There is a term called ''saving face'' that is often heard in Asian cultures. It is ''not making another person feel ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated or even insulted. Recently one of my language instructors gave me an article about this topic. It has come in handy as I live here and being Asian from North America, it is interesting how 'saving face' is the same in Canada as it is here. The article I was reading said this:
Typically, Asians prefer to talk about important matters indirectly. Directness is considered rude. Telling a pleasant lie is not regarded as bad as telling a truth that hurts a person and makes him unhappy. When an Asian says ''yes', he might mean ''yes'' or ''perhaps'' or even ''no.'" When someone asks for something, he will seldom receive ''no'' for an answer. However, the tone of the voice with which a person agrees to a request will give a clue to whether the person means what he says. In order to avoid making someone feel bad or unhappy, an Asian would say ''yes" with his mouth and ''no'' with his face and actions. In order to make a person save face, displeasure and threats are also shown indirectly. So for example, in Cambodian culture, a Cambodian boss will not openly scold or criticize an unsatisfactory worker. When he is sacked, the worker will not be told the real reason for it. The boss will perhaps tell the worker that an unemployed relative has arrived and that he has to offer the work to him. Sometimes, a boss who is not satisfied with a worker will drop hints that he is not pleased. The worker will take the hint and resign from the job. he will probably tell his boss that a close relative has suddenly become ill. He will say that he is very sorry to leave this job suddenly since he has to go and look after his sick relative. Of course, no one really believes these pretences. However, saving face is very important.
When I read this article, I laughed because I have known this to be true in certain circles where people hint at the truth without coming right out and telling people directly. My language instructor shared how common it is for people to resign from jobs here for these very reasons listed above. Indeed over here, just because a Khmer person says ''yes'' doesn't mean it is a ''yes.'' In fact, according to my Khmer friends, Cambodian will always say ''yes'' to a ''borathay'' (foreigner) because they do not want to offend them. However, those who know me, know that even though I have Asian blood, I grew up with a North American mindset and I have no problems being direct. So now as I am living in Cambodia, I am learning how to communicate in new ways to discern what people really mean as body language becomes a key way to assess what is really going on. Indeed understanding the cultural milieu is a gateway to understanding how to communicate in non-verbal ways.
Recently, I had to deal with a situation in which this principal of saving face had to be applied. It has been a good learning exercise on how to integrate my faith in Christ without causing someone to lose face. This situation had to do with my cleaner Lily. One day last week I noticed that one of our four teacups in the office were missing. I knew we had four and we were trying to figure out what happened to the fourth one. I concluded that perhaps either Lily had taken it or broken it without telling me so now the question was how to confront her about this without embarrassing her. So I turned to my Loak Crew (language instructor) Chheut and asked him what I should do. One thing you learn when you are living here is never to make assumptions about the culture but be willing to ask questions of Khmer friends so they can help you navigate through sensitive situations. He suggested that I let her know that one of the cups were missing and then ask her if she had seen it. This way I would not be accusing her but rather soliciting her opinion. So I followed his advice. I smiled---another strategy....one must always smile and speak gently, never raising your voice as that person would lose face and at the same time you would lose his respect for you. At any rate, Lily quickly confessed in a somewhat sheepish way that she had broken it and said for the past few days she had been shopping in the local market to see if she could find a replacement cup but she couldn't. It was the perfect opportunity for me to extend grace to her. I simply said'in Khmer, ''its okay, don't worry, I broke a glass too. But if next time, you break a glass, just let me know as we can always buy it back. You don't need to buy it for us. Just let us know if it is broken.'' You should have seen the expression on her face. She was so relieved and thankful. In reflecting on this with my Loak Crew, we both discussed that it was an opportunity to demonstrate to her that we all make mistakes but you do not need to be fearful or scared to tell the truth. It was also an opportunity to illustrate God's grace and love and to encourage her that speaking the truth is important and is always the right thing to do.
In Cambodian culture and in particular in this type of work where people are maids, they are scared of how their boss will respond so it is easy to want to hide or cover up the mistake because they are worried that perhaps they will lose their job if they speak the truth. In such a situation, we have an opportunity to use this not only as a teaching moment, but to reflect our Christian values of love, grace and forgiveness. So today when I saw Lily, I was so humbled. She had brought me a kilo of mangoes because she knows I like mangoes. My loak crew and I think she did this to show her appreciation for the way I had responded to her over the broken tea cup. That one kilo of mangoes cost her US$1.25 and for a person who makes $4.00 for 4 hours of work to clean the Ratanak office apartment that is alot of money for her to spend. I wanted to pay her back ---another Asian habit ---we have a hard time receiving things----but I realize that I had to accept the gift, to refuse would be to insult her and to deprive her of the blessing that she wanted to give to me and ultimately the blessing that God would give to her through this generous and sacrificial act. How humbling it was to do so because she has so little and yet gave so much.