Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cambodians Rude?

I have been meaning to write this post for a while but for lack of time didn’t get around to it. Recently I saw a comment on another board on this subject which reminded me to finally hit the keyboard (funnily enough I wanted to write ‘put pen to paper’; but this is a thing of the past, now, isn’t it?).

Basically, what prompted me to ponder this subject was the traffic in Phnom Penh. Everybody who has ever ridden a motorbike, not to mention a bicycle, or driven a car around town knows what I am talking about. Despite the obvious chaos on the streets, it somehow seems to work nonetheless. People disregard red lights and just barrel across intersections, and make it across alive; cars turn willy-nilly without regard to anybody else on the street. Motorbikes regularly block lanes; cars change lanes never looking in their rear-view mirror, etc. etc. The list is endless. In the West, people would kill if they saw such traffic behavior. In Cambodia, people seem to shrug it off with typical Asian stoicism.

Of course, the whole traffic situation would not be so bad if motorbike riders just observed the most fundamental of traffic rules. I am not talking about the law on the rules of the road, and such, but rather about common sense. When I see these people on their motorbikes, I can’t help but think that many of them must have a death wish, or maybe, a large part of the population has a genetic defect. They can’t wait the additional 30 seconds for the light to change; they must hurry across as if they risked missing a very important appointment, at the same time risking their lives.

Let the other car cross ahead of you? No way, they just stare ahead ignoring everything around them and inch their way across the intersection. Now is this rude? In my mind, it is. I mean, it doesn’t make me mad; I only shake my head in wonderment.

This is the wedding season. Wedding ceremonies usually last three days. I don’t really envy the bride and groom because that ceremony is really hard on them. They start at 5 o’clock in the morning. And how they start. The keep the music blaring and the priest’s chants at high volume on the loudspeakers so nobody can really miss it. People also seem to enjoy shrieking sounds because in many cases the loudspeakers are of such poor quality that the sounds emanating from them make you cringe.

It might be a good wake-up call for people who have to get up early but what about the ones that can sleep to 7 or even 8 o’clock? Never mind, they should know that a daughter or a son in the neighborhood is getting married, right? What did they do before there were loudspeakers?

This does not just happen with weddings. If there is a death in the family, although the prayers are different, the set-up is the same. They put up a tent and the wailing sounds of the priests, mostly recorded, wake up the people at 5 o’clock. I mean you can’t mourn at 10 am, right? The relatives talk about the life of the deceased over those loudspeakers – their form of eulogies; I am sure the neighbors are all interested in that. And this also goes on for three days. But not enough, after 7 days there is another day of open mourning, starting at 5 o’clock in the morning. Thankfully, it is only for one day.

Ok, ok, I know this is the local custom. I also know people do things early in the morning because the day’s heat hasn’t arrived yet. But those loudspeakers, thanks to the invention of tapes, CDs, etc., blast their sounds into the neighborhood throughout the day.

The same applies to parties, whether it’s a house warming, a family-reunion, whatever. Everything has to be so loud so you can hear it miles away.
But there is a good side to all these parties and ceremonies. They usually stop at 10 o’clock at night. Hardly ever have I come across one that lasted longer than that, perhaps 11 o’clock once. Of course, people have to get up at 5 o’clock so they can attend one those ceremonies.

Another feature of modern Cambodian life is Karaoke (thank you Japan). As long as it’s in a KTV parlor, who cares? But many people keep one of those things at home and hold regular Karaoke parties. At full blast, that goes without saying, to make sure the neighbors can hear how they can’t hit the right notes.The more the evening advances the shriller the voices become. A pure joy to listen to.

Way back when I came to Cambodia first I didn’t live in a house but stayed at hotels in the city. The dogs I saw on the streets were all of the mangy stray-dog type. I got the impression that Cambodians don’t really care much for dogs since I also knew that a lot of people eat them.

But now with the newfound affluence of certain segments of Cambodian society they keep pet dogs, sometimes also guard dogs, which in the face of the high rate of burglaries and other crimes is understandable. It appears, though, as if many people just buy a dog, keep it fed, and then just leave the dog to its own devices. The dogs see someone walking by the property – well, that must be a potential burglar and they start barking away. It must be a signal for all the other dogs in the neighborhood because all of a sudden they all start barking and howling. During the day, it’s not so bad as there aren’t a lot of people walking around. But come evening, they engage in a virtual barking concert. In gated communities, the guards make their regular rounds during the night. You should just hear the racket that causes. And wait when there is a full moon!

People also seem to think it’s good to let their pets wander around the neighborhood scavenging from trash bins, knocking them over so the contents spill all across the street. Well, it makes it so much easier for the rats.

And lastly, as I mentioned before, people get up early to avoid the day’s heat for certain things. Some private schools keep really early hours, state schools start at 7. Most private schools run a shuttle service. Sometimes, this leaves the kids with some time while they are waiting for the van to pick them up. Kids being kids, they play a game of some sort, whether it’s kicking the ball, or engage in a running competition or whatever. They are just having fun. Needless to say, they don’t do this quietly. Hey, it’s 5:30, 6 o’clock already. Who’s still in bed at this time? It also seems to be the time when everybody, not only the kids, are in their most communicative mood; they way talk about (what? their dreams?) out on the streets.

Now don’t think it’s any quieter on weekends. Fathers use the early hours to spend some quality time with their little kids on the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning.

Now come 8 o’clock everything is quiet again. Exactly at a time when I usually get up. Sometimes I am thinking maybe I should change my routine and sleep during the day while it is quiet.

Now can all this be called rude? Well, it for sure is a high degree of inconsiderateness, if not outright rudeness. For people who put so much value on saving their face it certainly appears somewhat unbecoming to display this kind of behavior.

On the other hand, Cambodians are traditionally very friendly (to foreigners too), hospitable, helpful, and, yes, courteous. And this is not only to your face but it is part of their nature. So why this inconsiderateness and sometimes outright rudeness? I guess it has to do with their recent past. Culture and civility was eradicated during the Pol Pot years, and the ensuing Communists didn’t pay much heed to civility either. After all, they were a peasant and worker state. So civility which is usually also a sign of a better education still has to take hold in Cambodian society – by and large, at least. In the meantime, personally, I will just have to get away to my countryside retreat more often.


Anonymous said...

Bo say:

This kind of behavior has nothing to do with Pol Pot. It's always been like this. This is their way of life and it is not consider being rude. I think you need to get use to it, if not learn to live with it.

Their culture is very open, not just to their music, but everything else. For example: They don't try to hide or conceal about their ages, side, waist, and how much they make.

KJE said...

Older people tell me that it has not always been like this. Of course, the class distinctions were more defined in pre-Pol Pot times. Now, only very few of the nouveaux riches have any kind of civility. Just look at the way their children act in public. Combine a lack of education and guidance with the influence of Western ideas and consumerism and you get the undisciplined behavior you can see all around you in the city. It is not the same in rural areas, although it is slowly making its way into those minds as well.

After all this time I am used to it, believe me. It is just that I see things in this regard deteriorating instead of improving over time.

Ran Yimsut said...

This is what we called, "Control Chaos" in Cambodia and it got nothing to do with rudness. "It is what it is" as they say and the way it is in Cambodia, like it or not. Get along with it or get left behind...

KJE said...

Ran Yimsut,

Say what you want, some of the things I see are rude. Period. I am not saying they are rude in general.

'Controlled chaos'? - There is no control over anything, except collecting money.

'It's what it is', that's exactly the attitude of the people that don't want anything to change. I never heard chaos was conducive to development. Have you looked at neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia?

Anonymous said...

Bo says:

Let Cambodia be Cambodia. I like the Khmer culture as is. If I like Thailand, Vietnam, or Malaysia, then I rather move there, not living here.

The government needs to be changed for the better, but not the Khmer tradition.

You are right about the collection of money, but it is part of the government corruption, and it doesn’t play out as part of the Khmer tradition that needs to be changed.

KJE said...

We are not talking about culture, we are talking about behavioral patterns. You are obviously Khmer, so it is understandable you defend your ways. I cited the neighboring countries because they had the same behavioral patterns, and to some extent, still have, but over time became more disciplined. You should know that a certain discipline goes hand in hand with progress.
If you want to let Cambodia be Cambodia you should ban particularly American or Koren trends in the young people. Burgers, pizza, all very Cambodian, right?

Ran Yimsut said...

Democratic government does not need changing--but the governance in itself can always use a reform of sort (aka improvement)--on any planet, not just this one.

Don't like the government (current regime) or its policy? Be the agent of change, democratically of course. Granted that everyone is entitled (licensed) to bitch and least in a free and democratic society.

Anonymous said...

You mention about the wedding ceremonies and how the Cambodians go about when there is a death in the family. This is part of their tradition and culture, and has nothing to do with Pol Pot.

If those Cambodians love to learn other cultures and love to eat other food, it is good for them, and it doesn’t make Cambodia less Cambodia, but not to say that Western cultures are better than Cambodia and that Cambodians should follow the West. The Western culture might be different from Cambodia, but not better.

If I’m going to say certain things about your culture, you might not like it; therefore, I would not fall under the shadow of ethnocentrism.

Don’t get confuse between corrupted behavior by those Cambodia with the way of life of Cambodians which they’re conducting themselves different from yours.

KJE said...

You didn't get my post. Wedding and mourning rituals weren't the issue; but do these rituals have to involve loudspeakers blaring at 90 dB at 5 o'clock in the morning in densely populated neighborhood?
It wasn't criticism of the culture per se but of the way it is practiced nowadays.
Read my comments above - civility is part of civilization - it appears as though many a Cambodian is lacking on that score, and that might be a consequence of the disappearance of the upper and upper middle class in Cambodia in the Pol Pot years.

Anonymous said...

Bo says:

Loud speakers are part of Cambodian tradition. It is considered to be jubilant and thrilled among Cambodians during the wedding ceremony. In the past, they use drums and symbols as the sound of jubilation in this event.

In China, people use drums and symbols as well as fire crackers as part of the wedding for same purpose.

In some places in central Asia, people use drums and symbols as well as fire their machine guns in the air.

In the United States, people tie up, attach, and drag cans them behind the vehicle. Some of the activities that other countries adopt are considered being strange to Cambodians or even crazy. If it had happen in Cambodia, polices would try to stop it.

JKE, I don’t understand why you don’t understand. I have travel to many countries as often you are, but I never have any problem with the people that I encounter when it comes to their traditions or cultures. I always respect other people traditions and cultures, and I never allow myself to fall under the shadow of ethnocentrism.

KJE said...

You don't understand what I am saying. I say it again. This is not about tradition and culture. You misread the post and my comments. Who says I don't respect Khmer culture?

It seems you guys just feel stepped on your toes - incorrectly so.

Kessor C. said...

Lol, I love how you keep complaining about all the stuff and then ending up pleasing about Khmer nature.

You know what? When I was in Cambodia, I have never thought as all of those issues such a matter, but once I live abroad, yeah, u're right!

Just curious, are you Cambodian too??? :)

KJE said...

I am not really complaining; it's just wondering, and shaking my head. If I were to complain I should rethink my residence here.

Ran Yimsut said...

Bottom line is this... anyone has the right to do the "bitching and moaning" (aka complaining!) and offer an "opinion" about anything and everything. Deal? That said, one...look in the mirror first before we do it, and two... be a "constructive" (aka productive?) critic. Done deal and silly simple, eh??? Ran

Melinda said...

I have been living in rural Cambodia for 2 years now and now call it my home.

I am not going to comment on your post in a negative or positive way, but to add my experience (as I view your posts).

The rural areas are not much different in regards to celebrations (either weddings or death), I was told by the local Khmer in my area that it was not always accompanied by loud speakers. That is something that has become the 'norm' over time.

The thing I wish I could change is the materialism in such gatherings. Villagers go into debt to outshine their neighbors children's weddings. Massive debt is incurred, many times causing the family to remove their children from school and put them to work to pay back $1,000+USD loans.

This of course is not unique to Cambodia, but the word in general. I do not have a solution, but the children in my care are informed of the dangers of "keeping up with the Jones" and living beyond their means. Weddings and Funerals should be a time of rejoice and reflection not a way to flaunt wealth you do not have. Nor it any less respectful to have a Khmer ceremony within budget. (with or without loudspeakers).

I personally would love to ditch the recorded CD's and use live people instead - in my opinion this would at least put a little variety and individuality into the ceremony and maybe it wouldn't start at 4:30 or 5:00am if you had to actually talk instead of pushing the button on a machine.

Matty Smith said...

Interesting post. I live in the south, by the sea.
Its exactly the same here.
There is no common sense on the roads. There is no courtesy on the roads. Khmer will blast their horn at you to get out of the way, only to turn off 5 meters down the road.
And as for weddings and funerals... how can anyone possibly argue that it is cultural to use loud speakers at volume 10 at 5am in the morning so it can be heard for a 3km radius ??
Dont try to tell me the Khmer have had P.A systems for the last 900 years.
The same lack of consideration for the public and the same lack of common sense displayed on the roads also prevails in the case of weddings and funerals.
I can also go to the same restaurant, be served by the same people everyday for a year and still be served the wrong meal (and cold) everytime. Why is that ???
There is an alarming inability to learn here, which I have never seen anywhere else in the world.
It is indeed intriguing.

KJE said...

So true, I now live in SHV full-time and own a hotel there. This inability is just so frigging tiring. The government always talks about culture. They don't have a culture any more, perhaps hundreds of years ago they did. But now, the Pol Pot and the subsequent regimes have erased the last vestiges of culture. The general public is just plain dumb.

Matty Smith said...
Which hotel you at ?? Could drop by for a beer and say G'day.

Anonymous said...

Loudspeakers blasting out music at 100 decibels for 18 hours straight to show off to neighbours is now seen as part of Khmer culture? Well that needs to go as it is NOT an admirable trait in any population of people and should not be encouraged in any country. Since when does adopting western technology and using it completely irresponsibly and with profound stupidity equate to "tradition" or "culture?" People have been using these speakers for the last couple of decades at most so how is this Khmer culture, exactly? Sadly the Cambodians do not have the intelligence or social awareness to be able to use this technology sensibly and are actually stunting their growth as a nation even further by refusing to act like reasonable, civilized people. Investment and tourism is directly impacted by this stupidity. Other surrounding countries have grown up a bit and become more civilized which means destroying the peace of anybody within 10 miles just to try and impress with wealth not actually possessed is not deemed acceptable or "cultural". Cambodia is an incredibly uncivilized place, something rammed home when one lives here for any length of time. To have absolutely no consideration for one's fellow man, whether on the roads (actually endangering lives) or by destroying everybody's living environment by polluting it with totally unacceptable levels of noise is a sign of the self-defeating backwardness and lack of evolution in Cambodia. The seeming inability to learn, complete lack of common sense and ignorance of one's impact on others is astounding.

KJE said...

Strong words, but unfortunately true. Personally, I have lost some of my belief that over time Cambodians will understand the requirements for development both cultural, mental, and economic and also come to respect other people's privacy. But there is no such thing a privacy in their lives. They need to show off everything they have, be it jewelry for the women, wives and concubines, luxury SUVs for the men, or grandiose palaces not seen in such numbers (relatively speaking) in the West. To me, this conveys that personal greed and immaturity is deeply ingrained in the Cambodian character, hindering any meaningful development in a reasonable time-frame. Back in the 90ies I thought it would take 2 generations for them to catch up to their neighbors; I have now revised this to 4 or 5 generations. Even the so-called elite (in the opposition party) does not act any different. Where is all this supposed to lead?

Anonymous said...

I'm staying in a guesthouse, and since a few hours, this horrible music is playing in the neighborhood nonstop (Came here via a Google search).

If I were to move here permanently, I'd need a huge plot of land to keep the Cambodian neighbors away. Too much intentional noise pollution, too much burning trash. Another solution would be to import the biggest loudspeakers from the West, and take revenge by playing Black Metal 24/7.

Ran Yimsut said...

When in are smart enough to know the rest, hopefully.

dvb said...

Beautiful age old and traditional wedding and funeral ceremonies spoiled by the excessive overlast of modern technologie.

The previous comments are not against Khmer culture and tradition but against the blatant excessive noise of audio pollution.

It is also about health and sadly enough also about ignorance and no/or not implemented laws.
If you play for days on end at 100 decibel (a louder sound than a jumbo plane taking off) it is damaging to the eardrums and body,
it can even lead to deafness. Especially with the bad and lowest of lowest quality loudspeakers. The thumping of the bass is
abominable and has nothing to to with quality music or the beautiful traditional chanting.
Therefore, In the West, this high decibel level is forbidden by law to protect the people.
And so it should be for Cambodians, they should be protected.

It is the same for traffic accidents: a medical doctor has only to see the rise of mortal accidents related to the ever growing rise
in traffic to understand the alarming problem. Especially as very young children are included.
And in the Cambodian population, not willing to wear a helmet on a scooter and driving dangerously there is a rise in very severe accidents with life impairing consequences: brain-damage, wheelchair. The huge quantity of young kids and youngsters and sadly also
adults, driving a scooter whilst using mobile phones is a huge problem.
Cambodians (very young) kids and also adults should be protected by ever stricter traffic law and controls.
But most important, and first of all, they should learn the rules and how to behave in traffic.

Anonymous said...

The chanting at 5am, not a local custom. New custom of low-class nouveau rich in Cambodia, play obnoxious noise for 5 am to perhaps 10 pm because you bribe a local police officer to allow you to disturb the peace.
This is a way to A) show off your new found pittance and B) a way to annoy foreigners since in Siem Reap they always do it in an area heavy with small hotels and guesthouses. They can't do it near the expensive hotels, they can complain to the tourist police and they will tell them to turn it down.
So yes, give Khmer people a little money and they turn into obnoxious a**holes. Not the Chinese living here, the Khmer. They are one step off the farm and don't know anything about civil society.
I lived here for a year and now I am ecstatically never returning!! Its a bad as Muslim countries and their obnoxiously loud morning call to prayer. No respect for others who don't share their selfish practices.