French Fries and Free Thought in Cambodia

Fried tarantula! So tasty…

“And may I have a side of french fries?”

A simple request for a typical restaurant, but my teammate Josh asked it with a certain hesitance. We had been in Cambodia for two weeks and had begun to understand something about the business climate and culture, particularly in the service industry. Simple requests such as this were often met with confusion and fear on the part of our servers. As expected, our waiter panicked, said “So sorry,” and walked off before taking anyone else’s order.

We sat there and wondered if he would ever come back (he did) and whether a side of fries was actually a dish the restaurant, which plainly served fries with other foods, would be able to travel so far outside the culinary box as to make (they would). This pattern of semi-skilled labor being unable to make effective decisions on their own, or apply problem-solving logic to simple requests, was starting to look like a genuine hindrance to the country’s goals of becoming a Thailand-like vacation destination. Experiencing it ourselves, after many business owners we interviewed mentioned it as one of their greatest staffing challenges, brought into focus how important our project was to Cambodia’s growth.

Having been tasked with developing a feasibility study and implementation plan for a vocational school in Sihanoukville, a southern province of Cambodia, our group spoke with a number of hotel and restaurant proprietors to begin crafting a curriculum for a hospitality training program. More than anything, we were encouraged to train students on “soft skills” such as attitude, problem solving, and decision-making. Western proprietors were quick to point out that really, it’s not the fault of these people that they are hesitant to “think for themselves.” We were reminded that, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, all intellectuals (including all teachers) were systematically murdered. You were literally killed if you could think for yourself. The country’s first free elections were held in 1993, and many argue the first truly free elections were in 2002, when the elections were held at the commune level. As the country moves to rebuild its education system after years of civil war, they are rebuilding from scratch, and there simply isn’t a culture of free thought.

When our server returned and informed us that yes, she had checked with her manager and we could have a side of fries, we were grateful for a little salty American cuisine. The incident stood out in our minds, however, as a great example of how IBD was helping to impact the world. Hopefully, a few years from now when our foundation’s school is up and running, we can return and order sides to our hearts’ content.

—Blake Holland

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