Your age is quite important in all cultures. It determines your ability to do things and often your status. It’s interesting to see how age is perceived in Cambodia.
First, you often get asked your age very quickly. (Although, are you married comes first in my experience.) This is because what you are called is determined by your age. So, here are some of the examples (these are used in place of “you”):
- bong, bong broh, bong srey- this is for someone older than you but younger than your parents. (Where “bong” is the general term, “bong broh” is older brother and “bong srey”, older sister.) If you have a close friend that is younger or the same age, you’d probably use bong to.
- aun, aun broh, aun srey- when someone is younger than you.
- kmuay- if the person is the same age as your child.
- bpuu- literally “uncle”, a man a similar age to your parents (and tuk tuk drivers).
- ming- literally “aunty”, a woman a similar age to your parents.
- ohm, ohm broh, ohm srey- if they are older than your parents.
- yeeay- literally “grandmother”, an elderly woman.
- da- “grandfather”, an elderly man.
I find this very confusing, and end up just using “bong” for everyone. I think it’s difficult because generations tend to be closer in age than in the UK, with people usually having their first children in their early twenties. So, people I should probably be calling bpuu or ming I call bong broh or bong srey. Being older in this culture is often seen as a good thing and it can be offensive to call someone by a title that doesn’t give them the appropriate respect.
(This positive attitude towards age isn’t always the case. I watched some Khmer security guards pluck the white hairs out of the bus conductor’s head whilst we were waiting to cross the Cambodia/Vietnam border. I couldn’t help but laugh, but felt bad when the conductor asked me why I found it funny.)
So, in Cambodia, asking someone’s age is polite, whereas in the west it’s often seen as rude. So, I am getting into the habit of asking people their age. (I’ve started with tuk tuk drivers and shop assistants, I haven’t the courage to ask people I know yet, especially the women!)
In the process, I’ve discovered something interesting: different cultures count ages differently.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why you were only one when you reached your first birthday; you couldn’t be zero years old. I didn’t realise that your age was counted in days and months at that point (which bizarrely, seems to go on after you’re one. “Oh, my daughter’s twenty-two months.” “Oh, I see. I’m 346 months.”). It seems, younger me may have had a point. The western way of determining your age isn’t the only one.
In Cambodia, if you were, like me, born in 1988, that makes you 28 currently. Simple maths: current year – year of birth = age. So, as soon as 2017 comes along, I and thousands of other Cambodians will turn 29.
In a lot of Asian cultures, you were one on the day you were born. This system has mostly been replaced by the western method, but is often still used for ceremonial and religious purposes. What’s more, your age didn’t increase on your birthday, but on that country’s New Year’s Day. Therefore, if you were born one hour before the New Year, the moment the New Year arrived, you would be two despite only being a few hours old. From what I can tell from my research, Koreans still use this system. (Koreans also have a 100 day feast, celebrating the first few months of a child’s life.)
So, if we were to suddenly adopt that system, this means that on January 1st, I’d be thirty. That’s a worrying thought.