Monday, October 10, 2016

The Awkwardness of "Affluence"

I've never thought of myself as rich. At all. I recognize several factors working for my good, however: My parents are wonderful at making a plan and saving up for it. They stuck together not letting divorce sap our family of financial and emotional resources. My dad learned how to fix anything that broke to save money on hiring someone. My mom learned how to cook anything that was on sale and to shop around and get good deals for the freezer. They passed those things on to us. We worked to pay off our college as we went and didn't get into debt. We saved up to buy a good used car cash instead of getting a loan. Instead of putting everything on credit, we learned to stick to a budget. We learned that delayed gratification was worth it in the long run to crazy debts ruling your life and marginalizing your ability to give to those in need, because they were really good at that, too. The ongoing theme of my upbringing was, "when you use wisely what is in your hands to bless others, God will fill them again." So while my parents tell stories of barely having enough sometimes: of my dad selling watermelons on the side of the road to pay off my birth; of him bringing home (with permission, they couldn't be sold) the dented cans from the produce department where he worked, of the lawn care business we worked at on weekends and evenings as a family, of the beautiful and delicious cakes my mom made and sold on the side- we were never without.
A myriad of electrical wires hang between poles.

When I come from that background to a third-world country I have many conflicting feelings. We first encountered extreme poverty in Guatemala; it was definitely there in a smaller way in Mexico and now I see it every day in Cambodia. These are places where governments are so corrupt and self-centered that they can not pass laws or find ways to help the people of their own country as much as they need to. Both Guatemala and Cambodia are still marked by very bitter wars that make them wary of governmental involvement as well. Both are also countries with a booming middle class, small high class and majority lower class.
The muddy joining of four rivers in Phnom Penh and city skyline.


It bothers me when people look at my white skin and assume I am rich. (Ben and I have joked about how just walking on the street in Guatemala as a white person is advertising that people can either charge you more or just walk up and ask for money, if you're lucky. Sometimes it meant getting robbed.) The fact that we can afford protein in each meal, even a little, proves that I am rich. The fact that each of my children go to school and that I can actually afford to have four children without starving proves that I am. The fact that I did get a college education proves that I am. A million other things- up to the fact that I can afford transportation, medicine if my children get sick, toilet paper, and baby clothes- things that I find hard to live without, people deal with every day here.
A downpour makes the heavy motorcycle traffic more crazy as streets hold up to 6-12 inches of water.

Of course the pressing need encourages ingenuity. People work hard here. Still, there are many things in the way. One of the biggest issues is a very high child-to-teacher ratio and very low teacher pay by the government in the public schools. Many children can not afford uniforms or school supplies, continuing their cycle. This became very apparent the other day as I heard a woman discussing how she couldn't send her child to the $30 a month school, but had to opt for the $10 one that was farther away. This isn't a problem that you can just say "work harder" at and see go away. It will take years and compassion and education.
Everybody seems to live behind a gate, but unlike Guatemala, those fences aren't always topped with spikes.

I know that I don't have enough experience to know all of the factors contributing to poverty in post-war countries, but as a fellow human I can still have compassion. I want everyone to have enough to at least survive. Something I've come back to each time I'm in a country where poverty has smacked me in the senses, is that I can't let contact with it numb me. I have to keep caring. This doesn't mean letting an overwhelming sense of despair immobilize me from doing anything about it, but it does mean I have to retain the capacity to feel for other's hurt.

Despite being so poor, Cambodia has a lot going for it. It has very little crime and a very friendly population. It is filled with NGOs (one of which, I work in.) Rising tourism and commerce have helped the economy. Things will change slowly, but surely. In the meantime we have to keep ourselves open to the chances to affect change within our own spheres of influence.
Police making sure we had permission to live here.

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