Saturday, March 16, 2013

Settling in

Last Monday, I could have ridden my bike to work just after dawn and had the hospital driver take me to a 9am meeting.  Instead, I decided to spend the early morning at home and take a tuk-tuk.  I called Bonar, the young man who moved me into my apartment back in October, for a ride.   After the fare was done, we pulled up in front of the main gate of the hospital where a plethora of motodup motorbike taxis, taxis, tuk tuk guys, fruit vendors and my favorite cafeteria style lunch lady hang out.

I handed him $4, twice the normal fare for my one-way trip to work and more than enough to compensate for his time and mileage.    His face dropped into an immediate display of disdain and displeasure.  “I went almost all the way to the airport and you pay me $10!”, he exclaimed.  I understood his confusion; even after getting directions from the NGO he’d overshot the turn had to backtrack a little.  He was totally out of his usual downtown zone.  He demanded more.  I debated about pulling out the map and showing him, but he was glowing red with anger and disappointment.

 We bantered back and forth an in awkward and illogical exchange created by by language difficulties.  I could feel the stares of the motodups on the street observing our verbal exchange.   I acquiesced with $5.  He looked at me with seething eyes and attempted obstinacy about refusing the money, but I made him take it.  “You’re not good,” he said with a final last word as he pulled away. Chin up, I walked into the main gate of the hospital, putting my badge over my head and contemplating erasing his name from my phone list.  I’m not sure if he felt that I violated his trust or that I was trying to take advantage of him.  Clearly, he felt disrespected.  I felt that I offered a fair fare in response to a demand what was so clearly out of range. My Phnom Penh honeymoon was over.

The contradictions and dualities of my life here are now even more glaringly apparent as I’ve received my first paycheck.  Every day, I face a choice between shopping at the street side outdoor market filled with guts and puddles or the super clean supermarket where the prices are higher and the uniformed clerks speak a little English.   I can eat dinner with M’dah at her cart across the street, where the dishes often feature an assortment of unidentified meat parts that have come from the determined use of a cleaver ($1.00) or make my way to the restaurant on the riverside with a menu, air conditioning and a china plate ($5.00+).   I can buy a local coffee, which the nice coffee lady in the stall will mix from a sludge of coffee liquid and a hefty dose of sweet milk in a plastic cup loaded with ice  (.75 cents)  or go to the western style coffee shop with Internet, a French press and a nice little while ceramic creamer ($2.50).  The tourists wander around dirty, pantless street toddlers riding an inflatable toy giraffe that their mother is trying to sell.  The pristine Lexus vehicles barge their way through traffic with street cart fruit vendors.  I’m doing my best to ride my bicycle to work as often as I can, yet the motodups who wait outside the hospital gate seem sad to see me doing so.  One offered a perspective one morning, “That means no money for me.”
The blogger said, "I paid her a dollar so that I could take her picture."
The blogger said, "I paid her a dollar so that I could take her picture."

I put together my first proposal budget and discovered that I’m making 150% more than the Cambodian doctors on staff and that this reality is commonly accepted.  I’m realizing that I don’t share much in common with my Western colleagues, who all have families and are all living in a Western-style townhouse development on the outskirts of town.   Nor do I share much with my Khmer colleagues who have their distinct relationships and language.  I’ve been working hard at learning, but I’m stuck in a Tarzan-like communication pattern that builds some positive points but largely makes me feel a little inadequate.

The routine of everyday work requires a commitment to so many other tasks: cultivating a wardrobe, cooking, fitting in exercise, meditation and looking out for the long haul.  I’m mustering a patience with the sometimes mundane and occasionally frustrating aspects of office life.  I’m formulating some goals on change management, trying not to worry about what I can’t control and realizing that being stressed out, ramped up and busy isn't accepted in this work culture.

I’m doing my best to be conscious and mindful of these grand contradictions.  I want to be generous but I can’t set a standard for routinely over-paying even though I have plenty of financial resources to do so.  (There is a routinely occurring thread on more than one expat email forum about this topic.)   I want to be kind but I can’t be too friendly.  I refuse to spend more of my salary on a western style apartment, but as the hot season approaches the thought of having some A/C in the night is tempting.   I have to be conscious to ration the evenings out both for my own mental energy and the savings account.

Each morning as I approach the waiting/triage area on the hospital doors, I try to slow down and breathe.  There are always patients waiting.  They arrive in tuktuk or in the back of a pickup truck, accompanied by family members after there is nowhere else to turn. They have postponed as long as they could, gone to pharmacies and bought counterfeit medicine, seen private doctors who charged a lot and weren't effective, spend their meager savings or exhausted any other of their limited options.  Every morning, I can feel their eyes staring at me and taking in the image of the privilege and wealth that my skin color and physical stature represent.

They have their perceptions of me and I have my own self-perception.  By working here on a full-time job, I’m forced to reconcile all the forces that exist in this sustained cross-cultural immersion.  The job ahead is to sift through all of this experience: feelings, information, opportunities.  Resolve my goals for my time here and take the small steps to integrate the conflicts that come from the very different levels of culture in the hospital:  the Western administration, the Cambodian medical professionals and the poverty and desperation of the patients as they arrive.  There’s a tangible shift from the freewheeling, on-the-edge financially mid-career adventurer to a more settled, steady and professional life.   Now, the real work of balancing begins.  Especially on the back of the motodup's bike on those days I take a taxi to work.

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