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Perception and Reception

By: John Weeks and Phal Poursith Posted: September-06-2009 in
Having a little cushioning is much more preferable than being skinny, a sign of poverty
John Weeks and Phal Poursith

John Weeks and Phal Poursithtake a look at some common turns of phrase.

You're never out of style, you simply need to choose a place that favors your clothes and physique.
In many developing countries it's still fashionable for men to smoke. Or have a big bushy beard. In Cambodia? Conspicuous consumption is the name of the game. When you can get name brand (or cheap knockoffs) at the local market, you'll find that your Khmer friends can always dress to the nines - even on a salary that's a fraction of a foreigner's. Don't even try to compete.

Similarly, having the latest model phone and moto are also high on the priority list. And of course, if you have money, your frame is going to fill out a little bit. In an agricultural country where the poorer live hand-to-mouth, it isn't offensive to say 'Hey, you're bigger!' when meeting a friend. Look in any Khmer-language publication and you'll see ads for 'weight gain' products. In the 'developed world' barangs worry about their overdeveloped beer guts and extra padding, and models starve themselves to fit the covers of fashion magazines. Cambodians see the growing number of fast food outlets as exotic, upscale eateries.

If you've been living locally, you've become used to discussing things that might be considered rude elsewhere: people asking your age (so they know where you rank on the pecking order), your marital status (points of reference) and your salary (what's there to be shy about?). But there is still the occasional surprise...

A foreign friend came back from a few months away, with goodies for all her friends at our workplace. She was happy to return and seemed refreshed. Our female accountant, one of the most polite, reserved people I've ever known in Cambodia, immediately beamed and said, 'You are fat!' I hadn't noticed anything different at all.

For Khmers, having a little cushioning is much more preferable than being skinny, a sign of poverty. So if you're returning to Cambodia after a break that involved reacquainting yourself with Western food, don't sweat it if those jeans are a little tight, or the dress needs re-adjusting. This is one area you can win in the style sweepstakes - if you've got it, flaunt it.

Thanks to Sao Channa for colors and Kimhour for anecdotal observations, as well as our local and foreign fashion shoot models.

Phal Poursith comes from an artistic family and is a 3rd year student (Painting) at the Royal University of Fine Arts. His efforts include pen and ink illustrations for Bridges Across Borders / Our Books, and painted murals for JICA. Phal Pourisith 017 473 737


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