Endearing Cambodian Sass
This week, I've been working with colleagues in Cambodia.
It's an honor and a privilege to work with some of the brightest and most passionate people in the world - working for the transformation of their country, one community at a time.
Culture is a complex beast, with many twists and turns and nuance. It's not only impossible to claim understanding of a culture in a short period of time, it's arrogant. I spent 8 years immersed in one place, and could barely scratch the surface.
I'm not so sure I understand my home culture, anymore.
With that caveat, there were three things observed this week about Cambodian culture, which I found both fascinating and endearing - and thought this a good place to share.
The World's Friendliest Aggressive Drivers
Phnom Phen is a sea of motor scooters, cars, and tuk-tuks - with the occasional large truck thrown in. Everyone is maneuvering to overtake everyone. Yet, there's relatively little horn honking and zero road rage. No one is yelling at other drivers, making obscene gestures, or chasing others with tire irons (yes, we've seen that happen). The traffic rhythm here has this odd give and take to it that make things not quite so tense. Drivers are pushing to the front, like most places in Asia. However, everyone seems so happy about it. There's no winning and losing. It's more a simple understanding.
I walked to the front desk of the hotel with a sack of clothes to be laundered. I was told it could be done cheaply, and thought it might be nice to have some clean shirts for the next leg of this trip.
I approached the desk with a customary smile, putting my hands together with the sampeah greeting. Politeness, deference, and respect being a part of how folks interact here - and I truly want to respect the culture.
"Good Morning, could I get some laundry done?"
The small girl behind the counter greeted me similarly, and responded with a complete straight face.
I must have looked completely confused, as she broke relatively quickly with a grin and said, "of course" - proceeding to take my bag of laundry.
I've had similar experiences with Cambodians all week.
"Americans don't like to be teased, do they?"
One of my Cambodian colleagues asked me this yesterday. My reply was that we don't mind a good teasing. I've found it a pleasant surprise, coming from Cambodian people. Sass wouldn't necessarily happen in other Asian cultures with which I'm familiar. I found it endearing.
One my colleagues was expressing her gratitude for American partners who have walked with their development team over the years. It was a somewhat emotional moment, which I believe is unusual for here. She explained that in Cambodia people have "sticky hands". What she meant by this is that once you join hands in friendship or partnership with a Cambodian, you'll find that their hands are sticky, and your hands will be stuck together for a long time.
Community and friendship transcends all culture.
I'm very happy to have joined sticky hands with my sassy, new friends in Cambodia this week, some of the friendliest aggressive drivers on the planet.