Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Change touches all people, cultures

January 14, 2009

Change touches all people, cultures

An e-mail from a reader in Phnom Penh asked me for a column on globalization's effects on Khmer culture and traditions -- how the young generation "is enjoying" and the older generation "is suffering" from the change of culture.

As globalization affects local traditions and the conditions of lives worldwide, a consideration of its ramifications is worthwhile.

At the University of Guam, I participated in a program that brought some 20 public school teachers to my special introductory political science course. These elder Chamorros were clearly "suffering" from the changes brought by globalization: they complained their young ones were so busy enjoying American television shows that they no longer speak their mother tongue or know what their traditions are.

I told them I still speak and write my mother tongue and still lower myself when I walk in front of Khmer elders, in spite of years of what's known as acculturation in America.

A proverb goes, "The only constant is change." In Lord Buddha's teaching, nothing is permanent and man's search for permanency causes his suffering. Buddha affirms, "Everything changes, nothing remains without change."

Post-World War II technological and transportation revolutions brought the world much change. Men, money, materials and ideas flowed to and from the globe's different parts. I was growing up as the globe seemed to be getting smaller. Chapeau, scarf, leather shoes and suits -- "Fabrique en France" and worn by the Paris-educated Cambodian elite -- became subjects of ridicule by politically "progressive" teachers in my fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms!

But the revolutions didn't affect only Cambodia. The traditions, norms and modes of behavior of peoples were affected and challenged everywhere. The revolutions that brought people, cultures and different ways into close proximity also brought disharmony and fragmentation.

Another saying goes, "Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely."

Life is learning, and learning requires unlearning and relearning things that already have been learned. Professor Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) posited, "Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change. Education is essential to change, for education creates both new wants and the ability to satisfy them."

This ability must include imagination, creative thinking, a positive attitude and positive action to tackle the problems and predicaments that life brings, so as not to be stuck in the usual reproductive thinking of the past. An ability to step outside of one's usual patterns to try something new -- a new way of thinking about something or of accomplishing a task -- can enable us to cope with the changes coming to each of us as commerce in goods, people, and ideas multiplies.

Today's technology has brought about a borderless world that is in constant movement, producing change upon change. There is no place to hide. The old concept of absolute, comprehensive, permanent and inviolable national sovereignty no longer exists.

Defined as "the intensification" of economic, political, educational, social, cultural and military relations across national states' boundaries, globalization relates everything to everything else, and events in one area will sooner or later affect other areas and the people there.

The New York Times' Thomas Friedman's "Learning to Keep Learning" (Dec. 13, 2006) posited we live in an era in which creative people thrive and nations that flourish the most are those that "develop the best broad-based education system."

Know what and what not to change, what and what not to oppose. It isn't smart when the world uses cyberspace and we use snail mail.

For Cambodians, how much of the Khmer culture and traditions do the younger generation actually know and appreciate? Many were born after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge destroyed the old. It's hard to miss what they never had. Blue jeans and iPods are to enjoy; they're natural.

But why has the country's education system not ensured that the young ones know their culture and traditions?

Of the literature on Khmer culture and traditions, Sivone Brahm's "Guidebook for Teachers, Administrators and Educators of Cambodian Children," 1980, is by far the best and to the point. It cites Cambodians' codes of conduct for people of all walks of life -- good behavior, thoughtfulness toward others, duty to parents, families, society, respect for the elders and teachers. They are the foundation of being Khmer. To lose them is to lose the Khmer identity.

Imagination and creative, productive thinking, mentioned earlier, should help Cambodians salvage what is Khmer. Education and learning are in order.

However, Cambodians are also pragmatic. "Follow the river bend when travel by boat," Cambodians say, or as said in the West, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." You take off shoes in Khmer home. But in the modern age of competitiveness, Cambodians' time concepts, or such Khmer characteristics of not to say or admit anything in order to avoid conflicts or hurting others' feelings, need revision in order to incorporate the concept of productive competition. The world river has its own winding to follow.

Globalization, propelled by technological advance, is here to stay. It cannot be stopped anymore than one can stop humans from thinking. It is said to increase risks and opportunities for the individuals whose actions can impact international relations.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at

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