Saturday, November 7, 2015

Life in Dog Years

“It took me a half an hour to psych myself up to get out of the house and buy milk for coffee!” Heloise  exclaimed as we talked over the lunch last week.  We were bemusing over expat transitions in recent weeks.  One mutual friend has rather suddenly decided to depart.  “She said she was done.” Heloise continued, pausing to take a moment to sip her mint, passion fruit,   and ice shake that was included in our $5 lunch set comprised of a copious bowl of fresh veggies, cold green noodles and a hard-boiled egg.

"Life here is in dog years!"  I giggled at my own joke.  Our departing mutual friend helped orient me in my early days in Phnom Penh three years ago. Goodbyes are becoming very tiring. Jerry Jones' terrific blog piece on looking closely at the Stayers, The Goers and the Newbies is very perceptive and relevant in expatriate life transitions.
Heloise and I laughed and commiserated some more on the fatigue of  life here: air pollution, poverty, general lack of access to decent health care, daily near-misses in traffic, frequent purse snatchings and dodging substandard food safety bullets.

While Phnom Penh is a pretty cushy expat posting, even US Embassy employees get hardship pay for being here. The stress can age you fast, or escalate passage of time. Without the comforts of competent house staff, something as simple as a broken curtain rod requires a whole series of navigational issues to replace. 

It’s no wonder I am happy to stay in routine. I've never moved out of my small and cheap “swimming pool” style apartment that has tile from the floor reaching 1 metre up every wall. I know the drivers in the hoods where I hang out.  I walk around the corner to get salad makings every Sunday. It’s relatively easy to get western groceries here, although most of the stores are now catering more to the Chinese market,  As a result,  there are now a proliferation of items with palm oil or some sketchy looking rendition of a knock-off of Western snack food on the shelves
As a foreigner that can't read Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Khmer or French, one does never really know what you are going to get from the package. You can’t really know that your mail from your mum will arrive. In most professional settings, the training and competence of any kind of service provider is circumspect. In a recent chat with a Californian working on a job site here, he relayed the story of a team of Cambodian laborers who dragged a safe across the owner's hardwood floor instead of just putting it on a rug and pulling it. Afterwards, the group kept their eyes to the floor, now gouged across the length of the living room, and shrugged,

 In some Khmer families and even with long time relationships here in Cambodia,  what comes from the person’s mouth does not often reflect their true motivation or feelings.  It is better to not say the truth.  In the past saying the truth could get you killed.  For foreigners, this can be draining context to navigate.
The office of Prime Minister Hun Sen (one of the  longest-running Prime Minister in the world)  just issued a directive that the Water Festival will be cancelled this year due to “concerns with drought and which requires us to gather our forces and all possible means to solve the problem of water shortages for rice fields in the dry season."

At the moment I read that, I was both disappointed and disgusted. Sure, I was looking forward to staying in town this year and taking it in, but I  knew he lied. Hun Sen was worried about crowds gathering in Phnom Penh.Recent days have seen a series of violent incidents with opposition party leaders being jailed, beaten and disparaged.  A young college student was convicted of treason for a Facebook post.   
While I don't mean to whine, I am a little concerned that I am losing my cheery sense of optimism. My energy has waned  after a rough few months on the health front.  Was it me being depressive?  Why was I tired all the time?  Why couldn't I believe that Cambodia, as a country, would overcome the great challenges ahead?  Was I losing the mojo that brought me to this part of the world?  Is it me or is it the work?

On Monday morning on the way through the waiting area to my 3rd floor office, there was a man  waiting for treatment in a wheelchair.  His destroyed foot poked out, elevated slightly.   I walked by quickly, taking a quick assessment of his face and his foot. It wasn't bleeding,  It didn't seem rotten, but there were chunks of flesh missing, perhaps revealing bone. He was older, looking at me, as many of the patients do, with eyes that are both blank and pleading, appreciative and weary.

As Mary Calahane writes in her blog post Your Work or Your Life, the people laboring in the grassroots of the NGO sector already have a reputation for living with overburdened workloads and staggering need. Fundraisers have a constant state of obligation, feeling  responsible for generating resources for services and salaries.. Then there is the lingering sense of inequity;  my salary is high within the organizationI k now I'm worth it, but it doesn't help the mitigate the obligation to perform.  In the expat context, workers can achieve the fourth dimension of potential burnout. They need to not  only fiqure out what to do now, but how to invest in the local staff capacity for the future.

As need to hear that again. Remembering that my deck of cards and they way that they have been played has generated the opportunity to learn,grow, experience. When the current play is tiring, that you can wait it out and for the dealer to shuffle a new set of cards for the next game.

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