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Band-Aid—Part 1: Depression/Joy

On Pub Street in Siem Reap I saw an enthusiastic young man lecturing a Cambodian kid on the merits of free market enterprise. Wearing a Hollister T-shirt and khaki shorts, the blonde American squatted down to get eye-to-eye with the child. “I can teach you how to grow crops, harvest and market your produce, and create sustainable practices,” he said, counting the steps on one hand. “How does that sound?” The kid nodded and smiled. He must have been eight or nine. The would-be development worker was delighted. He put both his hands on the kid’s shoulders. “We can work together!”

The scene was both touchingly funny and absurd. The sweet Cambodian kid’s innocent willingness seemed to be all that the blonde American needed to fulfill his fantasy of saving the world. Making a difference.

Peace Corps Cambodia K-9 PCVs reach the six-month mark at the end of January. According to the PC “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment” we are at the manic depressive portion of the program. Right about now we collectively are experiencing emotional issues such as anger/fascination, depression/joy, work/fun, idealization/

prejudice. Yup, looks that way to me.

My anger/fascination flashes at other do-gooders who make a mess and then go home. Good-hearted travelers who want to help, so they volunteer to “teach” English at an orphanage for a week. Except that they have no idea how to teach. The children are instructed to say their ABCs once again. And how to count to twenty. Recite red, yellow, blue, green. Over and over again.

At a high school in the north where I was teaching, a well-known American aid organization financed several worthwhile projects: two tiled hand-washing stations by the latrines, a new library building, and a computing lab with HP computers. But no water flows from the lovely tiled hand-washing station. The beautiful new library has no hardbound books; most of the books are on the floor because of lack of shelves. The computing lab does not have Internet access. Aid agencies favor tangible projects—things you can see and touch. The sustainability of these projects is thrust upon a community that does not have the funds, skills, or interest to carry it on. Therefore, the water is shut off, the library is closed, and the computing lab is locked up. Work/fun.

I was at the school when visitors from that same aid organization returned to the school to see how we were doing with our improved facilities. It was just before Christmas. The three men and one woman strolled through the school grounds like they owned it. We were introduced. “Oh, here’s OUR computing lab!” exclaimed the woman, not short on pride. “It’s so important for students going to college to have computing skills,” another asserted. “Yes,” I replied, not wanting to spoil their fun. They would see soon enough how far their big American dollars went. I suppressed an urge to bite them on their ankles. Idealization/prejudice. One of the men asked me how long I was going to be in Cambodia. When I told him the Peace Corps commitment was two years, it made him pause. Depression/joy. “That’s a long time,” he said.

Yes, but I wonder if it is long enough to really make a difference. I wonder if I can offer something more than a Band-Aid—because in this weather, you never know if it’s going to stick.

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