Friday, August 17, 2012

Attire for a meeting!

Yesterday Nary, our Operations manager at RAP and myself were invited to attend a government meeting held at the Ministry of Social Affairs office. The purpose of this meeting was to gather all the International NGOs  who are working with vulnerable people---whether it be children, trafficking survivors, old people or disable people as the government is looking to have a representative from one of the NGOs who would be a     key person to facilitate NGO discussions with the government. This apparently is the first time that such a meeting is being organized where NGOs would vote in a representative from an organization to be a voice for the vulnerable as they work with the government.

When one has to go to such meetings one of the important things to consider is what to wear. Cambodia is a more conservative nation and when I came here for the first time in 2000, one would never see young women or girls wearing shorts, or sleeveless tops in public areas. It was unacceptable and the mission organization I visited had a fairly strict policy on clothing attire. Today, some of those clothing rules are less strict but there is still a need to dress appropriately especially when one is attending meetings with government officials.
Waiting for the meeting to start!
So my teachers on Cambodian culture are my staff. I am always asking them questions on what is appropriate behavior---ie: how do I address different types of people and what is appropriate clothing attire to wear especially when I have to attend such events for this is all part of being culturally sensitive to ensure that I do not put my foot in the mouth.  So as I was preparing to attend this meeting, I asked Nary what I should wear. After all, I have gotten a few traditional Khmer long skirts and blouses made for such formal purposes. However, I was advised that since I do not look old and am technically not ''old'' (its nice to know that my staff think I'm young) --- I could actually wear a knee length skirt. However, the blouse I wear cannot be sleeveless nor have a sharp v-neck cut as that would not be professional!

So off we went to the meeting and another lesson on Cambodian etiquette and culture was on the way. All the female government staff who were older ie: perhaps 60 years and older were wearing the traditional Khmer long skirt and blouse and indeed the younger ones, were dressed like Nary and myself. As we sat down, I continued my observations and noted a lady coming in with a beautiful knee length sleeveless dress so I asked my Cambodian fashion consultant Nary what she thought. Her response, ''Bong (older sister), that style of dress is not appropriate for meetings like this as it does not convey respect." Even the shoes we wear can convey respect or disrespect. So in such meetings, no flip flops or casual shoes. One must wear more dressy or formal shoes. In some sense, I suppose this is no different than if we were going to a formal meeting in Canada, there is a need to dress professional.

In recent meetings, my presence has created a bit of a confusion as I seem to be looking more Khmer but my short hair indicates that I am a foreigner. Most Khmer females have long hair as this is a throw back from the Pol Pot period where women were forced to cut their hair under the Khmer Rouge. Yesterday, some of the government staff were asking my Operations Manager in Khmer where I was from. Of course, they just assumed that I could not speak nor understand Khmer so it was wonderful to respond to them in their language and see their surprise. Its such a blessing to be able to communicate in Khmer but this adds to the confusion since in their eyes, I could pass as a Khmer even though I am a foreigner. This element of surprise is a wonderful gift and it opens the door to some light hearted conversation and curiosity as to my cultural background.

Anyway, back to the meeting, 30 minutes in as we sat people watching in walked Somaly Mam. Many of you may have heard of Somaly, a survivor of sexual slavery who has written a book called Road of Lost Innocence which is biography of her story. Its a great read if you want to understand this issue from the mind of a Khmer survivor of trafficking. Somaly walked in with her entourage ---all of whom were dressed in traditional Khmer outfits. One could not help but notice her and her team as she sat in the front row. She is not a typical Khmer woman  but is more direct and was not afraid to share her opinions quite openly and freely  in one of the sub groups that we were directed to participate in. It was quite interesting to observe the interactions between a Khmer female who has reached such celebrity status internationally and her fellow Khmer brothers and sisters who smiled diplomatically as she shared her comments.

Many of these meetings provide an opportunity to network with folks from NGOs. We saw some familiar faces from our partner organization Chab Dai and other Khmer friends who I have met previously from IJM and other NGOs. At one point in our meeting, we had to vote who would be the NGO representative on behalf of those organizations working for trafficking survivors. One of the directors of an NGO that we recently have come to know encouraged us to put our name forward as a candidate but we politely declined. These are still early days for Ratanak Cambodia and we are still learning on a variety of levels. Thankfully, so many of us in this room are members of the Chab Dai Coalition and so when the time came to vote, it was unanimously decided and quite fitting that Chab Dai would represent the NGOs who work for trafficking survivors. It is great to see the influence and favor that God has given Chab Dai both with other organizations and with the government authorities.  But it also was a reminder of the importance of collaboration and the importance of being united as one voice in this fight against trafficking of persons. We look forward to many more meetings like this and the opportunity to connect with many others who are on the front lines here seeking to make a difference and give a voice to those whose voices have been silenced for many years!

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