time in the sun, indicating that they are well-travelled, i.e.rich and world-wise.  Women especially will use tanning booths and go sunbathing, despite that the exposure to UV rays increases the risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.

We value tall, slim, athletic bodies with hairless, unblemished skin in both men and women, and due to this every year we spend hundreds to thousands of pounds on products and services that will help us to achieve this ideal. For example we buy skin care products like moisturisers and spot creams, hair removal products, make-up, braces and teeth whitening services, as well membership to gyms, excersize classes and sports equipment, slimming “medicine”, dieting group membership and speciality foods. All of this is supported by the media which enforces the idea that to indulge in these beauty regimes is both fashionable and normal.

In Cambodia, women who do not comply within the normal beauty standards, for example if they have dark skin or acne or are tall or have a big body, will find it very difficult to find a partner. Both men and women can be ridiculed and bullied for having dark skin, so it is not surprising that people are very conscious of their appearance. In general, when people feel they do not fit into the cultural norms for ‘beautiful’ this causes problems with self-esteem, causing a higher risk of eating disorders, anxiety and depression across cultures. It can even lead to isolation from social circles and social stigma.

The importance we place globally upon being beautiful, particularly for women, is detrimental to our physical and mental health. The more we obsess about improving our faces and bodies, the less content we are with them. Individually, we must reconsider our own standards of beauty with the understanding that it is just a trend in fashion, not a universal or real measurement of value. We should endeavour not to judge other people around us for how they look or how much effort they put into their appearance, be content with how we look ourselves, and give our health and happiness a much higher priority.

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Learn to love yourself using any means necessary

Earth Day at K’downg Primary School

To celebrate Earth Day on the 22nd April, Team Banan of VSO ICS Cambodia held a Community Action Day at K’downg Primary school in rural Banan, Cambodia, themed on the environment.

Our goals during the CAD was to teach the children about how important it is to look after the environment, focusing in particular on deforestation and waste management, both of which are prominent issues in Cambodia. We also wanted to improve the environment of the school for the children, so that they would feel inspired to maintain their own local environment and take responsibility for it in the future. We did this by helping the children to plant trees around their school yard, and by making their library beautiful (and, more importantly, habitable).

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The CAD team buying plants for the event

The day was not without its obstacles. Before the event, the school director had told us that their library was empty and unused, and we made plans to paint and furnish it in order to encourage the children to use it. However, when we got there we found the library stuffed full of dusty desks, books, bricks and soil. It looked like it hadn’t been used for years. Luckily, by enrolling a team of students for the task, we cleaned the room in a surprisingly short time, the director lending a hand by moving the desks so that the central space was clear and clean for students to work.

Before...
Before…
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…and after!

The moment before we were about to transform the library into a painted jungle scene, the director changed his mind, and was suddenly unwilling for the children to paint directly onto the walls. Although disappointed that our masterpiece couldn’t be created, we turned this idea around by using the resources we had with us, and instead conducted a painting workshop with the children, consolidating the theme of environment through their paintings of trees and plants.

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Me making a poster with the children during the painting workshop

Despite these set-backs, the children and the volunteers had a really fun day. We taught the children about the environment through an informal presentation, and taught them how to plant and look after their new trees, which would provide valuable shade in years to come. We also improved the environment of their school, providing bins and a fabulous clean library, complete with new books, shelves, and a display of their newly created artwork.

Hopefully the students of K’downg Primary now understand more about people’s impact upon the environment, including their own. They can take a greater involvement in improving the environment both locally and globally, by simple acts such as not littering, burning plastic and by protecting trees.

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Volunteer Thol helping three children water their first tree

Happy Earth Day!

The last two photos were taken by VSO volunteer Chantel.