By Lauren Bass
When people learn about Cambodia, what they learn usually revolves around two areas: the temples of the Angkorian era including Angkor Wat and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge years.
For example, most trips here visit genocide memorial sites in Phnom Penh and temples and archeological sites in Siem Reap. Most books or films you’ve heard of about Cambodia are likely from the Khmer Rouge era (First They Killed My Father or The Killing Fields). Most international academic work is on the ancient archaeological sites.
While there’s obviously much more to this country and culture than these two things, I’ve come to see the Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat as the opposing poles of modern Cambodia. One is its trauma and pain. The other is its pride.
As we more and more often talk guests and interested parties through these two topics and explain the ways we have observed these areas effecting Khmer people today, I have realized that thinking about a culture or community’s pain and pride is not a bad way to begin to understand its people’s motivations, dreams and hesitations.
For example, with the exception of some oversharing of young people on Facebook (which seems to be a transcultural phenomenon!), Khmer people tend to be fairly reserved about personal and family matters. They hold their cards pretty closely. A teacher shared with us that his family has instilled the importance of discretion in him by sharing the ways other peoples’ knowledge, abilities and “business” were used as reasons to torture, kill or pillage people during the Khmer rouge era of the 1970s. I’d imagine most families pass on these habits in much less direct ways, but nonetheless you can see it all around. Understanding Cambodian people’s past trauma makes this evasiveness easy to understand.
Also, while some in Cambodia are vocally pushing for sweeping political and social reforms in a country that is consistently ranked one of the most corrupt in the world, most people prefer to quietly wait things out. Wanting peace at all costs after enduring decades of civil wars or having extreme loyalty to controversial politicians who led them out of the genocide years makes sense in context.
On the other hand, Cambodia is extremely proud of the ancient civilization of Angkor and the buildings and culture it left behind. The temple of Angkor Wat is even on Cambodia’s flag—in fact, it’s the only national flag in the world with a building on it. Many homes have framed pictures, paintings or even giant cross-stitched images of the temples. For a long time, while most of Europe was in the middle of the dark ages, Cambodia was a massive super power in this region and had some of the most advanced technology in the world. Cambodia today longs to take its place as a competent player in the region and shed its “third world” status.
Cambodia also loves to show off the proof of its glory days to visitors. The tourism industry is one of the largest sectors of Cambodia’s economy and it expects at least 6 million foreign tourists to come to Cambodia this year. Fueled by economic opportunity and cultural pride, young people all over the country study and train to work in the tourism and hospitality industries. At the end of the day, no matter how rough things get in Cambodia, they can always look back or look around at the world-class remains of their people’s prior domination and sophistication. Through these remains and their history, they know that they were and are important to the world. It’s their pride.
After talking about pride and pain in Cambodia, I started wondering what the pain and pride of America would be. Would our pain be in our wars, our racism, our economic downturns? Would our pride be our optimism and opportunities, our world leadership, our diversity? I also wonder what would be in these categories for local communities I have lived in. What would be sitting on these opposing poles of the churches I have been a part of? Of the organizations I have worked for? How has pain and pride—my own and my communities’—shaped me?
I sometimes think about the Israelites in the Old Testament in this way now, too. Among other things, they had collective trauma coming out of their years as slaves in Egypt. They carried pain and shame around the fall of the city of Jerusalem and their temple. On the other hand, they had shared pride around their unique God of power and forgiveness and their lineage and leaders—from Abraham and Moses to Deborah and David. They had festivals throughout the year—or, in the case of the Sabbath, each week—to remind them of the hardships they had come out of and how these pain points changed them as a people. Their pride in their unique God and in their ancestors, led them to stick to a religion that was very different from the religions of the other communities around them. They kept kosher, they cared for the poor and the immigrants and they devoted themselves to watching for a messiah, for a king who would come and transform their pride into a new, concrete reality.