Guilty Pleasures

5 May

One of the things I found strange when volunteering overseas was the standard of living I had. Being accustomed to the uni student life of paying ridiculous Sydney rent prices and always looking for the cheapest food or bottle/box of wine, I felt like I was living the high life in Cambodia. They had every type of restaurant in Phnom Penh at decent prices. Getting around on a moto was less than a couple of dollars. We even had a cleaner who came to our apartment three times a week. This also allowed me to travel to Angkor Wat, to Kampot, and to the beautiful beaches in the South. I also spent a week in Vietnam during Christmas. In sickening contrast to this was the extreme poverty on the streets of Phnom Penh which I saw every day. To someone who doesn’t even have enough money to leave their town or city the idea of getting on a plane to come to another country seems ridiculous. I remember my sister telling me that when she worked in a school in Fiji her students gave her presents when she left and one of them asked her “Are you going to put them in your golden room?” That’s how far removed we seem from their world.

So when you walk past someone begging for money and you tell yourself you don’t have enough to spare it’s no wonder the guilt sets in. Some argue that it’s wrong to give money to people on the street as it encourages dependency. Even the organisation I worked for promoted this idea. At first I agreed with them and what first shocked me, I soon became desensitised to.

A defining moment for me was when I walked straight past a man with no legs dragging himself along the ground on a skateboard. My sister, who was horrified by this situation, stopped to give him money. At that moment I thought Wow. I think I just lost my humanity? It was then I questioned my theories on poverty. The whole ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime’ seems a little simplistic (especially when climate change is drying up many of the rivers!) What hope did that man have of getting a job? There certainly wasn’t enough government support or NGOs to help all of the people in Cambodia. I learnt that there is no perfect way to react to the poverty you see when you’re an outsider. What helped ease my guilt was my volunteer work, and interacting with the community. Cambodians are so friendly and always have a smile on their face. I never felt any resentment from them and I always had a great time chatting with them and playing with the kids.

There’s a buzz in Cambodia you don’t get here. Things are changing and people are excited about it. I don’t feel I made any lasting difference in Cambodia but I could see the social enterprise I was working for changing the lives of many Cambodian families. The change is slow but I hope that one day they will get the standard of living that they deserve; and if in some miniscule way I helped this change then I guess the guilt is worth it.

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3 Responses to “Guilty Pleasures”

  1. prupodum May 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    I like your defining moment, I felt like I had a similar one but I had become something more than apathetic and it had developed into a kind of agression
    – a young woman was following me in the street “madam, madam, please madam” (and putting her fingers to touch her mouth and then out towards me, and I was huffing and thinking “just because I’m foreign you assume I have money – I don’t work, I’m here volunteering, I scab from cafes for food at home!”
    but then it is all relative, and the person with me reminded me that I did in fact have “money”.
    I think I gave her my apple.

  2. palacar May 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    That feeling was constant for me too. I was with a large volunteer group and we would go out every single night to eat dinner in a fancy restaurant, something that would be totally impossible in Sydney –dinner would never be more than 5$. Your story also reminded me of how in Hanoi it was very common to see street vendors and there were some that were very young (the NGO I was working with, KOTO, actually caters for many of them) and it was really impressive to see how good their English was considering that they had never studied it and their best line was always to say, after they had tried everything else, “why are you so mean??”… that’s one skilled vendor!! I always thought (I bought a lot from them, by the way).

  3. angelenepenguin May 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    Wow this post really hit home for me too. In Peru, there would be street vendors and beggars everywhere. But we made it a point of bargaining about everything we bought even if it were just a difference of 1 sol which is like 30 cents. It would not have made any difference to us but our pride kicked in and we wouldn’t budge if they didn’t bargain with us because in our eyes, we were poor uni students. But for them, 1 sol makes the world of a difference. In retrospect, I feel so guilty, especially since I came back with spare soles that I can’t even use or exchange here. Perspective is so important.

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