The Great Divide

PHONM PENH,  Cambodia — It’s the little moments that fascinate me: the walk with your head down, take a sip of water, blink-and-you’ll-miss-em type moments. Compound this intrigue with a tremendous curiosity towards the social aspects of life and you become fascinated with human interaction and the human psyche. And that’s where this story is going - a seemingly minuscule moment, potentially missed by many - yet defining nonetheless.

Kep is a small Cambodian town clustered around a modest patch of beach. The town is remarkably quiet, as a friend of mine remarked, “there could be a zombie apocalypse and no one would even notice.” I stay in an even quieter area of Kep, 10km away from the main road. If it weren’t for the cool sea breeze, you wouldn’t know you’re a few meters away from the ocean. Out here its jungle living: poorly maintained dirt roads, lush vegetation, and humble homes.

It’s my last night in Kep. I am at a small family owned store for my last time. Their smiling faces have coerced me into pledging a daily loyalty. Their shop is simple and rustic: there are no doors, 3 walls, a dusty concrete floor and a thatched iron roof. In the midst of night, the dimly lit glass bulbs lend a golden hue to the compound.

As I’m waiting to check out, I see two adolescent teenage boys. They are certainly Cambodian, yet something feels weird about their presence; they just don’t seem to fit. One boy has glasses and a tidy hairstyle. He dawns a neatly creased checkered button down to match his well fitting black slacks. His friend is plump. His collared t-shirt tightly hugs his torso, stretching over his stomach just far enough to reach his cargo army shorts.

It wasn’t the clothes that seemed peculiar; rather the condition of their clothes seemed different. That’s when I realized their clothing was more a statement of style than worn for functionality.

From there the pieces fell into place.

Rarely did I see glasses in rural areas of Cambodia, especially not on young adults. An overweight teenager was another oddity. Most telling was the way they interacted with the mother of the family who was working; they were standoffish. You wouldn’t know they spoke the same language, as no words were exchanged. They didn’t meet the mothers’ eye contact, instead preferring to gaze idly around the store and make small talk among themselves. It felt as if the boys wanted to complete the exchange and move on with life as quickly as possible.

It was a purely transactional interaction. Something, which I had yet to experience in Kep. I was accustomed to long-winded interactions filled with back-pats and belly laughs, long hugs and wide smiles.

Though I knew the boys were also from Cambodia, they seemed to be from a different world entirely. I figured, they had to be from the capital: Phnom Penh. There is money in Phnom Penh, money that is non-existent in other parts of Cambodia. And money that would explain their clothes, stature, and potentially disdain toward their fellow citizens.

I asked, "neh moh peena?” (Which translates to something along the lines of “where are you from?”)

Before the boys could even reply the mother started laughing, a cackling outburst different from the short chuckle I often received after attempting to speak Khmer.

The boys muttered a brief reply “Phnom Penh”.

The mother kept laughing, attempting to say something to me, which to this day, I still wish I understood. All I could make out was “suor moh peena" (which translates to something along the lines of: ask where they are from.)

It is an infinitesimally small moment, which lifts the curtain to a theme I’ve seen replay itself over and over during my time as a Bonderman Fellow. Relative to the countryside/ rural areas, people from urban, Western societies generally seem to be less close with one another. This complex topic can’t be simplified through a singular reason, but I want to try to understand why it happened through the lens of one potential factor – our value structures.

From a young age, in Western societies, we’re relentlessly told that we must go out in the world, get a degree, a good job, and make plenty of money - so we can “make something of our ourselves.” Our family, peers, schools and media, constantly repeat these sentiments. Over time, these definitions are forgotten as stories we’re told, instead becoming truths we live by. We become conditioned to have a very narrow mindset of value, one that is equated with our possessions and achievements.

It is only natural that in a society, which places value in achievements and external possessions, that we have come to derive our self- worth off said things. That is, we gauge our life’s “success” based off jobs had, deals made, and money acquired.

These definitions don't just dictate the perception of our own worth; they influence how we perceive others. When we see others with a fancy car or a large house, we see “successful.” We can even see this mindset reflected in our language, as we call those higher up in our jobs “superiors.” And, if someone has less, they are often perceived as less - they don’t fit into our definitions of value. Unconsciously we may label them as “lazy”, “unintelligent” at times even “inferior." Put another way, we come to look at others based on things they do (or don’t) have, rather than the person they are. In the process, we become estranged from the majority of our counterparts. This isn’t purposely malicious; it’s an unconscious process. It’s easier to slap labels onto people, than it is to understand the full depth of their character.

Furthermore, when these possessions and achievements are limited, and highly valued, we must compete with those around us to obtain them, widening the gap between people.

Though, when obtaining external possessions isn’t a constant option in the first place - as is the case in many rural societies - it can neglect to be the defining feature of value in a society. (Yes, I see the counter argument, of “but if external possessions are more scarce, wouldn’t that make them more desirable?” Yes, though I am talking about cultures with different stories and values. Stories and values that exist outside of many of the impositions and narratives of the modern world, including the consumeristic and financial based approximations of value.) Thus, there is less evaluation of worth based on these constructs. Instead, people can look at each other through the lens of who they are, and how they treat others.

What if we redefined our standards for achievement and success? Defined not by what we have, but instead by who we are; defined not by what we do, but instead by how we are able to relate to others? How would this change our relationship to the world? How would the world, that we relate to change?