Spending time in Bangkok over Pchum Ben – my first visit to somewhere that could be reasonably described as a modern city thisx year – was oddly refreshing for a city that is commonly seen as a magnet for debauchery. The novelty that struck me was the overt public display of affection: I saw so many Thai teen couples around Sukhumvit Road holding hands and sauntering through the shops together, engaging with all the overwrought, exciting feelings that teenage romance entails.
That doesn’t happen here, and seeing it was a salient reminder that, to Western eyes, Phnom Penh is an incredibly weird city. The only insights the average foreigner get into the romantic lives of the youth come from couples sitting in the park on the weekend evenings, the most daring of them all perhaps chancing an arm around their partner’s shoulder.
I have no desire to watch teenagers grope each other. The proximity to teenagers who think that the modern social contract entitles them to a voyage to second or third base in a public place was one of the most regularly unpleasant things about my train line back home. But I still chafe at how the an aversion to public affection has proved itself to be one of the most contagious taboos in this city.
The first couple of expats I was involved with here bristled every time I tried to take their hand in public. I found this absurd mainly for the situations in which my hand was knocked back. Some-times we’d be walking out of a house, one of us still wearing the same clothes as the night before. On other occasions we’d just emerged from doing disgraceful things to each other in an expat bar, as if these little foreign enclaves were embassies where the outside laws of decorum didn’t apply.
But by the time of my most recent relationship, I too had internalised the same reservations, something I now regret. The last girl I was involved with had every right to be miffed with me for refusing to hold her hand while we walked down her street. I thought I was doing it for her benefit. In hindsight, it feels absolutely idiotic. I now know that when coming from an upbringing where it’s an implicit part of a relationship’s evolution, people who deliberately shun public affection make it more difficult for their partner to gauge the health of a relationship and the esteem in which they’re held, which will only cause problems down the line.
This is not a clarion call to disregard the opinions of Cambodians, but balance between individual will and community expectations needn’t be so far weighted toward the latter for Westerners. The younger generation in this city have enough exposure to the outside world to know that different attitudes to sex and love prevail in other cultures. It’s amazing how, in the rush to politely ape another culture, outsiders work themselves into such a tizzy that they learn nothing.
Every Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Post’s anonymous reporter offers his perspective on dating and relationships.