cambodian culture

Cultures differ in how people relate to their society and how their identities are defined.

  • In individualistic societies, the goals of individuals are valued more highly than the goals of the group. Individuals are rewarded for behaving independently, making their own plans, and working toward achieving their personal goals. In these societies, individuals are hired and promoted largely based on individual achievement and qualifications.
  • In collectivist societies, the goals of the individuals are subordinated to the group’s needs. In these societies, kinship and group ties are stronger and carry great weight in decisions about hiring and promotion, even if another candidate may be more highly qualified.73 People are born into a group to which they owe loyalty and from which they expect protection. Their relationships and friendships are determined by membership in their respective group. As life progresses, people join other groups; for example, when they start working, they join a staff or group of employees.74 Identity is not isolated; it is determined by the collective views of the larger group. Likewise, what a person does and how one conducts oneself is determined by group needs.75

Marriage, for example, provides a basic lens through which to understand the differences between collectivist and individualistic societies. In countries such as India or Pakistan, marriages are often arranged and are viewed as opportunities to form family or business alliances. Children are expected to marry whomever the family chooses based on the needs of the family. In other countries where arranged marriage is not common, however, children marry whoever they choose. It is their decision and they choose based on their own preferences, needs and desires. The preferences of the individual take precedence over the welfare and preferences of the family.

Similar examples may be drawn from what an individual may choose to study or work. Students from a collectivistic culture, for example, may be sent to another country to study whatever their government, company or family needs and not necessarily what they want to pursue. The needs of the group – whether family, company, or country – take precedence over the individual’s desires.76

In Cambodia, it is all too often that young women “choose” to work in karaoke bars, beer gardens, or massage parlors because their families put pressure on them to bring home as much money as possible. Even if families know what actually goes on in such locations (refer to Day 23 for more information), and even if young women are abused and do not want to continue, the family pressure is often stronger than the preferences of the young woman, even if it is to the young woman’s extreme detriment.

social paradigmWhen people from individualistic cultures see these types of practices and coercion, it is easy for the members of one culture to think, “Our way is better.” In our ignorance and pride, we tend to see cultural differences in terms of good versus bad, right versus wrong. While it is certainly the case that certain practices are “bad” and sinful – forcing one’s daughter into trafficking, for example – it is not the case that all practices that are different from our own are inherently wrong or somehow less than ours.

Instead of judging, we need to understand these differences and their implications for ministry. Because Cambodia is a collectivist society, it is necessary to minister to the entire family unit and community, not just to individuals. In Svay Pak, putting on the children’s ministry is not enough to protect the children and to provide for their needs. Unless their families and, indeed, the entire community, also meet Jesus, they will continue to sell their children to pimps and pedophiles each night, and the violence in the children’s lives will persist. The ministry in Svay Pak conducted at Rahab’s House consists not only of Kid’s Club each day but also medical clinics, the Lord’s Gym, brick factory outreach, the Rahab’s House School, and discipleship, all of which are put on by the church to share Jesus’ love with the entire community.

On your trip you may be asked to minister to a church member’s drunk uncle, and you may find yourself asking, “I thought I was here to stop sex trafficking.” What you may not realize is that in sharing Jesus with the drunk uncle, you are rescuing his nephew or niece from being trafficked each night.

Spend some time in prayer that while you and your team are in Cambodia on your short-term mission, God would use your work, even if seemingly indirect, to carry out His larger plan to rescue His children from sex trafficking. Ask that you would be prepared to be His hands and feet to Cambodia, to even the most undesirable of His people.

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73 “Cultural Differences,” Iowa State University, June 7, 2011, (accessed October 13, 2012).
74 Michael Delens, “Partnership in Educational Development, the Cultural Aspect,” Network for Policy Research, Review and Advice on Education and Training (NORRAG), January, 1999, (accessed October 13, 2012).
75 Michelle LeBaron, “Communication Tools for Understanding Cultural Differences,” Beyond Intractability, June 2003, (accessed October 13, 2012).
76 Iowa State, June 7, 2011.

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