Among the countless cultural differences between Cambodians and Westerners is what happens when someone sneezes.
After 20 months living in Phnom Penh, I find it hard to drop certain reactions and expectations. One that comes readily to mind and that I cannot seem to accept concerns cars turning into a street; I still think they will give way to a pedestrian automatically — me. They usually don’t.
Another has to do with sneezing. Probably like you, my automatic reaction is to utter a “bless you” or “gesundheit” when someone, even a stranger, sneezes. Where I come from, I know that I can count on hearing wishes for good health when I sneeze or anyone else does in virtually any situation but a performance.
Not so in Cambodia. It is as if nothing ever happened or that no one cares about another person’s health.
What surprises me is that many Cambodians are obsessed with their health. To them, a sniffle in the morning means that they have the flu. The rains mean a strong likelihood of a cold, though it is true the season and the water do tend to increase incidences of illness.
I speculate that one reason for borderline hypochondria among my acquaintances is a level of medical care that is way below standard. If health insurance is supplied to Cambodians, I am unaware that many of them receive it. Money always is a major issue since some hospitals won’t accept patients, even in an emergency, without first getting paid for their treatment and, when warranted, admission
A Khmer acquaintance relates what happened to an uncle of his who was rushed to a hospital with an apparent heart attack. The ambulance personnel wouldn’t take out the man until their fee was paid. It was, incidentally, $50, that much because the cost of providing oxygen to him was $20. (He survived.)
A woman who is a trainer at the gym was riding her motorbike home early Sunday morning when another vehicle collided with her. She was taken to a notoriously bad hospital, where she was unconscious until Wednesday morning and suffering from at least a broken collar bone.
I am told, but am not sure, that a CT scan and other tests awaited the arrival of an older sister bearing dollars. (I expect to write more about her plight and the reaction to it next week.)
In fact, when someone becomes seriously ill, Cambodians try to scrape up enough cash to obtain medical care in Thailand, Vietnam or the far more expensive country of Singapore. Expats will journey much farther when necessary.
The middle-aged king, who might be expected to set an example, heads to China twice a year for weeks at a time, supposedly for routine checkups. Given his outwardly good health and his virtual absence of power, I find the trip to be disingenuous in the extreme.
The silence following sneezes (along with no noticeable covering of noses and mouths) may strike you as of negligible importance and hardly worth your attention. In a sense, I couldn’t agree more. At the same time, I think the difference between here and elsewhere is emblematic of the changes to which expats everywhere must adapt.