Why Asia Makes Me Mad

It’ll soon be my 10th anniversary of living in Asia and more specifically in Cambodia. Being ethnically Vietnamese, a lot of things have come really easy.

Looking Asian: My Western friends get stared at anytime they do something interesting. Like riding a bicycle. Or walking along the road. Or breathing. It’s nice to kind of blend in and avoid the in-your-face curiosity which is sometimes unnerving.

Learning the language: While Khmer and Vietnamese are totally different in almost every way (Vietnamese script has been romanized while Khmer script has roots from the Brahmi script of ancient India and looks similar to Thai / Laotian), the syntax is similar. So when I don’t really know how to say something in Khmer, I’ll piece the words in the same order as Vietnamese and it usually works out…

Getting local prices: Unless I open my mouth, I usually get charged local prices (I’ve learned to smile and nod a lot…). A small victory, but I’ll take what I can get.

So, there are lots of pluses to my SE Asian experience. In fact, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I can’t really imagine going back and living in the West with its long commutes, strong leanings towards materialism and the general rat race of it all.

However, this is not to say that living as an expat in Asia is without its quirks. I just read a great article on high-context vs. low-context cultures, something I wish I had read 10 years ago. It’s a great explanation of why expats often burn out living in Asia or get to the point where every little thing sets them off. Understanding the difference between cultures won’t solve all your problems, but it helps to understand why people do what they do.

Here are a few examples from my experience here.

With gibbon in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Concept of time: In my volunteer work, I often visit people in their homes. Even after having a set appointment, people won’t be there. When I ask what happened, they might say: “I waited for you all afternoon! I left at 3:30pm”. It doesn’t matter that the appointment was for four… Or asking someone to be somewhere at a certain time. Wedding invitations often say 4pm but no one would be caught dead arriving before 6pm. So when someone comes late to something, I try to remember that it’s because they have a different view of time (polychronic) and not because they’re being disrespectful or lazy.

Concept of space: In the West, we’re so ingrained with what’s ours vs. what’s someone else’s. People get ticked off if a neighbor’s tree overhangs into their yard, someone’s things spill over onto your desk or if someone borrows something without asking. In Asia, many homes are multi-generational in a very small space. Families with grown children often share a single room.

Interpersonal relationships: In the high-context Asian culture, a huge emphasis is put on people bonds, especially family and society. This means most Asians would never even consider changing religions (shame to family), while reportedly, 53% of Americans change religions at least once. I once worked with a female Cambodian teacher who vehemently refused to teach a class organized in an open space in a guesthouse, even though the guesthouse was Western run and a known hangout for NGO workers. Just the idea of entering anything called a “guesthouse” (where admittedly, some host rooms by the hour…) would bring inconceivable shame to family and society.

One of the great things about travel is that it is supposed to open your mind to new cultures, new ways of doing things. That’s all fine and dandy, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to change / adapt.

I’d love to hear your stories of instances where you’ve found it hard to adapt. Leave a comment!

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17 thoughts on “Why Asia Makes Me Mad

  1. Kim Dylewicz

    I’m going to throw a complete curveball into this topic & offer up that it’s also hard to return to the West once you’ve lived away for any length of time. I enjoyed the amazing experience of living in East Africa from 1991 – 1995 & found it almost unbearable returning to the U.S. It was culture shock that I wasn’t prepared for. I particularly had trouble with the sheer volume of goods (think Wal-Mart or Costco) & you’ll get the idea. I’d adjusted to living in a culture of 5 potatoes on a piece of burlap being negotiated & now had to figure out what flavor of tea I wanted … It was such excess that for several months I would only go into stores that had a more human scale. Enjoy each minute of each day — it’s all about the journey ~ not the destination.

    1. jt10s Post author

      Excellent point, Kim. Every time I go back to TX to visit my parents, it’s almost surreal. I could spend days in Costco alone! Last time I went back was the first time I had to use the credit card swipe thing! haha.

  2. Mike Montross

    While in Hawaii, if you ask anyone how long something will take, you will hear a common term of “15 minutes”. However, that fifteen minutes can translate to one hour, one day or three weeks.

  3. Alex

    I teach at a primary school in China, and am slowly getting used to the sudden schedule changes and last minute events. There’s nothing quite like being told that the two and a half hour American Culture talk you are scheduled to give has been moved up by two weeks, or that the topic has suddenly changed! That made for a stressful couple of days!

    The other foreign teacher and I have gotten used to being told at the last minute that we are going to have extra classes, cancelled classes, game day at other schools, and observations.

    Living in Asia, you definitely have to be flexible!

    1. jt10s Post author

      I hear you, Alex! I was fortunate enough to work for an Australian-run school in Cambodia that moved like clockwork. However, I can see how local-run schools could keep you on your toes. But great training as a teacher to be able to go with the flow!

    1. jt10s Post author

      Yes! That was ages ago! But good times… good times!

      Interesting blog, Helen! I’m definitely trying to lose weight. Did your Meltdown work? Can’t say as if I’ve ever followed any type of regimen, or even gotten serious about weight loss. Knowing me, I have to do things that are fun. Going to the gym? Not fun. Playing tennis? FUN! So my plan is to swim daily for 20 mins and play tennis three times a week. We’ll see where that gets me. I definitely want to shed the kilos! Any advice for me? I’m all ears (and stomach)…

    1. jt10s Post author

      Thanks, MJ! It’s actually a gibbon and they are so cute. On a separate day, I was getting my haircut and someone brought their pet gibbon. He was swinging from chair to chair and when he got to me, he was very huggy. It was so sweet. But then I researched how they get them for the pet trade and it’s a sad story. Also, they apparently turn wild after reaching maturity at 5 years of age. So, no pet gibbon for me! Thanks for reading!


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