A stocky Asian strode through the relatively empty locker room of my gym one afternoon not long ago. He was nude. Because of his nonchalance, I knew that he could not be from Cambodia.
At my former gym in the States, he would not have drawn a second glance. Few members were present at my current gym that time of day, and those changing clothes also paid no discernible attention.
But the locker room attendant certainly noticed. A look of horror, or possibly disgust, crossed his countenance.
I asked him if the sight disturbed him. The memory of what he had just witnessed caused him to scowl deeply, making me wonder whether perhaps he was joking.
When I told him how it was at my old gym in New York, his scowl became a blend of dismay and incredulity. He was even more taken aback when I told him how the Manhattan YMCA where I once was a member actually promoted nudity by encouraging swimming in the altogether.
(The same was true at a university club in New York City to which a top administrator for whom I worked once dragged me with virtually no option to decline. Yes, I continue to assume his mandatory invitation was far from innocent.)
Hey, I said to the locker room attendant in broken Khmer, everyone is more or less the same. What’s the big deal? He looked like someone who had bitten into a rotten apple.
When I recounted the experience to another locker room attendant, he indicated that his co-worker’s response was a personal one, not necessarily representing a majority but not either atypical for a significant number of Cambodians.
Ancient temple carvings of women, old paintings and some historical photographs reveal the acceptability of at least partial female nudity in centuries and perhaps decades past.
Not so any more in Cambodia.
Surprisingly, though, many construction workers at day’s end often bathe in limited sight of the street wearing just underwear. They don’t seem self-conscious, and passersby appear to be heedless. (Also, low-hanging trousers and shorts tend to be the norm among the younger crowd.)
When I walked along the river one day, taking in clusters of fisherman at the water’s edge some distance below the sidewalk, I also came upon three men and a woman scrubbing themselves in, yes, their underwear. The only attention they attracted apparently was mine.
Public urination against any handy blank wall is common as well. One reason: There are numerous individuals whose work is on the streets — tuk-tuk drivers, food vendors and a variety of other merchants — and mighty few public restrooms. Although expats usually can find relief at a restaurant when urgently needed, that is not usually an option for the lower classes. As for the locals, they are careful to ensure the view is only from behind.
In the locker room, except for some expats whom I’ll label “insensitive,” the norm is to cinch a towel around the waist and then struggle out of the clothing beneath it before changing into gym clothes or parading to the showers. From what I can tell, some Cambodians are shy about even exposing underwear in that locale — one more difference to chalk up to the cultural divide.