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Random Australians

5 Jun

I remember sitting in a café in my home town waiting to meet up with a friend a couple of days after returning from Cambodia. As I sat and waited for her I couldn’t help but notice how random Australians are. In the 10 minutes I was sitting there I overheard some older ladies who could have easily been the characters Prue and Trude (snobs) from the show Kath and Kim say “Oh just put it on the David Jones account darling”. I looked outside to see a young guy dressed in what I assumed was punk clothes (it could have been Emo or Goth. I still don’t know or care about the difference) pushing a pram, he was followed by what I can only describe as a Bogan wearing stubbies and a wife beater (I’m not really one for the political correctness). The one similarity is that they were all so white. If you knew me you would see the irony in this statement. To put it bluntly if you looked at me on a sunny day at the beach you would need to avert your eyes due to the sun reflecting off my skin. My shock only increased when I went to church with my mother. There’s nothing old white people love more than church you see. Buddhist temples are way more fun than listening to a bunch of old white people sing the same old songs in their tone deaf voices, and repeat the same old words in a monotone. For the next few weeks this theme of the sameness and randomness of Australians kept cropping up as I looked at my home from the outside. In Cambodia people don’t have genre identities to cling too. Most people wear jeans and t-shirts (despite the ridiculous heat) except for some of the older Khmer ladies who like to wear satin pyjamas. Pyjamas during the day? Basically it was my version of a fashion heaven.

Other things struck me about Australians. Why does everyone say we’re so friendly? Maybe compared to other Western Nations but compared to the rest of the world we’re as cold as Europe. One day I was walking to my friend’s house when a little kid getting out of a car with his mother smiled and waved at me. Being a common situation in Cambodia I didn’t think twice about stopping and talking to him. I was interrupted by his mother who said loudly “Come on Thomas. You don’t know that lady!” and she proceeded to drag him away from me whilst giving me an angry glare. When I got to my friend’s house she was greeted with “I hate Australia. I miss Cambodia!”
I began to grow resentment towards my home. To me Australia seemed materialistic, unfriendly, selfish, racist and above all, had completely lost sight of what was important. In developing countries people have nothing but life is always centred around family, friends and community. This resentment eventually faded but stirs up in me sometimes when I look at Australian attitudes towards issues such as refugees, climate change, or indigenous rights. When it comes to these bigger issues Australians ultimately think in terms of their back pocket. But why? After travelling in developing in countries you realise we have no reason to be selfish or to complain. It seems unfortunately that “everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy”. I still love Australians and when I travel it’s always the people I miss most. I think if more Australians did some volunteer work abroad or even at home we might be more of a compassionate nation. I wonder if I could run a campaign for Cambodian volunteer tourism. “Where the bloody hell are ya?” “Cambodiya!” ….hmmmm…it could work?

Reverse Layover Shock

11 May

I experienced many of the same feelings volunteering in Cambodia as I did on my exchange experience in Mexico. One of the main similarities was culture shock and reverse culture shock. When I first arrived into Mexico City I was overwhelmed and overtired. When I look back most of the people in the airport were actually quite friendly. But when I went to buy a phone so I could call my parents the girl at the counter was incredibly snobby and unhelpful. She refused to even try to understand my basic Spanish and made a joke about me to her friend in front of my face. At the time this was the biggest blow to me. For one, it made me incredibly insecure about my Spanish skills. I thought that if in the international airport of Mexico City a sales assistant didn’t speak English then what hope was there of anyone understanding me in the small city of Querétaro. However, as soon as I went to the bus station someone was more than willing to help me (Mexican men are more than happy to help out white foreign women!) and when I got the taxi from the bus station to my uni I had a great chat to the taxi driver in Spanglish and a bit of my confidence was restored.

Coming back to Australia I had reverse culture shock before I’d even got to Australia. Flying back after my amazing experience I had to go though LA airport (and I say HAD TO because anyone who’s flown through LAX knows it’s the worst airport ever). As I left México airport I chatted with people in the line and to airport staff. They were helpful, friendly and didn’t say anything about my bag being overweight. I helped the Mexicans next to me fill out their immigration forms on the plane while I reminisced about all the amazing experiences I had. Then I arrived at LAX and the nightmare began. When I tried to check in I was asked if I was given a green slip on arrival. I replied that I was not given one. The lady then explained I needed to go to immigration to get this green slip. I then went to go through custom. I was told I wasn’t allowed through without a boarding pass first. And so began my journey of walking around the maze of LAX trying to find a green slip. Nobody seemed to know what the rules about this green slip were. The icing on the LAX cake of crap was when a border security man screamed at me to put my flip flops through the x-ray. Being overtired and not aware that flip flops was an American word for thongs I apparently wore down his patience. I couldn’t help but think ‘If I got screamed at for not knowing one American word, imagine what happens to all the people who come through here who don’t speak English.’ I didn’t get that stupid green slip until I was just about to get on the plane and the hostess handed it to me in a blasé manner as if it didn’t matter at all. The whole time I was thinking ‘I just wanna go back to Mexico’. It’s strange how a culture so differnt from your own can become so much more comforting than one which is similar.

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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