One of the things that’s really stood out in my time here in Cambodia is that the ex-pat community consumes alcohol and cigarettes much more than back at home in Australia. Leaving alone any judgement over the right and wrong of this, I just wanted to share some of the thoughts a discussion with Mel about this led to.
While the ex-pat community here comes from a variety of nations and backgrounds, and this isn’t a reflection of all of them, it’s widely accepted that volunteer workers in developing countries often drink (and use other substances) more often than at home, wherever home may be.
From my own experience with the circles I mix in regularly, I’m in the minority as a non-smoker, and I’ve not met anyone else here who doesn’t drink – excluding locals, of course (although plenty of Khmer do enjoy their beer).
It’s been suggested to me that this is a coping mechanism – life here is definitely more challenging, especially if you’re not just passing through as a tourist. You’re in the middle of a different culture, facing different food, people, language and locations. Alcohol and smoking can be seen as something familiar – grounding elements in the face of all the other change. Mel suggested it’s much the same with backpackers in hostels. Indeed, religion can fill the same role for other people. For me as I’ve been travelling over the last year, Ruby was my familiarity to some extent – I was able to meet new people and feel a bit more comfortable in new countries and facing new experiences, using common skills and knowledge as a stepping stone.
The smoking in particular is a bit jarring though – it’s pretty common for people to light up in bars and restaurants (things you can’t do in Melbourne anymore), and so I’ve been questioning why it becomes more acceptable here.
Mel’s answer – which makes sense to me – is that there’s an absence of social norms here. You don’t have your home culture around you, and you don’t completely assimilate into Khmer culture (especially in the case of females, as that would mean getting married if you’re not already, and not going out after dark – well, in the less liberal parts of society here). In this absence, the few familiar things can become more common, fill in the gaps in your time.
Maybe it’s possible to draw some parallels to western society – do those who engage in binge-drinking not have other coping mechanisms to deal with stress? Is it related to stress at all? Or is this too long a bow to draw?