|OA Events Manager Irena Tasevska with her 'second family' in Cambodia|
Not too many people arrive in a foreign country and within a year learn to speak enough of the local language to be able to hold their own in a work environment where very little English is spoken. Yet that’s exactly what Opera Australia National Events Manager Irena Tasevska did when she went to work at Epic Arts, a Cambodian arts organisation that runs community programs for people with disabilities.
Tasevska, who was based in the Southern Cambodian town of Kampot (population 40,000), where she shared a Khmer-style wooden house with another foreign worker and commuted by motorbike, applied for the position through Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development, a Government-funded program aimed at sending skilled young Australians to developing countries to work with local organisations.
Having found out about the program when still at university, Tasevska remained keen to be involved after she’d started working at OA. When, a few years later, she saw the Epic Arts position advertised on the Australian Youth Ambassadors website, she applied for it and was successful. OA agreed to keep her position for a year.
In Kampot, Tasevska worked with Epic Arts staff to help strengthen areas like management, project management and communication. Her job description included staff training and general communication activities. And most of it happened in Khmer.
“Staff meetings were in Khmer; many staff members spoke English but some didn’t,” Tasevska says. She had to learn quickly and says her Khmer vocabulary continues to be a work in progress. “I can say things like “organise” and “facilitate”, but I don’t have the words to express some everyday things, which is quite funny.”
|Irena Tasevska (bottom left) with colleagues and friends in Cambodia|
After an initial three months of lessons, Tasevska learned through exposure. Back at The Opera Centre, where Allerta! spoke to her three weeks after her return, she is still learning. “Across the road from the Opera Centre is a lunch bar that belongs to a Cambodian family; I get my coffee there in the mornings and have a little chat in Khmer,” she says, adding that she’s “grateful for that opportunity because it is so easy to lose a language”.
Since Epic Arts works with Cambodian deaf communities, Tasevska also learned some Cambodian Sign Language. “We had three official languages in the office: Khmer, Khmer Sign Language and English,” she says. Back in Australia, she is learning Australian Sign Language.
The year in Cambodia was a steep learning curve in other areas besides acquisition of language skills. “I learned how to use my knowledge in a very different environment, and how to work in a very different culture in a sensitive way,” Tasevska says. A Western-run organisation in a foreign country is always at risk of being seen as imposing its values on that culture “and that’s something we tried not to do.” When organising an event with local staff, for example, she had to be very careful about following cultural protocol. “If you invited monks, you had to make sure that they had everything they needed and set up the table for the blessing.”
Without a doubt, communication was the year’s biggest challenge. Tasevska laughs when remembering the time her motorbike broke down and she had to take it to a mechanic. “He thought I was talking about the back wheel when I was in fact referring to the chain. It was a very confusing situation! You learn to explain yourself, use gestures.”
Fellow workers were very friendly. “The majority of the people who worked at Epic Arts were Cambodian and the organisation aims to employ many people from the deaf and disabled communities. There was a real sense of everyone taking care of each other, to the extent that I now feel that I have a family in Cambodia.”
Office culture was similar to Australia’s, except for two-hour lunch breaks. “It’s very hot in Cambodia, especially in the middle of the day. The culture is also very family-centred, so people go home at 12pm, cook and have lunch with their families, then return to work at 2pm.”
Shoes represented another cultural adjustment, as wearing them inside was verboten. “You take your shoes off at the door and walk around the office barefoot; it’s a Cambodian custom. Back at OA, I found it quite a culture shock to be wearing shoes again!”
Eating out was cheap and Tasevska became familiar with Cambodian cuisine, which she describes as between Thai and Vietnamese. “But there was Western food in Kampot too; a great pizza place down the road from where I lived, and you could get burgers too. Many of my Khmer friends love pizza.”
The aim of the exchange is to swap skills, and Tasevska is confident that that is what happened. “I’d hope that I helped to develop staff skills in management and communication, and improved some of the processes in their organisation. They in turn improved my ability to adapt and strengthened my life skills, including patience and non-verbal communication.”