Selfishness: Struggling with Myself

On Wednesday, I was in Kampong Cham province, where we're preparing to do a baseline survey for some new program activities. It's been a difficult week, with lots to do, and I've been trying to combat my innate feelings of needing to strive and take responsibility for everything with the truth that this is a team effort. Also, the temperatures are still hovering around 38C or 40C (that's around 100F), and it's hard to be reasonable when you're sweating and feeling gross.

On Tuesday, I woke up at 5 a.m. after a mostly sleepless night to drive three hours with our monitoring and evaluation team. We spent the day training staff on survey procedures, and trying to find cool things to drink. In Phnom Penh, it's easy to find restaurants with clean water; in the province, not so much. I had a desperate moment yesterday, staring at a bucket of beautiful ice which I couldn't use without risking illness. Until one of the staff told me to stick my very warm Coke can into the ice bucket, I was seriously considering dealing with the nasty consequences of drinking unclean water, if only to cool off for a few minutes.

It's situations like this that make me uncomfortable.

To be clear, it's not the choice between drinking or not drinking that's uncomfortable. It's that I have to make this choice in front of Cambodian staff. Because while I sat there debating how much I desired to jeopardize my fairly stellar record of good health, seven pair of brown eyes were watching. Yes, it sounds like I'm making myself the center of attention, but it's difficult to inconspicuously ask the waitress if the water and ice at her restaurant are clean. Especially because when I speak Khmer, people tend to look at me. I'm a novelty.

It isn't just the time in the restaurant that made me feel strange. There's one room in our whole, multi-story office in Kampong Cham that has an air conditioner. At 4 p.m. on Tuesday, it felt like a little slice of paradise to sit behind a desk (it's the accountant's office) and cool down. When the provincial leader, who is also a friend, offered to let me use a fold-out bed to sleep in that oasis of cool, instead of bunking with another female Cambodian staff member in a hot guest room upstairs, I wasn't sure how to respond.

Eventually, I said yes, of course, because I'm neither a fool nor a masochist. But I felt weird about my decision.

I feel like I have to constantly check myself in these situations, check my motives. Am I taking advantage of someone because I feel that I'm entitled to something, like better service, or a cheaper rate, or better living conditions? Am I trying to be comfortable at the expense of others' discomfort?

It's very easy to slip into selfishness here, when things that are luxuries in the US come cheaply, or are offered genuinely. It isn't necessarily because it's easy to feel better or more important than the Khmer people. I think it is something of a vicious cycle wherein the thought of what I've given up is enough to motivate a feeling of wanting to recapture part of the life that I left—whether it's having something that my peers have, or finding the comforts of "home" whenever possible. It's not a wrong motive, unless it stands in the way of relationships, or bleeds into entitlement, or whining, or being demanding.

In the midst of these moments of taking what is offered, even when it feels uncomfortable, I'm awed by the generosity of my Cambodian brothers and sisters. Whether it's mainly culture or mainly friendship, their willingness to give and serve is humbling, and inspires me to act that way more when I'm with them, and when I'm not.

And on Tuesday night, exhausted, hot, and preparing for another long day to come, I stopped feeling selfish, and started feeling grateful when I woke up refreshed and energized for what was ahead of me. So now I think that it's mainly a matter of decision-making, of what's right in the moment, and of living a life that balances out being gracious and serving others with caring for myself.

Of course, when I return to Kampong Cham next week, I'll probably have to fight the other Americans who will be with me for that air-conditioned space. I wonder how gracious I will be with them?

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