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

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

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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