Communication Problems in Cambodia

Posted on by Lady Mariam


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For the most part I am able to communicate quite well with the local Khmer community. I can say “hello,” “thank you” and “one more” in Khmer. As someone who “couldn’t talk with my hands tied,” I often create simple sign language acting like a mime and the Khmers figure out what I am trying to say.

Recently, however, there has been a breakdown – some kind of cosmic storm throwing everybody off. Menus are wonderful inventions. I can point to an item and the server knows what I want. The other day I ordered a quesadilla – no chicken. I was brought a plate with three chicken tacos. I kept the order and ate graciously. When the bill came, I was charged for an order of plain quesadillas. I scratched my head and went on my merry way.

At another restaurant, I decided to have ice cream instead of an entrée for lunch. The staff thought I was crazy, but hey, if I want to spend my calories on a single scoop of ice cream one day, who cares? I asked for the flavors. I was told coconut, chocolate and a third undistinguishable flavor. Thinking that the coconut would be refreshing on a hot Cambodian afternoon, I chose that flavor. I was presented with a beautiful and delicious scoop of vanilla with a ribbon of raspberry throughout. I guess that was the third flavor. What I don’t understand is how a person can tell me “coconut” and then get it wrong. He wasn’t dependent on me trying to pronounce a foreign word and it being misunderstood.

Then there was the time I went for lunch at a restaurant with the word “wine” in its name. I was writing a review so I ordered several things on the menu. One of them was a glass of white wine. Let me stress one crucial fact before continuing; this was a slightly upscale restaurant with “wine” in its name. I received a glass of red wine. I sat for a moment trying to decide what to do. I really didn’t care if it was red or white, but I was interested to see their reaction if I pointed out the mistake. I brought it to their attention and they quickly exchanged the glass of red for a glass of white. I was still left wondering how she could have gotten it wrong when I had pointed to the words “white wine” on the menu.

One night I was at a local bar having a vodka/orange juice (or screwdriver). The person on my right took my first glass, so they made me another one. The second glass was knocked over by the person on my left before I could take a sip. I took the third one into my own hands immediately and all appeared to be fine. About half way through my drink they made two more screwdrivers – one for me and one for the person next to me. Cheers to them for buying a round of drinks for our little group! When I got my bill, it was for two screwdrivers. Now maybe they couldn’t keep up with the extra-ordinary events of the evening, but it was strike two for the establishment on the count of wrong billing.

I recently found myself in need of printing services. The failure of communication that occurred brought me to the point of frustration. I had brought a few drafts to the printer via flash drive for a single copy to edit. Each time my margins left too much space on the page. I went home and adjusted the margins only to figure out on the third try that the computers at the print shop were defaulting to “reset to printer margins.” Each adjustment was for nothing and had taken me days of going back and forth. I tried in vain to tell the print shop employee what was happening and get it corrected. I went to another printer who could fix the problem but wanted to overcharge me. The next printer still had the default margins, but the price was so good that I gave up on trying to have the document the way I wanted it.

Photo shops have similar issues. My goal was to get one enlargement and a page of wallet size photos. They had sample sizes on the wall. I pointed to the size I wanted. As I watched the employee on the computer, I realized that the 23×30 they were typing would be a huge poster. The 11×14 sample photo had the wrong numbers! I hurriedly tried to explain that if they printed a poster I would not pay for it and grabbed a frame that was for sale. I clearly stated the photo must fit in the frame. I pulled out a wallet photo and said I also wanted “same-same.” They asked how many I wanted. I wanted whatever number would fit on a single page. That conversation went on for another 15 minutes!

Not every communication attempt is a tragedy. I asked the Khmer wife of a friend to take me to her hairdresser. I looked through the books for something resembling what I wanted, commonly called a “shag” or “layered” cut. If it is done wrong it ends up in a “mullet.” The owner herself cut my hair with a dozen others watching every snip of the scissors. After the cut, I continued to sit in the chair while a girl put shampoo on the middle of my head, adding little bits of water and working the lather outward until it was completely washed (and massaged!). I then proceeded to the back where a surprisingly modern reclining chair and washbasin awaited me. She rinsed my hair and then instructed me to the front again. Two girls worked on styling my hair at the same time. I think everyone wanted a chance to work on the “barang,” but they pulled it off to look like real teamwork. My hair was perfect and it only set me back $4 USD!

The most important thing to remember about communication in Cambodia is patience. Getting upset achieves nothing. I find Khmers to be friendlier than people in other countries when they see you making a genuine effort. It also helps to “go with the flow” when being served at restaurants. Be thankful you are able to eat there in the first place.

Lady Mariam

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One Response to Communication Problems in Cambodia

  1. Simon Sykes says:

    If you eat at good restaurants, I figure it doesn’t make much difference if they bring you something other than what you ordered. Maybe the waiter looks into your soul and knows what you really want.

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