What I love about Khmer Culture

When I was first planning to come to Cambodia, I didn’t really know why God wanted me to come here. The reason is because he is very, very wise. He knew that there would be a lot about Cambodia and its people that I would appreciate and grow to love. Or, at the very least, I would relate to as a Brit. Commisceo Global has been quite a helpful website; it gives advice about relating to those from different cultures. I’ve read both their articles on Cambodia and the U.K. and there are a few links between the two cultures. Here are some I’ve noticed or read about in another arbitrarily numbered list.

(N.B. Obviously, when you talk about a culture as a whole, you make sweeping generalisations. There are far more nuances but I don’t have the expertise to be definite about it.)

  1. They are gentle and quiet. They are not loud or confrontational, which I like. British people are reportedly quite quiet (unless they’ve got a few drinks inside them). An American student studying in the UK explained their cultural orientation told them the British are scared of noise.
  2. They tend to hide their emotions. Khmer people smile a lot even if irritated or confused. If they disagree they usually remain silent. British people, too, tend not to voice their opinions and, according to Commisceo Global, “if you have insulted someone, their facial expression may not change”. Although both may cause ambiguity and confusion in social settings, especially for more demonstrative cultures, it’s something I sort of understand.
  3. They are often helpful and obliging. I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and it began to rain. A tuk tuk driver let me sit in his tuk tuk with him.
  4. Their desire for social harmony resonates with my British desire to not make a fuss. Rather than admit that something makes them uncomfortable they may make an excuse to avoid the situation. That tends to be a British habit as well.
  5. They avoid direct confrontation. Often in disagreements, the Khmer will make use of a go-between. Some people may think this is unhelpful but it’s better than the British practice of telling everyone you’re upset except the person who upset you or our ability to hold onto problems for years until we finally explode in a fit of unprecedented rage.
  6. A sense of pride. Some of my expat friends have shared moments of frustration when they have suggested things to Khmer and their ideas have been brazenly ignored. Although perhaps not as blatantly, I know I also will let my pride get the better of me. I will generally use the British phrase “I’ll bear that suggestion in mind” which roughly translates to mean “I’ve dismissed your idea already.” I have been known to ignore a perfectly reasonable and practical idea because of the way it was delivered. (We call that cutting your nose to spite your face.) I totally get why a Khmer person would refuse to let some know-it-all westerner tell them how it’s done. When my friends share such stories, I outwardly empathise with my western compatriots but I’m secretly rooting for the Khmer. (“Stick it to the man!” I inwardly declare in solidarity.) I got a wry smile from Vitou when I tried to help with something. He politely thanked me but I told him “you shouldn’t let a barang do something a Khmer can do better.” Perhaps my sense of solidarity will corrode when it’s my suggestions that are being rejected.
  7. Their sense of hierarchy. My friends have accused me of being a sycophant but I prefer the term deferential. British culture can also be hierarchical due to the class system. Although I don’t subscribe to the class system (due to my typically middle-class liberal sensibilities), I will usually respect those senior to me. Therefore, hierarchies are something I get.

I’m sure that there will be more about Khmer culture that I’ll learn. Some of it I’ll understand and empathise with; other parts will baffle and frustrate me. But I’ll try to enjoy the learning process on the way.

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