Friday, January 23, 2009

Symbolism in Cambodian Culture

This morning we had an incredible briefing at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. So very many questions we have been pondering were aired and so many bridges between concepts were built. Understanding Cambodian culture, history, and politics requires an immense amount of layered and interconnected information. Religious transitions (from Animism to Hinduism to Buddhism to fledgling Christianity), Angkor heritage, cultural identity, regional conflict between nations, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, historic hatred and friendship, and of course clandestine or blatant short-term political support pouring in from the US, UK, China, Russia, Australia, the is imperative to consider all of these factors when simply trying to conceptualize why the average Cambodian feels and thinks the way he/she does.

One very important moment in the briefing was about the importance of symbolism to Cambodian people. We in Western countries defer constantly to the power of honest discussion and the verbal apology in reconciliation efforts, but here this strategy applies less. Cambodians appreciate and recognize the symbols of forgiveness much more readily than they do for the words describing it. We were told of many personal examples in which incredibly sensitive community conflicts were put to rest after never having been discussed or examined, but rather by simple gestures of inclusion or changed behavior. We also learned that our obsession with using "sorry" has no counterpart here in Cambodia. A parent will never apologize to their child and someone of a status greater than somenone else would also never employ the sentiment. They do not have to and are not expected to due to their elevated position in society.

This type of cultural understanding is imperative in our peacebuilding investigations. Being reminded that our perceptions and methodologies are distinctly our own, and not reflected in all or even many cultures, is true to our educational paths. Thank you to the Center for an amazing day!

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