Cultural Views of Community
When I first moved in, Cambodians could not understand my insistence on doing things myself in my home. Helpers, whether they are older children, nieces, aunts or neighbors, are essential parts of every Cambodian home. Cambodian women told me time and time again that foreigners who did not want to hire locals to clean their houses or cook their food made Cambodians feel like they (the foreigners) did not trust Cambodians or want to have a relationship with Cambodians. Also, Cambodians viewed people who wanted to do everything themselves as foolish. At first I thought they viewed it as pride, but that was my cultural interpretation. Cambodians really have no concept of individualism or its connection with pride. No, they simply see it as foolishness – the ignorant acts of someone who has not been trained to understand the value of community – or more seriously, the acts of someone who is deliberately choosing to reject the community.
There are so many examples where my clashes with Cambodian hospitality, working practices, living arrangements, learning patterns and world view exposed my American upbringing. My culture says: I need privacy; I need to do things on my own; I need to be self-sufficient; innovation and creativity are praiseworthy; I deserve what I earn; success is based on my abilities alone; etc. In contrast, depending on others, doing the same as others do and have done over the generations; rejecting a need for privacy; having two do the job one person could do . . . Westerners often label these traits as negative, inefficient, or rude. Yet it is these traits that help to maintain Cambodian culture, and more specifically, the peace and order within the community.
Who can really argue that cooperation, sharing with each other and esteeming the good of the community over the desire of the individual are bad traits? Even Aristotle promoted such ideals. I believe that Americans could learn a lot from this ethic rather than looking down on those who admit their weaknesses and need for help. In fact I have heard many Americans claim that we as America or Americans really don’t need any help at all. No matter how mighty we think we are, the reality is that we all really do need help – we can’t get through life all by ourselves in a healthy way. We need each other within the community, both locally and globally speaking. I wonder how much closer we could come to living peacefully as Americans if we were humble enough to admit that?