Learning to accept what people give

My friend Tourn invited my friend and I to hang out at Baray, a relaxing place with hammocks by the water. She cooked enough food for 10 people to eat for lunch and the boys supplied beers for everyone.

People in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan have been so generous with me to an extent that I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t offer something back to them. Because food, activities and products are much more expensive in Vancouver, Canada, our friends are so used to splitting the cost of everything and this has became an unconscious habit. With our close friends, we take turns treating each other for a drink or a meal every now and then.

So of course when I am coming as a visitor in countries where salaries are very low for most people, I don’t expect anyone to pay for my food or eat somewhere where I won’t at least supply groceries for both of us if they offer to cook for me. At the local grocery store in Cambodia, it costs no more than $2 US to pay for a meal for two people or a few dollars for a family. I always want to contribute my share as I’m used to doing in Canada.

Cambodian customs

Our friend Tin Tin so generously hosted us at his family’s home an hour outside of Siem Reap City to celebrate Khmer New Year. We kept asking him what we could bring and contribute but he wouldn’t let us pay for anything simply because we were guests.

In Cambodia, no matter what your background or income is, it’s simply in their culture to make sure you are taken care of as a guest or make you feel like you are family. Even when my Khmer (Cambodian) friends know I can afford something for myself or treat people because I want to, it doesn’t matter. One of my friends simply said, “In Cambodia, we like to make people happy. We know are traveling many places so we planned our trip so you don’t have to spend a lot. I don’t expect anything back from you.”

One of my friends offered to cook dinner for me a few times and she bought all the ingredients. When I asked what I owe her, she kept saying, “Nevermind.” When I asked again saying I can at least pay my share since she’s cooking she said, “Do you want me to be angry with you, I said I’ll cook for you.” But we’re close enough that we can talk that directly with each other.”

In Cambodian culture, if you are a guest, they will cook for you without expecting anything back in return. Over time I’ve realized by always offering to pay someone back, particularly in the form of a material gift or with money, I’m kind of corrupting their gesture that comes purely from their heart. It’s hard knowing that some of my friends make $50 US a month and it costs at least $200 a month to live comfortably in Siem Reap and they still offer to treat you a meal. It’s very challenging not to simply accept their gesture and I’m still working on it after being in Asia for almost 11 months.

My adopted Cambodian family has been so generous for most of the months I was in Cambodia and has taken me in as an added family member.

Whenever I have the ability, I treat friends and family every now and then to meals or drinks without expectation of them paying me back. And if I do it for friends in Canada, why wouldn’t I do it for friends in other countries?

I can think of several occasions where my Cambodian friends will tell me how hard it is to earn a good living and how life is in general and when the bill comes, they treat me a meal, which boggles my mind. Even when I insist they don’t have to cover their meal, they still offer. One of my friends told me that in Cambodia, if someone makes a new friend and they ask them to hang out for a meal, it’s custom to pay for that person for the first time.

In my first few months in Cambodia, I asked my friend directly, “Why are Cambodians so generous?” and they said, “It’s in our culture, we like to share.”

Conflicting customs

I’ve taken two trips to my friend Sopheak’s family’s hometown in an area called Banteay Meanchey. They’ve been so kind to let me stay and their house and share their meals with me.

I’ve been brought up with Chinese customs that I’ve practiced for most of my life, particularly when I’ve gone to family dinners. One of the customs is when you come to someone’s house, you can’t come empty handed so you have to bring something like some food or drinks to share, even when they tell you it’s not necessary.

So of course when my adopted Khmer family allows me to stay with them for free without expectation of anything in return, this is where our cultural customs come a bit in conflict but we’ve found a happy medium. Even though they never ask me for anything, I have made a daily habit of getting them breakfast in the morning, helping them set up for lunch and offering to at least cook one dish to share with the family. I’m glad they now don’t see me as a guest but a member of the house who can contribute and now one of them asks me to help out with some chores, which makes me happy.

It’s really touching when I stay with my friend and she says, “I don’t want to you to spend so much money.” And I told her, “By letting me stay at your place, you’re saving me at least $200 for this trip so that’s why I’m happy to spend a few dollars to share food with your family. In other countries, I have to spend $5 to $10 a night on a guesthouse.” And she said, “Exactly, we know you have to spend much money in other countries so you don’t have to spend a lot with us. When we have food you don’t have to buy. You are family.”

Many people I’ve met in Cambodia have not left their village, let alone the country. It’s hard for many of them to save up enough to travel outside. Me and other travelers are extremely fortunate to have the ability to travel so for my Cambodian friends who have every right not to be concerned about our budget to care about me not spending too much money shows a level of consideration I have never experienced.

My lovely Khmer friends who I often cook and laugh with. I’ve asked a million questions to them during my time in Siem Reap and they’ve always helped me so willingly.

When I went to visit my friend’s village about 45 minutes from Siem Reap City, the taxi ride costs $2.50 each way. It was very nice of them to invite me to speak and meet with his students who learn English with him since he volunteers his own time. I had a fantastic afternoon with them and getting to know some people in the community. Before I got in the taxi on the way back, he asked, “Can I pay for your taxi?” And I said, “No problem at all.” I couldn’t believe he offered.

I have come across plenty of people who have much higher salaries, particularly Westerners, who have no problems to spending on themselves but rarely offer to treat someone both in Canada and the countries I’ve visited. I know it’s their money and they can do what they want, it’s just a pattern I’ve observed both in Canada and the countries I’ve visited that people who generally have less give more.

Showing appreciation with your time

Spending time at Tonle Sap with friends and their family. They treated me to lunch during my last week in Cambodia.

I really love visiting my friend’s mom who has a small shop by the Bayon Temple in the Angkor Wat area. We go there for a drink or a meal and she always greets us with a warm smile and a hug. After my first visit with her, she said, “Come by and visit anytime” in Khmer, Cambodia’s language. I replied by saying I’ll make sure to buy something each time I pass and she replied, “Or just come and say hello.”

This made me realize how much we tend to show appreciation to people we love through gifts or money in Western culture. But I believe one of the most generous ways to show our appreciation is with our time and spending quality time with people we care about. Being in Cambodia has pushed me to think of ways I can show my appreciation other than spending money.

I asked another friend months ago, why Cambodians are so generous, and she said, “It’s in our culture, we give from our hearts.” This has motivated me to make a habit give more without expectation of anything in return and not to pay people back, but pay it forward.

My friend’s adorable mom who runs a small shop by the Bayon Temple in Siem Reap.


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