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Lessons from the Kingdom of Wonder

Being Black in Cambodia

This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences around the world.

I was fresh out of undergrad at Howard University, a new naturalista, and feeling all Eat, Pray, Love when I moved to Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer in the summer of 2013. I wasn’t trippin’ about having culture shock because my predeparture daydreams were straight-up fantasies: riding my bike through a rice paddy, a saffron-colored scarf wrapped around my neck and blowing in the wind.

Upon arrival in the Kingdom of Wonder, I thought I could maneuver just as freely as the volunteers in my majority-white cohort. For the most part, Cambodian people looked at all of us like we were equally otherworldly, and many of them had never seen blonde hair or an afro in person. And yet, random hands reached into my hair the most often, and it was my arm that a woman rubbed to see if the “black would come off.”

Prior to moving to my permanent site—a rural village in central Cambodia—I lived in a town with 50 other American volunteers where I spent 12-hour days learning the Khmer language and cultural practices; when praying at the pagoda, always keep your feet pointed away from the altar, always bow in greeting, and so on. I committed each to memory. But there were more nuanced cultural rules the Peace Corps could never teach me, a Black woman, that I had to learn on my own. Now I’m passing on the lessons to you, based on my real-life experiences.

A common breakfast of mee soup, and a drink of iced tea with condensed milk.
photo by Glynn Pogue

Written on the body
When you go to your neighbor’s house for dinner and notice chunks of pork fat on bone at the bottom of your bowl, floating in the murky broth, don’t trip. Even though you’re a vegetarian, just slurp the broth anyway. Any other move would be rude, but you could make an excuse that you’re not feeling well. When your host notices you’re avoiding the gristle and grows concerned, say, “Knyhom aht yam sacht.” I don’t eat meat.

“Hat aye tom tom?” she’ll ask. Then why are you so fat?

Resist the urge to suck your teeth; this question is culturally commonplace. Instead, explain that big butts are considered beautiful where you’re from, and stand up and jiggle yours for comedic effect. The women at the table will love this; don’t be surprised when they reach over and slap your ass. Later, when you see butt pads for sale in the market, you’ll realize big butts are desired in Cambodia, too. Making light of the situation may not be for everyone, but it worked for me.

Having drinks at a village party.
photo by Glynn Pogue

A seat at the men’s table
In your village, your foreigner status will earn you almost as much clout as the men in the mostly patriarchal culture. So even though you’d rather snap snake beans out back with the women at big family dinners, when you are ushered to the front to drink beer with the men, just accept it. Take your seat at the gazebo. You’ll have to admit that you appreciate the opportunity to turn up a little—your boss warned that as a woman living in Cambodia you’d never get this type of chance unless it was at a wedding. You will be glad your village offers this acceptance, but feel a way that this acceptance only applies to you, because you know your girlfriends would join if they could.

It’s all good, though—you and your friends will turn up on the low, in the rice paddy at dusk, down by the riverside. Your best friend will make “cocktails” (soju, strawberry soda, and lime), and you’ll always bring the ice.

Hair-raising moments
When ladies in the market stick their hands deep into your ’fro at random, let them; they mean no harm. They will tell you it’s “saa’at,” beautiful, or “lowie,” cool.

Your friends back home will wonder how you do it: “You ain’t some animal in a petting zoo, son.”

And, they’re right. Strangers touching you, and your hair, crosses boundaries of personal space. But try your best to commit yourself to breaking those down; that’s why you’re here. Step one is to let your guard down; step two is to let them in. Ask if you can touch their hair, too. In fact, when you go to the laundry stand to pick up your clothes and your laundry lady starts poking at your bantu knots, sit her down, and twist some right into her hair. Aye, cross-cultural exchange!

Pro tip: The heat will suck your ’fro dry, so bring a spray bottle and hydrate that shit. And when other volunteers (white volunteers) ask why you “never do your hair,” explaining that “it looks so much better when it’s all curly,” say, “Because I don’t feel like it.” Because, genuinely, you don’t. You are living in a village in Cambodia; who are you flexing for? This is your time for freedom. Sleep on pillows without your silk scarf, neglect twist-outs, and hold your head high in all its matted glory.   

The color of beauty
When you walk in on your host sister mixing bleaching cream on the living room floor, shake your head and say, “Aht la’aw, sister.” Not good, sister. She will laugh and say in English, “No, sister, don’t worry, it’s only for sty’. Do you want to try some?” 

Tell her, “No, sister, knyhom aht jung.” I don’t want any. “C’mao saa’at.” Black is beautiful.

You won’t be offended. You know your sister feels like she has something to prove, like having white skin will assert her status in the village. You know that she feels lonely because her husband lives in the capital and rarely comes home to visit her and her son. You know that bleaching gives her a sense of control, makes her feel valuable. You will be saddened, though, when months pass and you watch your sister’s skin turn white, thin, and translucent like rice paper. You’ll tell her she needs to stop when you see her inspecting the ugly gashes the bleach burns into her. “Aht la’aw, sister.” Not good, sister. But she’ll just smile and shake her head.   

Sty’lin’
Sty’ is Khmer slang for “style.” Remember this when you rap Biggie Smalls verses at dinner parties; this will earn you extra sty’ points.

These encounters will trip you out. How ironic that raps by a big Black man, as delivered by a big Black woman, are considered sty’? Just like your ass, your hair, and bantu knots that you’ll twist into your friends’ hair. But your skin—nah, that ain’t sty’. Of course, society’s way of commodifying bits of you is nothing new; you’re used to this. Same same, but different.

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