Frame of Reference

by Harley Voogd

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In Cambodia I am a continuous outsider. This leads to a feeling of constant disconnect. I believe this comes from not having a point of reference for my experiences–I don’t know if what I’m seeing is normal or not. Therefore, I am neither surprised at, nor expectant to, what I experience.

My visitors from the west don’t have this issue. Their point of reference is back home in North America. To them everything is strange, or stupid, or smart…when compared to home. I used to use my home in Canada as that reference point as well, but I’ve been here too long to do that anymore. I have not been here long enough, though, to use the Cambodian way as my new reference point. I am caught between two cultures. This isn’t a negative thing and it gives me a unique perspective. Over time I will know more of what is normal and what isn’t, and this perspective will fade. But for now I can try to enjoy it, and maybe gain some wisdom from it.

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Driving a vehicle is where one can experience this phenomenon most tangibly. In Canada people drive in straight lines between two straight lines. When I was driving in Canada, if I saw someone veering outside of the lines, I would pull up beside and give my dutiful look of disapproaval. Always I’d see that the driver was either drunk, a senior citizen, or an Asian. I know that sounds truly racist, but there are three reasons why it’s not: first, it’s true; second, I’m married to an Asian and my kids are Asian, so I can say things like that and not justly be called a hater; third, in Asia, to drive straight between two straight lines will only bring on the same looks of disapproval as mentioned above. It’s all relative and Asians are just driving like they’ve been taught. In Asia the lines on the road, if there even are any, are more of a suggestion, and to limit yourself to that restricted space is just bullheaded.

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The problem of conflict is another interesting area to get confused about. Recently a guy in his early twenties living next door made a snide remark about my wife. My upset wife came inside and told me about it. I decided it would be good for him to answer for what he said by calling him over so that he could apologize to her. My wife didn’t like that and while the kid was walking over she was scolding me about how I was making problems. I thought I was fixing the problem, not making one. The boy stood like an idiot in front of my house until my wife told him to just go home. He got the point of what was going on though, and to this day, his facial expression goes from cocky to sheepish whenever he sees me. Afterwards my wife was clearly happy about what I did, even though I had violated some cultural taboo. Keep smiling. Bury your emotions. Don’t make problems.

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A wise man once said, “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re late!”

In Canada, when I worked in construction, I would rail on the guys under me for showing up late, even if it was just five minutes. Some of them didn’t get why and suggested that working an extra five minutes at the end of the day would be a solution to showing up late five minutes in the morning. They didn’t get that it was a matter of integrity and respect. They would be shocked when I didn’t get angry when they screwed up on the job, and equally shocked at how angry I did get for being just a little late. I would explain that I expected them to screw up on the job because they were learning something new. Being on time, however, is something they should have learned when they were five years old. Usually the guys would get it quickly. As to the more thickheaded ones, I’d just start sending them home whenever they were late.

So, take that attitude into a culture that does not consider being on time important at all. Do I get angry when someone is late? Do I try to change this? Do I adapt? Do I just need to relax? When I schedule meetings for the parents of the kids in our school, I tell them to come an hour before I really want, and we still have to make phone calls about ten minutes before the meeting starts to remind many of them to come. Is this really a cultural thing? Or is it an integrity/respect thing?

One day I will figure it all out and my new frame of reference will ruin all the fun I’m having.

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