Sometimes big life changes happen gradually, so gradually you don’t realize how drastically your life is changing until you wake up one morning and suddenly realize everything is different.
This is not that kind of story.
There is nothing gradual about moving to Southeast Asia from New Zealand, or marrying a person of a completely different culture and having a child together, or starting a new business in a foreign land.
Richard McDonald was born in Australia, grew up in New Zealand, and became a chef. In 2009, he led a team of young people on a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of a non-profit school focused on social justice. That trip began a rapid and epic series of changes in his life, resulting in Richard starting a restaurant in Cambodia with his new wife and daughter.
What were the events in your life that contributed the most to your move from New Zealand chef to Cambodian restaurant owner? Were they things that just kind of happened, or things that you had to move heaven and Earth to make happen?
The main event in my life that led to my move to Cambodia was the realization that I would always be provided for, no matter my financial situation or my location. You can live anywhere as long as you have the means of sustenance for life.
The flip side of that is that you need to have your hands ready and your eyes open. Opportunity rarely knocks twice, divine providence is missed if you don’t have the eyes to see it, and work isn’t done if you don’t put your hands to the tasks required.
I had spent six months in the USA and in spite of being hands ready with eyes open for the means of sustenance, at times desperately seeking for it, the only opportunity I had there was the opportunity to leave. That led me to offer my cooking skills to a missions school [back in New Zealand] for a few months.
I stepped off the plane in Auckland, New Zealand, and somehow found myself leading a missions team to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I knew almost from the first breath of the air that I was going to be drawn into a life here.
My three months as team leader quickly became three months as a culinary tutor to a group of women who had had some of the roughest knocks in life you could ever have. I was won over, and offered to return and continue the work for another eight months.
We opened a visitor centre cafe in Phnom Penh, and I stayed in the city mentoring and training my kitchen team. The girls were superb. I was tired, but inspired and decided to stay longer.
To keep it brief, the next steps followed. Changed ticket, extended visa, joined rugby club, played in an international rugby 10’s tournament, was offered employment as a hotel manager in the central province of Kampong Thom, moved there, met a beautiful young woman, was engaged, married, had a beautiful daughter and then after two and half years of managing the hotel, my wife and I left to open our first family restaurant, ‘Run Amok!’.
Do you naturally like big changes in your life or do you prefer things to stay mostly the same most of the time?
‘A change is as good as a holiday,’ or so I used to be told. It became one of the philosophies I lived by and was instrumental in the development of my ‘life by faith.’ As I get older I feel the green sap wood in my being become harder, stronger but less flexible and more resistant to change.
How has it been acclimating to a completely different culture and country? What have been the hardest parts about that change?
Not easy. Having a sense of justice, a flaming fire of a temper, no patience for foolery, and a naive idealism that was never met in New Zealand, I was bound to be enraged by the things I see around me in Cambodia from time to time.
I ended up finding myself in a Cambodian police station with my wife bailing me out after being pushed to the line by a dishonest chef at the hotel I was managing. At $100 per punch compensation, I was glad to have stopped at three.
High expectations are the source of much disappointment, and patience can be worn threadbare when working with people who often have very poor education, very low standards of work ability, little desire to achieve or learn more, and who are resistant to change.
A local tradesman who installed the gutters for our restaurant inadvertently summarized the Khmer mentality to work after running our gutters to drain into the neighbour’s front porch and home. When my wife told him that his drains would flood the neighbour’s house, he replied with a question. ‘Who can stop the rain?’
The hardest change for me though, is the heat. As time goes by, my inner drive ebbs away in the humidity and glare, and I gradually morph into the man who shrugs and asks, ‘Who can stop the rain?’ The most urgent requirement in life becomes the need for cool and shade, a hammock, a fan, and a glass of ice.
What do your days look like now?
See the paragraph above. With the addition of a few hours sweating, swearing, smiling and growling in a stinking hot kitchen, and a few hours of resting in the shade, researching, reading, gaming, or watching pirated films and t.v. serials on my laptop.
I sleep on a mat on the floor under a mosquito net in my restaurant with my wife, one year old daughter and seven year old brother in law, who has effectively become our son.
What are your plans for the future? Do you and your family intend to stay in Cambodia permanently?
I plan to establish a chain of restaurants in various towns and cities and then move my family to a rural area a couple of hours to the north of my wife’s homeland where there are rolling hills, valleys, forest, rice fields, and plantations, and we can settle into our old age as the patriarch and matriarch of our clan.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about packing up and moving abroad long-term? What can they do to make the transition better?
Don’t look back.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to marry a Cambodian woman and have Cambodian kids? (This question was meant as a joke, but Rich’s answer was so thoughtful, I couldn’t leave it out.)
Realize that traditional marriage will generally be for providence, not for notions of romantic love. Love and loyalty come with the marriage.
Western people would consider this old fashioned and even sexist and demeaning. Embrace it and let the marriage bond be strong. Don’t look back. Love transcends our personal romantic notions.
Don’t let the local culture steamroll you. Have dignity and self respect as your cultures collide. Strive for humility, but never forget that a marriage between two people of different cultures is also a marriage of cultures. Your cultural input will be of immense value in growing, developing, and broadening the character of your family.
If a white person has a kid with a Khmer, the kid won’t be called Khmer. They will be called ‘barang,’ and locals will adore them for the whiteness of their skin. Everyone will want to carry them, care for them, run away with them at the market to show their friends.
Your baby will return after being smooched, sniffed, and exposed to the latest mutation of Asian Flu. She will give it to you. You will not appreciate it. Consider yearly flu immunizations if you want to take advantage of the many babysitters, or lock your daughter in a tower.
2020 update: Rich and his wife, Tettra, have since returned to his home country of New Zealand where they are making more babies and he is still cooking up a storm, but without the headaches of owning his own business.