One chopstick is easily broken, but a bunch of chopsticks is not easily broken.
This is a Chinese proverb. And I’d never heard of it until my colleague, we’ll call her Tina, told me about it yesterday. She gave me a rare glimpse into the mysterious GenY Cambodian mind. It was inspiring. After my latest post on the Khmer Riche article, I certainly needed a pick me up.
And while my chat with her didn’t solve the world’s problems, it gave me some clarity about why things are the way they are in Cambodia.
From the moment they were born, Cambodian kids are told to “keep a narrow mouth”, Tina told me. When you think about it, middle-aged Cambodian moms and dads today were the ones who lived through the horrors of the Pol Pot Regime. They knew what happened when you opened your mouth. You got killed. And you watched other people die. And you lived in constant terror of death.
Tina thinks that whole generation, her mother and father included, were traumatized and never really dealt with it. So they went deathly quiet instead. They narrowed their mouths to a miniscule slit especially on matters of politics and corruption. I must say I can’t blame them. They were after all, literally scared speechless.
But what do you get now? A paralyzed nation. A whole host of people who don’t like the status quo but know how true that Chinese proverb really is – one chopstick is easily broken. And single chopsticks have been broken in this country time and time again. Arrests, assassinations, worse.
Of course I asked Tina why she couldn’t go out and find the other chopsticks who feel the same way (classic Canadian idea of freedom of association). She said it’s simply too hard to discern who thinks the same way – especially when all the other people her age have grown up with the same teaching. Keep a narrow mouth. And things continue in the same vein they have for the past 3 decades.
It makes me wonder about this nation. I wonder what it will take to really bring lasting change. With all these lonesome chopsticks rendered speechless from fear, how will they ever find one another and become a mass that is impossible to break?
So no. Tina and I did not solve Cambodia’s nor the world’s problems. But I sure began to understand this country a little better. And the fact that she even spoke to me about all these things was enough to hope.