Many readers will recall how Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian, was always complaining that he got no respect.
The problem for me here in Cambodia is the endless gestures of respect that I happen to get. What is the reason for them?
It must be some combination of age, sex, class and status as a Westerner, that last characteristic being the most debatable.
Most Asians hold their elders, particularly their parents, in unquestioned high esteem. Consider this: I know two men in their mid- and late twenties who love women they want to marry. Since their mother has concerns about a mismatch in the birth signs of each couple, the young men have vowed to respect their mother by foregoing those marriages.
Consistent with tradition, these grown men still live with their parents and plan to support them in every way possible as long as their mother and father should live. From the parents’ point of view, age has its benefits, including help in every sense, even financial.
Too, I have written how critical it is for the majority of Cambodians in a country in which Buddhism is the national religion to return home to the provinces especially on important holidays. They feel compelled to be with their families and to honor the memory and ensure the well-being of their ancestors on those occasions.
Regarding sex distinctions, that I am male, an old one at that, means most women except the most sophisticated defer to me. They refuse to enter or leave an elevator or go through any other door until I go first, even if I have arrived after them.
Class differences, which must be related to my status as a foreigner, mean that many employees in my apartment building and elsewhere, including one maintenance man at my gym, tend to bob their heads quickly and even slightly bend from the waist when we pass each other. I feel as though I am being treated like some god or a potentate, and I can’t say that I like it.
(One young gym member did the same for a long time until I was able to break down that barrier by adopting an especially casual manner with him and engaging in conversation. Now, he has progressed to kidding me there — for example, by challenging me to lift a heavier weight or do an extra stomach crunch.)
What I don’t mind is the sampiah, that raising of two hands at least to the chin in a prayerful position. That’s because I can return the compliment. And do.
The cultural chasm between my expectations and their manifestations of respect is vast. It also seems all but impossible to bridge.
Yet the fact remains that such gestures cause me discomfort. I figuratively squirm like an incompetent civil servant testifying at a Senate hearing.
Truth be told, I don’t feel deserving of respect that doesn’t spring from knowing me rather than simply seeing me.
The last time I received automatic (and undeserved) respect was when I was an officer in the U.S. Navy (as the result of youthful muddled thinking). I didn’t much like that either.