#YesAllWomen in Cambodia?
We’re staring at a phallic stone statue in the middle of a river as our Cambodian friend, pet name Bruce, explains to us in broken English: “This is Linga river. Linga means dick.” He points at a square stone recess not far from it and says, “That’s the pussy.” We couldn’t figure out if that’s the real meaning of the relic carvings or just what the locals make of it. (Later I read that “the dick” symbolizes Shiva and was carved into the river bed to fertilize the water, which is used to irrigate the rice fields.)
We giggle and move on, further along the river as a group of children joins us. A girl is taking my hand and merrily chatters away in her language. We stop at a nice shady place with a swing and the little boys skinny dip in the river. Suddenly the girl pulls my hand and points towards the boys doing headstands in the water. Bruce laughs about what she is saying, and I ask him what it means. “She’s saying, look at their tiny dicks.” I laugh but the scene leaves me pretty confused.
Later we’re sitting with Bruce at the rooftop bar of our guesthouse trying to learn a bit of Khmer from him. “Buong G’dow” means hot egg. Corey says it wrong, “Buong G’doh”. Bruce laughs because apparently he just said “dick with egg/balls” – and shouldn’t order that at a restaurant – and before long we’re in a hilarious situation where Bruce draws the man bits for us to label them and the staff is laughing with (or at?) us while we’re practicing “Buong G’dow” and then the next sand trap, “Sray Sa’aat” vs “Sray Saraan,” which mean beautiful girl and naked girl.
I don’t consider myself shy about these things but for the locals it seems to be as natural as talking about your new haircut or the weather and just as appropriate a topic for chitchat to strangers. An article about the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter and a video about the sexual objectification of women really got me thinking about this. I personally never had any real problems, apart from noticing that “I have a boyfriend” is way more effective for fending off unwanted attention than a simple, “no.”
So before I came to Cambodia I had read about modest clothing (no shorts, no shoulder-free tops) and somehow thought this had something to do with men preying on women and women being worth less or respected less than men. By now I’m sure that perception doesn’t have anything to do with the reality here but because that was the first thing I thought, it probably says a lot about why #YesAllWomen makes a good point: “Because society would rather tell women to show less than to tell men to show more respect.”
The women here are self-confident! They’re refreshingly snappy even in a language they hardly speak and aren’t shy to speak their minds. One woman told me that I was just as beautiful as she, and I just loved the non-arrogant, matter-of-fact sound of the compliment. The girl that gave me a body scrub commented (among other things) on my small breasts, said that she had the same size and asked me if I liked small or big better. Later when I put my clothes back on she pointed to my bra, said “same same” with a smile and lifted up her shirt to prove it. And even though we didn’t even know each others’ names it all just felt friendly and relaxed and natural. And it made me question how relaxed I had really been about it all.
The thought that the men here could bother me turned out to be just as wrong. I do get a lot of attention because I’m blonde but it doesn’t feel objectionable. The catcalls stay along the lines of “beautiful,” “sweet” and “I like your hair.” Some men have approached me but even though they made their intentions clear it always was more of a pleasant conversation than anything else. In the straightforward manner that I’ve come to love, they ask how old I am and if I’m married or have come here alone. I told one guy that I had a boyfriend and he replied in disbelief, “Only one?”
Usually the conversations end with honest sounding good luck wishes for the future. On one occasion, after I had explained to a married man (whose wife seemed interested as well) that westerners usually don’t do multiple partners, he said that he would always be there if I needed him and wished me well. And even though this felt very strange, I didn’t feel uncomfortable apart from the big question mark in my head about how things work in the Kingdom of Wonder.
Being gay isn’t a problem here–not that there’s a big scene for it–it’s just normal that some people are. Also, you can often see girls and guys holding hands with the same sex and being close to each other without any sexual background. So gay couples would even have an advantage over mixed-sex ones who shouldn’t show too much affection in public. However there is social pressure to get married and have children so apparently it’s just accepted that gays have a family and another partner. Or more, who knows?
For girls, it’s also common to have one or more western partner for financial security and a Cambodian boyfriend alongside. Which reminds me of a very good movie based on a true story: “Same Same But Different” about a German backpacker falling in love with a Cambodian girl that captures the mood here really well and deals with a few stereotypes too. I do believe there are a lot of things the Cambodians are getting right despite all of the prejudices.