In Cambodia, that certain smile is everywhere

In front of an apartment building nearing completion, this pair could not have been more charming.

In front of an apartment building nearing completion, this pair could not have been more charming.

They, whoever “they” are, have dubbed Cambodia variations of the “land of a million smiles.”

In a nation currently beset by grim political protests and bedeviled by widespread poverty, malnutrition and corruption, perhaps it is odd to be writing about smiles.  But I have been struck by their prevalence here.

I cannot walk a block without encountering a countenance that smiles back with my merest suggestion of a friendly nod.  Even omnipresent tuk-tuk drivers, who ceaselessly hale potential fares, smile back when refused with barely a polite gesture.

The contrast to many New York City taxi drivers, U.S. Postal Service employees and other service personnel in a range of businesses is striking to the extreme.

Children smile, vendors smile, everyone smiles at the slightest encouragement or sometimes no encouragement at all.  The smallest child with only a fledgling’s vocabulary often takes me aback with a volunteered “hello” in English in addition to that infectious smile.

I have two theories for the phenomenon.

One is the clichéd explanation of cultural tradition. The other one seems like a contradiction, though some may argue, not unreasonably, that the second notion underlies the first explanation.  Let me express it as question:

Could it be that decades of deprivation and oppression have created a culture of defeatism among the large working class?  (How fruitful is the work remains a subject for another post.)

Consider the tuk-tuk driver, for example.  He, almost invariably “he,” has a mammoth army of competition and therefore is lucky to make a few dollars a day.  He doesn’t expect much and possibly is grateful just to be acknowledged.  Thus the smile.

tuk-tuk driver

Bear in mind that there is ample reason for a spirit of defeatism — how’s that for an oxymoron? — in a country where factory workers strike and subject themselves to all the power that a government can wield in the hope of receiving a monthly wage bigger than $90.

Living is cheap in Cambodia, but $90 a month buys little more than rice and a shared one-room shanty.

If anyone wants to make an omelette, he better not break those eggs.

If someone wants to make an omelette, he better not break those eggs.

In a country where the sun beats down mercilessly (except during this unusually brisk winter of balmy days in the mid 80s — hey, it’s all relative) and the rainy season brings floods, umbrellas can be an essential amenity.

Throughout the year, however, it looks to me as though a number of the some 15 million Cambodians are more prone to take an old song to heart than to carry an implement , so they let a smile be their umbrella instead.

I am not unaware in writing this post of the danger of sliding into condescension. That is far from my intention regarding a people I respect so much, and I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating how I feel about them.

When a Cambodian smiles at me, I have to admit that I experience a soupçon of suspicion along witha frisson of warmth.

I have come to perceive those smiles as being not only genuine but also containing the cool hard shells of the bittersweet lives that so much of the population leads. It does not escape the poor that a Westerner can have the capacity to improve their lives in the smallest of ways.

At the same time, it is true that Cambodians also smile at other Cambodians, and they smile readily no matter their social and economic standing.

I welcome the smiles whatever their origins, and I’ll keep smiling back.


2 thoughts on “In Cambodia, that certain smile is everywhere

  1. Malcolm: Many peoples in the (often Asian) part of the world use a smile as a form of presenting themselves in public – whether they are happy, sad, puzzled, uneasy, or even annoyed. I’ve noticed it even here – it’s almost like a reflex. I guess Americans use it in specific social and business situations. It’s a pleasing custom- especially for a Westerner often used to surly, grouchy, tense , anxious-looking passersby – and right now in 12 degree NYC you can be sure there are plenty of the latter. Keep smiling – and writing – really enjoy your reports!


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