Cambodian Names

So, the French volunteer finally left Cambodia. Yes, finally. 😜 When she reads this, she’s going to curse me. 🤣 (check out our numerous funny moments together here.)

We call each other buddy because we hate/love each other so much (note, I put ‘hate’ first. 😜). We had so much fun together. I thought I would see her cry at the airport but well, all she did was… to fake it. Duh!

It was good to have her around. We laughed so much together.

I don’t know what else to say except that I am NOT going to miss her. 😜 If she is reading it now, I imagine she’ll be laughing and cursing me again. 😂

Before I saw her for her last dinner in Cambodia yesterday, she told me she had a lot of luggage. I couldn’t imagine how much she had. And then when I saw her at the restaurant (it’s a fine restaurant with a view of a lake/big pond), I finally understood. Her suitcase turned out to be 47kg (plus many other bags that she had with her). In the end, she had to pay extra for her overweight luggage and an extra box which she purchased on the spot because the airline didn’t accept a 47kg suitcase. The max they could accept was a 30kg one. It’s good for me to know it too because soon it will be my turn to leave Cambodia. But very fortunately I have osteopenia, so I don’t and I won’t carry a suitcase which is that heavy and that is also one of the many reasons why I have become a minimalist.

Guess what this is for? Are you sure you’re not smuggling a human, buddy? 😜

We said farewell to each other and nobody cried. That’s good. Because we know that we are going to see each other again wherever it will be. I wonder if I will roll my eyes when I see her again. 😜 Yeah yeah yeah, laugh and curse me again!! 😄

Anyway, enough space for her in my blog post. 😜


Let’s go back to my life in the college. Boring stuff?  Not even close.  I discovered something new this week. It has something to do with names in Cambodia and their culture.

For those of you who have come to this country and talked to the students, you may have heard the students calling you ‘teacher’ or ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ (it depends on your identity/status/age/gender, etc.). This week I told my students to stop calling me ‘Teacher’ because in the Western culture, you don’t call your teachers ‘Teachers’. That is very weird and strange.  Once, an American heard my students in the village saying, ‘Yes, teacher’ to me, he laughed. I told my students in the college to call me by my surname. Then I asked them about their surnames and their names, etc.. This was when I discovered something new about this country.

To illustrate, I use a diagram.

Let’s use Romeo’s family as an example.

First name = Romeo

Surname / Last name /  Family name = MONTAGUE (I use capital letters to indicate it’s a surname).

In western culture and in some Asian countries, this is what it looks like:

I use capital letters to indicate the surname.

We call them, Mr. MONTAGUE (for male), Mrs. MONTAGUE (for married female), Miss MONTAGUE (for younger single female), Ms MONTAGUE (for older single female). Ok, old and young are very subjective.  I’m not going to go in depth here.

However, if we put it in the context of Cambodia, it will look like this (Expats in Cambodia, make sure you know this):

Again, I use capital letters to indicate the surname. As you can see in the diagram, the first name of the ancestors from the paternal side will become the surname of the grandchildren.

Note: in Cambodia, the surname goes first and so in this example, Romeo should be called SAMUEL Romeo. This is similar to other Asian countries like China and Japan. That’s why my students in Hong Kong, China and Cambodia always confuse the surname as the first name. But I teach them a trick to remember it. It’s actually pretty easy.  Yeah, I use many tricks. Feel free to contact me for an online language course.

To supplement, if the first name of the grandfather is too long, they will only take the last part of the first name to make it the surname of their grandchildren.

I asked my colleague at dinner time for more information.

She said, ‘When the students call you “Teacher”, that means they respect you. If they call you by your name, that means they don’t respect you. It’s even worse if they call you by your surname because that means they are calling your grandfather’s first name and that’s very insulting.’

‘Really?’ I was very shocked because we all know in our culture, calling the others by their surname means you respect them and it’s also a formal way to address the other person, like Miss Montague / Mr. Montague / Mrs. Montague. And the word ‘Teacher’ is just a common noun in English. It’s like calling you ‘girl’, ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘bus’, ‘train’, ‘computer’, ‘phone’… and now, I have become a common noun… Er… 🤔 It’s a bit hard to accept.

‘So how can a surname in Cambodia be passed from one generation to another?’ I asked.

‘No, it doesn’t need to. Because the younger generations don’t need to remember my grandparents and great grandparents or our ancestors. They just need to remember me.’ She answered with a smile. But you will be forgotten along the way too…

‘So how can you prove that there is a relationship between you and your parents? How is it shown on your birth certificate?’ I asked.

‘The government officials will refer to our family book. This book records all the names of your family members.’  I started to imagine it to be like a very old thick book with brownish yellow nearly torn thin paper inside a hardcover, you know, like those ones that you can see in a law library.

My colleague said, ‘No. there is nothing special about it. It’s just a piece of paper with a list of names and it’s not thick at all… one or two pages.’ OK, my vivid imagination got shattered.

To elaborate more, she added, ‘there are two different books – one is the family book like the one I mentioned and the other one is the residence book. Also, let’s say, after you get married and if you’d like to move out with your spouse, you and your spouse will start a new family book. And your name will be removed from your parents’ family book. This is also for the purpose of census.’  Wow! That’s a very important document.  It sounds like it is even more important than the birth certificate.

‘Is it the convention that you use the first name of your grandfather’s instead of the surname?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ She answered.

‘Since when? Ancient times?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know but it started long time ago.’ She replied.

‘Then Thailand and Vietnam should have a similar convention then?’ I asked.  I was told a few times that the Khmer Empire was huge in the past. It covered some parts of Thailand and Vietnam.

‘I don’t know.’ She said. Actually, my students couldn’t answer this particular question too.

To my readers: which one do you adopt, the Cambodian way or the ‘Western’ way? Leave a comment below and let me know how it works in your country. Feel free to share this blog post with your friends, family and colleagues who want to come to or have business with Cambodia.

P.S. 1. I have decided, if the students want to call me ‘Teacher’, I will ask them to say that in Khmer. Otherwise, they need to call me by my surname (Miss xxx) in English. Yup, that is very subjective. 😉

P.S. 2. Cambodians also call the former US presidents as Obama, Clinton, Trump, etc.. And all of these are surnames. So…

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