The Things They Carried

Cambodia has taught me a lot. Maybe not necessarily directly, but this trip has been one where I have been challenged to think about what it means to live in poverty and how NGO structures and actions really work in the face of development. Between observations and frustrations, there are a couple things so far that I will carry with me back to the States. Some I knew but have really seen come to life, some became instant realizations, and some have come through the slow observation and learning process here in the motherland.

–          English is not universal. While many people attempt to learn English and the proliferation of English teaching schools in Cambodia has made it a growing language, it is still a massive undertaking to try and communicate on a level I am used to. Take it from me, knowing the language will make your life in a foreign country a million times easier, given you are attempting to stay/work there for extended amounts of time.

–          The emphasis on foreign language in the U.S. is a little pitiful. People in the U.S. take English speaking for granted and we somewhat expect other countries to try and speak English (the word hegemony comes to mind, but it’s a word I stray from because I hear it one too many times in school). Everyone at work really attempts to communicate with what little English they know, and it makes me feel bad that my Khmer isn’t better so that I can try and reciprocate the effort.

–          My Khmer is so bad. While I can understand SOME of what is being said around me (mostly, “he is Cambodian but can’t speak. He understands, but can’t speak”), it really is something I wish I tried harder at when I was little. (BUT I WAS SO LITTLE, CAN YOU BLAME ME FOR NOT WANTING TO LEARN!)

–          There is a lot more that goes into NGO work than “working with communities on projects”. Namely, grant writing, budgeting, and project proposals take up a lot of staff time.

–          HIV/AIDS is really losing support in counties where it has been somewhat of a success story, like Cambodia. This has left NGOs struggling to keep current projects afloat.

–          Money seems to be many NGOs and support organizations number one priority.

–          But many are really committed to trying to make a difference on whatever budget they have.

–          Not all NGOs are created equal.

–          USAID, the Millenium Development Goal, the World Bank, and other multinational institutions’ effects are truly felt through the NGO I work with. It really isn’t all just theory! These, however, aren’t necessarily seen as bad, but rather positive. Makes me wonder about the critical nature we take at Berkeley and whether that is truly what is thought. My guess is no.

–          There are serious tensions between Cambodian’s and their government. However, the sentiment of some of the people I’ve talked to is that there is little hope for any change power. But many remain hopeful the upcoming elections will bring some much needed balance.

–          So many Cambodians just want to leave the country and flee to places they see as more opportune. At the same time, there is a struggle to try and keep the Khmer culture alive after it was broken into shambles during the Pol Pot regime.

–          There is a serious need to address traffic laws and safety in Cambodia. It is important that people make it to work before they start dealing with other issues really.

–          You haven’t felt pollution until you ride around in Phnom Penh, where you can literally see the clouds of smoke, smog, and dust as you stroll along.

–          Cambodia really is not that big, but seems so large on a bike. Or without maintained roads. Or when cars go barely over 40.

–          A book is a man’s best friend.

–          My stomach isn’t as strong as I thought it was.

–          I now have a love/hate relationship with rain. In Berkeley, it’s all hate. In Cambodia, it’s all love. Except for the mosquitoes is brings along.

–          In the future, I will be making sacrifices in the name of the wind god, Fan.

As the half way point (ok a little more than that) passes me by, I thought I would reflect on my time here. This is what you got. Sorry?  



One thought on “The Things They Carried

  1. what a great post. i totally know what you mean. it’s difficult to work in a country where the government does not value your work, therefore, an NGO must carry out this work.. but how else can you operate without money? without paying staff? when we were in cambodia, the NGO we worked for paid staff “incentives” which is basically, extra pay, on top of a salary. so anytime the NGOs talked of cutting those incentives, workers felt like quitting and had no motivation (to provide quality AIDS/TB care). that’s the outcome when you live a country with a corrupt government. *sigh*

    keep practicing your khmer, chris, you can do it. i didn’t speak much khmer as a kid, i really began to speak more as a teenager after learning to read and write. don’t feel embarrassed and try your best. =)

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