Rampant Injustice

In the last week I have decided that there are two kinds of injustice. Obviously, this is pretty reductionist, and feel free to contradict me-- but first, hear me out. The first kind is Big Injustice: poverty, racism, sexism, genocide... the big ticket items. The second type is personal injustice: things that happen to us that don't seem fair. You may be thinking, "well clearly we're in a battle against Big Injustice, Kate. The little things are just bumps in the road. Unfair, but you know, in the face of Big Injustice, the little things are just an annoyance." Right, well, that line of thinking makes you a better person than me. Why? Because last week, I found myself pretty annoyed by all those little things, and a big one, too.

To start with, my home internet connection died without any explanation last Friday night. Poof, gone. Internet is a luxury item, I keep reminding myself, but it doesn't help soothe my irritation when it was nearly a week and we were still attempting to reconfigure the wireless router without the aid of a technician or anyone who has a clue what they are doing. Power outages compounded the problem, as twenty minutes before the tech was supposed to arrive, we lost the electricity, and it stayed off for 6 hours. This doesn't really count as injustice, unless you count random power outages and surges as such, but it is something that's unfair.

The second injustice, again, of the personal variety, we discovered last Saturday. A can of Pringles went missing. Then, on Sunday, we attempted to eat some snacks that Deanna carried back from her recent trip to the US. We found the box torn open (not neatly!) and half the cakes gone! My landlords (or, more likely, their grandchildren) must have come into my house through the connecting door--which, until I recently realized it was somewhat of a hazard in case of an emergency, was locked-- and opened our treats. Again, snack food is not on par with stealing someone's home, possessions, or freedom. It does, however, reveal that my neighbors are not to be trusted. And it makes me feel cheated, and resentful, grappling with how to address the issue without stepping over some invisible cultural boundary.

Lastly, the big ticket item (literally). I was pulled over by the traffic police last weekend, with a truckload of volunteers in tow. To be fair, I did go through an intersection just as the light turned red, as the left turn arrow began to turn green, and along with a few motorbikes. Of course, in my decision-making to go (versus to stop and have volunteers fly around the back of the truck), I failed to factor in that this is a known hang-out for the police. I pulled over, showed the officer my licencse while requesting that he give it back (sometimes they make you pay) and we started our negotiations.

The initial offer: 3 days of traffic school, for the foreigner.* Unless, of course, we can compromise (read: come to some agreement on how much money I will pay him).

The compromise: $20.00

My counter-offer: 5,000 riel (approx. $1.25)

Second offer: $10.00

My counter: 10,000 riel (approx. $2.50), or go ahead and write the ticket.

His reply: Fine, $5.00.

The end result: somewhere just over $4. (since I claimed I didn't have any money, despite carrying around a large cash advance for the visiting teams.)

*Note: every time he said "foreigner," I thought he was saying "for dinner," and could not figure out if I was being asked on a date, or for money to pay for his dinner. Either way, it was a no.

The whole thing was just annoying, since Phnom Penh is not known for its strict enforcement of traffic laws. In fact, we saw many people making the same move I had, just without the watchful (and greedy) eyes of the police on them.

This last incident, I think, is actually indicative of Big Injustice. It's no secret that Cambodia is corrupt, that the police do not do their job (and now I am evidence of that fact). Echoes of my mother's lectures on "civil societies" were sounding in my head after my run-in with the police. We obey the law because we anticipate that the penalties for not doing so are worse than the inconvenience of a red light. We obey the law because there are consequences, things that make it wrong to disobey. Here, the consequences are flexible, because the enforcers are not motivated or taught to be strict. Here, the consequences vary, based on who you are, how much money you have, on who else is available to take the fall. The worst part? This is the case from the lowest traffic offense all the way up to the highest, most public crimes. Just look at how long justice has been delayed in the Khmer Rouge tribunals. Nearly 30 years have passed, the perpetrators have died, and still the court system is only trying the case.

I know the US isn't perfect, I know that people are wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, that it is not an impartial system. In fact, I ran a red light in the US and got out of that ticket too. We live, though, with the expectation of justice, with the idea that when we are wronged, when others break the law, there will be a consequence. In the absence of that... well, snack food goes missing, and traffic is a mess, and eventually, somewhere along the line, there's poverty and genocide, and a host of other Big Injustices that are really hard to understand.

There's a spiritual parallel here, I'm sure, if we wanted to dig it out. "Justice is mine, says the Lord" and all of that. At the moment, I'm annoyed by injustice, big and small, wishing for things to be better, wondering if there was a way to fix it, and hoping I'll see change in my lifetime. I'm also humbled by my coworker, who when told the story of my neighbors and the snacks said, "well, just bless them. They will never get to try that food unless you bring it to them." Instantly, I felt like a jerk, whining about my lack of imported snacks. In the face of injustice, what else are we to do? We bless those who hurt us, turn the other cheek, and continue to fight for the poor, the oppressed, and for justice from the Lord.


New Normal

A friend of mine told me a few months ago that once I hit the one year mark, things would "just click into place." At the time, I was struggling with homesickness, wanting to be in two places at once, and just general discomfort with life in Cambodia. Needless to say, I didn't totally believe her.

Fast forward. I was driving down the road today, after taking some volunteers to visit one of our field projects. A year ago, I rode in the car on the way to Vietnam to take care of my visa. What a difference a year makes! It struck me today, as I cruised down the road, conversing with one of my favorite Cambodian staff members, that I finally feel comfortable in Cambodia. Click.

It's been hitting me in other ways, too. I'm performing a lot of the same tasks that I did for last year's ESL program. Yet this year, I'm so much more confident about decision-making, more able to do things on my own, answer questions, and just generally be in charge. In fact, I've started bragging to my colleagues about how I can do things without their help this year, and how relieved they must be. Click.

I still receive emails related to ongoing activities among the grad students at USC. For a year, it felt like my life was running on two tracks-- the one that I was living in Cambodia, and the one I might have been living in Los Angeles. Today was the first time I read one of those emails (literally, I usually delete them!), and felt like that life was really, truly, in the past, instead of an alternate reality to the one I am experiencing. Click.

As I'm examining how, well, normal it is for me to be in Cambodia, I'm shocked at how I can trace the simultaneous development of my emotions. I'm finally feeling like myself in Cambodia, though there have been glimmers along the way. Of course, I've changed and grown, but those essentials, the things I had forgotten, had put away in the midst of transition--important stuff, like confidence, extraversion, and a personality that I'm only now reacquainting myself with-- they are blooming again, as I'm able to be Kate. For so long I felt like "Kate who moved to Cambodia." Now I simply feel like "Kate, who lives in Cambodia." The subtle semantics of that sentence, and even that little comma, are somehow important to me, to how I feel about my life here.

I've heard--and whether it's true or not, who knows-- that the worst part of grief for someone we've lost fades after a year and a bit. There's a lingering sadness, but it's the year (and that extra bit) which is necessary for our world to settle into a new kind of normal. Maybe I've been grieving for the loss of my own former life, maybe that's a lie. Sure, it's still hard, there are things I don't understand, don't like, and really miss about the U.S. I expect those things now, have learned to live with the twinge that accompanies hearing about something I've missed, the pang of homesickness that comes at odd hours, and can roll my eyes and shrug at the things I'll never understand about Cambodia.

I've come to think of it a bit like a puzzle. Where there was only a blank space, slowly something is taking shape. The pieces are falling into place-- communication, understanding, comfort. As they snap into the frame, the picture of who I am and who I am in Cambodia begins to look less distinct, more intertwined and, ultimately, more exciting. Click.


Horseback Riding

Many of you already know that "summer" in Cambodia means the start of our English as a Second Language (ESL) program. This year (as was the case last year), I'm coordinating the program, which runs for 8 weeks and will see about 80 students and 40 or so volunteer teachers take part. It is, for lack of a better phrase, a ton of work. Hence any short updates, lack of email response or craziness you hear from my general direction. It's not you, it's me.

Setting up the program was interesting this year, as it involved extending our curriculum (through the help of a wonderful volunteer), and about 3 weeks before the start of classes, I realized a crucial error I had made. I had no curriculum for 3 advanced classes. And so for 2 weeks, I wrote and revised what I hope is an adequate curriculum for the students. We'll see. So far, so good. Yet even as these classes are just beginning, I'm already thinking ahead, of what could go better, of what needs to be changed.

Today, while checking my gmail account, I noticed the targeted advertising on the side. Nearly all of it concerned ESL. The first one caught my eye: ESL Summer Camp! The ad went on to read: "Learn English on a Canadian ranch. Horseback riding and outdoor fun!" My first thought: That's what our program is missing. Horses!

So here's my question: how might it even be possible to combine Canadian ranching with English lessons? I'm glad I'm not in charge of that program.


Linguistic Foibles

Until 1953, Cambodia was a French colony. The French left a lot of things behind in Cambodia-- some not so great, in fact-- and one remainder is a bit of the language. Some older Cambodians still speak French, though many French speakers were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime's brutal genocide in the 1970's.

For my part, I spent four years in high school learning French. I never really used it outside of school, nor after I graduated (eight years ago now). While I've been trying to learn Khmer, the impulse to throw in a French word that I do know is sometimes overwhelming. I'm always tempted to ask for things at a restaurant and then toss in a s'il vous plait at the end. It's nice to know the language center in my brain is alive and well.

So all of this leads to a funny story. My apartment is on the second floor of a house, and the house is arranged in a kind of complex-- the homes are similar to townhouses, and arranged in two long rows, facing each other. This means that the neighbors all gather outside and know who each other is. I'm recognizable as the only foreigner, so I get lots of smiles and waves, especially from the kids. Recently, one of the other women in the complex was spending time with my landlords, and asked me (in Khmer) if I was French. I said no, I come from America.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, while my sister and brother were visiting, she approached us and began counting to 5-- in French. We humored her and I counted to 10 (some lessons last from high school, I guess!). Apparently this interaction has made us friends. She's also tried to speak to Deanna in French within the last week or so. Yesterday I was retrieving my motorbike from inside the house (where it's parked at night for safety) when she addressed me (she was sitting in the house with my elderly landlord, a very serious man who is a little weird). She began asking me questions (in Khmer) either about what month I came to Cambodia, or what province I came from in Cambodia (the words are similar, and without context, it's really tough to differentiate). I must have looked helplessly at the landlord, because he began to shake his head solemnly. Then, in a universal gesture, he pointed to his head, pointed to the woman, and frowned. I took this to mean, "She's crazy. Run away."

So, instead of doing what I wanted to do-- namely, laugh loudly at the whole situation and get my camera to capture a photo of his face-- I smiled, shrugged, walked my motorbike to the front of the house where Deanna was waiting to go to work, and related the story with glee.

I have no idea to say "crazy" in Khmer or French, but apparently I'm getting better at sign language.