The phrase is repeated to me almost daily, as I am frequently reminded of the time difference: not only the obvious twelve hour difference between our clocks, but the very different mindset behind the seconds, the minutes, and the hours. As an economist, I am all too familiar with the “time is money” adage. Business decisions are formatted into long-run and short-run goals. We recognize and consider opportunity cost, or the value of our alternatives. All of these are constrained by the same important concept: time. Time is huge factor in our decision making; it the most vital variable in our lives. “How long will it take?” “What time should I be there?” “How much will I make per hour?” Our days have been segmented into blocks since primary school: 7:55-8:10 Morning Announcements and Class Attendance, 8:15-9:05 Mathematics, 9:10-10:00 English, 10:05-10:55 Art, 11:00-11:50 History, 11:55-12:00 Bathroom Break, 12:05-12:35 Lunch, 12:40-1:10 Recess…. You get the idea. We are a people regimented by the clock, with events being components of time.
Enter Cambodia, where market stalls seem to be open from daybreak to well past sunset. Men routinely lounge about in hammocks come noon. Tuk tuk drivers negotiate fares based on the distance, uphill or downhill, traveled not whether it takes half a day to get there. Hardly anyone “clocks in” when they come to work. There is no overtime pay rate. It is not uncommon to spend an hour or more waiting for your order to come up in a restaurant. Here, time is not a commodity which can be spent, wasted, saved or given. Time cannot be easily converted into money, nor can the conversion be precisely quantified. Take, for example, a street-side fruit vendor. She may earn $2 for the day or she may earn $10. The number of hours she spent trying to sell her crops is irrelevant; the concept of an hourly wage would be completely alien
to her. She either sold lots of mangosteens or only a few. For Cambodians, time does not exist as an entity in itself; it is not imposed upon them. Rather, time is created. Daily life is made up of events, with time being a component of those events.
Differing religious backgrounds may factor into these contrasting cultural perceptions of time. Judeo-Christian societies understand time as linear or directional. It began with the creation of the world and it will advance until the second coming of the Messiah. In our mind’s eye, we view events chronologically and place them on a timeline. In Buddhist Cambodia, the human experience is cyclical, bound by the concept of samsara–the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Time is a spiral; it moves around and around with no definitive beginning or ending.
Not better, not worse, just different.
As always, please feel free to comment.