Early Sunday morning there was an optional outing to Kbalspean and Bataey Srei in Angkor Park. I’m SO glad I went. Kbalspean looked like something out of a fairy tale with its giant boulder path surrounded by winding and braided trees. I even got to climb a few vines, something I’ve been aching to do this entire trip! It was about a half hour hike all the way to the top, but I think we spent a total of two hours there just absorbing the incredible scenery. At the top of the mountain was a little waterfall where we saw a ton of children playing (even Taewee jumped in) but I decided to pass and go on a mini tour of the hundreds of Shiva linga and stone carvings in and around the falls area. I’m so sore today after all that climbing!! By far Kbalspean was my favorite place we’ve been to in Cambodia so far. Words can even describe the overwhelming beauty. I’m sorry to say my camera could barely capture its beauty, but a few have done it slight justice.
After our journey around Angkor Park, I had a quick bite to eat and headed over to the English conversation table. These conversations have been highlights of my weeks here. I love working with the children at CKS and the Bataey Srei farm, but actually hanging out and having intellectual conversations with Cambodian peers is a really unique and rewarding experience. Last night the topic of conversation was “how to be polite” in Cambodian and American culture. There were two main distinctions on politeness in Cambodia and America, how you greet someone and where you look at them. In Cambodian culture they do sampaeh, which is a praying gesture and a slight bow with different levels depending on the person’s age. It was pointed out, though, that although Cambodians are taught to do that, they rarely sampaeh to their parents, monks, or teachers. They don’t do this out of disrespect, but they usually forget. In Cambodia, you would never shake someone’s hand, yet in American culture that’s the first thing we do. (Which is quite unsanitary.) The second difference was where you look during the conversation. In Cambodia you try not to make eye contact with someone older than you, or who holds a higher position than you. I explained, though, that in America if you don’t look at someone in the eyes they may think you are not paying attention to them. I thought it was interesting a few Cambodian students mentioned that if someone was not looking in their eyes, even though showing respect in their culture, they sometimes feel like the person they are talking to isn’t engaged in the conversation. In Cambodia you are especially not supposed to look in a monk’s eyes but during the conversation Venerable kept looking into my eyes and at one point said, “See my eyes feel like they are on fire because my culture says I’m not supposed to look into your eyes!”
Venerable explained that being polite had three different subtopics: smiling, being helpful, and being tolerant. Smiling was obvious to me, because I always feel like it’s polite to smile to people, but I was surprised by being helpful and being tolerant. In Cambodia so far, everyone has been extremely polite to me and I guess I hadn’t labeled how they had been polite until helpful and tolerant were put on the board. Being helpful is just extending your kindness to others, but being tolerant, I think, is a big part of being polite as a Cambodian because so many foreigners (embarrassingly myself included) have made accidental cultural mistakes. Forgiving people and moving on is the polite thing to do because most likely it is just caused by ignorance. A main point that was constantly restated throughout the hour was also that if you are polite, you will receive politeness back. But although you act polite, don’t just assume that you will receive it back because everyone is different, and you should really just be polite out of the kindness of your heart. Especially if someone is rude to you, you should be polite back as well. There were a lot of Buddhist undertones drifting through the words spoken in this session. Venerable also stated that if someone hits you, don’t hit them back because if you don’t hit them back then they will realize you are a good person and won’t hit you again. Obviously this is circumstantial, but optimistically could happen…regardless you should be kind.
The conversation then shifted to that of society (where these English conversations usually go). They started to debate whether a higher education makes you a kinder and more polite person and determined that although you usually learn how to be polite within your family, “education without character is a problem”. Another point was then brought up whether the government was responsible for the character of its people because parents have influence on children (children are thought of as white paper in the Khmer culture) and the governing body acts as an influential figure for the people to follow. They mentioned how politicians should be polite to the people and cease the corruption and cover-ups. At this point in the conversation because people’s English was limited but the conversation was getting more intense they switched to Khmer for a few minutes to exhaust everyone’s opinions without misinterpretation. I think the conclusion was that as individuals we all have to take care of ourselves and make sure we’re polite, we shouldn’t rely on governing bodies if we know what they are doing is wrong. During their Khmer conversation as I was looking over my notes I noticed that “polite” and “politician” have the same root in “polit”. Although Google can’t seem to give me a direct reason as to why that is, it really stumped me because if they are similar in root (which it would only matter if it’s the same language) do they mean similar things? It’s interesting because in Cambodia (as far as I can tell) the politicians are not too polite to those they govern.
The conclusion of the conversation began with a quote written on the board, “Freedom is a fight, never a given”. It’s hard for me to empathize with the little freedom here to Cambodians, but it’s extremely admirable that the youth are taking action to have this to change. Phanith explained that now that we are in the 21st century, they must use education instead of weapons to gain control of their freedom. I love going to these conversations and seeing such raw insight on the problems with education and society through the eyes of peers. Although we think freedom is a right in America, I definitely am starting to feel privileged for the freedoms we are given because here it’s something to fight for.