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Not My Kind of Pride

Future Forum's research fellow Darathtey Din published in Kiripost on February 23 2024. Please check the original article here!

Research Fellow, Darathtey Din, explores cultural homogeneity in Cambodian society, her observations of national pride, and the use of weaponized humor

Supporters at Kun Khmer competitions during 32nd SEA Games, May 10, 2023. Kiripost/Iea Sonita

On November 5, 2023, Cambodia hosted what the Phnom Penh Post called a historic Kun Khmer match-up between multiple Cambodian fighters and opponents from overseas. The main bout on the fight card was the country’s beloved Prum Samnang vs. Dave Leduc, a former six-time Lethwei World Champion.

I am an amateur practitioner of Kun Khmer, but watching this match, I found myself feeling something unexpected – strong discomfort over the behavior of my fellow Cambodians. I spotted a pattern among my countrymen and women in the audience cheering for the home fighters and mocking the visiting, foreign, fighters.

The experience of watching this dynamic unfold illustrated something about Cambodian national pride that is worth exploring. It’s a dynamic that I cannot relate to, and it stands in direct opposition to the typical image that is portrayed of the ever-kind and friendly Cambodian people.

This collective taunting behavior could risk destroying all the hard work that Cambodia has been doing to attract and welcome visitors. Personally, this kind of behavior leads me to question my national identity as a Cambodian, especially when I do not want to be associated with any attitude that can potentially signal intolerance of others.

Weaponized humor

At this boxing event, Cambodians visibly outnumbered the visiting fighters. However, instead of welcoming our guests with the open arms and friendly smiles we usually pride ourselves on, we taunted them.

Traditional Khmer martial art ‘Kun Lbokator. Kiripost via Cambodia2023

At this particular event, weaponized humor was a recurring theme. The crowd cheered for Cambodian fighters and joked about their foreign opponents. These jokes usually consisted of my people making fun of everything the foreigners did and how they carried themselves, pointing out their differences and dismissing them as strange or foreign.

A specific example was when the two ring announcers made fun of a Brazilian fighter who took a slightly longer time to situate himself in the ring while looking around for something. The Brazilian fighter, Daniell Torres, did not enter the ring immediately after his entrance walkout. He appeared to be standing on the outside ring corner looking for something.

Instead of trying to figure out what it was that he needed or buying time with the audience while Torres was trying to sort out his inquiry, the ring announcers joked about Torres’s behavior, saying that he appeared agitated and remarked about whether or not he would participate in the fight if he couldn’t find his coach and if the crowd didn’t cheer for him.

This brand of bullying, which consists of meanness buried under a thin layer of humor and mockery, is used as a tool for singling out outsiders, pointing out differences, and in many cases, it’s a perfect instrument to carry out discrimination with plausible deniability.

Perpetrators can brush off accusations of hostility by saying they were “only joking,” and not to take things too seriously. The most common example of this type of bullying is body shaming disguised in the form of jokes.

Foreigners and locals alike are frequently subjected to these kinds of jokes when they do not have a physique that conforms to Cambodia’s beauty standard. You hear it in daily conversations. You hear it in celebrity news and gossip. “Ah Mab”, translated to “a fat person” in English, is a term used by locals to call somebody slightly heavier in appearance.

The term is generally perceived as a sign of endearing, but observe closely, it is a form of body shaming. This is often an act of one-sided gaslighting because the other person may not even know they are being mocked.

I have observed that Cambodians are very good at the “point and laugh at them”; because they are different. I have experienced being on both ends of this conundrum. As a Cambodian, I am no stranger to witnessing remarks made by Cambodian friends and acquaintances about foreigners.

Some of the commonly used ones are their food choices, the way they dress, and the way they behave. As someone who constantly questions and challenges the norms in order to stay true to my authentic self, I appear foreign to my people despite being born and raised here.

I have colleagues who question my food choices saying I am too westernized when I eat specific things, and make surprised remarks when I partake in Cambodian dishes like kdam prai (salted crab) or prahok ktis. While these remarks are mostly harmless, made constantly, these remarks drive me to question my own identity and belonging.

In the current global context, where societies are becoming increasingly polarized, I believe that the last thing Cambodia needs is to engage in the collective mockery of outsiders. Most importantly, such mockery of foreign, minority or different individuals should not be tucked under the blanket of national pride.

In a broader context, this type of mockery reflects poorly on Cambodian society as a whole. While being a rather tolerant society to those Cambodians labeled as others – foreigners, LGBTQI+ individuals, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities – it is observed that Cambodian society continues to have a low level of acceptance to others. Simply put, those considered ‘others’ are not to be taken seriously. Applying a social cohesion filter to this observation, it is apparent that more work needs to be done to build a more cohesive Cambodia.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) defines a cohesive society as one that “works towards the wellbeing of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility.”

While I recognize Cambodia for its high tolerance towards difference, tolerance, by itself, does not translate to policy changes that help promote social inclusion. Cambodian society and its government need to strive to push beyond tolerance.

Towards a more inclusive Cambodia

Discriminatory behavior, particularly in the realm of sports, is not unique to Cambodia. This is a common issue found in many countries around the world among sports fans and events.

The issue of racism and xenophobia in sport have been prominent enough that the UN addressed this topic in their 2023 resolutions. Having said that, I believe the issue in Cambodia still needs addressing. These types of behaviors are symptomatic of other issues within Cambodian society, and are perpetuated by critical gaps in Cambodia’s education system.

As a society, we can start to address these behaviors by being open to having conversations about cultures, and subcultures that are different or do not quite fit the norms we’re used to.

We can start by provoking curiosity and willingness to learn more about the unfamiliar. I recognise that this is no easy undertaking due to a deeply rooted culture of discouraging knowledge validation, including asking questions.

This discouragement of questioning stems from the country’s respect for social hierarchy which discourages those in the lower hierarchy (children to parents or elderly, students to teachers, etc) from questioning their superiors, as asking questions sometimes is perceived as a form of challenge instead of a way of seeking more knowledge.

This issue has real consequences. A study on research capacities of Cambodia’s universities, for instance, discovered that one of the challenges paralyzing Cambodia’s ability to foster research is the absence of “a culture of inquiry”.

The study suggested that this is the result of structural and systemic barriers rather than it being an innate culture of a nation that can’t be changed. Culture is in itself forever evolving. Therefore, in order to address such issues, systematic changes are required in the structure of the Cambodian education system.

Students who ask their teachers questions to validate their knowledge can sometimes be considered rude or inappropriate. Therefore, knowledge is often passed down to students as something to absorb as is, and without question.

Now, imagine a society with one or two generations of its population being too embarrassed or afraid to ask questions to acquire new knowledge. This culture of no-question-asked might have potentially played a significant role in creating this tendency to laugh the discomfort of difference away, instead of asking questions in a genuine quest to try to understand them.

This brings me back to the weaponized humor I discussed earlier. What I witnessed while watching the boxing event was a group of people who were simply used to laughing at their questions instead of trying to get them answered.

In this context, I truly believe that they did not mean any ill intention, but that does not mean that their action does not affect individuals on the receiving end of this discomfort.

Building a more cohesive Cambodian society in which people not only tolerate but welcome diversity is a good place to start. To shift the cultural needle, I believe we should start from the ground up, meaning parents and caretakers should take it upon themselves to nurture the habit of inquiring new knowledge through questioning.

At the school level, the same mindset should be considered and slowly adopted in the classroom, accompanied by a push for lifelong learning. At the national government level, it requires both political commitment and policy changes from many relevant ministries – culture, and education.

In the meantime, I believe many influential actors both governmental and non-governmental, such as the Cambodian Youth Federation, key policymakers, and artists should take it upon themselves to be role models or good examples of social inclusion while openly discouraging such behaviors that constitute a collective bullying of ‘others’.

Darathtey Din is a Research Fellow at independent Cambodia-based think tank, Future Forum. Her research interests include arts and culture, identity, and social cohesion. Darathtey is also an author of Youth Culture and the Music Industry in Contemporary Cambodia: Questioning Tradition.


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