5 things Khmers do better than BarangsNovember 29, 2013
In the West the phrase, “old person” is so objectionable that it needs to be pussyfooted around with terms like, “older person” or “senior”. In Cambodia if you call a fifty year old guy “Tha” (grandfather), he is likely to be very pleased. Why? Because being an old person is good here. Old people are respected for their wisdom and spirituality and play key roles in Cambodia’s religious and familial life. In the West, to quote Irvine Welsh, the old are left “in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment”.
And what about the monks? Consider the Western equivalent: gangs of priests marauding down Oxford Street or Rockefeller Plaza receiving bows and grateful gifts of food and money every day. It just wouldn’t happen. Sure, the Cambodian monkhood hasn’t been afflicted by the problems that caused the Christian priesthood to loose all credibility, but even so, at best, Western priests are regarded little more than an historical fart. As a result, the West has lost its religious underpinning leaving those members still able to rouse themselves from TV-induced comas to ruminate only on existential anxiety and the meaningless of it all.
I recently watched a couple of shrill documentaries entitled “Breadline Britain” and “Britain’s Hidden Hungry”. I found it hard to sympathise with the featured people who, despite their ailments, were warm, well-fed and disease-free. The thought never far from my mind was that any poor Cambodian in a similar situation would be brimming with joy at having clean food, free healthcare and accommodation. I concluded that the English “poor” were, by comparison, ill-equipped to handle the particular bitchslap Life had landed on them. Poor Cambodians go through far worse everyday but their faces show more acceptance and less self pity. Of course they are not afforded the luxury of being able to sink into depression because if they did, they’d starve to death. But certainly, Cambodian culture does afford a place for the poor so even those on the bottom rung of the ladder have access to self esteem.
Cambodian people are seriously generous. For example, I was riding my moto to a festival accompanied by my friend Supea who was riding alongside me with her two sisters on a separate moto. It began to rain. I had no raincoat. Guess who got the only raincoat stashed in Supea’s moto? Me. I’ve lost count of the number of times strangers have bought me coffee or offered me mangos and these things do not come cheap for most Cambodians. Then you have the fact that the temple where I live has been feeding me from their meagre food supply every day for free without a hint of resentment. Indeed, when food began to run low they were full of concern about whether I would have enough to eat. A local woman – one of the poorest members of the village – once saw me struggling to wash my clothes by hand and came and helped me for free.
Cambodian children are not more well-behaved than English children but they are a damn site less angry. As a result, when they do misbehave, it’s more like a Just William caper than an occasion to call the police (not that you could call the police in rural Cambodia). I think it has to do with the fact that Cambodian families are also not yet consumed by screens and so they still, you know, talk to each other. The kids are also expected to help with the family chores, eat with their extended families and play outside with their friends. The boys play marbles in the temple while the girls throw their arms around each to exchange secrets. Contrast this with the West’s over stimulated offspring who, when torn away from their screens, are so disorientated they can only stagger round Westfield scaring grannies.
5. Doing Nothing
Have you ever seen a Westerner doing absolutely nothing? Think about it. Waiting for a bus or train doesn’t count because waiting is technically still part of a larger activity known as traveling. I mean doing literally nothing.
It’s very rare. Cambodians on the other hand can sit there, with their friends, completely comfortably saying and doing nothing. They’re just being open to the experience of the present in way Westerners find difficult. Some would call it sloth, but on the contrary, it’s more unnatural for humans to be constantly doing stuff like machines. It’s good to do nothing because it mitigates stress and exhaustion. It is a large part of the reason why Cambodia was named by Rough Guides as the “world’s friendliest country”