Harsh Realities and Half Truths

Almost every weekend I spend time chilling in front of the TV with Restoration Man, Grand Designs, Escape to the Country or one of many variants on the same theme.  Cameras and a host follow a couple or family through their journey of building, buying, restoring or renovating a home in places like Australia, UK, Europe and America.  At the beginning of each episode we are introduced to the feature characters who talk about their dreams for a new or transformed home and the budget and plans they have to make it happen.  Inevitably, thoughts flash into my head along the lines of “they don’t apprehend how rare their good fortune is” and “if only they knew how much impact they could have on the world”.

I have been so lucky as to buy and renovate a house and I hope to oneday renovate my little home some more.  So my thoughts come as observations rather than criticisms.  Most of us who are in a position to undertake such extravagances as moving or renovating our homes, have very little clue as to just how exceptionally privileged we are on a global scale.  With that lack of knowledge, I believe, comes a lack of insight into the choices that are available to us.

We live in a consumerist society, taught to believe that we have constantly unmet needs, without which we will not be genuinely fulfilled. We get instant gratification from spending, which gives us the false impression that our temporary euphoria is connected to our well being.  We seek out loans so that we can buy things on credit.  Studies have shown that consumers are far more likely to make a purchase when using a credit card over cash and will spend up to 100% more on credit than when paying by cash.  In Britain alone, the population are in credit card debt to the tune of £1.4 trillion, which works out to almost £22,000 per person!  Similarly, Australians are in $32 billion credit card debt, averaging at around $4,300 per person, with a matching average of $700 in interest per person, per year to the bank.  This is big and powerful business, ultimately only benefiting those at the very top of the economic ladder.

Impoverished people are not immune to the instant gratification of spending, and are in fact more susceptible to it.  In wealthy countries, lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have debt that they are struggling to repay.  In a poor country like Cambodia I believe that the market does what it can to target the poor at their most vulnerable.  Maternity hospitals selling all manner of baby products including artificial milk formulas is the most obvious example which I have observed and talked about before.  In wealthy countries we have regulations to protect us, such that product advertising in or near maternity wards and hospitals is prohibited.  Only recently Samantha, struggling on with her severely disabled three year old and wanting desperately to do the right thing for her second baby, informed me that now the baby was six months old, she would begin to replace breastmilk with formula.  Horrified, I sent her a bunch of information explaining why this was unnecessary and what the World Health Organisation recommends she do (continue to breastfeed, slowly add solid foods to the baby’s diet).  She is surrounded by aggressive marketing of formula because the third world is the strongest market for these companies thanks to the combination of low health literacy and almost no codes of practice.  A brief intervention changed her mind quickly, but most of her peers have no access to such information and so young women are sitting ducks to this most effective profiteering campaign.

Yesterday Chom traveled to Phnom Penh for an interview.  If successful he could find himself at Japanese language school for a period of time before being sent to Japan to work in a factory.  Opportunities to work abroad are uncommon for Cambodian people and open to abuses such as human trafficking due to the desperation people feel to find a way out of their poverty.  Factory or agricultural work in Japan or South Korea is a highly competitive opportunity only afforded to the best applicants, many if not most of whom have attained university degrees in Cambodia.  Their qualifications do not provide them with financial gains beyond a few hundred dollars per month at home and it seems that Japan and Korea have tapped into this market of conscientious people in nearby third world countries.

Traveling to Seattle with Paula last year, between Phnom Penh and Korea I sat next to a young man with a Bachelor degree from a Phnom Penh university and fluent in English.  He was returning to his job in Korea on the assembly line at a suitcase factory. His financial future fared far better doing this menial work in a first world country, than staying at home where the job market for graduates is also highly competitive.  Cambodian jobs paying more than $200 per month ordinarily have many dozens of equally and highly qualified applicants.  His colleagues in Korea were all from such places as Vietnam, Myanmar and India.  When we think of the “brain drain” that we hear about from poor countries, we may assume (as I did), for example, that doctors are leaving home to work as doctors elsewhere.  But this is not the case.  Those doctors are able to use their qualifications in a highly competitive environment, to get a foot in the door of first world countries, where they work in menial jobs earning low first world salaries which are beyond their financial possibilities at home.  Once their foot is in the door, they may go on to re-qualify and work in their adoptive country, but it takes years.  I have looked into this in the hope that my Cambodian medical and nursing friends might find work in Australia, where their skills are needed, but their qualifications are not accepted here.

If successful Chom would not see his wife and infant sons for between 2-3 years at a time.  He believes it would be worthwhile to give the family a fighting chance but he doesn’t want to leave his family.  Conversation via Private Message throughout yesterday went like this:
i am on taxi on the way to pnhome pen now.  I hope i will pass interviews
Wow. This is amazing. Good luck.
Thanks Helen.

<Six hours later>
So far so good?
Very difficult
Finished yet?
Not yet
Okay.  I am waiting to hear.  Don’t stress, it will be fine.
<Two hours later>
Still at pnhome pen waiting taxi to home
Was it okay?
I don’t know now they didn’t tell me yet if pass they will call me. I really miss my kids.
Yes, you will miss them a LOT if you leave Cambodia. Maybe there is a solution that you don’t have to leave your family?
Now i don’t want to leave

What a decision to make?  Noone in any first world country ever has to imagine a dilemma like this.  We may leave our children for work reasons, but it is never our only option, we would never be forced to stay away for a minimum of two years, and our childrens’ chance at the most basic education and opportunities is never hanging in the balance.

Western consumerism is steadfastly connected to the challenges that people in places like Cambodia face on a daily basis.  As our plane winged it’s way to Seoul, the young Khmer man talked about his life and his work at the suitcase factory, while I kept thinking of my beautiful red suitcase with it’s twisting wheels lying in the hold somewhere below our seats.  The only other suitcases that the group of four I was traveling with had, were my older and smaller cases, which I had loaned or given to Paula and Samantha.  This young man had a cheap carry-on bag holding all of his possessions.  His best chance in life is to labour in a factory for years, so that people like me can be kept in supplies of the luggage that we are trained to believe we “need”.

As I am forever repeating, because it remains so astonishing to me, my time in Cambodia revealed insights to me that I had been previously blind to.  Not only about the world I live in and it’s harsh realities, but about me and how cushioned I am against those realities.  Every day now, I experience frequent flashes of surprised relief and gratitude to have been born into the world’s privileged minority.  I am also constantly astonished at the way we in the wealthy world are manipulated to believe our happiness is linked to materialism when in fact, quite the opposite is true.  Whilst we are bombarded with messages of what we should buy or do next, there is very little information available to us relating to the importance – for ourselves and our own health – of giving.

Most of my daily astonishment comes from the differences between the time I spend with friends and family in the wealthy world and the time I have with friends in the poor world.  Life in Australia is dominated by work, family, friends, social life and leisure, with a high ratio of physical comfort and a low ratio of mostly small irritations.  My Cambodian friends will talk of festivities and time spent with family and friends, but inevitably there is always an undertone of difficulties which I can only ever observe from both geographical and circumstantial distance.

One individual’s giving does not solve the problems of the world and there is certainly an argument that the wrong type of giving can contribute to existing problems.  You’re at risk of criticism the minute you dare do something outside the accepted “norms”.  To avoid criticism you’d need to sit in silence and fear of ever doing anything, so that is certainly no reason not to search for and find your own happiness.  Giving as something that we only do for others, is only a half truth.


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