Reflection on contemporary Cambodian culture
As I look back on the summer of 2018, the corners of my mouth light up, turning them into a bright smile, reflecting back on the bittersweet memories I made during my time at summer school over at Cambodia. It was only through the New Columbo Plan and Science Without Borders with the admirable Dr Alison Ung supervising the entirety of this journey that this experience was brought to reality.
During my trip, I realised a few things about my sheltered and spoilt lifestyle going into a differently cultured country without the guidance of my parents. From my experience living in Australia, people like to go and hang out with friends, or even buy take out after finishing work. This however wasn’t the norm in Cambodia. When asking about the night culture to my local friends they explained to me that instead of partying or going out for dinner, Khmer people will go home after school or work and spend time with their families. Coming from an Asian family, I too understood these values as I also have dinner with my family every night but never realised it when living in the comforts of my social habits until viewing this perspective from a foreigner’s point of view. The effort from the local students touched me deeply as I realised their sacrifices to make my night a happy memory when they took me out for dinner.
However, where there were differences between Western and Eastern cultures, there was also collaboration. An important example of this intriguing collaboration was the combination of Western and Eastern medicine Khmer people use to treat their patients. For a part of our program, we spent a small duration of our trip at the University of Health and Sciences of Cambodia. During my time here, I learnt about the history of Cambodia and how it has affected their future.
One of the major past events of this country was being colonised by the French. As a result, some part of the French culture has carried on to the current generations of Cambodian culture, with their teachings of medicine and science not being an exception. Additionally, Cambodians have also integrated traditional Asian medicine into their treatments with the use of herbal plants. In doing so, the patient receives treatments from the best of both worlds. If Western medicine doesn’t help, there is always an alternative with traditional medicine. As a pre-medicine student, I believe this information is also very valuable as when I become a doctor, I can think of alternatives to other medications (e.g. for kidney or liver failure, I can recommend herbs instead of pills).
During my studies here, what intrigued me was the structure of tertiary education in Cambodia. One thing I realised was unlike my experiences at UTS, Buddhism was taught in the curriculum of Pannasastra Univerisity of Cambodia (PUC), the institution I studied in Cambodia. Currently, it is estimated that up until 2050, approximately 96.9% of the population of Cambodia will be practicing Buddhism (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2019).
A huge constituent of the population of Khmer people practice Buddhism as a way of life. Because of this, in regards to contemporary Cambodian culture and social aspects, its teachings have slowly impacted and improved most Cambodian lifestyle with education not being an exception.
During my time here, the dean of PUC explained the reasons to me why he decided to include Buddhism into the curriculum. Teaching me about the genocides and hardships that his beloved country has faced, he told me that the only way he believed that Cambodia can grow is to forgive and move forward. He said that in order to do this, people have to have faith in something and to have a clear mind, allowing them to be grateful and appreciative for what they currently have. Many students in Cambodia will have families that have the effects of war and poverty inflicted upon them, but through PUC, these wounds can be remedied.
One method which the dean of PUC decided to combat these complications was to grant scholarships for students to study at PUC. This was done by conducting interviews with the students and their families to gauge the amount a grant was to be given. Additionally, the Dean has admitted that PUC has students from rich, corrupted families and he charges them more as the demand to study in a prestigious university in Cambodia is still high. As a result of the additional fees, he distributes the money to the poor allowing them to break the cycle of poverty by giving them the chance to have a tertiary education.
Additionally, something that really resonated for me was the main reason why the Dean wanted to have religion in conjunction with their studies. He believes that by practicing Buddhism while studying at a tertiary level will allow the students to become more wise and kind-hearted people, designing them to be valuable members of society that have the ability to make ethical decisions in regards to any field they choose to have a career in.
My initial thought to this ideology was very impressed. My mum comes from Indonesia where she finished her bachelor’s degree. When I came to Cambodia, the environment was very similar, but it made me feel a bit uneasy due to different social practices as well as the language barrier. From what she told me, this practice is very unique, yet it is something I have come to admire finding respect towards the dean and his reasoning.
In speaking with my classmates, I am aware that we came from different belief systems so learning about the practice of religion as part of our degree was surprising for some. For myself, I truly realised how lucky I was, to be able to practice a religion that wasn’t imposed on me and wasn’t a critical factor for me to be able to graduate. However, back in Australia, I feel that my experiences at UTS only teach us what we have to know about our degree but nothing on ethics. I feel that if a practice like this comes into play, we can all become better individuals/graduates.
As my trip concluded, I was left with thoughts on how has this trip made me a better individual. In general, I am very self-reflecting person who always judges myself critically. Whether it’s in academics or in my job, I always use my mistakes and opportunities to better myself.
With my experiences of Buddhism during my trip, I have tried to incorporate their beliefs into mine. As different countries have different interpretations of Buddhism, Cambodians to have their own way of practicing. Cambodians practice a form of Buddhism called Theravada, one of the most ancient forms of Buddhism (Findingdulcinea.com, 2019). On one of our final days at PUC, the dean gave us lecture on the practice of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, allowing an immersive and memorable lesson to be imprinted on us.
The main points of Theravada Buddhism are to not harm anyone, sell poisons/weapons and to not harm animals. Although Cambodians eat meat, they have a slight derivation to the final rule. It is justifiable to eat meat if they cannot see or hear the animal being killed (Pheng, 2018).
The lessons that Dr Pheng, the dean of PUC has taught me will leave a mental imprint on me throughout my life. A few practices that I have tried to incorporate these teachings into my life is to appreciate living creatures in general. I have tried to not kill anymore insects but instead to let them go in a way to show my new appreciation of life as well as to become a more patient and caring individual.
This program has ultimately allowed me to obtain new perspectives as well as develop a deeper appreciation for culture and life. I can only hope these experiences will stay with me and allow me to become an empathetic doctor one day which I believe is an important trait a medical practitioner should possess.
Landing back in Sydney was a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, I was overjoyed to be coming home and on the other, I was sad to have left my new friends. One thing I can say about this trip was that it has certainly exceeded my expectations. I miss the camaraderie that I have established with the local students and I still keep in touch with them, messaging them on Facebook now and again to catch up. My favorite part of this trip was establishing connections and friendships globally with other students which I hope will be life long relationships. If I had the chance to do it all again, even if it meant going through my challenges for a second time, I will accept without even a second thought. I recommend to all students to have an international experience as it will be a fresh of breath air compared to the everyday life of going into uni as it is an experience to be studying overseas.
1. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project 2019, Religious Composition by Country, 2010-2050, Washington, D.C., viewed 15 March 2019, <http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projection-table/2010/percent/Asia-Pacific/>.
In-text Citation: (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2019)
2. Findingdulcinea.com 2019, Buddhism: The Different Forms of Buddhism, viewed 22 March 2019
In-text Citation: (Findingdulcinea.com, 2019)
3. Pheng, K. 2018, ‘Purpose of Life’, PowerPoint Presentation, Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, viewed 23 March 2019
In-text Citation: (Pheng, 2018)