Going Native

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

A typical rainy day in Phnom Penh where nothing stops

We often hear “when in Rome, do what the Romans do.” Some people I know did take it up a notch by becoming Romans.

I once met a young Irish photographer working as a part time English teacher in Phnom Penh. I was doing my first food review at a restaurant for a lifestyle magazine and he was doing the photography. So, we ended up having lunch together.

Midway through our conversation, his mobile phone rang. As soon as he answered the call, he went into a barrage of words in Khmer. I don’t know what it was, but he became more interesting from that point onwards. He told me about how he ended up in Cambodia.

“My mates and I were on our way to Australia. We were supposed to do one of those student exchange thingy. You know, spend six months in Australia doing whatever course we like, that sort of things. So, we made a brief stop-over in Phnom Penh before heading to Australia and I haven’t even gone to Australia since then. That was three years ago.”

My jaw dropped. “You mean, you didn’t go to Australia at all?”

“Yeah,” he replied and with a sheepish smile, added, “and I haven’t gone home since then as well.”

Apparently, as soon as he arrived in Phnom Penh, he got hooked. He spent several months travelling all over the country and if that wasn’t enough, he decided to settle down. He was afraid to leave Cambodia for fear he might not get back in again.

With his mates gone, as well as the money in his pockets but at the same time gaining many newfound Khmer friends and great fondness for the country, he ended up teaching the only thing native to him, English.

I couldn’t help but wonder what was a young guy like him doing in Phnom Penh all by himself? It couldn’t have been for the money since he didn’t look like one of those UN guys, reeked with the stench of money and sometimes with a whiff of “superior” air pouring out of their pores. No, he was modest-looking, down to earth, easy-going and warm, which made him instantly likable. It must be a local girl who had won him all over. That’s what love does to you and I’d seen quite a few of them settling down in a foreign land once they fall in love with a native.

Well, I was wrong and it shamed me to think that everything had to boil down to money or girls.

According to him, he felt an inexplicable connection to the country and its people, as if he was meant to be there. He started making friends quickly and effortlessly with the locals and from there, began to adopt the language, food and lifestyle. Unlike most expats, I could already sense that most of his friends are Khmers, by default.

“I’m going to Ireland this August for the first time after three years. Can you believe that?” He said in his pleasantly mild Irish accent.

“No, I can’t. So what are you saying? You’re finally tired of Cambodia after three years?” I had to ask out of curiosity. “Hell, no! It’s my bloody best mate’s wedding that I’ve got to attend. I haven’t seen him for three years!”

When we finished lunch, he offered to give me a ride on his motorcycle to another location for our next assignment. One glance at his red and white beat-up bike turned my stomach into knots. I’ve always had a bit of phobia when it comes to riding motorcycles, thanks to a nasty experience on a bike with my late uncle when I was twelve or thirteen.

Splendid spread at a temple during P'chum Ben (All Souls Day) celebrated for 15 days annually in remembrance of the dearly departed

I did a frantic search for a crash helmet, which would have been the only thing that could have coaxed me into riding the death machine. There was none. I gave him all the polite excuses I could find and yet he somehow managed to convince me that he would get us to our location in one piece.

After I saw the way he maneuvered around the throngs of traffic leisurely but confidently, without any side mirrors just like the locals, I began to calm down. As ironically as it sound, I trusted him simply because he had his "native radar" on.

A lovely wedding I attended in Phnom Penh. Father of the bride was a Hungarian doctor who married a Cambodian. I wonder if my photographer friend stayed back and started his own family as well.

During all my travels abroad, I’ve met very few people who have gone native. The term “going native” has always intrigued me. The thought of immersing and assimilating oneself so completely into a foreign culture and then adopting its identity amaze me more than anything else. It takes a lot of courage, passion and determination to go native.

Learning a new language and speaking it like a local is not an easy feat. Food can be a determining factor especially when the ingredients you are so used to are not available easily.

The biggest challenge of all has got to be the local culture and mentality. Without truly understanding or empathising how the locals think or do the things they do will certainly put you off as soon as the novelty of being in a new country wears off.

Needless to say, going native is not something you can mastermind or plan. It has to come naturally, from within. Simpatico is key.

I’ve been told by very few people that they feel a certain special connection with a particular place. As soon as they are there, they feel and know they are home. If reincarnation does exist, they believe that they must have been borne there in their previous life. I find this interesting and in a way privileged. Privileged to have that gut feeling in you, knowing where your soul belongs to and I truly envy that.

I have spent most of my life feeling restless. There is no special place in my heart. My home is defined by my family and friends and they are the ones who will always lead me back from wherever I am. Without them, I don’t think I’ll be able to call anywhere home.

As I said goodbye to the Khmer `barang’, I wondered what would be the first thing he think of when he sees the changes around him in Ireland after three years. Would he think about how much the people around him have changed or would he know immediately that the only thing that has changed is him?

29 June 2009


Tell me, would you give up everything that's familiar to you and start life all over again after you hit 40s?

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