Listen: a clue to Social standing in Cambodia

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The photo above is taken at Bakong temple, just up the road from Savong’s School. This community is a rural one and if you imagined you were taking this photo, then 2kms directly behind you is the village of Rolous (pronounced Roo Loo) and, as it turns out, the home village of a friend of mine in New Zealand.  When I first mentioned the location of Savong’s School to Man Hau, I said: “You probably won’t know it – it’s a small village.”  When I mentioned Bakong his eyes lit up! “I grew up there,” he said.

Last time I visited Man Hau we talked a little about the history of the village and I learned something I did not expect to hear: about the variety of very distinct dialects spoken throughout Cambodia. Growing up, Man Hau recalled, the people of Siem Reap would always comment about the “country cousins” of Rolous. “They could tell immediately when you opened your mouth,” Man Hau said.

When he was young, in the years before Pol Pot, Man Hau won a scholarship to study in Phnom Penh and he said the snobbery was even more profound. At home, he remembers, everyone knew him as the boy who had made the grade and was due to study in the city. Local boy makes good. But as the only country kid in his university classes, studying economics, he was mocked for his accent and never allowed to forget that he was a poor country cousin. His clothes were disparaged. His simple footwear held up as a bad example.  (Today Man Hau Liev holds a PhD.)

Another Cambodian I know recalls a saying used by city dwellers to described country people in a tone used by city slickers the world over: “Those country types would drown in tap water.”

Thinking back on these anecdotes I recalled a conversation I had with a boy supported by Savong, currently studying at university. He had told me that his family was so poor that others in his village would look down on his family.

His village is Bakong. These subtle layers of class distinction are invisible to westerners, but to locals the story is quite different. Their ears are attuned to dialects and to the subtle put-downs that are inflicted on the poor, and in particular on the rural poor. Perhaps this explains the delight when one of our scholarship students told me how she was coming top of her class at university: ahead of the city kids.

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