Friday, March 27, 2015

A Priceless Gift in Cambodia

On our second day in Cambodia, my fellow 11 GCP travelers and I set out with our guide, Sopheara (which translates to “handsome”) to the countryside. Our plans included visiting an ancient temple and a Buddhist monastery and having a traditional lunch with a local family, who we were told, did not speak or understand English. Our guide would translate our questions and their responses.

Photo by Faith Ihongbe

We arrived at the lunch spot prior to the family and sat down on the mats at calf-high tables.  I could tell that we all were a little nervous, wondering what the family would be like and what they would think of us. It wasn’t too long before they arrived – a grandmother with her daughter, grandson and granddaughter. The grandson (we found out later that he was 6 years old), chewing on a can pop tab, almost immediately broke into tears and clung to his mother for security. His mother, translated through our guide, said he had little exposure to people outside of their home. How very strange we must have looked to him with our Western clothing, technology, and different skin and hair colors. The granddaughter (we found out that she was 8 years old) crouched down next to me at the table and starred up at me with her big brown eyes. I waved and smiled, trying to look as unintimidating as possible. I imagine she was just as scared as her brother but was trying to put on a brave face.  

Through our guide, Sopheara, our group learned that the grandmother was 78 years old and a mother of several daughters. We asked how many grandchildren she had. When Sopheara translated our question, she laughed and said in Khmer that she couldn’t remember because she had so many.  We also asked about her experiences during the time of the Khmer Rouge. She had been fortunate and did not lose any family members, most likely because her family was part of the peasant class and not a concern/threat to Pol Pot’s regime.

Photo by Michael Hollin

When lunch was over, we passed out Shenandoah University-themed trinkets to the family. For the grandmother, we presented her with an umbrella with an automatic opening button to shade her from the intense sun (after all Cambodia is close to the equator). She blessed us repeatedly in Khmer, and I couldn’t believe that such a gift (what I considered insignificant and boring) could result in so much praise and thanks. I’m not even sure, at that point, if she knew what we had given her, but she nevertheless expressed abundant gratitude.

We gave lanyards to the two children. I struggled with the selection of these gifts the most because I couldn’t imagine what they would use them for or why they even would want them. It’s not like they had keys or ID cards to attach to the lanyards. Still, I was compelled to find something useful about these lanyards for the children. I placed the lanyard over the little girl’s head, and remembering that the little boy had been chewing on a can pop tab, I broke off the nearest can pop tab and clipped it to the lanyard. I also removed the price tag card from the clip and set it on the table, thinking how rude of me it was to leave the price tag attached. She looked down at her lanyard and gave me a half smile.  I thought to myself, “Success! She now sees that she can use this as a necklace. I have given it a use and now she will like it!” The little girl bowed her head and put her hands in a lotus pose at her lips to say, “Thank you.” She stood up from the table to follow her grandmother but reached back to snatch the price tag I had removed from her lanyard earlier. I will forever recall this as my most memorable moment in Cambodia. Whereas I felt it rude (and completely unnecessary) to leave the price tag attached, the little girl perceived the price tag as part of the gift and equally important to cherish.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Where are you from?" vs. "What do you do?"

These questions are often exchanged in small talk, but in the US and Fiji, their priorities vary, as Peace Corps Volunteer Nichole Lange pointed out to me in Suva. In the US, we usually ask the "What do you do" question (or its university variation, "what's your major?") early in making someone’s acquaintance, but in Fiji, the conversation starter is "Where are you from?"

This difference in questions reflects something I teach but seldomly have experienced first-hand, which is the difference between collectivistic and individualistic cultures (Hui & Triandis, 1986). In the US and other individualistic cultures, we emphasize the individual. Achievement, independence, liberty, privacy, expression, self-esteem, performance: all of these things are stressed on an individual level. Thus, “what do you do?” is an appropriate way to find out about an individual person, with the assumption that what one does gives us a glimpse into their personality.

In Fiji and other collectivistic cultures, however, the group is the focus. Whether it’s the family, clan, village, island, or country, the whole is more important than its parts. The question “where are you from?” reflects this orientation, as one’s heritage, clan, and self are inextricably intertwined. In Kioa, we heard about the many young people who have gone to university or moved away, but still return to take over their homestead when their family asks. In Suva or Nadi, when workers heard we had come from Kioa, they were quick to proudly announce their own village roots. Tim Doak, our Peace Corps guide, when asked the question by Fijians, often replied “Au lako mai Kioa,” reflecting his identification and affection for his adopted home. Similarly, he spoke of his Fijian brothers, sisters, and parents across the islands as if related by blood.  

More examples of collectivism, especially in Kioa, abound. In discussing how Kioans have accomplished various things from installing electricity to preparing for feasts, the answers always revolved around “the community...” Tim obtained raw materials through a grant for their seawall, but the community worked together to build it in three days, as opposed to the seven Tim had expected. When the village hosts feasts, food is provided by the community in the form of plates contributed by each family. Material possessions tend to be thought of as communal, rather than individual, and are frequently borrowed without defined return dates. If one needs something back, one can find it in the community. (It is an island, after all.)

Feast at the Fatele
The village nearly doubles in size every Christmas season, when children come home from the mainland or abroad and stay for weeks in the community. On a micro-level, a clan or family acts as a community too. Families construct their houses themselves, as opposed to hiring contractors. Family members sleep in the same structure as a community, seldomly separated by walls or rooms.

The village council seems to make all the decisions by consensus, as opposed to a mayor or other sort of individual leader, and in cases of minor crimes or violations, the council, as a community, determines an individual’s punishment. The council collects, manages, and distributes income from tourist visits based on the needs of the community.

Even in the ceremonial Fatele dance, there was no one performer highlighted. There were dancers, singers, and drummers, but no solos or showcased performances. The performers were a community.  

Certainly this collective style of life has its drawbacks. Privacy, for example, is nonexistent, and individual freedoms were limited. I also didn’t notice the variety in personality or dress that one would expect in a similar-sized American community. But, collectivism isn’t the sole cause of these differences, as factors like religious conservativism or low socioeconomic status should be considered as well.

It should be noted, too, that other dimensions come into play besides collectivism-individualism. A society’s “verticality” refers to how strongly the society views its members as different from one another, as opposed to equal (Singelis, Triandis, Bhawuk, & Gelfand, 1995). From my perspective, Kioa would be more in the horizontal classification, with a strong emphasis on equality and sharing. Although, when gender comes into play (which could be a whole other post), the assumed male superiority and differentiation of roles evident in Kioa points in the vertical direction. Another cultural dimension is that of “face,” in which a society places a strong emphasis on a social image of harmony and cooperation (Leung & Cohen, 2011). Disagreement and controversy are avoided in cultures of face. Fiji fits this description, as Tim and others shared with us the concept of the “Fijian Yes,” which is a vocalized “yes” but one in which the speaker has no intention of actually doing what is asked of them. But, to maintain face, they put on the front of cooperation.

To conclude, I hope to use my experiences in Fiji, and especially Kioa, to teach the individualism-collectivism spectrum with more vivid examples, at a minimum, and ideally, to help me and and others deepen our understanding that there is more to a person than “what do you do?” 

--Scott King


Hui, C. H., & Triandis, H. C. (1986). Individualism-collectivism: A study of cross-cultural researchers. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 17, 225-248. doi:10.1177/0022002186017002006

Leung, Angela K.-Y., & Cohen, D. (2011). Within- and between-culture variation: Individual differences and the cultural logics of honor, face, and dignity cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 507-526.

Singelis, T. M., Triandis, H. C., Bhawuk, D. P. S., & Gelfand, M. J. (1995). Horizontal and vertical dimensions of individualism and collectivism: A theoretical and measurement refinement. Cross-Cultural Research, 29, 240-275. doi:10.1177/106939719502900302

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

GCP-Malaysia+ (Stranger in my home region?)

It's 4:04 am as i write this post. Not all who wander are lost (404 = Internet geek reference).
Yes, jetlag is real. I thought i could stave off the ZzZzZ-monster attacks, but it was futile. The mid day nap ended up being a a full blown eight hour Zzzzz-time - i woke up at 10:30pm. Now i'm wide awake pondering what i'll do in a couple of hours... Might as well blog a little
NOTE: I must remind outside readers of this blog that most GCP participants have never left the United States. In fact for some participants, the trip is their FIRST time on an airplane. Traveling non-stop for 25+ hours (flights + layovers) is NO JOKE even for the seasoned traveler.  

Being from the region, I have my expectations. Were they unreasonably high? I don’t know – Would you like to try durian? How about a runny half-boiled egg mixed with soy sauce? The point I’m making here is that I had to remember that the trip was not about what MY expectations were as much as what my group would experience in their short time.
(Remember, many participants have never left the United States. Whatever they know about these exotic foreign locales come from whatever research they can piece together – Wikipedia, Zoolander, Discovery Channel, Travel channel, lonely planet guidebooks etc).

I'm uncertain of previous GCP trips, but I believe I'm one of the few GCP trip leaders who comes (born and raised) from the region visited, hence my expectations.

GCP leaders are told to manage expectations on the run up to the trip, i.e. don't promise sun, sand, and sea, because you might end up with clouds, rainforests and humidity.

Sun - the blazing tropical sun was a constant companion but we are thankful for plentiful cloud cover.
Sand – we had sand and more (rocks, pebbles, mud) as we trekked rainforests (can’t forget the leaches too)
Sea – we had views of the sea and we were drenched in the humid weather.

It would be an experience.
Juxtapositions of new world and old world.
Strangely familiar, yet so foreign

These are some of my thoughts and observations.
1.      Eating at a hawker center (food court but a lot more hectic)
 “I’ve no idea what to order…”
 “Use that packet of tissue to reserve your spot!”
Experiencing a meal in Malaysia and Singapore can only be done at a Hawker center. Hot, stuffy and busy with people. You need to learn how to “chope(reserve)” your spot with a packet of tissue paper. You need to raise your voice a little to let the hawker aunty or uncle know what you want. You need to be ready to get yelled at because you can’t decide. This was a true experience.
2.      Food would be a challenge
 “We looked everywhere for pizza!”
 “Whoa! This is like food network good!”
I think we did well. It was certainly a stretch to try new foods. Readers need to realize that the “Asian” food that we have in these parts DOES NOT compare to what is found in Malaysia and Singapore (Much spicier, less “Americanized”). I think we all have our favorite foods from the trip. Ask around the group members. Somebody had SEVEN helpings of a particular dish :)

3.      Coffee in the US is rather watered down and pricey
“This Dunkin Donuts coffee is a little off. How much did your cost? It tastes great! $1.60?!”
“Going to make me some kopi-O when I get back!”
There was certainly yearning for Starbucks. Thankfully those were not difficult to find in the metropolitan areas of KL and Singapore. However, this afforded the opportunities to try the local coffee / tea / hot chocolate fare instead.

4.      I can’t haggle / bargain but my team can!
“Hey Boss! How much you want?”
“Hey, Boss. I give you discount”
I dislike bargaining with shop owners. I lack the skill. I’m pretty sure my group managed to get some rather sweet deals because of their excellent diplomatic bargaining skills!

5.      Our concept of religion and belief is sheltered
“We [in the USA] dislike discussing / sharing about other religions and beliefs”
“It’s like an experience to learn and know about another ethnic group’s religion. They openly share about their beliefs and they’re happy to do so”
Because of the multi-cultural / multi-ethnic nature of Malaysia and Singapore, the various religious beliefs of each group are evident in daily life. More important is the fact that these groups have not  fully embraced “post-modernism” (probably won't either). Though some might think this as backward, I see it as a stance against the loss of traditional values. Schools of thought come and go yet some traditions stand the test of time. We claim enlightened thinking as we press onward. Yet these traditional beliefs are the very basis of cultural identity.

6.      We take our resources for granted
“I can’t take the water challenge, I like long showers!” - ME
“I learned a lot about the rainforest and its value in medicine”
Resources that we use daily are an afterthought. We rarely stop to consider the amount of effort put into protecting them. There is much to learn from nature. She holds secrets that we have yet to discover. Yet we are willing to destroy nature because we “need” these resources. Needs and wants. Something to ponder.
Water is available at the turn of the tap. Yet there are nations that need to plan HOW they’ll provide water for its citizens in the future. The concept of environmental stewardship is essential.

It’s not about my expectations. It’s about the experience that each member gained.
Some will be all-in from the get go, while others will take a while to warm up. But in the end, it’s the experience that matters. I’ve been blessed with a solid group of participants.

And to my group:
1. “Oi! Faster upload the photos and videos lah!!!”
2. Hope your "lo hey" wishes come true! HUAT AH!!

It's truly a privilege to lead my group to Malaysia and Singapore.    
In my best Eric accent: Good morning!