Working in Cambodia: Perspectives on the Complexities of Cambodians and Expatriates Working Together by Leng Chhay and Jenny Pearson is a deceptively slim volume released by VBNK, an NGO that works to promote capacity development in Cambodia’s social development sector. At just 42 pages long, the book is packed with information that is invaluable to any expat in Cambodia.
The book was written to help encourage cross-cultural understanding within development organizations in Cambodia, and while the information within may be most useful to those in the development sector, the advice given is just as applicable to expats who run a business or employ someone to clean their house or care for their children.
Written by Jenny Pearson, a 19-year expat in Cambodia and her Khmer colleague, Leng Chhay, who helpfully articulates the Cambodian response to the foreign perspective, the book manages to demystify the behaviors of Cambodians that are so often at the heart of expat complaints. For example: Why do Cambodians want to sit around chatting about lunch for twenty minutes before getting started on the meeting agenda? or Why do Cambodians always tell me what I want to hear, even if it’s not true? or Why do my staff get angry when I make large purchases on certain days of the week?
Jenny’s deep knowledge about Cambodia and its culture is very clear in this book, and she has written a book that is both practical and generous. She explains what motivates behaviors that can seem strange or even dishonest to foreigners in a way that is sympathetic and easy to understand. Suddenly, when one realizes that foreigners and Cambodians have a different way of viewing the nature of time, human nature, activity and even reality, it is easier to understand how easily wires can be crossed and how misunderstandings occur.
“Maintaining harmony is a strongly held value in Cambodian culture, and is therefore also strong within organizations and affects how they function. This can lead to a range of behaviors that foreigners who do not share this value do not understand.”
The book is full of practical, actionable advice, that will make any long-term expat shake their head with recognition (and more than a little of that ‘Oops, I should have handled that differently’ feeling). About giving constructive criticism she writes, “If feedback is not given properly, often Cambodians will see it as blame and instead of accepting it and changing, they will look for ways to get revenge. Expatriates should make sure that when they give feedback to their Cambodian colleagues that they do it in a way which the Cambodians will not feel as blame.” And while the authors admit there are no easy answers to many of the issues that plague the Cambodian-expatriate relationship, the book gives the expat much to consider when reflecting on these issues.
Working in Cambodia was published in 2006, and undeniably much has changed since then. The book talks about the Khmer Rouge era and how the trauma that Cambodians went through influence their workplace behaviors and willingness to take risks. These days, though, in many organizations a large percentage of the staff were born after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Young people are often “freer in their thinking and in their ideas and creativity” but can have this independence crushed by older members of their workplace (or family, for that matter). Despite this, the book still offers the expat reader a valuable insight into Cambodian work culture, and is highly recommended.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of Working in Cambodia: Perspectives on the Complexities of Cambodians and Expatriates Working Together, you can visit the VBNK site. To learn more about Jenny Pearson, check out our interview with her about her nearly two decades in Cambodia.