A single story of Cambodia


I was talking with a colleague yesterday and reflecting on one of the frustrations that I felt when returning home. The TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie summed it up well, and that’s the danger of the single story. Of course, it’s impossible to have a multifaceted story of every place or every person. However, there needs to be an awareness that these exist.

Cambodia’s single story, similar to the one of Africa, is dominated by social ills, negatives, and of course the Khmer Rouge. Of course, the Khmer Rouge is an important part of Cambodia’s history but it was 40 years ago. The way people insist on talking about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they had missed the fact Pol Pot is quite dead. (I’ve seen his grave. I can assure you he is.)

When I lamented of this single view, my colleague asked an interesting question: “So, what would you want to tell them?”

I’d want to tell you about how wonderful the Cambodians are. I’d tell you about their resilience and diligence and their wit and their welcoming smiles and the initiative they show and their competence. Rather than being the knowledgeable white person bestowing my experience and learning on the impoverished, simple Asians, I’m often humbled (and slightly humiliated) by their kind, helpful attitude in the light of my constant stupidity. And despite this, they never do it with condescension or a look of pity (although they will often have a laugh about it).

I’d want to tell you about the amazing food and snacks and smiles and the cute but mischievous children (like the one who tried to glue my water bottle to the floor). I’d tell you about their intelligence and how they speak with amazing English despite it being a ridiculous language to learn, especially when your first language does not have verb tenses or agreement.

There are so many stories of Cambodia, far more complex and beautiful and tragic and vast than the ones I know or can tell here. And, of course, my perspective is not that of the “authentic Cambodia” (but, as the TED video pointed out, what does that even mean). However, it’d be nice to think that this little blog perhaps helped people move further than the single story.

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