We are all paid at different scales. My Peace Corps allowance is roughly the same as my Khmer teacher counterpart. If I am frugal most of the week, for me that means I can afford a monthly spurge on a nice meal in the provincial town or maybe the movies when I am in the big city. For my counterpart, if he minds his riels, he can afford a coffee at the market a couple of times a week. Beyond that, there aren’t many extras.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I also have excellent health insurance, and a staff willing answer my lame questions about culture or repeat what I ought to know by now about the language. My counterpart has no staff. But the biggest difference between our two measures of pay is this: After two years in Cambodia, I can go back to the United States. I will have hot running water again and reliable electricity. My counterpart’s standard of living will probably stay the same. He will likely never leave Cambodia. I have lots of choices—one of the privileges of my American birth. For my Cambodian counterpart, not so many.
I was at the local espresso café when a tall foreign man made an entrance with three small women. He went to the head of line and ordered his iced coffee, although there were two of us noticeably waiting in line before him. The clerk took his order, as he expected. He turned to me, speaking in English. I answered in Khmer. He asked what I was doing here. I told him teaching English at the local high school. He smiled and nodded approvingly when I said I was American. “America Number One!” he exclaimed. He told me he was from Taiwan and managed the garment factory up the road. Actually, he said 500 meters up the road or something like that. All his comments were quantified. He told me he was building a house and quoted the square footage. He said it was easier when he first came to Cambodia two years ago. Then they could pay workers $68 a month. Now they must pay $120. I said, well, everyone is entitled to a living wage, don’t you think? He waved his hand, dismissing the idea as irrelevant. “But the stockholders,” he said. He obviously came to Cambodia for the bargain price.
I have to admit to getting caught up in the bargaining game myself. My strategy is to start lower than I expect to pay. I’ll say to the tuk-tuk driver, “Two dollars is the normal price.” The tuk-tuk driver will look sad and say, “Oh, but it’s very far. Three dollars is good.” Then I’ll wave a bill and say, “Okay, then $2.50.” And he agrees. Sometimes though, you’ve got to pay more, like when it’s late at night and he knows, and you know, your options are scarce. So you pay the price. We barangs often get so caught in a weird “principal of the thing” that we forget, hey, we talking about 50 cents here. Get a grip. Likewise, bargaining at the open market, if I know the going rate, I will just offer that to the seller and most of the time it’s a done deal. If I have to ask, “How much?” the answer is often double Khmer price. Again, I have to remind myself that I came here to make a difference in my community. That includes the economy. So what if I paid a dollar more for that kroma or sarong? The woman who sold it to me is taking care of a family of six. That extra dollar is most welcome.
Sometimes I see tourists, and PCVs too, get so caught up in bargaining that their pleasure seems to be derived not from getting the item itself, but in arm wrestling over another quarter. I admire the attitude of a PCV pal in the next province, Nolan, who says, “When someone asks me for more money, I just give it to them.” He shrugs it off. It isn’t a matter of pride or principal. It’s no matter at all.
Now take a look at what you want to buy—a hand-woven silk scarf, for instance. Behold this handmade miracle! This hand-crafted, hand-carved, or hand-sewn item you desire came from the skill of another human being trying to make a living. Give them a little extra credit. You yourself would never do that kind of embroidery for $10. You could not find an artisan in your own country to carve such a thing for $20. Pretend you are on holiday—go ahead, spend a little. Be generous. You aren’t the one being taken advantage of.