“I’m not allowed to touch a man,” she said. “The fortune-teller told my mother that if I touched a man during the Year of the Dragon, she would die in a moto accident.” And then she took off her glasses and started crying.
We had met the previous night at an art show. She was in her mid-30s, seven or eight years older than me, a business owner living by herself. She had the air of a librarian, softly spoken and fiercely intelligent.
For the entire evening, I hadn’t been sure if I was being taken out on a date, or whether she was attempting to recruit me on behalf of her workplace. The conversation kept waving back and forth between the personal and the professional – I had wanted some clarity on how I should behave. After all, I had worn my least filthy pair of jeans for the occasion. So I had asked, in as delicate a way as I could, whether she was seeing someone.
Some apologies and hurried goodbyes later, I was at the usual Friday-night debrief among friends. Was she worried that if we pursued things, word would get back to her mother, who lived nearby? Had I overstepped the boundaries in asking about her love life so soon after meeting her? If I was looking for some kind of clarity from my fellow expats, I didn’t get it.
Sexual attitudes in this country are changing – at a pace that defies comprehension by most of the foreigners living here. Plenty of teenagers and young professionals in this city are beginning to eschew the sexual conservatism of their parents. Valentine’s Day, completely off the cultural radar three or four years ago, has taken on the tenor of a de facto public holiday. Number One condoms last week held promotional give-aways outside the City Mall.
Evidence for how blindsided people have been by this cultural shift can be seen in the hysterical response from authorities.
Six years ago, the government launched a crackdown on items deemed to demean Cambodian culture, including mini-skirts, dating agencies and smartphones. On Valentine’s Day this year, municipal police officers were instructed to spend their shifts cracking down on guesthouses renting rooms to raucous teens, with police chief Touch Naruth claiming the measure was necessary to “prevent anarchy”.
In this climate, it’s easy to forget that any shift in outlook always happens in fits and starts, and anyone here who does migrate to what might reasonably called a Western attitude to romance still has to contend with disapproving landlords and neighbourhood gossips.
My pseudo-date felt bound by fidelity to her parents’ traditions. When she regained her composure, she cursed the fact that she wasn’t 15 years younger, as if she believed that she was born too early in her society to reap the fruits of some impending sexual liberation.
If I’d been as forthright with her, I would’ve told her that we supposedly liberated Westerners take the cake when it comes to being neurotic about all things sexual. You should hear about what happened next — check in next week.
The Phnom Penh Post’s anonymous reporter offers his insights into all things dating and relationships every Wednesday: only in the Post.