How to approach this topic? I don’t want to seem biased or make any harmful judgments. It is for this reason, (and procrastination) that I have taken so long to write this post.
The later part of my time in Hong Kong saw my culture shock diminish as I got used to the differences. However, in Cambodia (and very briefly Thailand), the culture shock I experienced was much more intense. While the Hong Kong’s shock lasted about a day and a half, Cambodia’s lasted two weeks—actually more, I am still not totally adjusted after three weeks, but it is significantly better now.
My first couple weeks here were a major struggle. I left from weather that was about 10˚F with very low humidity, and came to 95˚F with VERY high humidity. As someone who does not deal well with heat in the first place, this was difficult to deal with. However, I expected to have to battle heat, but I was not expecting the horrible humidity. Even just sitting in on my bed with a fan going full blast directly at me could not stop me from sweating. I woke up in a pool of my own perspiration every morning, assuming I actually got to sleep at all—which was not very often and never for long. Thinking straight was harder because it felt like my brain was melting. I told myself that I just needed to wait till my blood thinned out again and it would get better. But the feeling of constant filthiness (which will always make me grumpy), heat exhaustion, and dehydration broke me down that first week. This was largely in part because since it was my first week, I did not have any regular duties to perform to take my mind off of how uncomfortable and miserable I was. I just stewed in my desolation and had no relief.
Nothing here works well and everything is inefficient. In my three weeks so far, the power has gone out twice. Each time was for about 3 hours. As if it wasn’t bad enough when the power goes out, so do the fans and my laptop (I brought my old shitty one with a 5 minute battery life). It starts to get sweltering hot in the house, and with candles lit it becomes even worse. I was dripping sweat into my own meal during dinner. People are also working on Cambodian time. Every day they take a 3 hour lunch from 11-2. This is unbearable to me, coming from America where half the time I would work straight through my lunch. Appointments are the same way. I was waiting in the house for a carpenter to bring some bunk beds; he was due at 2 o’clock. 3:30 rolls by and still no sign of him. He finally shows up at 4, two hours late. It is like this with everyone.
On top of the weather, the whole area is extremely poor. Now this is sad and I am not trying to seem like some stuck up American and belittling the people for not having much, but while I walk around and get stared at all the time, I feel embarrassed. I cannot control where I was born, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Being stared at all the time makes it very awkward. Part of my internship is to go out to the poorest area of the district and interview families to determine their ability to run a business with as potential grant recipients. Therefore I see the worst of the worst situations. Some of the children out there have never seen a white person before and there were varying reactions. They ranged from terrified and running away, to grabbing my arms and legs and stroking my “pretty” white skin. It was very uncomfortable. This part didn’t surprise me too much, when my family and I were in Beijing, we were stared at constantly. I also thought I had seen poor neighborhoods before, but nothing compared to this. Even with the widespread poverty, everyone seems in good spirits and is timid, but friendly.
On a quick social structure and history tangent, I think that the Khmer Rouge Era really messed up all of the countryside as well as the country as a whole. The genocidal lunatics killed all of the people who had any sort of brainpower and sent everyone else into the countryside to become farmers. Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge leader) had some sort of deranged agrarian society dream, but instead of using the rice to feed his people, he sold it all to China in exchange for guns to fight the Vietnamese. I think that the reason the people in the countryside are so poor is because the repercussions from this time are still being felt to this day. People always remember the Holocaust and the havoc wreaked there, but this was almost as bad and took place 30 years closer to today.
But back to the topic, it was like I had died and gone to a burning hell. I was about to just quit and go home, I was so miserable. Thankfully, the group was planning a trip to Phnom Penh the first weekend I was there, so I had an escape. We went out and saw the children’s school that was turned into a political prison and torture camp. Then we went out to the Killing Fields where the Khmer Rouge held more prisoners and (obviously) killed them. Very uplifting stuff. On the way out to the Killing Fields, my friend Ollie and I stopped at an old military base where they have a bunch of guns that people can shoot. We both shot a clip from a AK-47 and then I fired off 100 rounds from an M60. I’m glad that we did this before seeing the Killing Fields because it was quite a downer and would feel very inappropriate to go shoot a bunch of machine guns. Granted, most of the victims were not killed by guns, but still.
After my first two weeks, things started to get much better. Four more volunteers came the next weekend: three really nice (and pretty) British girls and one 17 year old dweeb from Colorado who I would have to live in a tiny room with. This last week was very busy as I had to interview 14 more families and help administer business training to people who have already been selected to receive grants. Since I was so busy, and the house was livelier, I was able to keep my mind off of the heat and any other problems I was having. I also just stopped caring about being hot and sweaty all the time.
The other night I was talking to Kim and Charlotte, the local coordinators. They expressed how happy they were with my work here, the way I conduct myself, and the ease with which I have spent my time. It was by no means easy for me, but as local coordinators, they have enough problems so I did not want to add on to them by being a pain in the ass. I apparently have been the volunteer that has complained the least. They even jokingly said they want to steal my passport and kidnap me to make me stay. After my first week here they weren’t too sure I would make it as well as I did, but I overcame the adversity and made the best of my time here. It really makes me happy to hear this because I really was having a tough time and I wasn’t sure I was doing any good. Kim and Charlotte are good people. They work really hard under difficult circumstances and do good work here.
The day after tomorrow I will be heading back to the United States. The temperature is supposed to be -2˚ when I get back. Another 100˚ swing on the way back. I’ll be happy to not be sweating all the time. It will be sweet to go back to civilization and cool weather. But it will also be bitter that my journey is over and I will leave this place and probably not see any of these people for a long time (if ever again). I think that this experience has made me a better person in the end and I am glad that I fought through and didn’t give up after that first week. See you in a few days United States!