22 March, 2017

Being a foreigner in a foreign land.

For the past 6 years I have lived in Cambodia.  For 5 months prior, I lived in Nepal.  The two experiences are non-comparable.  I cannot say “I know about” Nepal’s culture, its people or their traditions.  I can say I learned about the wonderful family I lived with and why they had 30 vulnerable children in their care.  I can talk about the school those children went to and how the particular family I lived with celebrated holidays and went about their lives.  I cannot possibly know about the neighbor down the dirt road, about the hundreds of other children who attended the school after only 5 months of living there.

After 6 years, I feel I have a much better grasp of Cambodian culture in the area I live in.  I have a small grasp of the language, drive to the local market and take the kids to their hospital appointments.  I’m not now and will never be considered ‘local’.  No more than a Cambodian who was born in the United States is looked at as American to most of the population.  This is okay to me as I understand human nature.  I am accepted, though.  If I walk down the road, the village children call me ‘mommy’, which is seemingly my name now.  Younger women call me ‘bong srey’ (big sister) and in the market I’m not as likely to get cheated over price as I was 4 years ago.  I’m part of the scenery now, I’m same same but different.

I used to know all the children in my care inside and out, but in 2016 we received 16 new kids and so far this year, we have 4 more.  That’s 20 new children to get to know and understand.  Twenty children who have their own sordid backgrounds, internal issues, behavioral problems, and trust issues.  Twenty children who have come from different family situations.  If I were to lump them into the phrase “we have 20 new kids”, I would be giving you a statistic.  An accurate, but enormously misrepresented statistic.

This is what I feel happens with those who come and go (even frequently) in any foreign country, they believe they ‘know’ the culture, the people.  Don’t judge a country on what you read in Travelocity or on any website or book.  Statistics are not people.  Someone could come spend a year abroad in my home town of Kansas and they may leave thinking they know American culture.  They will have a grasp of a minute group of people and their way of life, but this will differ greatly if they lived on my sister’s farm or a house in the city.  Even in a small Kansas town; what if you spent a year in a home of a Trump supporter vs. a home that is based in moral and ethical reality.

Conscientious travel makes one aware of different people, culture, religion, etc. but do not confuse that with ‘knowing’ the place.  It does not make one aware of the needs of the people. Travelers heart’s strings can easily be pulled.  Does the tuktuk driver have an old beaten up tuktuk because he’s poor or does he not buy a new one because he makes more money from driving a beat up one because people who think he’s poor pay him better?  

The idea that an outsider can come into a foreign land and ‘access’ what they deem inappropriate, unhealthy, cruel, abusive, etc. without a very long-term commitment and willingness to move outside of your box is completely irresponsible.  It’s like being appalled at seeing dog meat being roasted in a shop…but having no problem whatsoever eating a roasted chicken sandwich an hour later.  

It is irresponsible to access a situation without all the facts, but that is what happens over and over in “poor countries”.  That is many times what makes up statistics, such as the children in my care.  They are institutionalised in the eyes of many; not beautiful individual souls with their own stories to tell, but a number in a book, article or website…and in turn the magical place they call home is just another negative statistic, an institution.  A place not one of those people have ever spent time in.  We are a blurb, a 'not-of-the-most' in phrases such as "most orphanages are bad".

Statistics like to leave out words to make their case plausible.  Such as instead of 

"Eighty percent of children in orphanages more than likely have at least one abusive, neglectful, desperate, uncaring, unloving and/or alcoholic parent", they just say 

"Eighty percent of children in orphanages have at least one parent." 

Straight and swaying the point they want to make, loose the important words and you have built a case for the horrors of orphanages.  Tug at those healthy foreign heart strings!  If it tears your heart out to think of your children being taken away from you and put into an institution, then the statistic has done it's job. 

How many people can look past the aesthetic differences of ‘the other’ and see genuine people.  How many visitors can ignore the unusual house and see the happy people inside.  How many realize that lower income is not a prerequisite for unhappiness and/or unhealthiness.  A child napping on a cool tile floor in the heat of the day does not mean that child does not have a bed, or a home, or loving caregivers.  Have you ever tried to sleep on a soft mattress in the heat of the day with no AC?  If you had, trust me, you would opt for the tile.

Look, live and feel before you judge.  Is that child a ‘poor orphan’ living in an ‘awful orphanage’ or is it a child given a second chance at life and this chance includes happiness.  Has that child in that ‘institution’ been torn from his biological parents arms, or did a caring neighbor call the Village Chief who then called the local Social Services agency who then called a sociologist who then did a family assessment and decided that the child should be removed from the family home because of any number of reasons.  Reasons that exist in each and every country on the globe. Reasons that exist in homes regardless of their financial situation.  Reasons that exist because there are just people in the world who should not be allowed to raise their children (or any children for that matter).

The next time you travel, read a statistic, view a documentary, hear some other traveler spew their ignorance, I challenge you to see the positive instead of the negative.  SEE the man.  SEE the child.  SEE the house.  SEE the situation.  Is that dirt or chocolate on that ‘poor child’s’ face? The dog roasting in a shop is income to the people who raised it, much like your chicken.  SEE the people who look different than you with joy and curosity, not with an air of sadness on your face or in your disposition, and for those situations that deem it, look not with pity, but with compassion.


Leave your judgement at home until you are ready to be present and open minded in another place for a very long time and those statistics, take them with a grain of salt.