BATTAMBANG, Cambodia (CNN) -- From my table at work, I have a partial view of the courtyard through the window and the double doors to the right. This allows me to gaze out and watch the kids playing during the day when I tire from work.
"As a woman, I never feel discouraged from playing sports or going out for drinks on the weekend. This is in large part because I am a foreigner."
Despite finding the weather to be incredibly hot, I still observe office dress code and wear longer pants and skirts everyday.
In my first week of work I learned all of the kids at Homeland have their own clothes and are responsible for washing them. The kids run around in any assortment of pants, shorts, jeans and T-shirts. One boy in particular always catches my eye when he wears his pink bubble gum colored shirt and soccer shorts. I often find myself envious of his soccer shorts and irritated by his pink shirt.
The type of clothing worn by Khmer sometimes surprises me. Pajamas are commonly worn as daytime apparel, be it silky flowered pink pajamas for boys at play or patterned cotton matching sets for women. Men at work often sport traditional komars (short wraparound skirts) and bare chests.
The more I learn about social customs, I see how gender dictates both the actions and dress of men and women. Generally, women show the least amount of skin while men can show quite a bit without fear of scorn.
Children are free to roam the streets naked until late toddlerhood and beyond in some places.
I've recently learned colors do not have the same meaning as they do in the United States. Nonetheless, pink shirts on men remain the most striking and interesting to me as an American woman living in Cambodia.
As I've come to understand the color pink in the American context, it hasn't been until fairly recently that the color pink was liberated from its gender assigned designation to women.
I understand that a man wearing pink in Cambodia does not carry the same social meaning as it does in the United States. However, every time I see a man in pink, it brings into focus the tension I feel my gender creates as I negotiate the prescribed role of women in Cambodia.
Despite foreign women having a larger degree of acceptable social behaviors, I try to stay attuned to the roles Cambodian women fill. As such, I am acutely aware that I am a woman in Cambodia. This awareness comes from my consciousness of needing to go home when it starts to get dark if I am alone, to finding very few outlets for women to have fun, especially when considering their male counterparts.
I see men playing football or doing other team sports everywhere. However, I have never seen a woman playing. When I ask about it, I'm told, "girls don't play sports because it's too hard to teach them". Nevertheless, when I ask to join in games, men are very responsive and welcoming.
As a woman, I never feel discouraged from playing sports or going out for drinks on the weekend. This is in large part because I am a foreigner. At the same time, I note that local women never partake in these activities.
It seems that Khmer women understand very well that they are to stick to what women always do and not try new things.
Not wanting to believe that women do not feel restricted by these narrow roles, I continue to ask women if they are interested in learning to play sports or try something new over the weekend. It seems the women I meet know that they are to go to school, take care of siblings and stay inside when it gets dark. While some may express some interest in trying something out of the ordinary, they would never act upon it.
To their credit, all of the women I know are very busy all the time. It's as if free time does not exist for many women in Cambodia. However, even when women do have free time, they seem content not exploring new and different social activities.
I do not expect women in Cambodia to behave the same as men, however I'm shocked by their compliance with traditionally determined acceptable social behavior.
Still, I can't help but think if these women had role models or examples of women who dared not to conform they might try new things.
Not wanting to completely cast social order aside, I feel I have the opportunity to communicate a different story about women through my actions. For example, I still want to respect Cambodian culture, but also challenge myself and others to better understand this culture.
Perhaps I will never wear shorts to work, but I might join in a game of football and show how a woman can still be a woman and be athletic. In time, I would like to earn social approval as a woman but also suggest to those around me that women can still be respectable and do something different. E-mail to a friend
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