Living With My Host Family

Before I start this post I should mention that two more volunteers have arrived at the house: Jennifer and Catherine. Jennifer’s from Buffalo, New York (not at all near New York City) and is a long-time traveller. Catherine’s from Belfast in Northern Ireland, and before she came here she was teaching English in South Korea. (South Korea’s pretty different from Cambodia, but still.)

I haven’t gotten to talk to either of them that much; the holiday is over and we’re all working again, and the two of them work at a school about an hour away from Phnom Penh (that’s driving on bad roads, but still). But they’re both cool people so far.

So, what’s it like living here? Well, let me walk you through a typical day…


I’ve been waking up around 6:00 or 6:30 each morning, taking the jetlag opportunity to completely change my schedule from what it was in college. The bed and pillow are both harder than what I use at home, but I’ve mostly gotten used to it…and the pillow is high enough that I can sleep on my side just fine. In the last few weeks it’s been hot enough that I sleep with the fan on low, but as we come into the dry season it’s cooling off.

I get up, and head to the back of the house where the bathroom is for a shower. And it really is just the bathroom: the shower is the kind you can take off the hook, which is good because it’s the same room as the toilet and sink, no stall. There’s a drain in the floor, and you really just spray yourself and avoid spraying the toilet…or your towel and clothes hanging on the other side of the room. It actually works fine, except it only leaves me one hand for shampooing.

The only problem is that in the morning, everybody is using water—showers, cooking, washing laundry—and so the pressure is very low. There was one day I just gave up; lifting the showerhead to wash my hair caused the flow to stop completely before coming out in a dribble.

(But it’s still a luxury compared to living in a rural area, where you just have a basin of water and pour it over yourself.)

Downstairs, Mami has already set out breakfast for us: not a Cambodian breakfast, but good nonetheless.

We get an assortment of fruit, including my and Janina’s favorite, dragonfruit (the purple one). We also usually have some kind of bread product, most often peanut butter and jelly but sometimes baguettes, pastries, or (once) leftover sticky rice wraps from Pchum Ben.

I’m usually the middle one up now; Janina’s work starts early and Jaclyn has started going to the gym around 6. My breakfast often overlaps with Piseth’s. I’ve started coming down with an “adan sua sdei” (“good morning”), and so Mami has started asking me simple questions in Khmer and then miming them if I don’t understand.

The Cambodian custom is “small breakfast, big lunch and dinner”, which was kind of hard to get used to. I’m always hungry by lunch time.

After breakfast, I head back upstairs to brush my teeth and put on sunscreen, then come back down and head out to work on my bike.1


Although I’ve been staying at the school for lunch, it’s made in the mornings by Mami (or Kuoch on the days when Mami is gone). Generally it’s “rice, eggs, meat, vegetable, plus a banana”, and the vegetable is usually cucumber. I always feel a little guilty at school having such a rich lunch, although I shared the teachers’ lunch one day when I forgot the packed lunch (“Tngai nih, at mien bai knyom…”), and it wasn’t bad.


I get back from work around 4:30, when Mami is cooking dinner. Usually I’m tired and sweaty just from the heat of the day and the (15-minute) ride home, so I’ll often end up taking another shower…if I don’t get drawn into a conversation with one of the other volunteers. Piseth usually doesn’t get home until later, depending on what he has to do that day.

We usually wait to head down for dinner until there’s two or three of us home and ready to eat. Since there are so many of us, it’s almost always some kind of stir-fry, and pretty much always delicious. Oftentimes Mami’s also made soup, or there’s some left over from the family’s lunch. Of course there’s always steamed rice as well.

(no dinner picture; for some reason I haven’t taken one yet.)

Every now and then, though, we have pasta, which Mami learned to cook from a previous volunteer. I also want to try my Mexican chicken recipe here—the only interesting dinner I know how to cook that doesn’t require an oven.

After dinner, we’ll often sit around talking at the table, maybe over a cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. (There’s an electric water heater, so it’s very easy.) It’s the end of the day; we all share stories about what happened, or end up talking about languages, different customs, holidays, whatever.

In some ways it’s kind of sad that we don’t see the rest of the family that much (besides Piseth), but for Mr. Savuth and Kuoch I think it’s still a different mental mode to carry on a conversation in English. (Although Janina’s gotten to talk to Kuoch a few times.) As for Mami, she’s always in and out of the kitchen, asking if we want more food, what our plans are, and generally how we’re doing, so I feel like we do see her all the time.

At this point in the evening it’s probably only 6:00 or 6:30 (we’re all just hungry after work). So we’ll head upstairs to the “living room”, a high-ceilinged room on the same floor as my bedroom. There are just chairs and couches here, plus a TV with busted sound and a pair of small speakers. (On the first day I hooked my iPod up to the speakers; Janina said that when she came back from renewing her visa the first thing they said about me was “he likes to sing”.)

This area mostly “belongs” to the volunteers; Mr. Savuth and Mami stay downstairs, sometimes watching TV (or, you know, actually doing housework, or eating dinner). Piseth stays in his room, or watches TV with his parents, but sometimes comes up to join us. Kuoch does the dishes and then…I’m not actually sure, but maybe classwork in her room. And Cheam (roughly CHE-um), the nephew who’s staying here…actually I’m not sure either, but he’s never up here with us.

But we’ll usually sit around and read, write in our journals, plan our next classes, talk, work on our laptops. Janina and Jennifer have USB sticks that can connect to a cell phone network for internet. For a nicer internet experience, though, I usually head over to Legend Coffee (unreliable wireless, but drinks and “air-con”) or to Royal Internet (cheap pay-by-the-hour wired connection). As you’ve noticed, I’m limiting myself to weekends and maybe once in the middle of the week; I’d rather be thinking about my life here than be constantly calling up my “other life back home”.

And it is a home here; even after spending a night in Takeo with Mr. Savuth’s family for the holiday last week it felt like “coming home”. I’m in a weird place with regard to homes right now, because my apartment in Berkeley is no longer ours and my family moved out of the house I grew up in. So I was already prepared to find a new place. And I like it here at No. 8A.

Everyone gets tired early, and if we’re not going out somewhere that night I usually go to bed between 9 and 10. That’s, uh, almost nine hours of sleep at full capacity, so I would probably be fine staying up another hour and a half (so I’m at the end of the previous REM cycle), but…

So, what is it like?

Well, it actually feels like rewinding to before college, maybe even before high school, in that we have all meals made for us, don’t do any dishes, etc. Mami’s even straightened up my room a couple of times, something I would never ask or expect her to do (I’m not in my room very often, so what gets messy has often stayed that way).

The only thing we don’t have done for us is laundry, and to be honest I need to work on that. Clothes are washed by hand here, in a metal basin in the downstairs bathroom with a scrubbing brush, and hung outside to dry. Except it’s still raining every other day or so in the late afternoon, so you have to be careful.

(There is a laundry service just around the corner, but this ought to be something I can handle. But I’m barely keeping up right now…not to mention there only being so much clothesline space upstairs.)

I hear from people staying in the guesthouse,2 and it doesn’t feel like they’re as much in Cambodia as we are when they go home…just like how in Japan, many of us preferred the Japanese-style hotel in Kurashiki to anywhere else we stayed. We are still in a house that expects foreigners (they’ve been hosting volunteers for three years or so). There are still five of us, which means we’re almost never alone in the house with the family. But it’s still much more here.

For anyone planning to stay in a foreign country for longer than a week or two, I’d suggest staying in a host family, or at least a hostel, rather than a hotel. It’s not a “different experience” so much as a much better backdrop to whatever you’re doing there. Coming home isn’t retreating into a private cocoon, it’s…well, it’s coming home.

  1. This may be changing; the school where I work is moving all their English classes to the afternoon. I’m going to see what I can do in the morning. ↩︎

  2. Apparently most “guesthouses” here are really more like hotels, but if they call themselves “hotels” they have to pay more in taxes. So the places that are called “hotels” are basically advertising, saying they offer more luxury (because they almost always cost more). ↩︎