More about Cambodian mentality
Dear volunteers, I would like to give you some recommendations and notes to work with Cambodian people, especially with students and staff.
The Cambodian culture and traditions is difficult to understand for Western people, so it is necessary to know some principles that would help you to coordinate your work with them.
I appreciate very much your contribution and I am sure that Cambodia need the transference of knowledge, skill and ethics if it wants to develop its society. At the same time, we need to protect and promote the best of the Cambodian culture and traditions.
Good elements that you will enjoy
Cambodians smile all the time, even in the worst moment. It has to see with the Buddhist and Hindu principle of cosmic harmony. It means that the Cambodian smile does not have the same connotation of the Western smile that means friendship. In fact, if a Cambodian smile to you, they want to be kind, but the smile can have many purposes. The most simple one is that a smile is a way to say “hello” or “hi”. It intends also to keep your face, to make you feel comfortable at the site. In this order of things not everyone smiling to you want to be your friend, although it is always kind.
Cambodians are tender, they see life with happiness, they appreciate small things, beauty, harmony, art… If you want to win the heart of a Cambodia, you don’t need to spend a lot: just give them a flower makes them deeply happy. It includes men. You can see boys wearing a flower or a pink T-shirt just because they think it is beautiful.
Cambodians can be very much protective. When you have a good number of Cambodian friends, when they really love you, they can give their life for you. It means that they can arrange to keep dangers from you or things they consider dangerous for you, including other people or places.
They share you with their dear ones. If you get a good and honest Cambodian friend, they will share you with those persons they love more. They will bring you to their home, they will introduce you to their friends. It means also that the others will respect you in the same way. It demonstrates a very rooted tribal principal. When you become the friend of a Cambodian, you become the friend of all their family and friends. It is a collective friendship. If you try to isolate your Cambodian friend, you will kill the friendship definitively. It applies with love relations: If you marry a Cambodian, you marry their family too.
They are very simple. Even rich Cambodians are simple. Their houses have right the needed, very little furniture, no rooms, sitting on the floor, sleeping together (including with animals)…
They laugh for everything. They enjoy life and then they look for funny things and they see fun everywhere. When they see you working in your computer, they don’t think that you are working or writing a personal letter to your lover… they think you are having fun. As they are tribal, they don’t understand that a person can have fun alone, so they joint you and they stand behind you looking to your action until you will include them… just get fun.
What will be difficult for you
Education is very low. Even in high and middle classes (by the way, very few Cambodians are in the middle and high classes), get a very low education. In my 15 years in Cambodia I have met only very few high qualified Cambodians and all of them were studying abroad. Cambodians do not read books, for example. The ones coming from the Royal University of Phnom Penh are in general good, but still need more attention.
This fact means:
They don’t get Ethics from kindergarten to University. Most Cambodians find difficult to distinguish some good actions from bad actions. Ethics is replaced by feelings (remember that they look for fun? so, they can conclude that something funny is “good” and something boring is “bad”.) They conclude that a very kind person, gentle, humble, helpful is “good” even if he is corrupt and a tough and unsmiling person is “bad” even if he is a real professional and honest man.
If you are a volunteer and you concentrate in your work with a professional attitude as you do in your Western country, you could end as being seen as a “bad person”. Then you must show kindness, smiling, low voice and reduce your velocity… your plans must be reduced in time. Some years ago I got bad comments from my students about a lady volunteer just because she never smiled and answer greetings. She was efficient, honest and really sincere to support her Cambodian students…
They don’t get trained in a culture of safety. Mothers do not train their kids to cross the road with safety measures such as look to the right and left before you step on the road; you can see very small kids at the side of roads without any attention of adults, many parents don’t say to their children they should not talk with strangers like we do in our countries, they ignore things like electricity can kill – just two years ago a boy of Kep died because he wanted to fish with electricity: he entered the water with two cables and put them inside the water… his assumption was that the electrical shock would kill fish and bring them to him… he did not know that he would be killed also… nobody told him at the school. They drive motorbikes, bicycles and cars ignoring the traffic laws, because anybody can buy a license, children can drive motorbikes and even cars.
Following Buddhism and Hinduism, they think that people die or are wounded in accidents because the KARMA… it means, if a person got an accident, it is because that person did something wrong in a previous life, so even if that person cared too much about safety, the DESTINY will take him anytime.
They don’t know about hygienic because they were grown in Cambodian farms that are poor, lacking services like clean water and many things. When small children are sick or die, they understand it as a Karma or as a bad omen… even many rural villagers have killed people they accuse of witchcraft.
The Cambodian culture of work is based in rural life. 80% of Cambodians are farmers! It includes people living in Phnom Penh as they were in the rural villages. Many people in Phnom Penh City keep animals such as cows and chicken with them. Now well, the rural life is very much different from the INDUSTRIAL TIME:
In the farms you keep your own time, you don’t follow schedules and nobody supervise your work.
In rural life you have much free time, for this reason, you have enough time for music, dancing and art, but also for gossips, games like Poker and drinking alcohol!
In rural life you work hard for a time… then you take a long rest.
In Cambodian rural life you don’t have appointments and you don’t make reports.
The authority of rural life is the village. It has a council with a chief of the village. When there is a problem, all meet and take a common decision. The decision could be good or bad one, but if the majority is agree, they take it as a true. I knew a village where there was not a single toilet. Suggesting to them that they could build toilets, they answered that the elders of the village forbade it, because it was a damage to the Nature!!!!
The power of the PROMISED WORD is more important than a written contract.
In resume: Cambodian societies are pre-Industrial people. In many things they behave as people in Europe before the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution.
Sense of belonging to a company or organization is very low. In the West people joint a company, factory or organization and they think they hope to be in that company for many years. Then they spend time to know the mission, vision and identity of the company and they try to work hard and good for the best of the Company…
Most Cambodians joint a company only to get MONEY. They don’t mind about the mission, vision and identity of it. The best part is that they want to get a lot of money DOING VERY LITTLE WORK.
They don’t think they will be in that company for a long time. They want to work there for sometimes and then move to another place. Why? Remember the “looking for fun”? Well, after a time they get bored, so they need to move to a new place “to look for new experiences”, they use to say. It creates a future problem: there will not be Cambodians in pension in the coming years, because they change job very easy, so no pension can be provided for short times people. Another problem: they don’t really have a good and deep experience, because moving so from one place to another, you cannot do a career.
They don’t need to work. Contrary to what happens in the Philippines, Vietnam or Thailand where young people look for job, Cambodians are 80% rural. It means most of them have a piece of land in their village. It means that if they lost their current job, they still can go back to home, work at his farm and get relax… It means there are not in hurry to look for a job like in Philippines, Vietnam or Thailand. It means also another future problem: Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thai will come to Cambodia to take the best jobs, while the Cambodians will go back to their farms to relax or go to their countries to get low rank jobs… in fact, many Cambodians are going to countries like South Korea to work as farmers, constructor workers, while in Phnom Penh you can see many Koreans working as officers…
This situation makes that a Cambodian stops very easy in any job, because they don’t have sense of belonging, they don’t really need to work and they don’t see contracts as real laws.
Reasons to stop in a job can be strain in Western countries like: “my mom told me to resign, my brother is getting married, we have a problem with a neighbor at the village and I need to go to attend it, I have a problem with the supervisor, last week I had headache”…
Little creativity. In other countries creativity is trained since kindergarten. But as we have a very low education, teachers do not get much salary and formation, this is not in the Cambodian blood. It is a pity, because the Cambodian ancestors were highly creative – look at the Angkor temples and the beautiful pagodas. They love art, but when working, they show very little creativity to resolve new problems, to look for solutions…
Little initiative. As for initiative, it is complicate. There is a strict social pyramidal relations. As you know, Cambodia is a Monarchy. It means that the King is at the top. But there is a king or queen everywhere:
In the job Cambodians obey only the one who pays them the salary. It is difficult for other positions to work with many of them, for example managers, supervisors, etc. They do not see them as real superiors, only because they are not the ones paying.
If nobody tells me, I do nothing. This is a global problem and it goes against the Industrial Society. You can hear things like “This is not my work”, “In my job description it is not included” or “he is not my real boss.”
There is not vision. There is not an idea of prevention of a problem. Everything is centralized in the current moment. If we can avoid a situation for tomorrow, it does not work today, just because they don’t see problems for tomorrow.
There is racism and xenophobia:
Most Cambodians hate Vietnamese people without reason, but all think there is a reason. You can be suspicious in geopolitics, but you cannot blame an entire nation and it is what happens here. They blame all Vietnamese people, even children, the lost of Cambodian territory more than 100 years ago. It puts in danger Vietnamese people in Cambodia. Many Viet-Khmer people deny their real ancestral blood. Even Khmer Kroam, a Khmer minority living in the south of Vietnam with much persecution in that country, when they manage to migrate to Cambodia, they are looked down by their own Khmer relatives. The bad word against Vietnamese is “Yuun”.
Many Cambodians mind the color of the skin. If they see an African, some Cambodians can laugh in the street. Very little education against racism. Many Cambodians who are dark, can suffer discrimination. If you see Cambodian TV, you will find only white Sino-Cambodian people… Strain because most officials of the government are dark – and dark in many senses 🙂
They call Westerns “Barang”. Barang means French. The way to conclude that a foreigner is Barang is the side of their nose. Long nose means Barang for them. Now well, in general you feel welcome everywhere if you are a “Barang”. But in reality there are discrimination in these cases:
When you want to buy something, they rise the real price three, four and even six times, because they think that everyone with a long nose is rich.
If you want to visit any tourist place, for example archaeological sites, museums, national parks, you have to pay a fee – locals and Asians do not pay!
If you speak Khmer, many Cambodians do as they don’t understand you. In this case I have done several tests to prove that it is not that some of them don’t understand, but it is only an assumption that “a Barang cannot speak Khmer.”
There are many things and you need to open your mind to understand this culture, especially if you want to let a contribution to Cambodia. There are also many things to learn. You have to look for the right point to open the cultural inter-change.
Welcome to Cambodia.