I was sitting with one bum cheek on the floor, my legs bent to my right so that both were together beside my hip with the soles pointing behind me, away from the monks. The pain of holding that position with hands pressed together in prayer-like fashion with head bowed was beginning to displace any sense of wonder or thrill at this new experience. Then without warning, my face began to be hit by water flicked by the monks. I had no idea of why this was happening but after two months in Cambodia, I was beginning to get used to not knowing what was going on.
After this Khmer New Year blessing, I realised that one of my Khmer colleagues had not participated in this and wondered by what luck he had extricated himself. It turned out that he had converted to Christianity and could thus absent himself. I wondered if the following year, I could do the same thing.
Afterwards, I thought that it was strange that coming from what is seen as a Christian country (the UK) and quite possibly a Christian myself, my colleagues had never thought it either inappropriate for me to participate or something that I wouldn’t want to take part in. Indeed, they appeared enthusiastic for me to participate.
Cambodia is largely homogenous in ethnicity, religion and culture, much more so than Australia. One of the first things to strike me about Australia was the number of white people speaking non-English languages in the street – Greek, Italian, German, Croat, Serb etc. There are also large communities of Vietnamese, Chinese, Africans and Indians. Australia is, to an extent, a country that is made up of people from other countries, giving it an opportunity to enjoy an array of cultures and celebration.
A friend’s workplace was having a celebration for Diwali as they have many Indian – Australian Hindus working there. However, it was re-branded “Culture Day” in an attempt to avoid offending anybody. Rather than being offended by celebrating a day of importance to his colleagues, my friend was more puzzled by thought that he would be offended. And of course, he was humoured that whilst it was now a nondescript “Culture Day”, his idea of wearing kilts and eating haggis didn’t fit with the vision of the organisers.
By denying the Diwali aspect of that day, we deny people the chance to wholly share the meaning and significance of Diwali, and people like my friend have less of an opportunity to learn about Diwali and the role it plays within the lives of Hindus. Rather than celebrating a culture, that decision was akin to hiding one.
At Christmas time, there are odd instances where people have avoided using the word Christmas so, instead, there are end-of-year office parties held and season’s greetings are given. Of course for many people, such as Chinese, South-East Asians and Jews, December is not the end of the year and in Melbourne, you could be greeting what feels like a new season every hour. The opportunity for Australia is to work out how it can embrace the differences that the various cultures have, rather than trying to ignore or hide them.
I think most find it tricky when trying to understand the government’s role; which religious/cultural occasions should be celebrated and recognised, and which should not? Should schools be closed for Diwali as well as for Christmas? However, government is not integral to whether we celebrate these events or not – we have the choice to do so by ourselves involving friends and neighbours if we choose. That is one of the good things about living in a democracy.
And in terms of those difficult questions that do arise, this is precisely why democracies were invented – to have those debates and make those decisions. If we try to avoid such questions by emptying events or customs of their cultural heritage and meaning, the loss is greater than the risk of offence. We lose the opportunity for people to share the different cultures with which we live. If we cannot share then it becomes much harder to understand and subsequently much harder for these cultures to live together.
As my second Khmer New Year approached (in April by the way), my colleagues were again enthusiastic for me to participate in the blessing by the monks. Even if I did not understand the blessing, I began to understand why they wanted me to participate. They wanted me to know about their culture, their history and their way of living so that we could be closer. Whilst sitting there, contorted and twisted with water being flicked onto my face, I felt genuinely lucky to be experiencing Khmer culture. I hope that Australia will afford me the same opportunities.