A few of you were horrified by the state of sanitation in Cambodia. Though I’m too habituated to share your disgust, I can see how it might put you off the country. But you’d be missing some good things, like how Cambodians help each other.
I have no idea what kind of taxes they have, or how public welfare is officially disbursed. But I do know the unofficial way it works, which is that people help other people. They don’t do it as an act of charity: they treat it like regular life. There’s no sense that it should be up to the better off; everyone gives. There’s just a general culture of collaboration, not competition. A few stories illustrate what I mean.
- There is a man in his 70s whom we’ve seen around town. His teeth are crooked and yellowed, which I know because he’s always smiling. We’ve seen him asking for money, not with pitiful looks, but with grin and enthusiastic conversation in Khmer. We were trying a new lunch spot, poring over the menu, when he came out of the bathroom there. He smiled and happily chattered away at us before going to sit back down at his table. B called over the English-speaking waiter and offered to pay for his lunch. ‘Oh, he’s already had two lunches,’ the man said. Either the restaurant, other patrons, or other citizens were already covering his meals.
- Being a monk in Cambodia isn’t always a religious endeavor: we’ve heard stories of boys joining because it’s a reliable way to get fed, when that isn’t possible at home. This is because of how the community supports them. Every morning, monks go out in pairs in their orange robes, carrying an umbrella and a bag. They come onto a business’ property and wait. Always, a person who works there walks over with two food items – usually in single serving plastic containers – that (s)he gives to the monks. (S)he then kneels in front of the monks with no shoes on, and the monks say a short prayer, presumably blessing the giver. Every business does this – even those with foreign owners – because the local workers know it’s a must. Though I would think of it as a tax on doing business, locals seem to feel that they’re getting a gift: the opportunity to be blessed without having to go anywhere. But it’s not just that: people also help the monks get around to these businesses. They have no motorbikes or bicycles, so the monks have to walk everywhere; however, some temples are quite far into the countryside, away from businesses. I’ve seen many a person on a motorbike invite monks to hop on the back before giving them a ride to their next destination.
- People who can work for a living do, leaving begging just for those who are too infirm or handicapped to do otherwise. So, the only people requesting handouts generally have a limb missing from the landmines placed by the Khmer Rouge (or the Americans) in the 70s, or are female nuns in their 70s or 80s. Able-bodied locals sell things or work in factories or repair things or drive tuk tuks or serve at restaurants. The going day-labor rate is $5, and they earn that money, every day.
- Tuk tuk drivers often illustrate this kind of cooperation. They take turns getting fares. They make what are called ‘Cambodian stops,’ dropping off packages for friends or family members on their way to your destination. If one tuk tuk driver isn’t familiar with the location his passengers want to reach, other drivers try to help; they don’t steal the fare or entice the passengers over with their knowledge.
- People clean public streets, picking up leaves and sweeping dust and dirt away. I don’t mean the space in front of businesses: I mean the parts of a city clearly belonging to no one, like the areas around parks or public monuments. I don’t believe they’re getting paid for this (though I could be wrong): they do it to keep their city clean.
There are so many other examples we’ve seen in our time here. Giving and helping is built into Cambodian culture, without any of the resentment or entitlement that some other cultures feel when doing so. They help because it’s what you do – and I think that’s better than any amount of cleanliness they could cultivate.