Pandemic Pandemonium

Epidemiology was not my college major. The closest I got to the study of medicine was a psychology class I took in one of the med school buildings. And while I am trying to become a "doctor," the closest I got to "coding" was training people to watch movies. Not exactly a life-or-death activity.

Then I moved to Cambodia and began working with a relief and development organization whose main emphasis is (after supporting the church): health education. This means I hear a lot about preventing treatable diseases, transmission of AIDS and childhood vaccination. I even have to tell people about some of the health problems in Cambodia and occasionally provide advice on what medicines to take when volunteers come down with some minor illness. As far as medical care goes, this is pretty much as far down the road as I want to go.

But the whole world is up in arms over swine flu (and rightly so, I say), and I now live in a place just poised for a scene from the movie "Outbreak." People live in close quarters, they spit on the ground, they stand close to you, and "clean" is a word we use to mean "relatively safe to touch." My whole approach to germs has changed, from "eradicate" to "stave off as long as possible." And while swine flu hasn't yet arrived on our doorstep, as an organization that thinks about these sorts of health problems, we have to do things like prepare.

So today I learned where the TamiFlu is, and that we have 500 medical kits (gloves, masks, etc.) to use when giving someone the treatment. I know things like when the fever appears, and how many days the swine flu cycle is, and somehow, I am trying to do things like wash my hands often and avoid excessive germiness.

Sometimes I forget that things here are different than the places where I used to live. And then there are the days when it all comes rushing back to me. Today is one of those days.


Decision Making

I had a conversation today about the way decisions are made sometimes in Cambodia. Not big decisions, obviously, but the small ones, such as who goes first when playing a game. I think sometimes that even those little things tell a lot about a culture. Cambodians, like Americans, use the "rock, paper, scissors" game, calling it "bau, sing, song." So even English-speaking staff or friends might say, "We bau, sing, song for it." It actually sounds kind of cute.

Another technique, though, is called "black and white," although the words, oou laum bpek don't translate to that term. This is done using the palm (white) and back (black) of your hand. If you're light-skinned like me, it's hard to imagine where "black and white" comes into play, but for the darker-skinned Cambodians, this makes perfect sense: the back of the hand is darker than the palm. Unlike bau, sing, song, oou laum bpek is played with a large group of people, and used for consensus-style decision making, but with a twist. Everyone shakes their hand back and forth, and settles on one or the other. The minority group (of either "white" or "black") are the winners, and the decision goes to them.

This idea, that the "minority" rules, is a foreign one to an American like me. Raised with democratic values, taught that the majority rules (to please the most people), the decision to award the win to the minority is one I have a tough time with. Yet it perfectly illustrates Cambodian culture. In the US, although we have a small governing body (in proportion to the population, anyway) at the national level, the Constitution is set up so that each citizen should have representation in decision-making. Recently, I've seen that in action, as people in our partner churches have offered to speak up to their Congressmen or Senators on behalf of some funding decisions that were made about World Relief—and we're grateful that they have thought it a worthy cause to pursue. Although in this case it is not the appropriate step to take, it is the perfect illustration of the American value that your voice deserves to be heard, that the citizens should influence the leaders. That the paper should cover the rock, if you will.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, a small, elite group makes decisions for the population. Although Cambodia follows the parliamentary procedure (and in case it's not clear, I think this is a valid form of government), sometimes the way it is expressed here results in much of the power being held by a few, not by the many, with little opportunity for ordinary citizens to speak up and influence policy. The American, pro-democracy voice in me often shouts that the system is unfair, that people should have more political power here, that the government should make decisions for the majority.

But sometimes, it takes a small game, a little insight into a vastly different culture, to quiet that voice, to help me realize that the values I was raised with aren't always in play here. Instead, sometimes it's a game of oou laum bpek when I want it to be one of bau, sing, song.


Folk Stories

Cambodian life is returning to normal after Khmer New Year, the biggest holiday in Cambodian culture. People travel to their home villages for a week (sometimes more) of temple visits, games, family time, and parties. Pretty much all non-essential businesses (and some essential ones) close in the city, and it's a ghost town until the party winds down. Today, in fact, was our first day back to work in a week. A break in the middle of the hot season was nice.

In honor of traditional Cambodian holidays, I thought I'd share a traditional Cambodian folk tale that my Khmer tutor shared with me. When I started laughing, I was told very sternly that this was a traditional tale, and not to make fun. I'm sure the same could be said of Yankee Doodle or George Washington and the cherry tree. Here we go...

One day, an old woman was walking to the market. When she was about halfway there, she saw a dead rabbit on the side of the road. The woman picked up the rabbit and put it in her vegetable basket and continued on her way. Suddenly, the rabbit jumped out of the basket and ran away. When the woman looked in her basket, she found that all her potatoes and carrots had been eaten! She was very sad and angry because she had nothing left to sell at the market.

While walking home, the old woman saw a very fat rabbit by the side of the road. She knew that it was the same rabbit as the one she met earlier that morning. When it ran away, she chased it! The rabbit led her to a grove where there were many wild fruits growing. The woman was happy and forgot all about the rabbit because she could sell the fruits in the market.

The End.

And in keeping with the theme of the last post, I will mention that when I had to translate this story into Khmer, we spent 10 minutes discussing the proper term for "vegetable basket," since there are approximately 8 or 9-- all vary depending on the size and shape of the basket (handle, no handle) and how it is carried (on your head, in your hands, flat, etc.). Now... who can guess the moral of the story?