Friday, January 7, 2011

Hmmm... rethinking my perspectives on "helping" the impoverished.

I'm in Cambodia for a course on conflict resolution and to conduct research on judicial and policy maker's perspectives on sex trafficking for the next few days. Excuse the overused cliche, but this experience in just the past six has been truly life changing. Not so much in that I have changed my path on 'what I want to do when I grow up' or who I am, but the ways in which it has affirmed the path I have chosen for my life (at least this incarnation) and the work that I hope to do. I have been profoundly moved and inspired by the experiences of the Cambodian people in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as disgustingly frustrated with the American and international community response to the genocide under Pol Pot.

My biggest take away so far is how prescriptive the Western perspective is on what needs to be done to help here. I was touring a slum community outside of Phnom Penh earlier this week and was blown away by how some of the NGO investments have actually created further problems in some ways. The example that stuck with me most was a housing project. An NGO (who shall remain nameless but rest assured that their logo was painted prominently on the houses)had built strips of row houses for families living in the area. Problem is, the houses are concrete with no windows, and have tin roofs. This is the cool season here right now, and everyday has been over 80. The heat of the summer cooks these houses. The houses that the community members built themselves are cooler, and ventilated. The NGO was certainly well intentioned (I hope)but it seems to me that the houses the community members built themselves were much more well suited to the way people actually need to live, as apposed to how the West thinks people need to live. It was a great reminder of the fact that just because something has been true in my experience does not mean that it is the same truth for the people I encounter. I so often approach my life thinking that my paradigm is the only perspective out there, and get confused/hurt/upset/angry when others fail to follow the path that I assume is the right one.

The other thing that has struck me was the resilience and the gratitude of the people I encountered. The kids there were just kids, and the women I met where working on NGO funded fair trade projects and seemed to be, if not happy, at least functional despite living in what most of us would consider sub-standard living conditions. I was playing with a few of the kids and was overwhelmed with gratitude to be able to interact with them- here I am, a college educated woman that will most likely bring my children up with the safety and comfort of a Western lifestyle, and three kids playing with a blow up tiger are reminding me that what really matters is having the opportunity to simply live in the moment. So much of my life has been spent planning for how to accomplish the next goal: if I get good grades in jr high I get into honors high school classes to get into a good college to get a good job to get a swanky house to get the right life to get the right people to admire me.

Living in the moment, one day at a time, is my goal for today. That and doing my best to find restaurants and rest stops with Western style toilets. I mean, hey, it's great to be having a paradigm shift and be challenging my assumptions and all, but really, I'm just not there yet with the squat toilets and all.

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