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Random Australians

5 Jun

I remember sitting in a café in my home town waiting to meet up with a friend a couple of days after returning from Cambodia. As I sat and waited for her I couldn’t help but notice how random Australians are. In the 10 minutes I was sitting there I overheard some older ladies who could have easily been the characters Prue and Trude (snobs) from the show Kath and Kim say “Oh just put it on the David Jones account darling”. I looked outside to see a young guy dressed in what I assumed was punk clothes (it could have been Emo or Goth. I still don’t know or care about the difference) pushing a pram, he was followed by what I can only describe as a Bogan wearing stubbies and a wife beater (I’m not really one for the political correctness). The one similarity is that they were all so white. If you knew me you would see the irony in this statement. To put it bluntly if you looked at me on a sunny day at the beach you would need to avert your eyes due to the sun reflecting off my skin. My shock only increased when I went to church with my mother. There’s nothing old white people love more than church you see. Buddhist temples are way more fun than listening to a bunch of old white people sing the same old songs in their tone deaf voices, and repeat the same old words in a monotone. For the next few weeks this theme of the sameness and randomness of Australians kept cropping up as I looked at my home from the outside. In Cambodia people don’t have genre identities to cling too. Most people wear jeans and t-shirts (despite the ridiculous heat) except for some of the older Khmer ladies who like to wear satin pyjamas. Pyjamas during the day? Basically it was my version of a fashion heaven.

Other things struck me about Australians. Why does everyone say we’re so friendly? Maybe compared to other Western Nations but compared to the rest of the world we’re as cold as Europe. One day I was walking to my friend’s house when a little kid getting out of a car with his mother smiled and waved at me. Being a common situation in Cambodia I didn’t think twice about stopping and talking to him. I was interrupted by his mother who said loudly “Come on Thomas. You don’t know that lady!” and she proceeded to drag him away from me whilst giving me an angry glare. When I got to my friend’s house she was greeted with “I hate Australia. I miss Cambodia!”
I began to grow resentment towards my home. To me Australia seemed materialistic, unfriendly, selfish, racist and above all, had completely lost sight of what was important. In developing countries people have nothing but life is always centred around family, friends and community. This resentment eventually faded but stirs up in me sometimes when I look at Australian attitudes towards issues such as refugees, climate change, or indigenous rights. When it comes to these bigger issues Australians ultimately think in terms of their back pocket. But why? After travelling in developing in countries you realise we have no reason to be selfish or to complain. It seems unfortunately that “everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy”. I still love Australians and when I travel it’s always the people I miss most. I think if more Australians did some volunteer work abroad or even at home we might be more of a compassionate nation. I wonder if I could run a campaign for Cambodian volunteer tourism. “Where the bloody hell are ya?” “Cambodiya!” ….hmmmm…it could work?

Repetition and immunity

22 May

Found things like thisbreathtaking at first, then after a few weeks it didn’t phase me, its like I stopped seeing and I accepted that its just how things are.

It did make the time – off hard, and got me thinking about my standards of normality and if that was all I’d known, then to see a half empty sydney bus (esp the ones that don’t move until people are seated) would do my head in.

What makes a cultural experience a good one?

21 May

What makes a cultural experience a good one? I think good in this case means something like feeling part of a culture, being immersed in it or in other words: getting over your culture-shock, because you start seeing the culture that ‘shocked’ you as ‘normal’. To put the terminology right: I used culture-shock in this blog kind of as ‘not feeling at home’. A bit of that feeling you have when coming in a strange place and having no clue what is going on and what is considered as normal in that place.

I think managed to overcome my culture-shock in Guatemala, but not so much in Australia. In this blog I want to try to identify some of the factors that help to overcome a culture-shock by comparing these two experiences.

In Guatemala I felt like an outsider until I learned to speak the language and became able to interact with my host family and started to make local friends. From the moment I tried to communicate in Spanish I ate with locals, partied with locals and worked with locals on my project. As for Australia my local interaction is not that intense. I live with a bunch of internationals in the village and contact with Aussies is pretty much limited to some people I know from my classes. So one of the factors to overcome a culture-shock is the intensity (and duration) of contact with the locals. To increase this intensity you should speak the language, but more live with (and like) the locals.

A second factor I thought of is money. You need to be able to do something, travel around, party and meet people. The more locals you speak with, the better you will understand their culture and it’s internal differences. In Australia I happen to be chronically short of money and stay at home a lot to watch a movie and drink a beer from the liquor store. In Guatemala it was a bit like I had cash to burn. It’s relatively cheap for an European, so in three months I had seen every bar in Antigua, traveled around the whole country and talked with many different Guatemalans in many different places.

A third factor definitely is the openness of the foreign culture. Australia is one of those cultures that overuses technology: think about it, how much communication goes via Facebook alone already? Australia is also not a closed culture, people and friendly and willing to help, but it’s not comparable to Guatemala. I think it also helps to do something different than just tourism. It’s more likely that you get an understanding of a local culture by studying together or teaching school kids rather than asking somebody from STA-travel to show you an aboriginal site.

In Guatemala I learned what it was like to be a Guatemalan, in Australia I’m still an international hanging out with other people who don’t have a clue in what sort of country they’re actually living. Not that it really matters, my main reason for being here is to study, but the point to make is that whether you feel at home in a foreign country or not depends partly on the foreign culture and partly on what you do in that country and how much effort you put in to actually understand why you are ‘culture-shocked’

Reverse Layover Shock

11 May

I experienced many of the same feelings volunteering in Cambodia as I did on my exchange experience in Mexico. One of the main similarities was culture shock and reverse culture shock. When I first arrived into Mexico City I was overwhelmed and overtired. When I look back most of the people in the airport were actually quite friendly. But when I went to buy a phone so I could call my parents the girl at the counter was incredibly snobby and unhelpful. She refused to even try to understand my basic Spanish and made a joke about me to her friend in front of my face. At the time this was the biggest blow to me. For one, it made me incredibly insecure about my Spanish skills. I thought that if in the international airport of Mexico City a sales assistant didn’t speak English then what hope was there of anyone understanding me in the small city of Querétaro. However, as soon as I went to the bus station someone was more than willing to help me (Mexican men are more than happy to help out white foreign women!) and when I got the taxi from the bus station to my uni I had a great chat to the taxi driver in Spanglish and a bit of my confidence was restored.

Coming back to Australia I had reverse culture shock before I’d even got to Australia. Flying back after my amazing experience I had to go though LA airport (and I say HAD TO because anyone who’s flown through LAX knows it’s the worst airport ever). As I left México airport I chatted with people in the line and to airport staff. They were helpful, friendly and didn’t say anything about my bag being overweight. I helped the Mexicans next to me fill out their immigration forms on the plane while I reminisced about all the amazing experiences I had. Then I arrived at LAX and the nightmare began. When I tried to check in I was asked if I was given a green slip on arrival. I replied that I was not given one. The lady then explained I needed to go to immigration to get this green slip. I then went to go through custom. I was told I wasn’t allowed through without a boarding pass first. And so began my journey of walking around the maze of LAX trying to find a green slip. Nobody seemed to know what the rules about this green slip were. The icing on the LAX cake of crap was when a border security man screamed at me to put my flip flops through the x-ray. Being overtired and not aware that flip flops was an American word for thongs I apparently wore down his patience. I couldn’t help but think ‘If I got screamed at for not knowing one American word, imagine what happens to all the people who come through here who don’t speak English.’ I didn’t get that stupid green slip until I was just about to get on the plane and the hostess handed it to me in a blasé manner as if it didn’t matter at all. The whole time I was thinking ‘I just wanna go back to Mexico’. It’s strange how a culture so differnt from your own can become so much more comforting than one which is similar.


10 May

Claro? Huh?

Claro was the mobile phone provider we used in Peru; Claro is just like Vodafone, except it actually works.  Since returning back to Sydney, I come across things that remind me of my trip to Cusco. The other day I came across my 70 soles ($20) phone that I had used in Peru. I put it on charge and then went back through the messages. In this blog, I will share a few of the messages that were sent and what they mean to me.

Myself > My Mum

“MUM!! You have to see this! This place is beautiful, the people are stunning, and the atmosphere is vibrant. I never want to come home.”

This message was sent straight after we saw the village that we would be working in for the first time. Cusco was an amazing city, it really was stunning. The view from the community took my breath away, huge green mountains staring a shadow down were bold and magnificent to look at. The Peruvian people living in the community had a sweet presence on them, they were so happy, warm and welcoming. I loved the whole experience!!!

Myself > Renee (sister)

“We can do more. These people are so beautiful and they need so much more. Why are we all so self focused?”

This comment is self explanatory. It’s true! We think of ourselves and not others. Living in a poor community for a month opens your eyes in a new way and it is hard to deal with when you return back home.

Myself > John Shamon (friend still in Sydney)

“Johnnnyyyyy.. matey. I miss yuouu. I wishh you were here. We re celebrating big. Just finished our work at the community! The women are B.E.A-utiful. I’m nearly drunjk., “

You may be laughing at this message or you may be, well, confused. On our final night in Cusco, we had a big one. Yes, a big one. Lots of drinks, lots of party and way too much alcohol. We were celebrating the work that we had achieved. I don’t recommend getting drunk but I do recommend that you celebrate when you achieve something. We had achieved so much over the month and we had a right to celebrate. You probably shouldn’t send drunken text messages but this is what I sent to one of my best friends in Sydney. And it’s true, the women were beautiful. ❤ haha

Myself > Gran

“These people have nothing but yet they are so happy. Happier than you and me.”

The people literally have nothing; they have to grow their own food because they have absolutely no money to buy anything. But, I do believe they are happier than most of the people in Australia. They are so happy!!! They made me realise, that there is more to life than monetary rewards and assets. The Peruvian people valued family and friends over money and possessions. We can all learn something from them. This challenged me when I returned home to Sydney.

Myself > Mum

“This was the best month of my life, I can’t wait to see everyone very soon Love you”

The month when I was away was so rewarding for the community and myself. I enjoyed myself so much, while learning a lot about life. I learnt how other live and what I value. I did miss home at some times throughout the trip but if I had it my way I would have stayed much longer. It was great to see family again and when you spend time away from home, you realise what you value most in life.






Guilty Pleasures

5 May

One of the things I found strange when volunteering overseas was the standard of living I had. Being accustomed to the uni student life of paying ridiculous Sydney rent prices and always looking for the cheapest food or bottle/box of wine, I felt like I was living the high life in Cambodia. They had every type of restaurant in Phnom Penh at decent prices. Getting around on a moto was less than a couple of dollars. We even had a cleaner who came to our apartment three times a week. This also allowed me to travel to Angkor Wat, to Kampot, and to the beautiful beaches in the South. I also spent a week in Vietnam during Christmas. In sickening contrast to this was the extreme poverty on the streets of Phnom Penh which I saw every day. To someone who doesn’t even have enough money to leave their town or city the idea of getting on a plane to come to another country seems ridiculous. I remember my sister telling me that when she worked in a school in Fiji her students gave her presents when she left and one of them asked her “Are you going to put them in your golden room?” That’s how far removed we seem from their world.

So when you walk past someone begging for money and you tell yourself you don’t have enough to spare it’s no wonder the guilt sets in. Some argue that it’s wrong to give money to people on the street as it encourages dependency. Even the organisation I worked for promoted this idea. At first I agreed with them and what first shocked me, I soon became desensitised to.

A defining moment for me was when I walked straight past a man with no legs dragging himself along the ground on a skateboard. My sister, who was horrified by this situation, stopped to give him money. At that moment I thought Wow. I think I just lost my humanity? It was then I questioned my theories on poverty. The whole ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime’ seems a little simplistic (especially when climate change is drying up many of the rivers!) What hope did that man have of getting a job? There certainly wasn’t enough government support or NGOs to help all of the people in Cambodia. I learnt that there is no perfect way to react to the poverty you see when you’re an outsider. What helped ease my guilt was my volunteer work, and interacting with the community. Cambodians are so friendly and always have a smile on their face. I never felt any resentment from them and I always had a great time chatting with them and playing with the kids.

There’s a buzz in Cambodia you don’t get here. Things are changing and people are excited about it. I don’t feel I made any lasting difference in Cambodia but I could see the social enterprise I was working for changing the lives of many Cambodian families. The change is slow but I hope that one day they will get the standard of living that they deserve; and if in some miniscule way I helped this change then I guess the guilt is worth it.

Culture Envy?

1 May

Prior to embarking on any ‘cross-cultural’ endeavour participants are warned of the inevitable experience of culture shock. At some stage one is likely to feel out of place, homesick, resentful towards their in-country hosts and may even experience physical symptoms! We are also prepared for the shock of returning home to a place that is seemingly oblivious to the amazing and horrendous things that we have witnessed, an experience that is, at best, unsettling.

It is this return to the familiar and the friendly that has had the biggest impact on me, has changed me the most. While culture shock came, assaulted, and faded away, a much more permanent and surprising condition has taken hold: CULTURE ENVY!

As other contributors have expressed, it is perfectly normal to see your world in a new way; to critique consumerism, chastise racism, and condemn foreign policies. For me I believe this is also part of becoming an adult, particularly influenced by my university education – I am reminded constantly to be critical of ‘the norm’! However, my fundamental opposition to so much of what happens around me has prompted this culture envy.

While overseas, I delighted in buying conical hats and eating Pho with chopsticks in Vietnam, and parading in my shalwar and eating chapatti with my fingers in India. It was all part of the excitement of make-believe. But beyond those superficialities I have come to envy these people whose cultures are apparently so definite. Perhaps I am just mourning the absence of my own sense of culture – I don’t know what it means to be a white 22 year old female in Australia. Being an immigrant from the UK I find myself jealous of other migrant groups who steadfastly maintain their sense of identity through community organisations, the arts, and within the family unit. It is not the food or the clothes that I envy, no. It is this sense of belonging, this seemingly stable (though no doubt complex) system in which everyone has their place. The Afghan detainees at Curtin Detention Centre in WA were so determined to defend their ethnicity and religion that they had spent their whole savings to travel in a rickety boat across the ocean in the hope of Australia’s protection. What do I have to fight for?

Do I REALLY envy this?

Being an anthropology student I am sadly forced to question my own assumptions and ask whether these ‘cultures’ really are so stable. After all, my colleagues in India were vehemently opposed to the systemic discrimination of women and caste groups. And I am reminded of the Vietnamese youth who, despite living in remote agrarian villages, delighted in their satellite TVs, mobile phones and western pop music. Even some of the Afghan men talked excitedly about the prospect of visiting Australia’s night clubs (or ‘discos’ to them!), something that has never thrilled me…

So what does all this mean?

At the end of the day I should replace this envy with gratitude for having been welcomed into the lives of countless interesting people across the globe. Without their influence I could not hope to be in the place that I am now. I may not know exactly where I belong, or even where I want to belong, but I am so SO grateful that I live in a place where I have some choice in the matter.

Indian for a day vs Indian for a lifetime

Homeless in Harvard

29 Apr

Who has seen Legally Blonde? All of you? Good! Do you remember this image of Harvard’s red brick buildings and its prestigious…lawns? Yes? Good no.2.Well, I’ll get to that later…

I am in a very “returned from volunteering” type of mood right now, which is lucky for anyone who wants to think about returning from volunteering, because I am meant to be studying right now
but I’ll return to that later as well I guess…

I wanted to mention a bit of a culture shock for me…or maybe more shocking for the people witnessing…especially my brother.

In 2008 I travelled to Guyana where I worked for 3 months. Now can I just say that regardless of what Lonely Planet says (Lonely Planet is mainly nonsense with fancy photography…and I once saw in a Lonely planet yearbook – I think it was 2010 – that Afghanistan was characterised by its amazing history and Guyana by its horrible crime)…Guyana is a beautiful country swept up in a swathe of Amazonian amazements, a scent of Caribbean Carnivale, and the taste of sweet cocunut bread…

I loved it there and will be talking about its wishful wonders washed up in a whirlwind of history more down the track (note: that was an alluring grab so that you keep reading my posts!).

But what I wanted to mention is what I did straight after Guyana.

After 3 months in Guyana, I was wisked off to New York (this should be sung like Alicia Keys does btw), Chicago (A tourist’s delight in the Summer: think Gotham city, but in the Summertime with so many free music and arts festivals that I think even the hippies had to stop smoking just to keep up)…and finally to meet my brother in Boston…here’s where the Harvard thing comes in…

Now, not only was I massively culture shocked by Chicago (but made some great friends who took me to CHURCH! – think of Big Mama’s House if you can – Evanglical churches on the South Side that reminded me a lot of Guyana) but I was trying to bring a lot of my lifestyle from Guyana into CHicago…namely, being a little dirtier than normal and walking barefoot…or in thongs at most – at this point I did not owne shoes…

This was a bit of a shock to my half-brother. He is the brains of the bunch and is studying at Harvard. I thought it would be great to stay with him for a week. So did he…

that was until he saw me from across Harvard’s prestigious lawn. Barefoot, and a little dirtier and the rest.

I hadn’t seen my brother for about 4 years, and I think in that moment, he wished it could have been 4 more…

but we ended up having a great time…even though he still and always will think I am weird…

However, all the while I couldn’t help thinking…that the grass beneath my feet was so finely cut, that it barely felt like grass at all. It was greener than the imagined colour green. And it smelled so full of grass and nothing of dirt. It is a truely beautiful lawn…

But I couldn’t help thinking that if the amount of money that went into Harvard’s prestigious lawns went into helping a homeless friend I made on the lawn that day…or even was redistributed back into some of the Guyanese communities I had just come from….maybe people would think that was even more beautiful than clean grass…

Still Struggling

17 Apr
My home in high up Cusco surrounded by green, lush mountains

I am still struggling to get the hang of blogging about my experiences. For how does one describe the most challenging, life changing and best moments of my life? How do I take all of my memories and put it on paper in a way that others can understand and hopefully relate. The last couple of months were a whirlwind of emotion and newness. I met unforgettable people, which cause me to continually question when and if I will ever see them again. It is still hard being back. I wonder if this feeling will ever go away?

I went to Cusco, volunteered and left. While they continue to live in their mud brick homes waiting for a new batch of volunteers. I wonder if they think about me everyday, like I think of them. It is hard when there is no way of communicating with them. In the day and age where communication with my international friends is easily facilitated through Facebook and Skype, I have no means of this kind of communication with the people in the villages that I grew to love like my own family.

I promised Doris, my favourite 9-year-old girl from Quilla Huata, that I’d be back in three years. Was that foolish? I have every intention of returning but overtime things can change. Volunteering goes far beyond the five allocated weeks. Being immersed in a rich culture was difficult yet fulfilling, satisfying yet tiring. Long after returning to Sydney, the experience still enriches me yet leaves me with a longing to be back in the lush mountains. I miss the hard labour, early mornings, sore muscles, the eager kids’ hugs, the food and everything else. The songs that I heard over there now have new meaning when I hear it here. It seems that every little thing reminds me of Cusco.

Sometimes I feel like I am the only one out of my friends who went that still feels unsettled here. They don’t talk about Peru as much anymore. I know they miss it too but I somehow feel on my own right now. I frantically stalk Peru’s Challenge’s (the NGO that I worked for) website, Facebook and Twitter page just to feel like I am still a part of what goes on.

Overlooking Cusco

Doris on the first day

Doris and I on the last day

How did you guys cope when you returned from your trip? Or have you? Are you like me, knowing that your time here is just space and time filler until you can return?

Honey ants on a chip packet

9 Apr

A friend put this photo on her facebook profile the other day (don’t worry, I asked her for permission to use it!).  For me, it epitomises my initial impressions of Yuendumu, an Indigenous community 300km Northwest of Alice Springs.  Yuendumu shocked me – I had been to majority-world countries, I had seen malnourished and diseased children, and I had waded through streets full of rubbish – but I had never done these things in my own country.  A country, furthermore, that has one of the highest standards of living, lowest maternal mortality rates, and best educational oppurtunities in the world.  Except for Yuendumu of course,  and other Indigneous communities like it.

Experiencing extreme culture shock in one’s own country is a nasty, insidious experience.  Many people can’t cope with it, and this is one of the (many) reasons there is such a high turnover of staff in community organisations.  We prepare ourselves when we travel overseas, we breath deeply and vow to help, we look at it straight on, knowing that acknowledging this poverty and inhumanity is all we can give people.  And then (most of us) go home.

Yuendumu, and any other majority-world place in our own country, does not allow us to do that.  It sticks with us, under our skin, in our nostrils.  The air and dust and dirt stay inside us, and the names and faces of the people waltz through our heads.  It has been more than four years since I lived and worked in Yuendumu.  And then Shaurita’s photo pops up on my newsfeed, and the juxtaposition of culture and modernity, of majority-world poverty and 21st century iphones, of honey ants and a chip packet, draws me back into my culture shock.

And I am home.

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