Coping Mechanisms

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?

Ross Hill left a comment on 2 Jan, 2009:

Have you seen ?

It might also be worth considering why it is LESS acceptable here in Melbourne, if we are meant to be such a multi-cultural country?

Dr Nic left a comment on 2 Jan, 2009:

When I lived in Bangalore, India I struggled to cope. If I didn’t have a wife and was in India alone I would have gone out drinking a lot more. The state government containing Bangalore unfortunately made it harder for expats to “cope” by shutting down all clubs/nightclubs at 11pm each night. When you finish work at 7pm and can’t get into the city before 9pm due to traffic it is awful to then have to leave and go home 2 hours later.

Jayne left a comment on 2 Jan, 2009:

To me that seems like a cope out. Obviously I haven’t lived in Cambodia but I’ve done a lot of traveling and I have lived in the UK for 12mths. But I think just saying that it’s a coping mechanism seems like an excuse for behaving badly. Surely if you’re living a community like that you’re suppose to be setting an example. How can you expect to have a positive impact on if you’re doing/advocating some of the worst public health issues that we’re trying to deal with.

Stef left a comment on 3 Jan, 2009:

I don’t think it’s a coping mechanism; I think the people who drink and smoke and take drugs to excess, especially in a culture alien to their own, really aren’t coping at all. I think it’s a way to avoid confronting the reality of your situation - of having to absorb the differences and work through them, of realising what all these new experiences and this unfamiliar way of life means for you as a person and how they illuminate your own way of life (positively and negatively). I think it’s also a way of sidestepping the work it takes to become grounded (really grounded) away from the people and the things have previously defined you as a person.

I think the people that binge (on whatever) in their own culture are often dealing with similar issues, but that the existential angst comes from a frustration with the routine of their lives rather than displacement. Alcohol and drugs change the shape of the world, making it easier to add a dimension that isn’t there or take one away when it’s unpleasant. Neither of these things are actually happening; the added dimension is imagined and the removed one is simply ignored, but it’s the apparent freedom brought about by the illusion that is important.

I think people are terrified that it’s actually their responsibility for creating meaning in their own lives. Being in an unfamiliar culture makes this much, much harder to avoid.

Taryn left a comment on 3 Jan, 2009:

Wow, great article topic, and the comments are spot on too. I agree that “self-medication” doesn’t really help you cope better, but it is one way that people try to exert control over their own lives (even if the attempt is misguided).

I love Stef’s point about travel forcing people to face up to their own lack of control in their lives.

I thought I’d also add to the debate and mention that addictive personalities often go hand-in-hand with the minor manic states - and manic people are more likely to uproot themselves in search of new stimuli. Obviously this won’t apply to all expats, but might add to the melting pot of reasons.