Friday, July 29, 2005


I knew he was going to butt in front of me. Knew it. I waited for it, was ready for it, and dealt with it accordingly.

(This constitutes 'drama' and 'confrontation' in my life in Phnom Penh.)

I'm used to 'cultural differences'. Living in Japan for four years was a megaton-level wake-up call for this Ontario small-city boy as to the convoluted societal regulations inherent in a millienia-old society. To even begin to list the intricacies of Japanese dos and don't would take pages, possibly volumes. Irritating, yes. Annoying as hell, sure. Comprehensible? Sometimes. But after awhile I grinned and bore it. There was nothing else to do. Especially because they were, and are, so damn polite about everything -- and really, how angry can you get at somebody for being too nice?

Things are not quite as a complex here in Cambodia. Don't get me wrong. I don't begin to understand much, if anything, of what Cambodia is truly like, even after living here for two years. (Think about it -- do you really, truly understand your hometown, let alone your country? Can you even figure out what the rationale behind what occurs at your local Wal-Mart? Trying to do psychoanalysis on a Southeast Asian country just doesn't cut it.) Cambodian people are a lot more, well, open than the Japanese. (Which is not a value judgement, by the way.) They smile and laugh and get pissed off quite easily and openly. You may not always know where you stand with them, but you know where you don't stand. If that makes sense.

But there are some things about Cambodian life I still haven't quite gotten the handle on. Pissing in the street, fine. No big deal. Refusing to admit that they don't understand something, even though they say they do -- got it.

And yet, time and time again, month after month, I'm baffled by this:

Standing in line at a convenience store. Waiting for my change at a grocery shop. And here comes a Khmer, stepping in right in front of me.

I don't mind if people don't see me, are half-asleep, are blind, whatever. Sometimes mistakes are made. And I'm not sure if this is strictly a 'foreigner' thing, though I doubt it, because I've seen the same thing happen at the snack shop on the Cambodian-Vietnam border, where a Cambodian dude just blatantly ignored the long line, took out a dollar bill, and walked to the counter, waving it in the air like a bullfighter taunting his animal.

But it happens all the time. People just walking right on by me and placing their goods down and generally ignoring me.

I honestly don't get it. Do they think that because I'm a foreigner and they're a Khmer citizen that lines are thus not for them? I know that, in general, most Cambodians don't really follow the whole 'line' thing -- but how can you just cavalierly sidestep someone who's directly in front of you?

So this particular time, the other night, at BB World, after ordering my #1 combo, I refused to back down.

A young Cambodian kid, in a rush, was coming up behind him. He brushed by me and literally pushed me aside with his shoulder and shouted out his order.

I, feeling royally ticked off and pleasantly pleased that my prediction had come true, pushed him back, slightly, with my own shoulder, a move I have not made on anyone since I used to (attempt to) bodycheck people during hockey games all those moons ago.

His reaction?

A sheepish grin.

He knew he'd been caught red-handed in the act. (Khmers tend to smile and grin nervously whenever they're nervous, unsettled, embarrassed or ashamed.) I was left alone to finish my order in peaceful bliss.

I felt vindicated. I felt stupid for feeling vindicated.

And yet, I suppose it's alright, this peeve of mine. In this sense: in a world of terrorism run amok, where people are willing to maim each other and kill each other because they disagree with somebody's principles and way of life, I suppose there's some small form of comfort in the fact that the biggest criticism I can think of regarding living in Cambodia is the fact that people sometimes butt ahead of me in line. In today's world, in fact, I suspect a minor infraction like that could even be deemed somewhat, well, quaint.


Christa said...

Your complaints are fair and it would piss me off too. I am glad you were vindicated and got to put your order in first! I am currently reading a book called,
"Three Weeks with My Brother" by Nicholas Sparks. It's a story about how the two brothers take a trip around the world and the book chronicles both their trip and their lives growing up together. Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that right now in the book they are in Phnom Penh and are visiting some of the sites. I wonder, while I am reading of these places, if you have been to see them. I am startled by the descriptions I am reading of the land you live in and hope you are safe.

P.S. I didn't know you played hockey-I used to have the biggest crushes on hockey players! ;-)

Delhui said...

As I was reading about your experience, the phrase "The personal is political" kept coming to mind. Not 100% sure why, but maybe because that sort of generalized failure to pay courtesy to the people around us may have some part in the state of the world today. Sometimes you have to stand up and say I'm here too. But I completely empathized with your uncomfortableness about feeling vindicated. Guess it's all about learning where to draw the line...