Many of my experiences here are wonderful, but I would be lying and giving an unfair representation of my year if I only talked about the good or the easy things. Sometimes things are complicated, frustrating, or heartbreaking. Today I want to share a poem with you about one part of my year here that has been challenging. This struggle is not only about me, and not only about the people of Cambodia, but about all of us together in a society that teaches people to dislike things about who they are. Even ones that cannot be changed. My thoughts here are not about answers, sympathy, or critique, but merely as a small look into one part of my year that I have struggled with since I learned the words in Khmer and heard them for myself every day.


Srey sa’at.
There is a greeting I am met with many times a day.
Srey sa’at.
It has become my identifier to strangers. To acquaintances.
Srey sa’at.
Food vendors, TukTuk and moto drivers, random women I meet on the street, young girls I talk to at the market, high school boys on their walk home from school.
Srey sa’at.
Sometimes it is to my face, other times it is whispered as I pass.
Srey sa’at.
Every once in a while a word will be added.
Srey saw sa’at.
When this happens I am reminded that my race is deeply linked to how I am seen.
Srey sa’at.
Other times it is my nose, or height, or hair that make me noticed.
Srey sa’at.
Either way it signals the message that people are taught from a very young age.
Srey sa’at.
A message that says the lighter your skin, the more beautiful you are.
Srey sa’at.
My head wants to be known for more than my face.
Srey sa’at.
My heart wants their eyes to see the beauty deeply tied to who they are.
Srey sa’at.
So how do I respond?
Srey sa’at.
It is a compliment to me.
Srey sa’at.
Yet it implies an insult for the person speaking the words.
Srey sa’at.
Any attempt to protest is met with concerned looks.
Srey sa’at.
Smiling and saying thank you just makes the words repeat.
Srey sa’at.
For now I mostly stay silent.
Srey sa’at.
Because I am lost for words.
Srey sa’at.
Beautiful woman. Pretty girl.

Ashley

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3 thoughts on “Srey Sa’at

  1. You are a beautiful woman, pretty girl but after spending time with you in Cambodia I also thought all the Cambodian women were also Beautiful and so Pretty. I understand your caring heart makes you cringe when you are being recognized for your “whiteness” rather than the “goodness” in your heart. If you said back to another woman the same words in Kamai and pointed at them would they understand the meaning of your response?

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    1. Really it is more about the societal structure that says lighter skin is beautiful. Which then creates things like skin cream with whiteners. As the bottom of the poem alludes to, responding is hard. I have found the most success with hostel girls that I have a relationship with, because I can repeat that they are beautiful too. Strangers are the ones that it is difficult to respond to.

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