Cultural differences – Americans and Cambodians


A recent post about the cow/grass/chicken test got a big response and got me thinking about more of the differences between Khmer culture and western culture. A web search took me to a good American educational website (The Language Minority Assessment Project ) which explores cultural differences but in so doing puts the very sensible disclaimer that this is not an effort to over simplify or stereotype people, and that above all students in the classroom must still be treated and respected as individuals.

Their website is the outcome of the Language Minority Assessment Project, a Lesley University Center for Special Education action research initiative developed with teachers from the Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts, and one of the objectives of the project was to enable teachers to distinguish between culturally driven behaviours versus what might be perceived as learning difficulties.

For example in the western, or particularly American tradition, verbal disagreement and debate is actively encouraged whereas in Cambodia as student might choose to remain silent rather than to disagree with a teacher.

The list of different cultural emphases above explains why group learning activities are popular in Cambodia – where the class is split into teams and students share the successes and challenges, rather than get singled out.

One way around some of these differences in outlook is to lace the school lessons with a lot of humour and laughter. When I tell tall-stories that are patently false (did I tell you how I swam all the way from New Zealand to Siem Reap?) the students are given license to park their respect for the teacher to one side. “You’re lying!” they’d jeer. And no matter how I embellished the story (the final swim across Tonle Sap lake, fending off the crocodiles,) the students knew they had permission to ‘rubbish’ the teacher. In this case the quest for social harmony trumps the rule of deference and respect.

Perhaps readers have other examples they would like to share.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!

A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

A rainy day in the April heat of Cambodia. An old school photo.

I was going through some 2011 photos today and found this rainy day shot of Buntheourn. He is now an auto-mechanic but at the time, two and half years ago was still at high school.

Buntheourn has always been modest, helpful – everyone’s idea of the perfect son. Today he is on the brink of being an independent adult, but he remains much loved by the younger children at Savong’s children’s home: the SOC. It made me very happy to speak to him briefly on Christmas day and to learn that he was going to the big party out there.

That brief conversation made me realise how supporters and sponsors of the SOC students will forever have a bond with adult citizens of Cambodia: people we come to know first as students, and then to form bonds as adults, even simple bonds through Skype or Facebook.

Election irregularities in Cambodia – here’s the report.


What kind of nation is this young Cambodian going to experience as an adult? In 2005 one foreign critic said there were three main problems to be addressed: “Corruption, corruption and corruption.” A new report of the 2013 elections comes to similar conclusions.

While Thailand is getting a lot of media attention over its political upheavals – neighbouring Cambodia has also been in political turmoil since the recent General Elections which saw the return of the Hun Sen Government – albeit chastened with a sharply reduced majority.

At least that was the official result, but the opposition Sam Rainsy party continues to orchestrate protests and demands for a rerun, and this time a fair election.

Are they exaggerating? Well here is the report conducted by a multi-party watchdog group. Their verdict: that there were irregularities (disallowed votes, duplicate voting etc) that in total add up to more than the electoral majority of the Hun Sen Government. In other words there is the probability that thanks to these misdemeanors and irregularities the outcome may have been different.

The Joint-Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections authored by The Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) appears well researched and quite independent.

A blog I wrote just after election day. Was it over-optimistic?

Romvong – the Khmer Circle dance

Rom Vong - the Khmer Circle dance

I took this photo at a wedding I attended in 2011. I’m always a bit shy in these circumstances – I didn’t know either the bride or groom, and so I kind of retreated behind my camera and took in the atmosphere which, in the large Siem Reap reception room was really noisy – with families and friends seated at round tables, shouting and laughing over the din, and competing noise-wise with a live band up on stage.

Some music was western and fairly karaoke in style, but the music that gets everyone on the dancefloor is the local Romvong style.

It is distinctly Cambodian, though the arrangements – at least to my ears – have elements of French folk music as well. Perhaps there was a fusion at least in the choice of instruments and sounds, during the French colonial period of much of the 20th Century.

In an any case the distinct rhythm gets everyone up on the dancefloor and cheerfully moving en-masse in a slow circle each person moving their hands gracefully.

“Ramvong dance has been performed in Cambodia for as long as anyone can remember,” says Wikipedia. “Both Khmers and other ethnic groups like Phnong, Krung, Tompuon and Prou people have performed this circular dance style since ancient times.”

The music has a languid beat, and is underpinned by steady bass guitar. The melody is provided by vocals and woodwind while a wooden xylophone, usually via a modern keyboards, provides much of the Khmer texture. Have a listen to a typical example.

As I stood on the sidelines total strangers waved at me, inviting me to join the circle, and eventually I did so, feeling uncomfortable at first: the only white guy in the room. But soon I felt part of the throng, no longer the individual but a part of a community.

See also: More on Khmer Music

Christmas Day – 2013, Savong’s children’s home Cambodia

Christmas Party 2013 SOC

We hope you had a great get together with friends and family over Christmas. At the SOC the children hosted a visit from Happy Sunshine home for children (based in Siem Reap) as well as the older students supported by Savong – and together they enjoyed a feast and a big Christmas Party. Photo by Buntheourn.

East or West? A cultural chicken test.


I’m European and my wife is Chinese (born in New Zealand) and in more than 30 years of marriage we’ve seldom had arguments or differences arising genuinely out of our cultural differences. But there are differences in outlook and recently I learned a very simple test to demonstrate this.  In the picture above we have a cow.  The question is: which belongs most with the picture of the cow?  The chicken?  Or the grass?

Choose one right now and then I’ll explain.

The test was devised by a Developmental Psychologist Liang-hwang Chiu who tested this and other similar triplets with American children and Chinese children.

The western-educated American children universally choose the Chicken. A feature of western education and world-view is to classify things. Chickens and cows are both animals, the grass belongs to a different category.

Meanwhile eastern-educated Chinese children overwhelmingly choose the grass, not the chicken.  The reason? The eastern view is less about the individual object or picture, and more about the relationship between the two pictures. The cow eats the grass. The cow probably has little to do with any chicken.

This differences is noticed by visitors to Savong’s School. As a volunteer the first step is to introduce yourself and the very first questions from the class are less about YOU and more about WHERE YOU BELONG. How many in your family? Do you have many brothers and sisters? Are you married?

I’ve tried the chicken and grass test within my own family. I instantly chose the chicken, but my wife’s side of the family each choose the grass. “It’s obvious” said a sister in law, just yesterday. “The cow eats the grass. Why would you choose the chicken?”

These cultural differences seem minor, but at a more advanced level – for example in the way organisations are run, or the way leaders operate, the differences become more profound, but based on the same principles. Westerners – and this goes back to Greek education, 2500 years ago – see their world in terms of categories, or types, and on this basis to formulate clear rules and routine processes: formulas for success. Meanwhile their Asian counterparts, influenced by Taoism and Confucianism may operate principally through building relationships and networks of trust: steering a peaceable way through a shifting world of opposing forces.

We volunteers and supporters need to be mindful of these things when we teach or work in Cambodia. One book The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett covers this subject in a very academic manner, and the author seems awfully surprised just how deeply our various currents of educational philosophies run. However it is a good starting point for westerners.

Another chicken story – right here.

East-west differences in culture between Americans and Cambodians – more here.