Living Mission — When in Rome

Father Charles Dittmeier

There was a book — The Ugly American — popular when I was in high school. It was about U.S. diplomats who were not respected and were ineffective because of their disregard for local customs, language and practices. Sometimes I wonder if I come across as an ugly American in Cambodia when I am confronted with cultural ideas or practices that I disagree with. 

There is a popular saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and that saying often comes to mind when I am dealing with different cultural customs or practices in Cambodia. It is easy to be irritated or frustrated, maybe even offended, when people do things differently from the way I would do them, and I am forced to wonder if my unease is because of my attitude or because people are doing something that is actually wrong.

Some of the instances are relatively minor and I don’t give them much thought. Other practices are more significant, maybe even with serious consequences, and I have to ask myself if I can do things that I consider wrong, even if the rest of society does it.

An example of a minor frustration is the way Cambodians are taught to give a wai (a two-hands-together greeting in a prayerful gesture) when meeting someone of higher rank. It is equivalent to U.S. parents teaching their children to say “Yes, sir” or “Yes, maam” to grandparents and elders. But it jars me — because of my American upbringing with ideas of equality — when our housekeeper, going home at the end of the day, feels she needs to put down on the floor her lunch basket, the shoes she is carrying and the bundles she has in her arms to give me a wai if she chances to meet me as she is leaving. And I return her wai without putting down what I have in my hands.

Liturgy is another area where I feel frustrated. Good liturgy involving people is really important, but it has developed in some unfortunate ways in Cambodia after the church was reestablished at the end of the Pol Pot era. 

In a Cambodian Mass, too many parts are sung, and sung the same way in every Mass in every parish. The penitential rite can take two or three minutes. Then the full Psalm is sung in response to the first reading, instead of just a few verses as the church stipulates. Singing it can often take three to five minutes. When I plan Mass, I try to hue more closely to the liturgical norms and I am sure some wonder why my Mass isn’t like a “real” Mass.

Then there are traffic aberrations which are disturbing. In the Cambodian mind, traffic is supposed to cut through the corner gas station to avoid the light. It is perfectly acceptable to pull out in front of someone and cause the other driver to stop. Traffic can go both directions in both lanes. Red lights are optional, especially at night.

I try to give a good example by going to the corner to turn right. I am careful not to pull out in front of other vehicles. But sometimes when I stop for a red light, especially at night, I unconsciously brace myself to be rear-ended by those not stopping and expecting me not to stop also. 

I am often tempted to do things my way, the “right” way, but then I recall this is their country, their culture, their way of doing things, and I can’t insist on changes. 

The whole point of mission is to help people to find God in their lives and to live out the Gospel. We can challenge and offer new ways, but we also need to remember they didn’t ask us to come and we need to respect their choices and their freedom.

Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at

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