3 things I learned from a Cambodian family

Yesterday, I went to visit a friend who just had a baby a few days ago. Her family graciously welcomed us and we stayed there for a few hours, much longer than we thought we would. I learned a the following practices and perspectives that are different from Western culture:

1. When people are sick or not feeling well after delivering a baby, they prefer to have company than being alone
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Two of my good friends have traveled around Europe, Asia and North America and they are both born in non-Western countries. It’s only in Canada that they notice that people want their “personal space” or “alone time.” Not to say that it’s bad that people want their alone time, it’s just different.

We kept asking our friend, “Are you it’s ok if we visit? She just had a baby, is she too tired for visitors?” Most people we know would want their own time to not see outside friends and stay home and recover. Our Cambodian friend explained to us, “It is different here than Western culture, when we are  sick or not feeling well, we want to have people around us.”

Our friend was feeling tired and was in pain when we arrived. But she just enjoyed us being around and talking with her family. They were very nice and offered us water without asking if we needed anything. Some of the people I’ve visited in Canada don’t even offer water when they have guests. Not that someone has to offer a drink, but I guess it’s the Asian courtesy I was brought up with.

2. Many Cambodians respect their elders much more than Western countries
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Multigenerational homes (where parents, kids and grandparents live in one house) are much more common in Cambodia. There is also much more respect for elders than in North America. I accidentally said “hello” in Khmer the way I would with most people. But there is a different way of saying “hello” to someone who is older than you, which partly reflects the respect they have for seniors.

I used to work with seniors before I came to Cambodia and there are countless isolated seniors who live alone in their homes with no family or friends. I kept wondering, “Where is the family? Did they just abandon them?” Many of them do have kids who are busy with their own lives or with their own families and often put their parents in a home if they can afford it. Otherwise, it seems the parents are left to fend for themselves in their homes with little support.

If the parents dedicated their lives to raising their kids, it’s very sad that they are simply put in a home or left to take care of themselves. I know it’s a different story if the kid and parent didn’t have a good relationship.

I met a senior recently who was in her sixties and she was a lovely woman with a lifetime of travel stories and experiences. She told me the group of university students she was traveling with for two weeks would not even say “good morning” to her unless she said it first. She had so much experience to share but the kids barely interacted with her and her husband. I told one of my Cambodian friends that and they couldn’t believe it.

When I worked with seniors in Vancouver, I understood some of the reasons women tend to live longer than men. 80% of the people who signed up to use non-medical services in our province in Canada, including exercise clubs and going to see their doctors, were women. They are the ones who participate in social events, bring people together and ask for help. Most of the men in the community I was working in stay at home and don’t interact with nearly as many people as the women do.

I think it will be much different with our generation, there are a lot of shifts in perspectives and change in mentality with our generation.

 

3. It’s bad luck to call a baby beautiful. It is better to call them ugly. 

Much to my surprise, when I called my friend’s baby “cute” in Khmer, my friend told me that it’s better to call a baby ugly. I’ll let you pause on that for a few seconds.

According to traditional mentality, she said it’s bad luck to call a baby beautiful because bad spirits may come and take away the baby’s beauty. So it’s better to call a baby ugly instead.

I can’t bring myself to do it, so the next time I see my friend’s baby, I just won’t say anything.

 

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How did she get into the temple with this outfit?

IMG_9065If you know anything about the customs at Buddhist temples, visitors are expected to wear clothes that cover at least their shoulders and knees. We pass hundreds of tourists every week that don’t know this and wear tank tops, mini shorts and so on.

But there are parts of Angkor Wat that will not let people visit if they are not covering their shoulders and knees. So this woman (on the left), technically, was wearing clothes that cover the right body parts. I just found it funny that they let her in with this shirt, and standing in front of a Buddha statue no less.

I have no idea if she was doing this on purpose to be funny or if she just has a very unique sense of style.

Child guides

My friends and I went to the Kulen Mountain area close to Siem Reap. We were by a beautiful river and forest, so we took our time to soak in the scenery. Unfortunately, the environment was contrasted with some of the dangerous practices among families.

We often smile and talk to children when we’re out in public, but always when their parents are around. While we were by the river, one of my friends noticed a young girl who was about eight years old, staring at her. Then when we tried to say hello to the young girl, her mother, who could not speak English, gestured to us and basically said, “She can take you through the forest and be your guide,” in exchange for money.

Of course we said no and we wouldn’t leave on our walk until the young girl stopped following us and stayed with her mother.

I couldn’t process how people can let their child go into the forest alone with strangers just like that. I know about these practices and that it happens every day around the world. But when you experience it yourself, it is another level of shock.

The 430 km bike ride from the Cambodian-Laos border

A few of my friends are cycling from the Cambodian-Laos border to Siem Reap (430 km) to raise:

  1. funds to support Angkor Hospital for Children, which provides free and quality medical treatment for children in Siem Reap
  2. awareness in Cambodian youth to motivate them to get involved with social action and encourage them to do whatever they can, give whatever they can in order  to help others in Cambodian society.

Check out their Indiegogo video!

Kindness on the country roads

Country roads baby

I drafted this post a month ago but never published it, so now I have more stories to share. It’s been a packed month!

I’m having a blast cycling different routes with friends on the weekends. We try to leave by 6:30 a.m. at the latest before the heat hits. When we go on the country roads, the people we pass and meet are so friendly and helpful.  I know I’m getting repetitive when I keep telling my friends about the generous people around the country. But that is a reflection that Vancouver has some work to do to create a more helpful environment. We’re all responsible for creating our communities the way we envision them.

Whenever we take a route and just explore on the trails, we are surprised with memorable moments. The kids in particular get excited when people pass through and run out of their homes and scream hello to people. I’ll definitely miss this a lot when I leave Asia.

Conversation

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Two times while my friend and I were cycling, we didn’t ask for help and some people who spoke a little English asked us if we needed help and gave us directions.

Despite our language differences, many Khmer people want to talk and connect and they make a real effort to have a conversation. One woman lived in small home in the middle of the field asked us if we needed directions. We said no but we asked a bit about her house and how many kids she had and so on. Our Khmer was limited, and so was her English, but she kept making an effort to say a few sentences in Khmer to try and talk to us. She was very sweet.

My best friend was visiting me in Siem Reap and I told her, “When I pass people here, I feel it would be rude if I didn’t make eye contact with them and say hi. I’m already used to that here, but in Vancouver we would not do that.” When you try to converse with someone new in Vancouver, they often think you’re trying to get something from them or that you’re some kind of weirdo.

Offering drinks

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When my friends and I were cycling along where the Tonle Sap river (non-existent now, it’s dryish season), it was scorching hot and I was so thirsty. I was going to stop in the rural area to buy a drink as soon as we saw a stand. Then, not too long after, we came across this small hut on stilts in the middle of an open field and there were not many people around. As we passed the hut, we saw a group of young boys and one of them pulled out an iced pop and handed it to me just when I needed it the most. He offered it to my two other friends as well. This was one of my favourite moments in the hours that I’ve biked the past two months.

Shelter from the rain

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When my friend and I were cycling back from the temples, we got caught in the heaviest rain that I’ve experienced in the two months that I’ve been in Cambodia. If we didn’t have our electronics with us, we would have just kept cycling.

A woman on the side of the road saw us and waved for us to seek shelter by her house and shop, which was really sweet. Like other times, I thought, “I should buy something since she let us use her shop for shelter.” But she, like the countless hospitable Cambodians I’ve met, are not kind to me and other people just to make a sale. I’ve become so used to a 50/50 give and take that I quickly default to buying something material to express my gratitude whereas here, it seems people rarely think about having the favour returned.

Now I’m making an effort to simply accept people’s kindness and simply be grateful for it.

Just last weekend, I was in the habit, again, of expressing my gratitude by buying something from a shop. Whenever my friends and I cycle around the temples in Siem Reap, we stop by one of our friend’s mom’s business  next to Bayon. She is sooooo loving and motherly, you can’t help but admire how adorable she is (her business is in the picture below).

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After we had another delicious meal and coconut, I told my friend to tell his mom, “Tell her, whenever I pass the temples, I will stop here and buy something from her.” When he told her that, she said, “You don’t need to buy anything, just stop by and say hello.”

She reminded not turn relationships into transactions. Thanks mom.