Upside Down and Inside Out

The idea of my parents going through a bit of culture shock during this trip has crossed my mind today a few times. I sometimes forget how long I have been away from my home country. Often times, I find that I experience the opposite effect – the “reverse culture shock”. Meaning, what once was the norm at home, has become different to me.

Some of the things that I feel this effect on when I go home can seem silly to some. My sister thought it was a bit funny that I felt unsafe running through a park alone in Toronto. It wasn’t the park that was scary to me – it was the lack of people. It feels extremely unsettling now to me to run for almost 5km and not see a soul. This simply does not happen here in Singapore. I could walk out of my house right now at 9:30pm and see literally hundreds of people walking around the streets and jogging along the canal.

Something I also notice right away when I am home in a city in Canada is the amount of homeless people and especially those with severe mental illnesses and sometimes with disabilities. I will probably have this site shut down for saying this, but obviously there are people here with similar issues. But where are they? It is definitely a different experience on the streets of Toronto and it is impossible not to notice it when I am home.

There have been many other things that I am left standing with my mouth a little agape when I come home for a visit. Some of the first examples that pop into my head are with food. The grocery store in Canada absolutely baffles me. I have completely forgotten this experience and am in utter amazement every time I step foot into one when I go home. There are hundreds of thousands of options and there is anything that anyone could ever dream of in terms of food, pharmacy, hygiene and more. And that is just at my local small town grocery store. The specialty ones in the city are a whole other experience.

Another shock I had was a couple of summers ago was the quantities in which restaurants served food at times. We were in Frankenmuth, Michigan in the USA and we went for one of the famous chicken dinners. I COULD NOT believe the amount of food that people were consuming in there. This was extreme culture shock for me. I STILL talk about this experience all the time and I still can’t comprehend it.

I could go on and on and on with all of my reverse culture shock experiences. There are many and the longer I am away, the more my norms shift. It is an interesting experience to feel it in your own home country after knowing only that for 25 years of my life. Reflecting on this, I need to make sure I am aware of my own changes so that I can be a bit more aware of what my parents are about to go through during their visit.

My first concern is them navigating the big city of Singers solo while I am at work. I know they can do it and if they are going to go anywhere on their own, Singapore is definitely the place for them to be. It’s safe. Roughly everyone speaks English. And everything is sign posted in English. For me, it seems like the easiest place in the world. To them, it might be a different story. So I am going to have to make sure they are well prepared for their journeys around town. Armed with a local sim card. Our phone numbers already plugged in and also the hotlines for the taxi cab companies… they really can’t go wrong.

Our next big leap will be Cambodia. I distinctly remember my first trip there. It was definitely a new experience and obviously one that has left a very lasting impression on me. There will be people in the streets. But unlike Toronto, many will be whole families. We will come across children begging, selling stuff or asking for us to buy them something. This is the reality of Cambodia, and one that I have unfortunately grown accustomed to seeing during my visits. It doesn’t take away the desire to want to help, it is just less of a shock to see it now for me.

My friend Andrea, who used to live in Phnom Penh, posted a very interesting article about the reality of child beggars in many countries “Keep the Change. Giving money to child beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do”.  It is hard to look at a child begging you for money or food or pens for school or whatever, and not feel it in your gut that you need to help them. This will inevitably be an extremely difficult experience for my parents, as it is for me every time I go. However, the reality is that if you give them money – the money doesn’t really go to them or their families. Any little gift you give them, will get sold for money. The money then often goes to someone else and even worse (see the article for more details). It is a perpetual cycle and the only way to stop it is by not giving those kids money. It is difficult because all you want to do is to help but the best thing any traveller can do is to give them a warm smile, maybe a sticker (like my friend Kendra always does) and give your money to an NGO that is guaranteed to do something good with your money. Then through their programs they can get the families off the streets, into education and hopefully then into the world of gainful employment where they can earn money to support themselves. Reputable organizations are there to help and they know how it works in the country they are stationed in. Trust in the fact that they are working towards a permanent solution rather than a temporary one like giving a few dollars away.

This is exactly why we are going to Cambodia and what we are there to support. The People Improvement Organization (PIO) gets kids off the street, into school and the ideal situation is for students to then go on to university if enough money can be raised. It is also the mission of the Tabitha Foundation (the organization that helps us to provide houses) to provide more sustainable solutions for poverty. During our trip, we aren’t simply just putting a roof over someone’s head. These organizations to recognize and develop inherent skills and resources in a way that brings dignity and respect to the people whom they help. The result will be in measurable and visible improvements in the lifestyles of the people who they help.

Though it may be difficult to see past the initial culture shock of experiencing the reality of what many Cambodian people live, we are there to help in a way that actually work to allow people to move beyond the poverty which they face. Focusing on the good in people, the kindness and resilience of the Cambodian people who we will meet, and the organizations who are there to support them – my parent’s experience should move from being a shock to them, to that of reward for doing something that is right, sustainable and useful.

Within that one week we will spend there, I am sure that they will fall in love with Cambodia much like I have and their feelings will be turned upside down and inside out. It will be worth every moment.

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Want to help us support the cause?

Go to bit/ly.tabithaca

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About K.O.

I am a middle school Drama specialist and boxing enthusiast. I love to spend time with friends and family in Singapore and Canada, travelling, watching movies and then writing about my experiences here.

Posted on October 1, 2013, in Canada, Travels. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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