A few nights ago we experienced our first heavy downpour here in Cambodia. The flooded and muddy “sidewalks” made going out undesirable and left us stranded in the guesthouse. I laughed to myself as I thought of the curbside puddles that would collect on the streets of New York after it had rained, and the rubbish that floated in stagnant water always reminded me of kompongs* and what uncanny resemblances they made. It seemed curious that the acclaimed city of New York mimicked aspects of the “developing” cities I had visited. I found myself asking: what does development actually represent?
I grew up in South East Asia, a region many people associate with “poverty.” At university, our conversations about “poverty” primarily circled around notions of hunger, race and violence. The more time I spent thinking about this though, I realized that poverty was not only the picture of the African child with the bloated stomach that was often presented to me, but also existed in the lives of the “homeless” people that I walked by everyday for two years on the streets of Manhattan. Similarly, the image we usually associate with categories or phases of development might be more than meets the eye. Poverty, as a concept, seemed so foreign to me because I was taught by my grandparents that no one should be thought of as a lower status than anyone else. I learned to recognize resilience and strength in those people who have lived different circumstances than I have lived. I saw innocent smiles and eager eyes, eyes that beamed and showed me a fight to survive, never giving less than a hundred percent. But I also saw the tired eyes, the ones that expected nothing more from the world. They simply existed.
It is a common sight in Cambodian villages to be confronted with signs reminding everyday Khmer people that an outsider has contributed to their survival; that the international community is part of the reason they continue to exist. I wonder how this may undermine the authority of Cambodians? I wonder how these representations of “charity” differ from the plaques that inscribe lists of donors of our various institutions? Why might we take issue with some of these public endorsements of giving but not others?
My very presence in this country has made me feel both humble and uncomfortable. I think about the way I present myself as traveler and learner. I frequently question my place in this space of “endemic poverty” (as it is referred to in much literature) and how the strength of people here may be so much greater than mine. I am made aware of my privilege and how the insecurities that I bear lay in the shadows of their everyday struggles.
I have started to consider the important role context plays in shaping perspective on similar issues that exist within different landscapes. What makes Cambodia an “under developed” nation compared to nations like the United States? What representations and practices sustain a designation of a place as “underdeveloped” and what is the work that such designations do? These questions have become more alive in Cambodia – living and breathing this place has created an experience that no amount of reading or writing in New York ever could.
*Floating villages found in the Cambodian countryside with their houses built on stilts above water. The water is their source of sustenance in the forms of drinking, showering etc.