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Khmer Smiles

Wherever one goes in Cambodia people are smiling. Rice farmers smile at me on my early morning walk. At the market grandmothers smile at my fractured Khmer. Kids at school smile at me trussed up in my school uniform. They smile when they understand me and smile when they don’t.

The Cambodian family I live with loves silly slapstick comedy on TV, the pie-in-your-face variety. They also like high-key Korean soap operas. When I pretend to boo-hoo along with weepy actress they think I’m a scream. The old banana peel gag never fails to get a laugh. Minor mishaps are recalled with great hilarity. Recycled jokes are the best.

Cambodians also smile at times that Westerners might think is inappropriate. The local stationery shop that carries the school’s textbooks did not have the Level One text I needed. “No, sorry,” the shopkeeper said, with a big grin. “Don’t have.” In the States a shop clerk would at least pretend to be sorry when they were out of stock. We want sympathy for lack of supplies. We want concern, not smiles, thank you very much.

A young cousin at my house fell down and bruised her arm. Her father showed the bruise to everyone in the room, smiling. She got hurt—here’s the proof! Everyone smiled back—yes! We see. Even stories of hardship are told with a smile. My host sister studies medicine in Battambang. The exams demand precise answers. She studies six hours a day outside of class. ”It is very difficult for me,” she says, smiling, of course.

These other smiles that accompany evidence of lack, or proof of misfortune or difficulty are confounding for Westerners like me who begin most of their sentences with the pronoun “I”. Since I (there it is again) am only an outside observer, my guess is this other smile is also genuine. This smile might be read as, “Whatcha gonna do?” It is a smile of acknowledgement, rather than resignation. We are out of books; the kid got hurt; studying takes time. No point complaining about it. Smile and carry on.

There is yet another Cambodian style of smile The inscrutable smile of a tuk-tuk driver who says he will take you there for $20 when you know the going rate is $2. The deadpan smile of a helpful guide who points you in the opposite direction that your map indicates. The enigmatic smile of a handsome stranger who offers to buy you a drink—from a place called The Blowjob Bar. These smiles I am happy to return with my own smile of experience—a smile and a wink to say, yeah, right. Keep smiling. It’s only a game.

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