Monday, April 7, 2008


A few recent thoughts on culture, Cambodian culture to be specific.
The language here is Khmer. Sixty percent of Cambodians cannot read or write it. But all can speak it. And without fail, there are certain sounds that apparently are mandatory when speaking Khmer. It sounds very nasally and whiney. They all talk to each other with frowns on their faces and they raise their voices louder and louder as if they are fighting. What they are saying, I have no idea. But their nonverbal communication makes me cringe. They might be very happy people, but their faces don’t show it. They are not the smiley, warm, cuddly type.
Most Asians are extremely loyal to their family. And most Asians believe that Americans aren’t. I try explaining to them that what they see in the movies is usually very far from the truth. But trying to convince them that I am very close with my family is basically impossible. They saw it in a movie after all. They are close in different ways. A Buddhist Khmer marrying a Christian will most likely be disowned for fear they will ditch the family. A Khmer marrying a foreigner is good because they will have more money, but it is only allowed if they promise to take care of their parents when they are old. Arranged marriages are more common than those made by choice. A girl living across the street is engaged to a man here, but she currently lives in the States and is pregnant by her boyfriend back home. But she is marrying the man here in Phnom Penh so her family will have honor and most importantly, money. It has very little to do with love. One of my 10th grade girls was at school one day and sent to be married the next. We haven’t seen her since.
Most of my exposure has led me to believe that Khmers do not have a high pain tolerance. They get a sniffle and they stay home for a few days. They trip and scratch their knee; they lay there, beg for attention and wait for someone to carry them to safety. They are overall pretty lazy. Nothing gets done because they just assume someone else will do it. Except no one ever does.
Children pretty much run free here. Sometimes if I am out at night, I will see 2 or 3 little children playing in the light of a billboard darting barefoot between cars. One time I saw a little girl, no more than 8, just sitting alone in the dark as the passing cars whizzed by. I wonder if her parents knew she was gone. I wonder if she has parents.
As I’ve mentioned, whiter is better. Foreigners get the most attention. But there is a lot of racism towards black people. Because if the whiter the better, people with dark skin get either tormented or ignored. Dark Cambodians get lower paying jobs. A little Indian girl, a kindergartener, the only non-Khmer at school, gets ignored and none of the other kids even acknowledge her presence. I tell my kids often that I think they are beautiful and women back home actually pay to lay in uncomfortable hot beds just to make their skin darker. White people want to be tan and beautiful. Cambodians want to be white and beautiful. I’ve become much more content with what I look like as an obvious observation that our discontentment over beauty just depends on what part of the globe we are on.
Foreigners get a lot of attention. So whenever I sneeze, itch my ear, or yawn, it is talked about and laughed at. This happens whether I am on the street or at school. I am constantly being watched and observed. So, I just pretend that I am at peace with feeling like a zoo animal and sneeze away. My students are very conscious of how often I wear certain things. They tell me when I look beautiful and when I don’t. They’ll say “You are wearing a brown skirt” very smugly and expect me to say something back. I respond with, “Yes I am and you are wearing a red skirt. Good, ok, let’s start class.”
So they notice certain things. But once they get over the fact that I am white and in their presence, I encounter more oblivious Khmers than observant ones. When walking down the street, they won’t move or acknowledge you until you are about to trip over them. If I am passing someone in a narrow area they won’t move aside, they just expect you to rub up against them when they could just as easily scoot over just a little bit. Maybe I am bit extreme but I think we all tend to predict situations and avoid those we can. Like if two people are approaching a corner, I would slow down a little bit or speed up so we don’t bump into each other or walk right next to each other. Nah, that’s all fine here. So they do it to me and I start walking faster to avoid that uncomfortable feeling that they are obviously not feeling.
Still oblivious as the majority tends to be, one of my 11th grade students surprised me yesterday. Her name is Nika. She came up to me and said, “Ms.Bo, I think now you a good teacher. Because when you gave chapel talk about been attacked by Cambodian boy, you isn’t make us feel bad like it is all Cambodians. You not biased because of one bad Khmer. You weren’t look at us like you might see people on street.” I could’ve cried. First because of what she said and second because I had taught her the word “biased” in English class and this was the first time she used it correctly. She was perceptive in noticing that based on how foreigners are treated by Khmers here it may be difficult for me to teach them everyday. She said, in many words, that she was glad that I noticed Cambodia is not a bad country, but that we just live in a bad world. We have problems all around us.
Apparently it is much more interesting to write about the differences in culture. They are more obvious for sure. On Thursday I am flying to Sydney, Australia. I am really excited. We have a 10 day break from school, so I figured I better see as much as I can on this side of the world. This will be my first time out of Asia in 7 months. I’m sure I’ll encounter many more culture differences there. I’ll let you know what I find.


caitlyn brianne said...

have an amazing time in Australia! praying for you Ms. Heather God Bless!