Maryknoll lay missioner Maria Montello has just published her second children’s book, titled Why Not be Friends? It is another collaboration with Cambodian artist Huyno El, and this time the story is about bias and friendship:
In a small village there are two groups: the Khuans and the Khmingles. When the Khuans approach a Khmingle to play, they are rejected because of what are later recognized as small and insignificant differences. Through a process of self-reflection, the Khuans and the Khmingles are joined together in the sort of friendship which crosses the boundaries of difference. … A tale for the time.
In Cambodia, there are biases that are openly discussed and recognized as such even by a child. Those manifest themselves in people considering women/girls as inferior or looking down on people of color. However, Maria did not want the focus on those, so had the characters drawn in such a way that their sex is unclear and skin is of different colors. Rather, the story hints at the biases many Cambodians have that are quiet, are not considered reprehensible, and are simply assumed to be true. A child who reads/hears this book may not recognize them, but an adult will likely. Maria explains some details:
- “Khuan” is like “Yuan,” a derogatory word used to refer to Vietnamese who are the most discriminated-against group in Cambodia. “Khmingle” (in the Khmer version “Khming”) is like “Khmer,” the majority ethnic group (90 percent of the population).
- Noisy noodle eating is thought to be a bad cultural practice Cambodians ascribe to Chinese people here, who are disliked because of their increasing takeover of land and culture.
- Flat noses are seen as ugly, and people with narrow ones (e.g., foreigners) are considered more beautiful.
- Short fingernails is a mark of people who work with their hands (low class). Cambodian men and other Asians grow one long pinky nail to show they are white collar workers.
So, Maria explains, “The book is for children, certainly, but it is as much for their parents. There is nothing like the innocent question of a child (‘Why are short fingernails bad, Mommy?’) to catalyze self-reflection in an adult.”
While the details of Why Not Be Friends? parallel the biases that many Cambodians have, the easily understandable message is applicable to any community or country.
The hardcopy in Khmer is now on the shelves; and Maria has made this English video/slideshow version for friends, family and other English speakers.
Maria previously collaborated with Huyno El on a children’s book called The Gift, which celebrates all manner of gifts, including the gift that is a child with disabilities.