Saturday, April 23, 2005


The other day I came out of the Internet cafe and said hello to the owner of Nike's Pizza House, located right next door. (Originally it was named 'Nikee's', with that extra 'e', but the owner said that some foreigners said that 'Nike' was a famous shoe brand that customers would recognize right away. So, in went the new 'e'.)

"How are you?" the owner said. He is a Chinese Khmer who is always smiling and always talking; despite the fact that he has eight, count 'em, eight, children, he apparently doesn't lack energy. (I personally side with the theme song of the old seventies Dick Van Patten show, that eight is enough to fill our lives with joy. But that's just me.)

We chatted for a minute. He asked how my work was, and I told him that I wasn't teaching anymore (though I might be soon), that I had moved on to a different job.

He was a bit confused.

"You only have one job?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"Why don't you have two jobs?"

A pause.

"Well," I said, "one's enough for me."

He smiled and nodded and looked a little bit confused.

In Cambodia, I have always held the belief that Cambodians are, well, a little bit lazy.

Intelligent, yes, and compassionate, sure, but most Cambodians will do the absolute minimum of work necessary to get the job done. (This is not necessarily a bad thing; the opposite, overwork to the point of exhaustion, is not necessarily the greatest of endeavors.) There is an old expression: The Vietnamese plant the rice; the Cambodians watch it grow; and the Laotians listen to it sing.

But the pizza shop owner's comments stuck with me, because I've heard them before, from different people, in different variations.

Most Cambodians, by necessity, work two, three jobs. The students I used to teach at the university usually went to two or even three universities -- one in the morning, afternoon and evening, the philosophy being: one degree is great, but why not go for three B.A.s at the same time?

(Which, of course, leads to situations in which the students never complete their homework because, teacher, they have to finish their homework from their other schools, and weekly, sometimes daily (hourly?) scenarios where students high-tail it out of your class because you see, teacher, they have to go write an exam at their other university.)

Still, I realize I was wrong to a certain extent; I bought into the stereotypes I usually spend so much time trying to tear down. Cambodians are workers; they will work two or three jobs and not complain. (I can't see many westerners doing that.) They work because they have to, and they need to; my perceived vision of them being 'lazy' stems from the fact that they do not do more than they humanly have to to get by in life.

Which, when you think about it, is not all that bad a philosophy to live by.

It leaves time for other things in life, like life.

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