Tuesday, June 19, 2018


When the kids at church want to get my attention, they yell out, “Chuh” (rhymes with duh). When I asked my tutor about this word, he gave me a knowing smile and said, “It’s an English word!” I wondered what English word this could possibly be. Maybe it was short for churro? The real answer: teacher. Or more specifically, an accented version of the second syllable of teacher. While I could write a whole different blog post about Cambodians’ love for using, and sometimes humorously abbreviating, English words, today I want to unpack why I would be referred to as teacher in the first place.

In Cambodia, you mostly use titles to refer to people. Many of those titles come from family terms: parent, child, younger brother/sister, older brother/sister, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew. These can be used with people you are not related to, including people you’ve never met before, and are based on how old the person is. There are other titles, too, such as teacher (both chuh and a less anglicized version), doctor, sir, ma’am, boss, monk, and more.

These titles are not just for getting someone’s attention. They are spread throughout each sentence. Cambodians seldom use the word you. Instead, they just keep using the title. For example, a child might ask, “Would mother like me to get mother’s purse?” The mother would then probably respond with her own title, not the pronoun I, as in “Yes, mother wants mother’s purse, child.” It sounds clunky in English but perfectly normal in Khmer.

One can probe beneath the surface to find the cultural value that drives the need to call people (including oneself) by titles. So much of Cambodian culture and society is ordered around the concept of status. When you meet someone, you are supposed to assess the person’s social status, choose an appropriate title for them, and then give them the respect their status requires.

A picture of me being a chuh.
I once tried to tell a group of adult students for a short English class I taught to call me David. They squirmed uncomfortably and then proceeded to call me teacher. I wanted them to address me as a peer, but resistance was futile.

This concept of status is on my mind because I recently got into a situation where I underestimated the significance of status. I don't want to air the details of the situation here. I will only say that I had expectations of someone based on the idea that we were peers of the same status. That person had expectations of me based on the understanding that I was of a higher status because I am a foreigner who is wealthy compared to them. We found someone to help mediate the conflict, but I had to realize that my social relations in Cambodia are not governed by the same rules as they would be in the US. Trying to relate to everyone as an equal leads to misunderstandings. 

My first thought when I hear about status is that it shouldn’t be this way in the church. After all, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). At the same time, 1 Peter 5:5 says, “You who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” The Bible seems to allow for different statuses in at least some instances.

I recently preached from James 2, including the following verses: “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” How do I apply these verses in a culture where such favoritism, based on the higher status of rich people, is considered a given? My first instinct is to say that they should stop considering status at all. But I think that would be based more on my culture than on what the verse is actually communicating.

After all, there are benefits to living in a status-based society. There is often more respect for parents, elders, teachers, pastors, etc. But there are benefits to living in a more egalitarian society, too. There is, in theory, more respect for those who would otherwise be of lower status.

The answer, I suppose, is to find a balance. If, as in the above verses from James, a poor person is made to sit on the floor during a worship service, I will have to speak up. Status is no excuse for injustice. I can try to find ways to respect those of different statuses while showing that everyone has the same value in Jesus. I will embrace the space given in Cambodia to learn from our elders. And I will try to use the status that Cambodians give me, not for my own benefit, but to work for a more just society.

It is tricky to know what to do with status. Despite my best efforts, I assume I will continue to make mistakes along the way. However, I am convinced that the gospel challenges both the American and the Cambodian view of status and pushes us to look to Jesus for a better way to treat each other. It is a difficult thing to learn, but I believe it is well worth the effort. And I hope we all find—and of course give the proper status-based respect to—some chuhs to help us on the journey.