Rice Season

Fall is rice season in Cambodia.  October through January is the main harvest time with the variety I work with having its harvest period around US Thanksgiving.

For my work with organics, the Internal Inspections and control Systems have most of the work in late August through October. With external inspections at the end of that. Then November is rice buying month. Both in supporting the organic programs I work with and my own fledgling business with rice dryer experiments.

We really only had a thanks giving meal because a friend invited us over and i had to do almost no preparation (I bought ice cream and made salad). Also it was the weekend before thanksgiving as we were actually testing our first rice dryer prototype on Thanksgiving day. My dad was here and i think he would have missed thanksgiving celebrations if it were not for my friend. I am so glad for good friendships here to keep me sane.

After that I had some final rice season work trips. By the time rice work things were slowing down it was only a week before Christmas. I had no decorations up. No Christmas plans other than a date and time to skype with family and most of the presents were not wrapped yet….

I missed the anticipation of advent. In the US you see Christmas stuff everywhere (maybe even too much too early). Here if life is busy and you do not get to the foreigner modern grocery store for a while, you can literally forget it is almost Christmas. As much as all those decorations and holiday events/habits are not what Christmas is about, they do serve as a reminder.

I think most years rice season will be a busy time but hopefully I can learn to not miss out on the anticipation of advent and being thankful for God’s provision.

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Tips, bribes, and expediting fees

I have really been thinking about these topics lately and wondering if they really are all that different.

I know I am at risk of offending some without the same experiences or perspective, but at least read with an open mind.

When my husband and I were in the USA, he really had a hard time with the concept of tipping at restaurants. “Why do I have to pay more when I have already paid so  much for my food?” he would say.  The explanation was that it is the cultural custom and stems from the reality that servers are not paid a living wage.  In fact, they are exempt from the minimum wage laws because it is assumed that they will “make up” the difference (and sometimes more) in the “voluntary” tips given by customers.  Of course, some places and often for larger groups it is not voluntary at all but automatically added to the bill.

In Cambodia I often have a hard time with what many people call bribes.  In professions like police (particularly traffic police), lower level government employees, post office workers, and teachers in Cambodia also get paid below a living wage.  The assumption is that they will “make up” the difference (and sometimes more) in the “voluntary” amounts given by the people they serve (students, traffic violators, cars in a hurry, people receiving packages). Again in some situation and places, this is more “voluntary” than others.

To me the social logic behind the common practice is very similar. Usually tips are given after service and what westerns might call bribes in Cambodia are give either before or after depending on the situation. If you do not give the bribe you are at risk of not getting served or of getting sub-standard service. However, I know that if you are a repeat customer at a restaurant you get a lower level of service if you do not tip or do not tip well. Occasionally you here stories of unethical actions by servers to non-tippers or rude customers.

Is it really all that different? Why do we call one a tip and one a bribe?

Now about expediting services. It is common for there to be a faster service at a higher cost in the US. Getting a passport, for example. It can be done faster at a higher cost in both places. For passports, for both places it is actually officially posted. There are services in Cambodia (and probably some int he US) that are easier and faster if you use and expediting service.  For example extending your visa or getting a child’s birth certificate.  You can spend a couple months going back 10 times to get it done the regular way (sometimes still paying an ‘extra amount’ or you can get an intermediary (travel agent, village leader) to do it for you and have it done in less than a week without having to go anywhere.

I recently encounter a western certifying body that had a “fast track” where applicants could essentially jump in line for a higher fee. The major difference is that these are publicly announced programs/fees. For some thing in Cambodia there is no centralized place to publish these sorts of official expediting services . Birth certificates for example are the responsibility of each district. They get a form and record book from the central government and just issue them as needed.  Is it such a surprise that there is a way to expedite the process even if there is no sings, postings, website or even office to get it done either normally or ‘expedited’?

I guess I have been crossing cultures long enough that the differences are seeming to fade and the similarities are becoming more striking. I’m not saying it is always right to pay these unofficial ‘extra amounts’. On the other side, if there is room for tipping and expedited services in the west, is there also room for the same in developing countries? If it is not officially posted or is given before instead of after is it always really a ‘bribe’ or could it sometimes be called a ‘tip’?

If this article called it a teacher’s tip instead of a bribe, would the perspective be different?


I don’t have all the answers. I know there are definite inappropriate bribes but i have just been wondering about this whole topic lately.

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Supreme court

I don’t usually talk about what I have seen named “the issues of our time” on my blog. I do not usually feel like I have much knowledge or connection to many of them. Also, the right to free speech gives me the freedom to express my opinion, it does not mean there will be no consequences for what I express.

I started to become curious about the Supreme Court decision regarding same sex marriage with all the articles and posts in reaction to the decision.  There is so many basic world view assumptions and ideological stances involved in most positions I have see,

After reading several things from both sides then decided I would be better informed if I read the actual office document of the decision and the majority and dissenting opinions. By the way it is 103 pages long.

Not surprisingly, the decision was not based on what I expected based on the passionately held arguments by those on either side.  It really focused on two things. 1- the definition/interpretation of ‘liberty’. 2- The intended/rightful role of the Supreme Court (judiciary branch) in US governance.

After reading the opinions I have to side with the dissenting opinion of the minority. I do not think it is the role of the court to move the definition of marriage from state legislation to federal court rulings.  The supreme court’s job is to determine if actions are in accordance with laws not to decide if those laws ought to our ought not to be. I also think that affording the freedom to engage in certain actions is not the same as entitlement to rewards or benefits.  The way I understand liberty is that is is less regulation and not more.  It seems the same sex couples really wanted legal or monetary benefits but that is not actually the questions presented before or consider by the court.

Further, I have long wondered 2 things that are entwined into this issues (ei- the impact of the courts decision but not the reasons or process of the decision.. 1- When the ‘rights’ of two different parties conflict, how is it determined whose ‘rights’ supersede the other parties ‘rights’. 2- Some traditional or Biblical morals are illegal and other are not.  There is a line drawn somewhere in the “morality sand”. How is this determined and how does it move? How much is this a reflection of or an influence on culture?

Finally, I must admit to not having anyone close to me that homo-sexual (at least that I know of). If I were to have such a person in my life, I hope that I would respond with love and compassion.

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What almost made it into my newsletter!

I recently sent out a newsletter in which I talked about cross-cultural conflict. I originally had a longer story about it but decided to cut it down.  In the longer version I had much more about the cultural differences in handling conflict. I almost put an illustration of how cultures can be different but both good, and how each could be applicable to a certain context.  The only illustration I could think of at the time was taking a shower.  It went a little like this.

For example, taking a shower can be done in various ways.  As long as the end result is a clean body, it matters little if you take a shower completely naked in a tiny little room by yourself or outside dressed in a sarong next to the well beside the house. Both ways can be appropriate to a specific context.

Yeah, I think cutting that bit was a good move.

By the way I had the opportunity to brush up on my outdoor showering skills during our last family trip to the province. Our host house (with an enclosed bathroom) ran out of water. We went down the street to an aunt’s house and begged showers.

In case you were wondering the process actually involves 2 sarongs; one to get all wet and one to put on over it before you take the wet one off.  You then dress over (tops) and under (bottoms) the mostly dry sarong so your clothes don’t get big wet spots. When you are dressed you can pull the second sarong off and then you are done! There, now the mystery of how to get dressed modestly out in the open is revealed. (although most gals still prefer a semi- private area for the process).

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When Arranged Marriages Don’t Last

One thing I have learned in crossing cultures is that so many systems for living are just different.  From the little things to the big things, they just work, and are expected work, differently. One example is marriage.  Most marriages here are not built on the love of two individuals.  Many marriages are arranged for a variety of reasons from socio/economic status, labor needs, care taking of elderly parents, desire for grandchildren and many others.  If the parents know their children, are good judges of characters (they take it into account and not just economic considerations), and chose well, it can really work out well.

But, just like ‘love-matches’ in my home culture, the arranged marriages sometimes don’t last. I think that whatever system a culture uses, none are perfect.  Humans are just sinful and life together can be difficult. A few months ago we went to Choeun’s home town for two weddings and a house raising party. While there, I got to ask questions to Choeun’s friend whose arranged marriage lasted only 6 months.  We went to his wedding early last year.

Some Cultural questions;

Since you pay a bride price, do you get some back if she leaves you so soon into the marriage? Many men do demand money back but I did not. Her family is so poor and I do not want to hurt them even though they hurt me.  (Note: if it is a long time after the wedding there is no getting money back – how long I didn’t pin down).

Did you take out loans to pay for your bride price? No, I have paid everything in full so I am not paying for a bride I don’t have.  At least I don’t have that to deal with.

You don’t have kids, but if you did have any kids, to whom would they ‘belong’? According to him, the kids got to the dad (unless he abandons them) but according to Choeun they both have a right to the kids. I mostly see the kids with the mothers.

Do you think you will ever get back together?  No, I already signed the papers to release her.

Will you ever marry someone else?  I do not know. It hurt a lot to lose her so I am just concentrating on being grateful for my moto, house, food and business.

I did not try to delve too deeply as I felt he was already opening up a lot to me for some very unusual cultural/personal questions.

So, in both systems, marriage can work but can also end in brokenness and pain.  People are still people even when they live so differently.

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Learning to make Cambodian ‘cakes’

I actually learned to put together the snack cakes for a wedding. I still have no idea how to prepare the different ingredients. They are all packaged in banana leaves and then boiled/steamed.  The two I learned to make were ‘nom Anksom’ and ‘nom Korm’

cakes-02 cake making-1

Nom Anksom

First you choose 3-4 big pieces of banana leaf and arrange them in layers making a rectangle.  Place 2-3 handfuls of uncooked sticky rice in a rough rectangle in the middle of the leaves (taking up about 1/3 of the area). Then add the cooked bean mixture on top of the rice.  Place a strip or raw ‘three layer’ pork (which is mostly fat) in the middle.


Cover with bean mixture and then more sticky rice.  Lift both sides (lengthwise) to make a round ‘tube’ of cake material.  This will mean that the pork is in the middle surrounded by a layer bean then a layer of sticky rice. Fold down the edges ant make the leaves taught around the ingredients. Make sure it is evenly thick and round. Tie a strip of palm leaf around the middle temporarily. Turn it on the small end and use a banana leaf stem to tap the ingredients flat before folding the end shut.  Repeat on other side.


Finally tie strips of palm leaf around the whole thing about an inch apart, starting at one end and working toward the other.  The technique is a bit like a using a twisty tie but with long tails. Put the tails under the next band.  Take out the temporary one you did before when you get to it. Finish up by taking the longest tail and wrapping it around the others, tying a simple knot on the end to secure it all in place. Set aside to be taken to the giant pot of boiling water and start over.  I made 3 of these, the last one without any assistance.


‘Nom Korm’

These look simple but were actually harder to learn.  First you take two long strips of banana leaf about 4 inches in width and fold it like so.


Then you put in a small handful sticky rice in the corner created.  Use your fingers to make a little depression.  Place a ball of the coconut and palm sugar filling in the depression. Cover with a small amount of sticky rice to cover filing.  Push both side of the tail together and fold over.  Repeat 2-3 times. It should form a triangular pyramid but I had a hard time with that part.  Use a plastic string to wrap around twice and tie off.


These are the results.

cakes-01 cakes-04

Preperation day-6

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Koy’s Wedding

Back in September I posted about “helping” with the negotiation of an arranged marriage of a distant relative ( choeunandbeth.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/please-become-my-in-laws/ ). On Feb 15th, we attended his wedding.  Actually it is more frequently referred to in Khmer as “so-and-so’s child’s wedding” (Ie -Ta sang’s child’s wedding). Unfortunately we had two weddings to attend on that day at the same time so I don’t have every detail to share. (Yes- their wedding proceedings take long enough we could attend parts of both.) So, I’ll share as much as I can. And ad a bit from previous weddings to which I’ve been.

Preparation day

All the relatives show up at some point.  Most of them at least by the night before ‘preparation day’. A few straggle in during the early morning.  Supplies are bought including 50+ dozen bottles of water, 30+ cases of beer, 50 kg rice, one pig (for meat), a lot of fruit and much more.  The morning was spent making 100s of ‘cakes’ for the wedding. I actually ‘learned’ some and there will be a follow up post on that.

That afternoon all the stuff and people get transported to the Bride’s village. The event tents go up, some of the food prep is done and kept till morning.  Especially things for an extended family breakfast.

Wedding day

An early morning wake-up call blares in the form of songs over the loudspeaker.  Hopefully the cook is up already and the animals (pig/cow/chickens) are being slaughtered for the wedding feast. The parts not used in the wedding feast are put into a soup for breakfast which is served about 6 am.  The bride is getting her hair and make-up done (the groom has a bit longer before he has to get ready).

After everybody is all dressed up and ready, the proceedings start with the fruit procession.  The groom and all his guests (at this point family and close friends) arrange fruit, meat, beetle nut and sometimes other things (cans of Soda pop) on platters in pairs and walk over to the bride’s location carrying the fruit and playing music in a big parade. I am told there are 3 traditional songs that are sung during this part.

The ceremonies then begins. Usually only Family elders and special guests are in the room with the bride and groom. Outside, you can still hear the proceedings thanks to the amazingly loud loudspeakers. There is some back and forth between the representatives of each family in the form of traditional chanting like songs.

I think the next step is the hair cutting. Then a small bit of hair from both bride and groom is cut. It is a cleansing ceremony believed to bring the blessings of angels and begin the marriage with a clean slate. There are a couple more chant-songs that go with this.

Then there is the hand tying ceremony. Here the bride and groom kneel for a long time while relative and close friend bring words of blessing and gifts (money, gold, silver) for the couple. The givers usually come in pairs, one to each side, kneel and present the gifts in an envelope. These gifts meant to provide a start for their life together (business start-up, purchase of house hold items, etc.) and are kept by the young couple. Again there are traditional chant songs for this part too.

There are outfit changes (aka breaks for the participants) between each part.  Lunch happens at some point but tends to be light as most preparation is going into the evening wedding feast. So this part takes most of the day.  For Koy’s wedding, the ceremonial parts ended about 2 pm and the feast was to start from 4pm.

We were in the first set of tables to eat as we had another wedding to attend. These wedding feast can be both sides combined or done separately depending on the available space and desires of the families. As this is a ‘middle poor’ wedding, all the servers are cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles.  Really most of the extended family is involved in some way (we, um … my husband, did a lot of work through out the morning so he could say he had giving his part – all I did was spend about 20 min cutting veggies). Mostly the teen to thirty crowd are running to serve the tables and the older/younger relatives help in other ways (greeting, counting money, cooking, watching little ones, collecting recyclables).  The feast is almost always served on round table that seat 10 people.  Usually a table needs to be full before they will start serving (it is nice if you plan to arrive with friends and can fill/mostly fill a table).  Then there are 3-7 courses (I think they had 4) served along with rice, beer, water, and sometimes soda (pop). It is polite to wait until everyone is finished eating before getting up from the table.  Some (usually men) will hang around and continue to drink even after the table has disbanded.

At some point in attending the feast (either when you arrive or just before you leave) you need to give money, preferably in the envelope that came with the invitation.  Even if you are unable to attend you need to send the money.  It is a little like a community savings tool.  In my husband’s home town they record who gives and how much (other areas of Cambodia do not record it). If a person/family came/gave to your wedding or you want them to come/give to your future wedding, you need to give the going rate. Thus the giving obligation circulates as a sort of community finance thing.  Yes, my husband knows who gave to our engagement ceremony/party and remembers if it was a normal or generous amount.  We ‘give back’ accordingly. I just have to trust his judgements on the amounts as it all seems confusing to me. All the money collected in connection with the wedding is hoped to cover the cost of food and such for the wedding. In my husband’s circle you are doing well if you can cover all cost and a bit of the dowry. Usually this money is not for the newly married couple (if there is extra, they may get some).

After this we left to another wedding feast.  But I know that if we had stayed, sometime shortly after dark the dancing would start.  At the beginning of the dancing there is often a dance around the cake and/or fruit (set up on a round table in the middle of the dance floor) by the bride, groom, and wedding party. The fruit and/or cake is then served to guests while dancing continues. There are usually a few traditional songs to which you dance around slowly in half steps to a two steps forward one step back pattern. Then a few ‘modern songs’ to which mostly young people bob up and down (um… dance?).  Then back to traditional song and dancing.  This goes on until the wee hours of the morning with dwindling participants. The bride, groom and older people tend to head off to other locations relatively early (maybe after the first hour of dancing). Usually the volume is extra loud the entire time and can be heard even up to 5 km away in rural areas (don’t ask me how I know!).

I am told the proceedings used to take three days (with feasting/dancing each night). Now it can take 1-3 days.  For this wedding the main part was all in one day.

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