Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thinking Like An Asian - well sometimes!

After a few busy days of meetings, I wanted to share some of the lighter observations as I live here. Its seems strange that I would title today's blog 'Thinking Like An Asian'....what does that really mean anyway. For those who know of my background, I am 6th generation South American Chinese which means I ONLY speak English (or least I claim that as my official language). I do not speak any Chinese languages although I did attempt to learn Mandarin---"attempt" being the operative word many years ago when I lived in Singapore but I had problems with the 2nd and 4th tones---I guess one could say I am tone deaf! I  learned to count in Cantonese many years ago for strategic reasons. If you have ever been to Dim Sum in Toronto, most of the waiters and waitresses only speak Cantonese and when you are waiting to sit at your table, the hostess calls out the table numbers in Cantonese. My theory was that if I learned to count in Chinese, I would hear my table number and not be overlooked because I wanted to make sure that I got served my food. So the real reason for learning numbers in Cantonese was to eat at a Dim Sum Restaurant. Now you are all reading this and wondering what does this have to do with Cambodia? Probably nothing other than the fact that while I look Asian, I'm not really that Asian in my thinking or at least that's what I thought!

We 'westerners' like our space, we like our independence, we are more concerned about individual rights while here in the East, space is not something that really is in the Cambodian psyche. After all, many families live in small shacks in the poor community all together in one room. For those who are a bit better off, both the immediate and extended family tend to still all live together in a typical family Khmer home called a 'P'thay Lahvang' and if you have been following our blog, you would have read about pressures and the deep sense of obligations that girls feel to provide for their family needs which often leads to them selling themselves. So individual rights and independent thinking is not a cultural norm here.

But as I am now into my third month of living here, I'm starting to act and perhaps think a bit more Asian at least in one dimension. My fair complexion is starting to get a bit darker with all the walking I am doing and despite laddering myself with a high level of sun screen UV protection, I'm still getting a bit more tanned. So I am starting to avoid walking in the sun and now try to walk in the shaded areas (which are few and far between) because I don't want to get darker! :-). This is exactly what the Khmer do. But its not easy to avoid the sun here, its sunny all the time and it seems the rainy season has ended which is a bit of a shame as it was much cooler and overcast so one did not have to worry about getting dark! Some times when I go out in the middle of the afternoon, I will pray and ask the Lord to bring some clouds in the sky. After all, He did promise to be a pillar of cloud by day ---so I figured I would ask!

Often you will see many Khmer girls wearing long sleeve shirts, hoodies and even turtle necks, socks and gloves when they are on their motorcycles during the day. All of this is to keep themselves from getting darker because being fair in this environment is considered beautiful. Well, not to worry, vanity has not consumed me to such a level that I have resorted to being fully clothed in a turtle neck in 90+ temperatures. The thought of that makes me hot!

However, Khmer women are quite serious about cultivating a 'white complexion.' The other day when I was in a store I was curious to see the prices of cosmetics. Prices here are quite exorbitant for the same products we would buy in Canada. Everything here is 3 or 4 times more expensive and the selection is very limited. One common theme as I walked down the makeup aisle is how many 'whitening'products they have, all promising a much fairer complexion. It is quite a big business here. Sadly, one can often notice the whitening makeup on girls who are sitting outside beer gardens or brothels. It is also one of the reasons why Vietnamese girls are often the preferred choice at least among Asian sex tourists, because they tend to be of a much fairer complexion than Khmer girls.

Nonetheless, one of the positives of getting a bit tanned is that I am starting to blend in as I have been asked recently if I was Khmer Chinese. Last week, I even got stopped by a cyclo driver asking me in Khmer if I could help as he had an Australian tourist trying to explain to him where he wanted him to go. So there I was acting as a translator between the Aussie and the cyclo driver. It was actually a bit fun and let's hope that can also translate into cheaper prices when I go bargaining in the markets. 

All this to say, some aspects of the culture are starting to rub off on me ---no pun intended. As I think of all of these issues of beauty and image, it was my mentor a while back that reminded me that the Lord had made me an Asian and encouraged me to appreciate the 'Asianness' in me for to deny that or to be disparaging of that was to be critical of the Creator who made me that way. And so as I think of the Khmer people and especially the young women who are so longing to have that fairer complexion, it is my prayer that they too would come to discover, accept and appreciate that their brown and/or beige skin complexion is to be valued; that it is a gift from God who has created them uniquely to reflect a dimension of His beauty that cannot be found in any other culture or people group.

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