Someone said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” The dress and appearance of a person automatically triggers an idea about what that person is going to say. When you see someone with tattoos all over his body what do you think? When you see someone wearing a nice business suit what do you think? Though we would never publically admit it (because we are trained to be politically correct) we will have very different responses to those two people based solely on their dress and appearance.
However, even appearances have meanings which are much different between Cambodia and America. Shorts are for wearing in the privacy of the home only and are associated with underwear. If worn in public they demonstrate a rebellious and arrogant attitude of the individual. (In the last few years young girls have started wearing shorts showing their legs in public in the city, however, most people view this as an act of “rebellion” among “promiscuous girls”.) Long sleeve shirts (White color) are worn for most occasions, especially funerals and all formal events. Tight clothing or “skimpy” clothing is a sign of a prostitute and an outcast in the society. Hats are always removed when near important people as a sign of respect. Hats are not worn necessarily for fashion, but keeping the sun off of one’s head. They are for common and poor people and should be removed as to not offend others in their presence. A foreign missionary must be very concerned about his attire as his clothing gives meaning. In America it would be perfectly normal to go walking in the forest with shorts, t-shirt and hat, but in Cambodia the minute you arrive in a village or see other people, the missionary will come across as very offensive and arrogant. Travel, even in the remote jungle, should always be done in proper dress clothes. (Torn and dirty clothes are not offensive to them as in the rural environment dirt, mud and torn clothes are expected)
The appearance of a person also has meaning to the Khmer people. Beards show dishonesty and deceit. A person with a beard cannot be trusted. Bald headed people are considered to be under a curse. Fat people are considered wealthy, while white skin is a sign of a privileged life style. Long hair for men is considered to be rebellious or insane while short hair for women is a sign of being cursed or infected with lice. Things which a missionary can change to be more presentable in regards to appearance should be done (i.e. shaving beards, keeping hair well kept).
In Asia you will observe that when on holiday, the clothes people wear are very nice. They consider it a privilege to wear nice clothes and will do so in public at nearly any occasion (including going to the beach). American’s love our individual expression of freedom and consider it a privilege to dress sloppily and casually at any time other then when we are being paid to wear nice clothes at a job. The result is many mission team members who come from the US look like vagrant backpackers far more than bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ. Even the dress and appearance of a person are cultural issues which must be considered in cross-cultural communication as well. Your appearance will affect your message!