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WHEN I FIRST VISITED CAMBODIA, the people I met made the visit so enjoyable I decided to move here. Ten months later, I’m living in northwestern Cambodia. And I keep learning things confirming that, yes, Cambodians are awesome.
A shoeless existence is completely normal. Cambodians kick off their sandals once they’ve arrived at home, at the workplace, or at a cafe. And given the heat, it’s common to see men, usually middle-aged, wandering around with their shirts pulled up to let their bellies hang out. Admittedly, women are expected to keep their shirts on — and cover their shoulders too, for good measure — but still, their feet are free.
I write this while sitting next to a friend who’s massaging the neck of the guy sitting next to him, whose arm is draped across his knee. When I dated a Cambodian, the affection he showed me was nothing compared to the affection his male friends get. Why hide the man-love, right fellas?
With apologies to the French backpacker who spilled a shot on me at a bar before delivering a monologue on why the French language is superior to Cambodian, I think Cambodian is pretty great.
While it’s not necessarily easy for foreigners to pick up (depending on who you ask, there are between 23 and 28 vowels), it’s worth learning a few words for the cultural insight they’ll give you. One way of saying “bother” is cha chau, which is “fry raw,” because nothing’s more irritating than when your veggies aren’t cooked properly. “Joking” is nyay leing, literally “talk play.”
When I enter a bank or cafe, I’m called “sister” rather than “ma’am” or “excuse me.”
The way the language works, you don’t really say “woman” or “man.” It’s usually “sister” or “brother,” or, for those older than you, “aunt,” “uncle,” “grandma,” or “grandpa.” It’s very sweet.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Cambodians are its cheery uncle, the one who sometimes has a bit too much to drink at weddings.
I see thousands of flying termites swarming into my home as a terrible disaster, and an indication the end is near; Cambodians see it as an opportunity to put a flashlight over a barrel of water to draw the termites to the light and wait for morning, when the termites’ wings will have fallen off and they’ll have drowned in the water.
Then they dump the water out and fry up some termites. Delicious and ingenious.
Despite the roads being more chaotic and more dangerous than Formula 1, no one’s upset by delays, road closures, detours, or being cut off by that Lexus. Everyone just rolls with it.
Recently, a friend was hit by a car while driving his motorbike. Though he hurt his leg and had to go back to his home village to recuperate for a while, he told me this story without using any expletives or insulting the driver of the car even once.
I once complained about my mom to a Cambodian friend and, instead of sympathy, got a stern lecture on how I should respect my parents.
He was right. I should respect my parents, and I should also learn from other elements of Cambodian culture. I should show my friends more affection, address strangers more respectfully, and react calmly when I’m cut off while driving.
This article was originally published on June 24, 2014