Susceptibility to Single Stories

I recently watched the TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she discussed how vulnerable we are to believing in single stories. A single story is one view of something which is repeated until it is accepted as fact. She described how in the past she has bought into single stories, and was in turn stereotyped due to other people’s belief in them about her native country Nigeria.

Adichie vocalised for me what has been at the back of my mind since returning from overseas. It is the worry that I not only believe in single stories in my day to day life, but more significantly that I have inadvertently created one.

From February to May 2016 I went to live with a family in a rural village in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. Since then, my friends and family have asked me about my experience: mainly what I ate, what the people were like, whether it is a very poor country, and how the locals reacted to me as a foreigner. I could potentially be their sole source of knowledge about the country, putting me in a sensitive position. What I say to people about it could be taken as fact – as a true and whole representation of the country rather than just my limited opinion.
The fact is that everyone is in danger of being an author of a single story – not only about the people and places further afield, but also about their home.

For example, when I was living in Cambodia my Cambodian friend Mony and I would often exchange information about each other’s culture. Mony originally knew very little about Britain, just like I knew little about her country. What she heard about it from me and the other UK volunteers may be the only information she would receive about it for a long while. From what we talked about, she probably got the impression that British people eat burgers every day, are mostly vegetarian and wear baggy, patterned trousers all the time.

When I was talking to Mony, I realised how much I summarised the UK in order to give her a broad idea of the place. Besides this, she had an idealised image of Europe and I didn’t want to admit that my country was not as nice as she imagined it to be. I gave her a story of a developed, secure nation which is a good place for a woman to live and have as many boyfriends as she likes. Despite having lived there all my life, I was not able to give Mony anything other than a single story about Britain.

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Shrines at a Buddhist pagoda: there are at least two sides to every story

Single stories are dangerous because they reduce a group of people down to one thing. Whether they appear kindly, such as: ‘people in Cambodia are really friendly,’ or harmless like: ‘British people love drinking tea,’ they feed into reductive stereotypes and do not acknowledge the broad variety of people who live in every community.

Someone who goes to a country having heard just one perspective about the place may have a certain perception in mind, and treat people differently because of it. For example, in Cambodia I was amazed when I met a monk who lives alone on a hill top, bathes every-day in a stagnant pool, and yet who owned a smart phone and whose passport was filled to the brim with stamps from all over Asia and beyond.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Single stories are also destructive since they dehumanise the people who are within the stereotype. It is much easier to ignore the suffering of a kindly, ambiguous mass of people than an individual like Mony, who is funny, playful, hardworking and in her fourth year at Battambang University. Adichie describes this eloquently in reference to America’s single story of Africa:

“In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her [Adichie’s American roommate] in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

How to Avoid Spreading a Single Story

1) Remind yourself, when hearing about another person, country or community from somebody else, that what the person is saying is just their own perspective of it, and does not account for the whole picture. Look beyond what is being said. It is impossible for one person to create a true representation of an entire community and every person within it. There are always multiple perspectives that are equally valid.
2) Be aware that, when you talk about a place or population, that you do not make sweeping statements such as ‘the people are very poor’. Instead describe specific people you have met, giving them humanity.
For example, when I talked about Cambodian people I tried to describe my host family specifically – who, by the way, I found to be kind, biased, hospitable, cheeky and shy, who ran out of water several times in the dry season but also hosted amazing parties and paid for their children to go to private school.
3) If you are confident enough, challenge misconceptions and stereotypes when you come across them. This doesn’t mean ripping the person who is talking to shreds, since anyone can support stereotypes without realising what they are doing. Kindly nudging them in the right direction, or mentioning that you encountered something that doesn’t fit into that stereotype would work more effectively.

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A group of monks taking a selfie

This article is also a disclaimer on my part. In my blog posts I have written a lot about Cambodia and my experiences of it – but I would like to express that my experiences are wholly subjective. I only lived there for three months in one relatively small community. My main intention when writing these articles is to share what I, as a Westerner going into South East Asia for the first time, have discovered so that you can get a glimpse of Cambodia from my perspective.

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

 

Thank you for reading.

Quotes from The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at 4:48, 9:25, and 18:16.

Daily Customs in Cambodia

An introduction to the manners and etiquette that you will encounter often in Cambodia, so that you can communicate with the people easier and without sticky misunderstandings!

The Formal Hello / Goodbye

This is appropriate when meeting anyone respected, especially if it is a formal meeting, or if you are interrupting something they are doing. The correct greeting is saying “chum reap sue” for hello, accompanied with putting your hands together as though in prayer, smiling and inclining your head.

The height your hands depends on the person you’re talking to: for your equal or someone younger you put your hands in front of your chest, for someone older you press your fingertips to your chin, for your mother and father your fingers to your lips, a monk your fingers on the bridge of your nose, and to the gods the heel of your hand should rest on your forehead. The same applies for goodbye, except you say “chum reap lear” instead. If in doubt of their age, fingers to the chin is respectful.

However perfectly you greet someone however, you should prepare to be laughed at because your pronunciation will be so cute to the person you are talking to.

The Touch Barrier

You must not touch anyone of the opposite sex except in rare circumstances. This includes holding your hand out to help them up, patting them on the back, putting your arm around them in photos, and hugging. It’s a hard habit to get out of since in the UK we are used to touching our friends, but it will give the wrong impression if you do!

Same-Sex Interaction

Although the touch barrier is so strict among men and women, it is the opposite when it comes to someone of your own gender. Friends will link arms, put their arms around each other, lean on each other whilst talking and put their hands on someone’s shoulder or knee – especially men. This can be a little uncomfortable to people from the UK who aren’t used to so much contact, but after a while you understand it as a sign of friendship.

Shoes Off

Most popular in Cambodia wear flip-flops or sandals, and as well as keeping your feet cool it also makes it easier when it comes to shoe etiquette. It is impolite to wear shoes indoors and most people will expect you to take them off before you go inside, even in the outhouse. (Usually toilets will have a pair of flip-flops for everyone to use inside the room due to this rule.) The exceptions are restaurants and most shops, but be careful to check before stepping inside for shoes outside the door in case the rule still applies.

Hands

It is rude to use your left hand when giving people things as, due to washing with water after using the toilet, it is considered unclean. Some Khmer will, but you will see a noticeable difference in their response when you give people money with your right hand, and even more when using both hands, which is very polite. You should always give and receive gifts with both hands.

Thank You

People in Cambodia rarely say thank you, and at first it can be a bit surprising and offensive to people from a culture where “thank you” is given for anything from a cup of tea to receiving change. Nevertheless it is still the most useful word you will learn in any language, including Khmer. “Arkun” is what we are told means thank you, but it actually translates as an informal “cheers” kind of meaning. If you want to say it with meaning, e.g. if someone has shown you kindness, adding “juran” to the end will show your gratitude.

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The Bamboo Bridge at Kompong Cham

Invitations

If you are ever invited to eat someone’s food or join a party, you should always accept the invitation as it is very rude to say no, unlike in British culture. Unless you have a pressing engagement, you should stay and eat. This may be because it can take all day to cook a meal and no-one wants their efforts to be in vain! If you aren’t hungry, eating a little is acceptable and you are free to leave when you like after the meal.

Modesty Rules

Most Cambodian people are accustom to tourists and their tendency to not wear much clothing. However, in Khmer culture it is still very inappropriate for people to wear revealing clothes, especially women. If you want to work with people in the local community and be respected, it is important to cover your shoulders, chest and legs to below the knee. In the cities wearing skimpy clothing is more accepted, but in the rural areas people who do may be criticised and given unwanted attention. When thinking about your dress sense, you should consider whether you want to be seen as a tourist or instead be accepted into the community you are staying in at the expense of a nice tan.

Body Language

Body language and tone of voice is an important factor in politeness in Cambodia. For example, you must signal people to come with your palm facing downwards because gesturing with your palm up signals aggression. Whistling is rude, as is standing with your hands on your hips. When talking to people, speaking with a quiet, soft voice and smiling is very polite, whereas raising your voice, making quick hand gestures or having an angry expression is considered very inappropriate and even shameful. If you want co-operation, speaking softly is the key!

British Customs

As well as there being lots of manners in Cambodia that are useful to learn, it is also good to familiarise yourself with the customs that we are used to which do not apply here. One thing is that people in Cambodia often chew with their mouth open, and very loudly, which is very rude in British culture and takes a while to get used to. Men especially spit a lot, and children will sometimes wee in their yard or next to the dinner table, men outside the bathroom even if the toilet is vacant.

On the other hand, strangers will approach you and strike up conversation, which is inappropriate in parts of Britain but very comforting when faced with an alien world of new customs where you are often the center of attention.

 

If you want to learn about the basics of good Cambodian table manners, you can see my previous blog post on it here.

Beauty Culture in Cambodia

As much as we would like to believe that beauty is subjective to each individual, how we perceive what is beautiful is very much dictated by our culture. What is deemed as beautiful is subject to trends of fashion throughout generations and cultures, leading people of similar backgrounds to value similar traits in themselves and people around them, and people of different backgrounds to be attracted to people of different body shapes, complexion, style, age, face shape, and even personality. It is not surprising therefore that Cambodian people have a standard of beauty which contrasts vividly with the UK.

In Cambodia it is fashionable for women to have a small, thin body. It is also seen as elegant to have hands which curve back, replicating the style of traditional Khmer dancers: children from a young age will stretch and bend their fingers every day in order to achieve this. Long fingernails are also traditionally a sign of being wealthy, particularly among men, because people who work on the land (and are generally quite poor) have to cut their fingernails for practicality due to their physical job. Often men in Cambodia will have long fingernails, or a single long nail on the little finger of each hand, although this fashion is losing popularity in the younger generations.

The most prominent difference however is that pale skin is highly prized in Cambodia, especially among women. Often young women will go through extensive measures to keep their skin from tanning, such as wearing lots of layers – even hats, scarves and gloves – in 40° heat. Whitening products are also hugely popular, to the extent that it can be difficult to find non-whitening shower creams and moisturisers in shops. These products are very harmful to the body. The lotions can contain corticosteroids, and molecules such as hydroquinone (which are carcinogenic) or even mercury salts which are highly toxic. Every year women die from using these products, often when using them in excess in order to look more ‘beautiful’.

The fashion of pale skin is consolidated through the media. On television, every celebrity (male and female, although women are visibly lighter) has extremely pale skin, and even in televised competitions involving people from the public, such as The Voice Cambodia, the contestants are rarely more than a shade or two darker. In advertisements, and even paintings, illustrations and wedding photographs, everyone is depicted with white skin. A contributing factor to this may be because Cambodia idealises Korean culture, admiring their literature, television programmes, music scene, and fashion, including the Korean complexion. The prevalence of pale skin in popular images including the media strengthens the idea that to be pale is fashionable, and that the colour of your skin can dictate how successful you become.

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Setting an example: talking about these topics should begin with the youngest generations

Dangerous and simply quite strange practises in order to look more beautiful prevail in every culture however. In the UK, we have our own beauty extremes which includes the culture of tanning. It is attractive to have bronze skin in Britain because a tan proves that someone has spent their leisure time in the sun, indicating that they are well-travelled, i.e.rich and world-wise.  Women especially will use tanning booths and go sunbathing, despite that the exposure to UV rays increases the risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.

We value tall, slim, athletic bodies with hairless, unblemished skin in both men and women, and due to this every year we spend hundreds to thousands of pounds on products and services that will help us to achieve this ideal. For example we buy skin care products like moisturisers and spot creams, hair removal products, make-up, braces and teeth whitening services, as well membership to gyms, excersize classes and sports equipment, slimming “medicine”, dieting group membership and speciality foods. All of this is supported by the media which enforces the idea that to indulge in these beauty regimes is both fashionable and normal.

In Cambodia, women who do not comply within the normal beauty standards, for example if they have dark skin or acne or are tall or have a big body, will find it very difficult to find a partner. Both men and women can be ridiculed and bullied for having dark skin, so it is not surprising that people are very conscious of their appearance. In general, when people feel they do not fit into the cultural norms for ‘beautiful’ this causes problems with self-esteem, causing a higher risk of eating disorders, anxiety and depression across cultures. It can even lead to isolation from social circles and social stigma.

The importance we place globally upon being beautiful, particularly for women, is detrimental to our physical and mental health. The more we obsess about improving our faces and bodies, the less content we are with them. Individually, we must reconsider our own standards of beauty with the understanding that it is just a trend in fashion, not a universal or real measurement of value. We should endeavour not to judge other people around us for how they look or how much effort they put into their appearance, be content with how we look ourselves, and give our health and happiness a much higher priority.

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Learn to love yourself using any means necessary