This is our friend in Ko Chang island in Thailand who built his bamboo house on the beach. His name is pronounced “Cheyap” and in the few days my friend and I stayed with him for $1.75 US a night, he so generously made BBQ for anyone who passed by, hosted jam sessions, and welcomed people to come and hang out. He is so hospitable and open and when he told us how sad he gets when people constantly come and go, I almost shed a year.
I’m back in Vancouver, Canada for one more week before I start my new role as a Marketing Executive for a travel company in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
In the year and a half I’ve traveled in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Mauritius (Africa), I’ve experienced the most open people and the coldest people. It’s amazing how you can really feel the openness and warmness of different people no matter where in the world you are by their body language and energy.
The funny and generous woman in the middle is Potae, as she said, “Like potato but without the ‘toe.'” She manages V.R. Guesthouse in Chiang Mai. She manages the guesthouse completely on her own so imagine our surprise when she was busy with other clients, she closed her guesthouse at the risk of missing new guests just so she could drive us 15 minutes out of own to pick up our big backpacks instead of us using our motto. Talk about exceptional service!
In the time I spent in Asia, I learned that I connect much better with the local people than I do with many expats, people from other countries who are temporarily or permanently living in a different country than where they were brought up. I found the local people I met so much more welcoming, helpful and open than many expats I encountered. Don’t get me wrong, I have some very close expat friends in Siem Reap, but they probably make up 5% of the people I hang out regularly with in town.
I was surprised to learn that I actually feel a lot more comfortable sitting around a table with local people while they are speaking their own language that I don’t understand than with a group of cliquey expats who speak English. The energy of many local people is so welcoming that it’s easy to talk to anybody. Expats tend to be more selective about who they hang out with and it often feels like you have to say something to impress them or make yourself worth to be part of their group.
A good example of the contrast between warm and cold culture behaviours was when I went to a Cambodian birthday party and then a Canada Day party the day after in July 2013. I had only been in Cambodia for a few months and when one of my Cambodian friends invited me to her birthday, I brought a cake and was expecting to see maybe 20 people or so. Then when I arrived at her house, there were probably 50 people hanging around inside her house and on the front yard with food and beer. I would have been surprised if they even had time to cut my small cake at any point in the night.
John, the guy at the bottom with the dog, is a master scuba diver, amazing musician, in the navy, has been to Haiti on a U.N. mission and a couch surfing host for the past two years in Palawan, Philippines. He has had over 300 travelers stay at his beautiful bamboo house. My friend and I stayed for a few days and when we asked if we could stay two more nights, he simply texted us back and said, “Sure, stay as long as you want.”
She kindly brought me a plate of food and everyone, 98% Cambodian, was very open and easy to talk to. What I love about the people in the country is even if we don’t speak a common verbal language, they still make an effort to try and speak to people.
When you become friends with local people in Asia, even after knowing you for less than a day, they don’t go the extra mile for you, they will do everything in their ability to make sure you are happy or get what you need. In North American culture, we often feel like we are, “bothering people” or other people make us feel that way. I thought I was a good host but now I’ve learned how much more I can do to help people out or make them feel even more welcome.
The next day, I went a Canada Day “party” at a hotel and it was so North American in the sense that everyone was in their own separate groups and not really interacting with each other. I’m pretty sure there were more people at my friend’s birthday party at her house, which is a much smaller space than the hotel.
Case and point.
I was very happy to meet Lalha (right) on couch surfing in Jogyjakarta, Indonesia. She kindly hosted a few of us couch surfers, gave us rides, and spent time with us every night during the few days we were in town. When she couldn’t meet me the first day, she sent her friend to be her representative to hang out with me and offer me a place to stay.
I’m making a distinction between expats and travelers by the way. I’ve made amazing connections with open travelers around Asia and when you move where the winds take you on these adventures, you find people who share your values and curiosity of the world.
When I was in Vancouver, I loved having people at our place every week in our tiny kitchen making food together, meeting new friends and enjoying each other’s company. I told people they didn’t have to arrange a meeting time with me, they could just call me if they were around my area to simply say hi, have tea, shower or if they needed a place to crash. When I hosted people, it didn’t feel like work at all but people kept telling me I was really good at bringing people together and creating community, which I never thought of as being a talent.
When I couch surfed in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, I found people who were exactly like me and were even more open with their homes to new people than I was. One couch surfing host in Palawan, Philippines where we stayed had 300 people stay at his place in the last two years alone! In Tacomepai farm and Mindful Farm, I met the most open group of travelers than any other group I interacted with during the year and a half. My friend and I were only staying for a few days, but people spoke with us immediately, shared travel stories, expressed their deep philosophies around the camp fire and making meals together in the mountains.
This is my friend’s Sopheak’s mom in Banteay Meanchey in north Cambodia. I stayed at their house for a few days and even when her mom was extremely busy preparing for a pagoda ceremony and cooking for her newborn grandson, I was so touched when my friend told me that her mom took hours to prepare my favourite fish amok when she found out I was coming. That is hospitality at a whole new level.
Warm and cold cultures in Vancouver
I am extremely fortunate to have grown up in multicultural cities since I was a baby. I was literally colour-blind by people’s ethnicities because people mixing was the norm. When I was in high school and only hung out with one ethnicity on the rare occasion, I felt something was missing and I asked, “Where’s everyone else?”
I have learned a lot about various cultural practices and history just from conversations with my friends and it was such a rich experience to continue to work with different cultures in my professional life as well. I’ve experienced the vibrancy, expressiveness and passion when I interacted with former colleagues from the Philippines, Mexico, Singapore, Ethiopia and other backgrounds. When I spend time with them, I feel much more openness than from many other people who have grown up in Canada.
People outside of Vancouver city, however, are generally friendlier and more open. I don’t know what it is about the city effect that makes people much more cold.
I met a wonderful married couple a few days ago who came from Iran and they have been living, studying and working in Vancouver for the last 10 years. I have only met them three times in the past few years, but I can tell immediately by their energy that they are extremely modest, hardworking and kind.
The husband told me how it is still challenging to connect with people in Canada, he said, “In Iran people speak respectfully with each other and say hi and bye in the morning. When I say hi and bye to my boss and the people I work with, they don’t even answer.” That made me very angry and this breed of people exemplifies the coldest cultures that exist in Vancouver, and it’s often created and sustained by some company cultures, particularly if you work in law or some accounting departments. Would it really be so detrimental to at least have some courtesy to greet your colleagues in the morning?
I was even more angry to learn that his wife, who is an extremely genuine and kind person, encountered repeated bullying at her work. Her husband told me, “She is such a sweet person and we are very warm people I don’t know why this happened.” I told them if the problem can’t be resolved, they have every right to look for another job and not all companies are like this. There are places with more open people and every place has its own culture.
I’ve cherished all of the people who have spent time with me, helped me and given me gifts from their hearts in Vancouver and around the world. We are all responsible for creating community wherever we are and I want to spread the characteristics of warm and open cultures that I’ve been fortunate to experience wherever I go.