Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Cambodia
In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Cambodia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Cambodia.
Outside of Cambodia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Cambodia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Cambodia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in Cambodia
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
- 3 Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color=
Overview of Diversity in Cambodia
The Peace Corps staff in Cambodia recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Cambodians typically treat foreigners very well, often better than they treat other Cambodians. You are unlikely to experience direct confrontation if you practice the basic do’s and don’ts introduced during pre-service training and balance your needs with those of your Cambodian co-workers and community members. You should be able to handle most situations on your own. Some Volunteers may experience blatant bigotry, but subtle discrimination is more common. Part of your role as a Volunteer is to promote, through your actions and behavior, a more thorough understanding of the United States and Americans among the people in your community.
The following information is provided to help you prepare for challenges you may encounter in Cambodia based on your gender, ethnic or racial background, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or disabilities. You will constantly be asked a lot of personal questions about your family, your marital status, why you are in Cambodia, etc. Often people are just practicing the questions they learned in English class. While these questions can become frustrating, it is very important that you never become angry as you will lose respect by showing excessive emotion. In Cambodia, once you lose respect, you may find it difficult to regain the trust and loyalty of your host family, neighbors, students and counterparts. Being a foreigner and new to the culture, an outburst or two will most likely be forgiven, but be forewarned that continual or sporadic emotional outbursts may negatively affect your service in Cambodia.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Most expatriate women feel very safe in their communities in Cambodia, in addition to traveling within the country. Physical harassment is not common, but precautions still need to be taken. Female Volunteers are likely to attract some unwanted attention, so it is important to develop strategies to deal with this harassment. The higher status given to men over women can be manifested in both subtle and not so subtle ways. Female Volunteers should be aware that smoking and drinking alcohol in public is not culturally appropriate behavior. Female Volunteers may also feel somewhat restricted by the expectations of their host families that they stay home in the evening, always communicate where they are going, etc. Women who are uncomfortable changing these behaviors should carefully consider their decision to serve in Cambodia.
Possible Issues for Male Volunteers
Most Cambodian men are introduced to sex by being taken to a brothel by friends in their early 20s. Your Cambodian colleagues and friends may expect you to join them when they go to brothels, even if they know you are married or have a serious girlfriend. In addition to the health risks due to the high HIV rates in Cambodia, you might have ethical issues with this behavior. You will need to develop strategies to avoid risky behavior without damaging your social relationships. Additionally, male Volunteers may feel pressured into heavy drinking at social gatherings. All Volunteers, but especially non-drinkers, will have to find ways to abstain while maintaining healthy social relationships.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color=
In general, Cambodians view lighter skin as more beautiful, a perception based more on an aesthetic bias than any racial prejudice and one that existed long before encounters between Cambodia and the West. Cambodians are not well-informed about the ethnic and racial diversity of the United States, and they may expect Volunteers to be Caucasian. African American Volunteers, in particular, should not take Cambodians’ views of skin color personally and should try to view Cambodians within this context.
It is common for Asian Americans to be mistaken for Cambodians, which can have both benefits and drawbacks. One advantage is that Asian Americans blend better into the community and thus may not receive as much unwanted attention in public. A disadvantage is that Cambodians may initially expect you to have the language skills of a native speaker. They may also view you as a citizen of an Asian country rather than as an American. Initially, Volunteers of color may find that Cambodian co-workers do not respect your professional skills as much as they respect the skills of white Volunteers. Most Volunteers find acceptance and respect once personal relationships have been developed and professional competence has been demonstrated. Speaking Khmer and showing respect for Cambodian cultural norms will help, and providing information about your family and your life in the United States will assist in breaking down stereotypes.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Cambodian government workers are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 55, so Volunteers over that age will find that most, if not all, of their Cambodian co-workers will be younger than they are. Cambodians give great respect and importance to senior family members, and senior Volunteers often receive similar deference and respect, though this does not necessarily translate to greater respect for their professional competence or technical knowledge. Your co-workers may smile, nod, and appear to agree with you when the opposite is true, perhaps because they do not want to offend you. Although more seniors are joining the Peace Corps, most of your fellow trainees are likely to be under age 30. Generally, seniors are warmly accepted by other trainees; still, there may be times when you miss interacting with people of your own age, especially in social situations. The Cambodian language trainers recognize the different learning styles and needs of seniors and will endeavor to provide the most suitable training for you.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Cambodians do not usually view bisexuality and homosexuality as sinful or unnatural, nor are there criminal penalties against sexual acts between members of the same sex. However, some bisexual and homosexual Volunteers will find it necessary to adjust their behavior to be effective in their jobs and respected by members of their communities. Most will choose to remain “in the closet” to Cambodian friends and co-workers at their sites. Physical contact in public between members of the same sex (such as linking arms while walking down the street) is a common way for Cambodians to show affection, and it is important for Volunteers to realize that such displays of affection likely are nonsexual in nature. Volunteers who are accustomed to being part of a large gay community in the United States may not get the support to which they are accustomed, though you will probably find significant support within the Peace Corps community.
All women will have to deal with questions or teasing about boyfriends, marriage and sex. All men will have to deal with questions about American women and girl watching and may be pressured by co-workers to visit brothels. During pre-service training, trainees are encouraged to think through these issues and plan possible responses. Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
A high degree of religious tolerance exists in Cambodia. It is doubtful that any religious issues will arise, unless a Volunteer breaks the Peace Corps’ rule against proselytizing.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Cambodia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/ Cambodia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
Cambodia has a significant population of people with disabilities, largely as a result of landmines and motorbike accidents. Cambodians have compassion for individuals with disabilities, and some NGOs have made efforts to help disabled individuals have productive jobs and lives. Volunteers with disabilities need to be aware of the rigors of the Peace Corps/Cambodia program during both training and service. Volunteers are expected to use a bicycle to travel to the various training venues and workplaces. Any special accommodations needed during training and when at one’s site, such as an alternative to travel by bicycle, should be made known during the placement process in the United States, prior to arriving in Cambodia.
Possible Issues for Married Volunteers
Since all Volunteers will be living with host families, married Volunteers are likely to find the lack of privacy to be frustrating. You may be asked constantly if you have children and be viewed with pity if you do not. In addition, you and your spouse may need to adjust to an increased amount of time spent together during your service. You will need to develop strategies for making friends and practicing Khmer with other community members.
See also: Cambodia