One thing is universal. Everyone smiles at children. No matter our race, gender, or even our mood. When children laugh and play in front of us, we smile. Especially when they smile at us first. And so let me tell you what I love about Cambodia. It’s children. When they run naked chasing each other through a field, I don’t see poverty. I see joy.
Recently a friend asked me to write more about the culture I’m experiencing… And I’ve given that some careful thought. Writing about culture is a tricky business. There is nothing I can say that won’t be underlined with my own subjectivity. So after much reflection, I’ve chosen not to write about “culture” – vague as the word is – but to write about experience. My experience. The only one I’m having ;). I hope my friend, Anuj, will understand ;).
A few days ago I went for a massage in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s most popular tourist city. The massage was $4, and my masseuse was apathetic. Initially, my assumption that she was apathetic was based solely on her actions – the way she repeated basic massage motions. There was a lack of a warm connection between her hands and my back. The entire time she spoke in Cambodian with another young girl who was massaging my friend. Often they would laugh loudly. And I felt as if I were merely flesh on a table. I was relieved I only asked for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, I went downstairs with Samnung, my masseuse, for a pedicure. And having this separation from her friend and my friend, we began a conversation. A real conversation. After a few icebreakers, she admitted to me that she hated her job. That she works 13 hour days and had only 2 days off each month. (My jaw dropped!) I asked if it was a family business, as I noticed many businesses in Thailand were, or if she worked for an employer. She said it was the latter. Her dad passed away when she was young and as the oldest child, she supports her mother. Her younger brother goes to school.
She asked me my age and was surprised when I told her I was 34, as she thought I was closer to her age (23). She said, “Why you so skinny?” And we laughed about it. Then she told me this is her second job, and an improvement from the last one at the cleaners, where she couldn’t receive tips. (There she only made $80/month.) I asked her what she really wanted to do, and she quickly responded she would like to be a tour guide, but the studies are expensive. She considered starting her own massage booth in the night market, too, but it costs $400 to set up. We spoke slowly, and I had to reword some questions, but overall her English was good. She said she is studying it everyday on her own to open up more job opportunities in tourism.
She didn’t tell me any of this from a place of pity or because she was looking for handouts. (In fact, she felt the women on the streets with their babies begging for money gave her city a bad reputation.) She told me all this from a place of frustration, and a desire to persevere.
I told her how my first jobs after school were my worst. Long hours, low pay (for where I lived) and I didn’t like them at all. But each time I got a new job, it was a little bit better. And it sounded to me like she was doing the same thing. We both worked on the skills we needed to get better jobs, and I assured her that her next job would be better. I could see that she was determined. That’s the half of it. I told her that in San Francisco I made good money but most of it went to my rent and living expenses. (You should have seen her face when I told her how much a massage and a bikini wax cost in San Francisco!!). We had a nice moment of female bonding. I gave her a good tip.
Did it cross my mind that I could give her $400 to start her own business? Yes. Did I briefly think of Kiva and Change.org and ways I could promote entrepreneurship for women in Cambodia on a larger scale? Yes, yes, yes. And perhaps I can. But meanwhile, I refuse to see things in terms of greater or lesser. I chose to see similarities. I was born in the United States. Samnung was born in Cambodia. We are both women seeking a better life for ourselves.
It’s tricky writing about culture. Everyone has an opinion. Many people want to tell you how to feel. How to give. Even how to perceive situations. There is no right answer. For me, there is only to act out of compassion. With everyone. And for that there is no monetary value.
I see children playing everywhere here. In creeks with their friends after school. At the market with their parents. They throw old bike tires into the water and swim after them. They play tag and make toys out of broken things. It looks a lot like my childhood, but with less clothing! It makes me happy. Their smiles are pure and unguarded by our culture differences. This has been my experience in Cambodia.
Many people here are warm and friendly. Many, many people speak English. (They make France and Italy’s tourism business look bad!) I think most of my friends back home would be surprised how easy and how enjoyable it is to travel here. But, yes, there are people who resent the wealthy tourists coming to their cities. Some say it, some show it. And that is just how it is everywhere, even in my country.
So Anuj, and my other friends who are reading, I hope this sheds some light on what it is like to be in Cambodia. Correction, what it is like to be in Camodia for me. I look forward to one day reading about your own experiences ☺.