Blog Post

Ingenuity in Cross-Cultural Communication

KEP and PHNOM PENH—It never ceases to amaze me how ingenious many Cambodians are when confronted with a deaf tourist.

The first time I traveled alone in Cambodia, I quickly learned to point to my ears and use the Khmer gesture for “not have,” a five-fingered rocking of the hands in a position that resembles how doctors on television hold up their hands to be gloved. When I use this gesture, it signals to the other person—a tuk-tuk driver, a vendor at the market, or a waiter—that it is time to put aside verbal speech and use visual communication.

Gestures and Pointing Gets Message Across

On a warm morning, a friend and I walked near the royal palace, stepping up and down from 10-inch-high curbs, weaving between the cars and motorcycles parked on the cracked sidewalk, conversing in American Sign Language (ASL). As we approached the corner of the palace, a man noticed that we were looking at each other and signing, and he waved to get our attention. He then pointed to a tuk-tuk and made a gesture with both of his hands, twisting them as if he was accelerating a motorcycle. This just happens to be the ASL and Cambodian Sign Language (CSL) sign for motorcycle, so he had unintentionally made himself crystal clear.

We shook our heads, smiled, and pointed to the palace. He widened his eyes, raised his forearms and crossed them in an X, shaking his head. He pointed to his watch. Sherrette and I looked at each other, wondering if he was telling us that the palace was closed. As we drew closer, he pointed at his watch again, then held up two fingers.

We thanked him and continued walking. When we passed the gates to the palace, we saw from the sign that it indeed was closing for lunch, as it was almost 11 a.m., and would reopen at 2 p.m.

Sherrette said, “You’re right! Look at what just happened!” The day before, I had told her a story about my landlord, describing how he had crouched to point out the magnet on my balcony, extended his arms in a sweeping motion, then with a grimace, slammed his hands together and traced cracks in the air with his hands to explain that if I didn't secure the door, the wind would slam it shut, shattering the glass. I explained that it was uncannily easy for me to communicate with non-signing people in Cambodia and how it seems that many people, especially those who work in the tourist trade, are more comfortable with using their bodies to communicate. We had speculated about why but without actual ethnographic data, we couldn’t settle on a satisfactory answer.

Handy Tuk-Tuk in Kep

In Kep, I stepped out of the hotel gates into the early morning, the cool yellow sunlight chasing the lingering dampness of last night’s ferocious drenching. The driver of a waiting tuk-tuk waved me over. My hotel had arranged for the tuk-tuk to take me to the pier to catch a boat to Rabbit Island for the day. I climbed into the carriage and settled in. The driver leaned in and said something. With a smile, I pointed at my ear and rocked my hands.

He withdrew his head, adjusted his cap and hitched his pants as he straddled his motorbike, and gunned the engine. We rode down an incline, passing abandoned modernist villas nestled in thick vines, vestiges of when Kep was a popular seaside destination for the elite of Cambodia—Khmer and French. In the distance, beyond the wooden buildings that house the famous Kep crab restaurants, black silhouettes of hatted women bent over bobbing crab traps, water at their knees undulating as waves rolled in.

After we arrived at the pier, the driver told me to wait in the tuk-tuk. He walked down to a spot on the pier where several wooden boats waited in the water, their turquoise and orange paint peeling and Cambodian flags fluttering. Next to the boats, a cluster of European tourists waited alongside hatted and scarfed Cambodian matriarchs, baskets of eggs and tied bundles of chicken at their feet.

I sat in the tuk-tuk, watching the driver talk to the boatmen, not really knowing what was happening. After I waited for what seemed like a long time, the driver returned. He stood by the tuk-tuk, writing laboriously on his palm with a ballpoint pen. I frowned, puzzled, until he held out his hand. Fascinated by the English words on his palm, complete sentences crowding each other, I held his hand by the fingers and read.

[@portabletext/react] Unknown block type "span", specify a component for it in the `components.types` prop

In sum, there was a problem with the boats. The water was rough after yesterday’s storm, so the boatmen were waiting for it to settle before crossing to the island. They would be ready to go soon, though. The driver asked me if I was staying overnight on the island, and when I said no, he said he would meet me at the pier to take me home after I returned.

Communication Is Patience and Creativity On Both Sides

I was impressed by the time and effort the tuk-tuk driver expended explaining the situation so I could understand what was happening. In my daily life as a deaf person in places other than Cambodia, this almost never happens. People, especially in cities and behind counters, are flustered and continue to speak in English, then become impatient and typically increase their volume, to no effect.

By no means has every encounter in Cambodia been easy. There have been two or three situations in which I had to struggle to be patient as the person before me looked at me with a dumbfounded expression and then dissolved into giggles at my performance. However, the moments when I impressed Sherrette by communicating without her assistance make up for these frustrations, especially when I have fluent transactions facilitated by pointing at maps, shaking heads, holding up fingers, and shrugging. When I do these things with the notoriously intractable tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh, we arrive exactly where we want to be.

Back to Top
About The National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 15,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content.

To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.