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Raw Pickled Fish

By: John Shute Posted: December-23-2011 in
John Shute

I recently moved to Phnom Penh to manage a large finance team of talented Khmer accountants. I always knew there were going to be cultural differences and I haven’t been let down on this front. They particularly enjoy bringing in weird and wonderful local cakes and delicacies, which often turn out to be vomit inducingly horrible and I now dread the sight of when they approach with proud faces and a plate of something nasty. Of course their intentions are extremely kind and I do my best to swallow and smile. I give them the familiar thumbs up and they retreat back to their desks, mission accomplished. I learnt whilst an expat in Hungary the dangers of describing food emotions when I sent a thank you email to one of my team saying that I thought her chocolate cake was lush. Gert lush is a Bristol saying, it means amazing, and so Bristol people tend to describe anything good as being lush. She hadn’t heard this word before and her trusty online dictionary told her that it had sexual connotations and she assumed I was making advances.

This brings me on to my point, of language and daily frustrations of miscommunication. My team meetings follow a familiar pattern where they take it in turns in playing the "I don't know” game where after every statement I make they say, "I don't know" and hold up their hands in bewilderment. So I eventually lose my patience and respond with something like, "I know you don't know, that's why I'm telling you, it's not a question, I’m not asking you, I'm telling you". Of course then they switch into the "right" game where they now answer "right" when I start asking them questions. "Now I'm asking you a question, don't just keep saying right at me!"

One option I have when communication breaks down is to turn to my massive whiteboard, but more often than not it descents into a surreal version of Pictionary, whereby I jab furiously at the different pictures I’ve drawn and they shout out guesses. My recent drawing of “I don’t want you to become pigeon holed” was one of the many tragic examples. Another option is to wave my arms about to try to act out a story or action and of course I find eye contact extremely important. But even this can’t be taken for granted. In a recent interview for an accounting role the candidate kept his head bowed for the whole duration and stared at the floor. The interpreter could sense my frustrations so said to me, “He says he can’t look at you because he is afraid of you.”

These communication issues are part of expat life, but there is something inherently different and good about the expat experience in Cambodia – the attitude and mentality of the Khmer people. Having been through years of horrific civil war one could forgive a certain amount of bitterness and resentment, particularly towards the West. Instead I have found every person keen to learn, change and progress. Most remarkably, my team never lose their patience with me and they never stop smiling. I think an email received from my junior cost accountant Kunthea sums up their lovely approach to working with a grumpy, impatient Englishman. She wrote, “Hello Sir, when you go to have lunch? Don’t you hungry? You know your face look like hungry. Please, go to have lunch.”


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