I recently visited Cambodia and received foreign travel’s twin satisfactions: a deeper appreciation for others and a sharpened perspective on my own country’s strengths and flaws. I also snagged this souvenir T-shirt whose cryptic puzzle leaves me wondering how we are actually the same and how we are different.
Cambodia is littered with people wearing the same T-shirt. Locals wear it; ex-pats wear it; children and adults wear it. White block letters spell out SAME SAME on the front, BUT DIFFERENT on the back. My daughter Abby, a Peace Corps volunteer, says its based on a Khmer phrase. The SAME SAME part makes sense, Cambodia’s one of the most ethnically homogenous counties on earth. BUT DIFFERENT upends my perceptions of a place where people look so similar and are famously compliant.
The physical stuff – what people see – is easy to categorize. We’re all mammals, all humans, but we come in different heights and widths, ages and genders. Like snowflakes, people are easy to identify though no two look alike.
It’s our ethnic and cultural affiliations – how people see themselves – that are more challenging.
The Harvard Institute of Economic Research created a cool map that illustrates the homogenous / heterogeneous range of every country on earth. The researchers didn’t ask people to describe others; they asked people to describe themselves. The closer someone’s answer matched their neighbor, the more homogenous the community. Disparate responses within the same country indicated heterogeneity.
According to this map, Japan is the most homogenous nation on earth; the countries in Central Africa, where tribal identities still run strong, are the most heterogeneous. Cambodia is high on the homogenous scale, a poor nation with a long history of racial and cultural continuity but few immigrants. SAME SAME. The United States is dead center in the homogeneous / heterogeneous spectrum. That may seem odd, since we come from all over the world and look so different. Yet Americans are not as diverse as we look because ethnicity is a social construct based on perceptions rather than physical traits. Although U.S. residents look more different than people from many countries, the more we identify ourselves simply as American, the less our skin color, food preferences, or grandparents’ country of origin define our ethnicity. Our SAME SAME is that we’re American. (Although I wish we could find another term to describe us, since most people from the Americas do not live in the United States).
BUT DIFFERENT seems self-evident; the polyglot of cultures that intersect in the United States is unmatched. Yet, diversity doesn’t differentiate Americans so much as it defines us. The United States is not roast beef or empanadas or rice or chocolate, it’s roast beef and empanadas and rice and chocolate. One reason the rest of the world emulates us is that everyone can find something to like – and dislike – about the U.S. Our cornucopia of identities feeds our penchant to label everyone. We’re not only black or white, rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight; we’re Afro-American or Irish-American, 1 percent or 99 percent, Gen X or Greatest Generation, queer or metrosexual. We carve ourselves into unique identities. I find it exhausting.
Such fractional labels are less common in Cambodia. I’m sure the same range of traits exists, and provides gossip fodder among the garment-working majority. But fixating on labels that divide is a pastime for the affluent. Poor people must rely on each other, and are less inclined to fuel the friction of accentuating differences.
My T-shirt with its lettering on front and back, has taken on two different meanings for me. In the Eastern hemisphere SAME SAME proclaims Cambodia’s cultural glue; BUT DIFFERENT acknowledges human variation and accepts it with a shrug. In the West, SAME SAME acknowledges genetic similarities; BUT DIFFERENT proclaims each person’s self-definition.