It is hard to write a column about a gesture, in this case a gesture that lasts two seconds, but this gesture is one of the most important things to come out of my visit to Cambodia, so I’ll try.
The gesture is called sampeah. It consists of placing your hands together in a prayer-like position and bowing slightly. Used as both a greeting and a gesture of farewell, sampeah resembles gestures from other far-eastern cultures but, as our guide explained, it has Cambodian rules.
The pressure between the hands is softer in Cambodia than what I’ve seen in photos from other countries, and the fingers slightly relaxed. The resulting gesture simulates the shape of the budding lotus, a flower associated with peace, harmony and sacred practice in Cambodia.
To greet people of your own age and rank, you place your palms together at chest level, but as respect rises, so do your hands.
Elders should be greeted with your fingertips at mouth level, parents and teachers at nose level, and the king and monks at eyebrow level. Prayer to God or sacred statues should be preceded with sampeah at forehead level and a deeper bow.
When someone greets you with sampeah, you respond with sampeah, too.
I first regularly encountered sampeah in Siem Reap, the third largest city of Cambodia, which we visited in order to see the giant ancient temples at Angkor Wat.
Our hotel, the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra, was contemporary and met upscale tourist expectations. It had food to please the western palate, staff who spoke our language and accommodations that anyone would call comfortable.
But it was the detail about sampeah that fascinated me. Someone had clearly chosen to instruct the staff, all Cambodian, to greet us using their national gesture, not ours. Every time we approached the restaurant, met a waiter, or had a staff member hold a door open for us, that person would begin with sampeah.
Although I quickly learned to wait an extra second before saying “hello,” I didn’t copy the gesture at first. I was afraid I’d get my hands wrong. I know there are many Americans who make a sampeah-like gesture when greeting each other, perhaps learned from Buddhism, but I had never done it.
By the second day, however, I tried.
I found it magical. The two seconds it takes to put your hands together and nod also give you time to focus on the person you are greeting. It is impossible to be pre-emptory, dismissive or curt when you’re looking into someone’s eyes. Instead, you become mindful of the other person.
I would take the person in, see their smile and smile back. Most of the time I probably got the height of my hands wrong (I was older than everyone on staff. Where was I supposed to hold my hands?) but it didn’t matter. We had a moment of connection, and I liked it.
With time, I noticed subtleties, such as the fact that the gesture is performed more slowly in conditions of high respect (such as sampeah to a monk). I also observed that each person’s sampeah has subtle personal characteristics, meaning that sampeahs vary just like handshakes do.
When our group was taken to a temple for a blessing by Buddhist monks, we were instructed to use the most respectful level of sampeah and to sit, heads lowered, on the floor for several minutes. This felt surprisingly comfortable, not as if I were violating my own religious practice, but rather as if I was trying something new.
Three monks sat in front of us, chanting. At the end, when they showered us with handfuls of tiny jasmine buds, I indeed felt blessed.
Cambodia itself, however, has not been blessed. On the contrary, its recent history is horrifying, especially the genocide of 1975-79 that wiped out more than a quarter of the population. In recent years, Cambodia has begun to rise economically, despite a repressive government, as exemplified by our hotel.
Almost every staff member was younger than 30. These young people were born after the genocide and they are starting over, changing everything. They have learned English (and often French), and they know how to please tourists. They preserve their national gesture of greeting and teach it by example to us.
Every time I entered the hotel, I felt as if we were watching a people arise and take care of themselves. Their gesture of sampeah became emblematic for me of their grace and spirit.
I felt peace each time I put my hands gently together. I also picked up a sense of the pride of the person I was acknowledging. I felt welcomed and, at the same time, called to show respect. All that from two hands together.
A couple of weeks after I got home, I went to a memorial event in Davis attended by many elderly people. One of them was Pat Allen, a dear friend in her late 80s, a person I respect enormously but see infrequently.
When Pat walked in, we couldn’t talk because the ceremony was in progress, so we greeted each other with a smile, a nod and a silent mouthing of “hello.” And then, to my astonishment, my hands came together and I leaned forward in sampeah.
It just felt right.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org