BENEATH THE SKIN: THE LIFE OF A CAMBODIAN THAI

Are you Hawaiian? Mexican? Puerto Rican? Filipino? Indian? African? Where are you from? Where are your parents from? Did they have an interracial marriage? Are you mix?— These are the kind of questions I’ve been asked by reason of my darker skin complexion. Explaining to people that I am, in fact, Cambodian-Siamese [Thai], surprises them as if they just found out something so fascinating. Yes, I do have a darker hue of skin colour than a stereotypical Asian, but beneath it all, I am still a hundred percent Asian—Southeast Asian to be exact. In this post, I will be writing all about my nationality and bring you into the life of a Cambodian-Thai.

Before I begin, I will give you a little geography lesson on where Cambodia and Thailand is on the map. Both countries are situated in Southeast Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand and located on the western half of the Indochina Peninsula. I like to think Cambodia as the baby of Southeast Asia— sitting right in between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam— and Thailand as the big brother. Thailand has always been the place to go on vacation per contra to Cambodia. I am genuinely not surprised people that do not know where Cambodia is but its always a new discovery when people visit Thailand. I personally have not gone to visit Cambodia or Thailand myself but I plan to in the near future.

Growing up, I have always been accustomed to Cambodian tradition, more so than Thai. Reason being is that both of my parents were born in Cambodia and adopted Cambodian as their main ethnic origin. Yes, the family lineage also identifies with Thai, but to tell you the truth, Cambodian and Thai are very identical with small variations. There is only a few distinctive cultural differences between both ethnic groups, which includes language, writing and customs, but other than that they are very much the same. 

Whenever I am approached and asked what language I speak, it is always Khmer. I was raised only speaking modern Khmer and very little to no Thai. Since my parents practice Cambodian customs, they had their children speaking only Khmer, but I can still understand Thai. My grandmother speaks both and sometimes mixes both Thai and Khmer together which is sometimes difficult to understand. Both languages are comparable, however, one sounds harsh while the other sounds soft. They are both tonal languages, which means pitch is incorporated as part of speech, but to identify which language is which, Thai language elongates their words as oppose to Khmer where it is sharp and simple. In addition, both ethnic groups encompasses French words in their language which derived from the French colonial period before the Vietnam War.

Born and raised Cambodian, I was always shown how to be very prim and proper and taught to never break etiquette rules. Trust me, if you break any rules, you will get unanimous objects thrown at you or receive the silent treatment. Cambodians are very strict with their rules, especially my parents, where school comes first over everything. Even dining at the dinner table is very strict because eating is a serious business of its own. Speaking at the dinner table would either get you kicked out and sent to another room or have food taken away from you for the rest of the night. My aunt and grandmother has done this to me several times but thank Buddha, my parents are not like that!

At a very young age, my mom and my grandmother taught me how to cook basic food. Yes, I did start learning to cook at the age of eight but of course had adult supervision while utilizing the stove. Cambodian, Thai, Laos and Vietnamese food are very similar with its own modification so there’s really not an actual “Cambodian” dish. As part of the Cambodian culture, growing up, children usually begin to do housework and cook as young as six and begin finding a job at fourteen. It’s pretty intense, but parents want their children to learn how to be independent, thus teaching them to adapt this lifestyle at an early age where they learn quickly.

Continuing on with my customs, when I meet someone older than me I am expected to do the traditional greet of a bow and bring my hands together as if I am praying. Along with the bow, we say “Jum Reap Sua” which is the formal way of saying “hello.” The greeting implements a sign of respect, especially towards the seniors in my community. Normally, the traditional greeting would be used depending on the age between the people, hierarchy and the relationship. In the Western world, many tend to shake hands at the temple, however, I personally like to do the traditional greeting.

Speaking of temple, majority of Cambodians and Thais follow Theravada Buddhism, which is a branch of Buddhism that uses old teachings from the Sanskrit and Pali Canon. The monks would use these teachings for Dhamma talk right after prayers and most of theses dhammas are about Enlightenment and the path to Enlightenment. Enlightenment in Buddhism is when a Buddhist has a state of perfect knowledge, wisdom and discovers the truth about life, ceasing to be reborn again. Originating from India, my religion teaches that life and death are entwined through the concept of reincarnation. If you do good in this world, you will come back as a higher being and if you do bad, you would come back as a lower being. We call this Karma which means you reap what you sow. My religion has also reinforced a sense of hierarchy in society where monks and seniors are at the top, followed by parents and teachers and lastly children and students. Typically the Monks and seniors would walk in rank order from the highest and are considered the most respected in society.

When we go to the temple, it would always be for a ceremonial service. Our service would last two days, starting at six o’clock Saturday evening and ending at twelve o’clock Sunday afternoon. These ceremonies correspond to the upcoming holidays of each month, but the October one has always been the biggest, lasting two weeks. Parallel to Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, families gather at the temple and pray to commemorate their family members who have passed on and support their spiritual journey. Each family has a specific day so it normally takes two weeks to get through them all.

Moving on, many have wondered what I wear to the temple. For women, there are three different traditional dresses. The first one is called Sampot, which is the main dress women wear to the temple. There are three pieces to the dress which includes the fitted blouse, the tubular skirt and gasang bhrum-traditional scarf. The blouse itself is made out of a laced material and is the most fitted piece out of the entire outfit. Additionally, the tubular skirt would match the colour of the top and designs vary according to the social class. The tubular skirt is an ankle length skirt that is wrapped around the waist and tied to one side or the middle. In the Western world, with advanced sewing technology, the skirt is clipped to one side instead of tied. Gasang bhrum [ga-sang-brum] is the traditional scarf worn by every women at the temple. I do not know the actual significance of the scarf, but I do know my mom stresses over it every time we go to the temple. The scarf is normally white, but women tend to choose different colours to match their outfit.

The next dress is called Sampot Châng Kben. This dress is similar to the traditional Sampot, except instead of wearing the tubular skirt, we wear pants. The pant is worn by wrapping it around the waist pulling it away from the body and twisting it into a knot. Once twisted, the knot is pulled between the legs and held together by a metal belt. Sampot Châng Kben is only worn on special occasions such as weddings, ceremonies and parades and rarely on a regular basis to the temple.

Lastly, the third and final dress is called Sampot Tep Apsara. Generally the Sampot is tied the same way as the Sampot Châng Kben, except instead of one knot, there are two knots that hang from the waist. The left knot is always longer and the right is only used to be decorative. After the hem of the skirt is knotted, a long pleat of fabric is dropped from the middle of the Sampot and recoils at the calves. The top is is white with a gold embroidery scarf wrapped diagonally across the bust. Colours of the scarf varies according to the colour of the bottom, but every scarf has a gold embroidery. Nonetheless, the only time you would wear this dress is when you are doing the traditional Cambodian dance Apsara, hence why they call it Sampot Tep Apsara.

To end this post, I hope you learned a few things about my nationality and have a feel on what its like being Cambodian-Thai.

Love,

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Disclaimer: The featured image is not mine.
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