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!

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.

Learning through play.

Learning through play.

One of the delights of working with children in Cambodia is seeing them develop their skills at play. Many children are completely under-resourced in this department. They may be from families too poor to have toys, or too time-poor to give children the play time they really need. Children go through distinct stages of play development when they move from merely reacting to objects – to employing these objects in acts of imagination. Later children enjoy playing alone, but in groups, and still later – around age 6 or 8 – in groups. That simple game of Uno is actually a sophisticated interplay of intellect and social skills.

Of course children don’t just learn academically: play is a vital ingredient. But toys are not enough. Many adults think that somehow children will spontaneously “get it” when they see a pile of blocks. Actually they need to be shown – and getting on the floor, interacting with the child, and showing how blocks can be used to make things is the trigger: a simple trigger, that gets them going. In the photo above little Nuon seemed a bit lost in the play room. He was too young to play cards and he didn’t seem to get involved with the blocks. So I lay on the floor and together we made houses and vehicles and soon he was grabbing the wheels (a scarce commodity) to make his particular inventions.

I love those moments. Sometimes an educational advance is that simple: a few minutes of attention on a playroom floor.

New developments in Cambodian child care. Click here.

The tiger on my desk.

The tiger on my desk.

This tiger lives on my desk. He’s a mascot for the Korean football team but I think he was made in Cambodia. Well that’s one explanation for his provenance. Somehow, he ended up in Cambodia. Or more precisely in the hands of a young high school student in Bakong, a rural community 14kms east of Siem Reap.

The student gave me the Tiger as a gift, back in 2011, and this is one of a handful of sentimental objects in my life. A soft-toy packed with emotion.

I had been teaching for a few days at Savong’s School and the student and his sister had asked me how long I would be in Bakong for. “Just a few days,” I replied, “though I think of the school every day of my life.”

On my last day of teaching the boy had a gift for me: the tiger. And he was anxious for me to accept his offering, though I was reluctant. Whatever it cost his family was too much, surely, for this westerner. But the young student looked at me proudly. “I want to say thank you.” he said.

The gift meant more to me than he might have guessed. In 2011 I was suffering what some fund-raisers call “donor-fatigue” where I felt various frustrations with the project: short term frets and worries. The Tiger grounded me and reminded me that the project, above all, is about the students. They boy’s generosity with his thank-you gift answered a question that any NGO supporter is bound to ask: ‘is this all worth it?’

This year, when I returned to the School I arrived during enrolment week, so the classrooms were mostly empty and most of the action was around the noticeboard where exam results were posted.

I looked out for my friend, the boy with the Tiger because I wanted to show him photos I had taken – showing the tiger in various parts of my life in New Zealand. But the boy was not there. I would love to meet him again one day. His heartfelt gift has travelled half way around the world: the boy deserves to go even further.

An Unexpected Moment

Learning through play. A little moment on the playroom floor.

Yoshikazu and Eri – two influential Japanese supporters

Yoshikazu and Eri - two influential Japanese supporters

I took this photo in 2011 and it shows Savong discussing a menu with Eri Tsuji. That’s Yoshikazu in the blue shirt. I’m thinking of them this week because they are now proud parents – but in 2004 Yoshikazu and another Japanese student Makoto were extremely influential in getting Savong’s School off the ground. They were the very first contributors to the project and they encouraged me to get fully involved as well.
To this day their influence is felt in the school. In late 2013 I was reminded of Yoshikazu when the teachers used a video-projector to screen their powerpoint meeting agenda: new technology courtesy of a generous gift by this warm-hearted Japanese couple. They have had more influence on the project than they may realise.

Proud parents Eri and Yoshikazu.

Proud parents Eri and Yoshikazu.

Two more supporters who have had a huge influence on the school. Click here.

The library at Savong’s School: A place for children to enjoy their imaginations.

The library at Savong's School: A place for children to enjoy their imaginations.

My earliest reading experiences go back to when I was 4 years old and I was taken to the library in Brown’s Line, Etobicoke Toronto. The librarian would read us stories and the first story I recall was Madeleine – the girl in the post-war Parisian orphanage. The library was a place of wonder. I was reminded of this on my recent trip to Savong’s School when I saw children making themselves at home in the library. In village life there is really no space for children: no place where they can let their imaginations soar and take them to foreign lands, or to ancient times with dinosaurs, or to enjoy worlds of fantasy.

The library is such a place, and it fulfills the very same purpose as the Browns Line library did for me, 54 years ago. Sometimes a school is delivering best when it chooses to be silent and to listen – carefully – to the voices we hear in books.

A short piece about the two supporters who built the library – sight unseen. Two heroes.