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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson - Page 2

Written by Kristen Hamill
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"From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster. Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing."


On a lighter note, I was shocked and weirded out to see that my male colleagues had beautifully manicured, long fingernails and exquisite hands. The reason for this is to show your class. If you have beautiful hands, then people know that you’re not out in the fields farming rice all day. I found it most strange and unsettling to see so many men with long (sometimes an inch long!) fingernails.

Another thing that was incredibly hard to get used to was the traffic. On a two-way street, you’ll see traffic going in four directions, so learning to ride my bicycle around town was a horrifying albeit character-building experience. People use their horn not to yell at you for doing something stupid, but rather to let you know that they are behind you. I’d be riding along, focusing on the road, and then all of the sudden, it seemed as though people would sneak up behind me, BEEEEEEEP, scare the bajesus out of me and then pass me.

Another huge cultural issue is that of face, which means that there is an expectation that no one should do anything to compromise or damage the image that another person tries to project of herself. As a strong-willed American woman who was anxious to work and be effective, I frequently encountered resistance by my colleagues who were intimidated and often times would tell me that they would do things without ever intending to do them. I also did not understand that my role as a foreign woman was to submit to the demands of my boss, a 5’ tall Cambodian Napoleon who assumed that I would allow myself to remain under his thumb. Because he had to save face in front of me, he could not tell me to stop taking initiative because then he would have had to admit that his management skills were insufficient. Face was something that I had to figure out on my own.

INTRAVEL: How did people perceive you and the work you were doing?

I was working with university students – young people between 18-23 years old. I think that the majority of my students were afraid of me. We spoke a word here and there of Khmer — I took Khmer lessons and tried to speak in Khmer whenever I could, but my language skills weren’t up to their level in English — but for the most part we communicated in English. Cambodians are incredibly shy and afraid of being wrong or embarrassing themselves in front of their peers. Also, Cambodians show an unbelievable amount of respect to their superiors. Most of these students saw me as their teacher, creating a weird power structure whereby I was given total authority, but could not solicit much action on the part of the students due to their lack of understanding or fear of failure.

After a few months, I realized that I needed one of their peers to do my job, so I took it upon myself to designate one of the students, who was interested in improving her English and learning about environmental issues, as our group facilitator. She did an excellent job organizing her peers in activities that interested them. And we did manage to have some fun. Cambodians love to laugh and be silly. I gladly learned their dances, games and songs in order to try to break down some of the walls that existed between us.

Also, in Cambodian culture, children are very infrequently empowered to do things. Parents are more likely to tell them “no” than “yes” when they ask for permission to learn or try new things, particularly for girls. It is very possible that I could have been one of the first people to ever ask them to do something and to tell them in a very direct and clear manner, “You can do this and you will do this.” I refused to accept the phrase, “Ooo, Miss Lauren, cannot – too difficult!” and I’m sure that I lost some of the students after being too demanding.

At the end of my stint with this organization, I attended an event put on by my intern that was designed to be a public educational show on plastics. Through a skit, a recycled art competition, a trash fashion show and a musical demonstration with recycled percussion instruments, these young people publicly demonstrated what they had learned in an effort to show other people how they can do something positive for themselves and the environment by limiting plastics in their life.

INTRAVEL: Living for any length of time overseas, especially in a third world country, comes with its highs and lows.  What were some of yours?

I experienced them every day. From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster.

On the one hand, I absolutely loved learning about Cambodian culture, history and politics. On the other hand, these topics were incredibly depressing, all the more so considering the potentially catastrophic consequences that the country could endure if current “development” projects relating to land reform and extractive industries continue at the current pace. Since I worked with these subjects on a daily basis, I was constantly reminded of the future that this country could face sooner rather than later.


(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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