Eye Contact. Smile. Frown. Look Down. Look Up. A Sideways Glance. Acceptance. Denial. Your role in this world versus mine. When two individuals lock eyes for the first time, there is a unique dynamic that instantly transpires. In a matter of seconds, these two bodies struggle to assess each other in the limited window they have been provided, striving to synthesize a utilitarian interface.
Though the details of an encounter vary across space, it is employed in some capacity by the majority of the world we live in. In a California high school it takes the form of the full body scan. As our eyes take in the form of another, we are taught to digest everything we see, constantly computing its metaphor, weighing the pros and cons of interaction. It’s engrained as a survival skill: “judge” or be judged. In business it is often denoted by a clear gaze and a strong handshake, a finite moment in which to market your entire existence. Make the deal! Sell the product! To assess another human becomes a necessary part of living in a fast moving world that doesn’t have time to spare. What is comfortably packaged as instinct or a ‘gut feeling,’ is anything but. It is a conglomerate of material, social, and ideological queues that we have been taught to recognize. An engrained performance. The way in which you view another human in those few seconds says everything about you.
In Cambodia we are generally seen as the tourist. Even if we convince ourselves otherwise, a swift glance at your visa reminds you of the relationship you have been granted, the association you have paid to gain. Like instinct, the terminology of the tourist comes with a certain disclaimer. The temporality of our stay suffuses our interactions, protecting our missteps and lauding our successes. Even more telling are the eyes of the communities we descend upon. Although we are generally met with a smile (a statement I make towards Cambodian courtesy rather than our own merit), there is a filter of disenchantment that can be often detected. Constantly met with an onslaught of indifference, or even hostility toward social custom marked by tourists as “different,” many Cambodians have come to anticipate less than the utmost respect. There should be an enveloping sense of shame that attaches itself to any agent conditioning people to expect less, in numbing their skin from the sting of disappointment, in introducing them to the ‘real world.’
Despite the apparent pervasiveness of these terms of interaction, not to question them is to enable their existence. Complacency can be as destructive as violence, even considered violence. So, where does that leave us? It is custom in Cambodia to present money with two hands, either joined or with one supporting the elbow. Although the history behind this action has not been explicitly expressed, in my understanding it is meant to represent a complete action—a total participation in interacting with another human being. Failure to meet this custom is not countered with much of a response, and can easily go unnoticed by its violator. However, for those considerate enough to participate, the dynamic changes. Though predominantly unspoken and lasting only a flash of time, an understanding of mutual respect is established, completely reorganizing your relationship with this person, this community, this country. Through consciously and critically assessing a landscape of development saturated by assumptions about “who these people are,” we promise ourselves in nightly conversations that we are attempting to foster an alternative way of engaging. And so we ask. Why does tremendous ‘growth’ dominate intimate kindness? Why are projects paramount over people? Why is emotional detachment seen as strength rather than weakness? Why can statistics be used to summarize the lives of 14.8 million people? Why are fact and truth synonymous? We are attempting to engage with Cambodia, to bring our palms together and greet it with both hands.
~ Choom Reap Sua ~