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A Birthday in The Village

Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

I was invited to a three year old’s birthday this past week in a village two hours outside of Phnom Penh. When they said it was a village they weren’t lying. It’s 45 kilometers from the city, five of which aren’t paved, across from a Buddhist Pagoda and down a narrow dirt path.

People in the provinces drive a bit crazier than people in the city but since there are fewer of them the driving it’s safer. Driving in Cambodia is a game of mass, momentum and bluffing. It’s also quite a bit like skiing in that you’re responsible for not hitting something in front of you but have no reason to care about what happens behind you.

In Cambodia a heavy truck can do whatever it wants, I’d be smashed like a bug if I hit it. But a collection of motorbikes together form a solid mass. Together with a group of bikes you’re just like any other car – heavy, fast, and damaging on collision. No one messes with you. So when traffic got bad I found a crowd and swarmed into it.

Motorcycle traffic in Phnom Penh.

On arrival family’s elderly patriarch was thrilled to see me and approached beaming, two thumbs up, excitedly yelling “barang!” (white person). We had never met before. We shook hands, he stared at me and grinned for a while, not saying much else. My khmer is about good enough to say “hello,” which I said, and “you’re a man,” which I avoided. I think he was just pumped that a white dude came to his grandson’s birthday party.

Seeing my camera he pulled out a piece of paper and insisted that I write down how much the camera cost. I was too embarassed to write the true cost, so I wrote $1,000.

The party didn’t really kick off, it just slowly built in momentum. Well dressed Cambodians and foreigners arrived and mingled as much as language would allow, uninvited local villagers poked around under the tables for aluminum cans go recycle, and slew of relatively unenthusiastic and unexplained other Cambodians sat under the house watching the whole thing.

The little one ran around in shiny oversized cobalt suit, dancing to the live music. The boy’s mother greeted people in a beautiful blue dress while his father ferried cases of beer on a motorbike from the local market.

Cattle saying hello. The most typical Cambodia picture I’ve taken. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

When you’re invited to a party you get a three piece invitation: a cover, an invitation with a map, and a small envelope for your gift. People here want cash and aren’t shy about it. It seems like the standard gift for a Cambodian to another Cambodian is $10 (one to three day’s wages), so my foreigner gift was $20.

When you give the gift old men from the local Buddhist pagoda accept the money, open the envelope, and write down exactly how much you gave in a public notebook that anyone can see. At first this struck me as rude and invasive. I want to give money but not make a big deal out of it – and I don’t like everyone at the party knowing how much I gave.

It got way dirtier than this. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

Men from the local pagoda writing down the amount of my gift. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.

On talking with my friend Det she explained that the written list is so that the family will later return the same gift to me. If I give $20 for their son’s birthday party they’ll give me $20 back when my son has a birthday.

In this way the money isn’t actually a gift but instead a obfuscated loan. Stay in good social standing, throw a party every once in a while, and the money will flow back to you. In that mindset of course I want them to write down how much I gave. A heavy gift will come back to me in the future.

We’ve disguised this tradition in the United States but it came to mind that most celebrations are actually a way of raising cash. They become a way of passing liquidity around the community regularly and enable us to make large purchases that we need. Of course we don’t tend to write gifts in an envelope, but even at the age of five I knew my grandfather was good for about 25 bucks and my grandmother was more generous.

We’ve made parties unbelievably expensive in the United States. If I recall correctly, early celebrity weddings raised the bar from just exchanging rings in a church. Now we need flowers, a procession, and $5,000 of photography. A wedding in the United States it could easily cost $25,000. From talking with brides you’re lucky to break even based on gifts from each of the attendants.

In the past the wedding might have cost a fifth of that and quadrupled it’s investment. Raising $25,000 for a newly wedded couple gives them liquidity they need to start a life together. In cash form that’s a down-payment on a house. With more social status and older couple the house already exists, so it’s becomes a bunch of. credit card debt and an excessively appointed kitchen instead.

Similarly, coming of age cemeronies are bigger in more religious groups: communion and barmitzvah could have raised enough money for a young person to start their own business in the past. Today I have no idea, I’ve never even attended one.

Finally, as I posted on Facebook, the end of the party was most fascinating to me. Cutting the cake felt like a well rehearsed ritual. The boy and his father walked over to the cake, were surrounded by firends, and sparklers were lit. After the sparklers burned out (an educated nod to fire control) the family and cake were doused in silly string. It was the most energetic moment I’ve seen in any party – even this one well outside the developed world – and it was fascinating to me. The image below is from that.

Cutting the cake. The boy and his father are doused in silly string. Srei Santhor Village, Cambodia.