Moving internationally to undertake an assignment in a developing country is a fairly challenging affair. Roles can be undefined, work plans unclear, language difficulties a barrier, plus a host of other basic problems that would leave even the most positive person feeling flat.

Learning about these potential challenges at pre-departure training for my AYAD role in web development at Friends in Phnom Penh and feeling somewhat apprehensive before leaving Australia, I channelled Richard Simmons in a candlelit ceremony and devised a plan: keep active and say “yes” to as many things as possible.

In my first weeks I joined the AFL expat team the Cambodian Cobras. Being part of a large AYAD community is also a blessing. I have fallen in love with many in this small, tight-knit group (don’t you dare tell them I said that). Being part of these social/support groups allows me to have the most amazing experiences. I travelled to Vietnam with the Cobras to play in the Indo-China cup, attended the Phnom Penh Christmas ball, sailed away to a New Year Eve tropical island holiday and enjoy general shenanigans most weekends.

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Thankfully, working at an international NGO has made things in Phnom Penh surprisingly easy for me. Feeling at home at Friends and busy from day one, I’ve avoided the work issues and small psychological ills that can arise if you’re short on workload or struggling to adjust to Khmer work practices.

While my professional role is in web development, I am still able to visit the Mith Samlanh children centre. It is here that I really get to view the end product of our work. Working behind a desk I sometimes lose focus of the children and their programs. It’s sad but true. I become entangled in the web and all of its infinite possibilities.

Walking through the centre is a surreal experience. At times there will be hundreds of children playing volleyball, marbles and just generally being kids. The smaller children will inevitably approach and repeat “hello” over and over while waving their tiny little hands. They’ll cling to my legs and shirt bottom and call to be lifted into the air. They are cheeky and absolutely lovely.

The older children will politely smile and bow their head. It genuinely feels as if they are doing it in appreciation. The teachers and outreach workers smile and ask about my assignment and embarrass me by testing my Khmer. Occasionally I’ll just sit in the grounds watching the children play and speak with their teachers.

At times I can hardly believe I’m here. It’s almost as if I’m cheating. I’m not protecting habitat, assisting in land management, increasing farming productivity or clearing land mines. I’m here utilising the internet and its tools to promote an NGO. It doesn’t have the same air of importance as “I’m a lawyer working on the Khmer Rouge trials” does it?

The next project I’m working on is a Twitter presentation and workshop. Yes, that’s right, Twitter. The idea is to have many of the staff and managers tweet about their projects, field experiences etc. It’s not as simple as teaching about the method behind the technology; it’s also about changing habits and encouraging people to contribute to an online community. We have plans for the website and blogs which will enhance the social media work but they are currently a work in progress.

The internet has been a medium that Friends have, to date, not used effectively. While Facebook is widely used, I know that Twitter is something that no one in the office besides me and Friends founder Sebastien Marot use. It’s quite surprising given that every cafe and restaurant in Phnom Penh has free wifi. Even my local petrol station has it.

It has taken until now for my Khmer work mates to feel comfortable with me. I’m finding the Khmer people are mostly softly spoken, almost sensitive, polite and very respectful of hierarchy and elders. I was told at pre-departure training that the Khmer would see me, as a “youth ambassador” for Australia, as someone of great knowledge and wisdom. The term “ambassador” slightly intimidates the Khmer and totally embarrasses me. Wanting to remove any barriers, I employed simple things such as saying good morning and goodbye every day, talking softly and politely plus smiling as much as possible. I make an effort to sit or kneel next to my Khmer workmates when talking to them so we are on the same level.

Some of the younger members of the team have begun approaching me for work advice which is an amazing feeling. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything so it’s quite humbling being approached for assistance. I’m beginning to feel like the favourite uncle, or bong as the Khmer say. I’d really love a pipe and slippers…

But there are challenges day-to-day, from communication misunderstandings to technology problems such as internet/email failing for hours or days at a time. I’ve found the biggest difference is accepting the strict adherence to hierarchy.

In a Western society, in my experience, it’s not uncommon for employees to approach managers with ideas, problems and at times, confront management. In Cambodia it is very different. For example we have a brilliant young man in our team who has come from a poor and difficult background. After several conversations I clearly see he is wonderfully intelligent, highly driven but mindful of speaking out of turn because of the position he holds within the company.

Maybe it’s just a matter of finding a way around the culture divide so this young man can put forth his ideas and fulfil his amazing potential. I’m unsure if that’s the capacity building I was sent here to achieve but it’s something I’m becoming much more aware of as each working week passes.

Al Soutaris worked as a digital producer for Crikey before he abandoned us for his Cambodian adventures. He is spending a year working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia as part of the AYAD program.

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Peter Fray
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