Friday, September 21, 2012

Questioning the evangelical gospel


The following is an email I sent to some missionary friends a little while ago and while I did get an initial response, I didn't get any answers. They were very busy while they were in Cambodia and my questions were quite detailed so there may be multiple reasons why no answers were given. The point is I asked these folks because I believe their motivation is to help Cambodia and Cambodian people and I want to have answers to the questions I am asking. This is the email I sent them, but I have omitted their names and the names of specific organizations in Cambodia because the point wasn't to single out individuals or organizations, but to ask questions about evangelism in Cambodia that I think are important....


I have some nagging questions and concerns about missionary and/or Christian organizations in Cambodia that I want to ask but I hesitate because I am not sure exactly how to phrase them without seeming offensive. I am asking you because through our limited interactions I get the sense that you and (name omitted) truly care about Cambodia and the Cambodian people and it is the sense of sincerity that comes across when I read your posts or speak to you that makes me bring these questions to you. Please consider that I am asking these questions or noting my observations over a broad spectrum of experience in Cambodia and I don't mean for any of my comments/questions to be offensive or to generalize them as reflective of all Christians. So here they are:
1. The Khmer Rouge destroyed so much of the Khmer cultural history including its rich Buddhist history. Along with 1.4 million (Cambodians have told me it should be 3 million) people killed there was also a near destruction of Buddhism in Cambodia. The monastic population went from something like 70000 before the Khmer Rouge to around 600 after the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia's largest cultural icon to the world is Ankor Wat which while largely Hindu originally has deep historical ties to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhist religion was literally interwoven with a sense of being Khmer. With so many Christian organizations spreading the message of Christianity in Cambodia, doesn't it in some ways deprive this generation of Cambodians the opportunity to reclaim their Khmer cultural identity and the opportunity to rebuild a central aspect of what was taken from them as individuals and a collective society? One generation removed from the genocide (everyone under 33 was born after Pol Pot lost Phnom Penh and everyone 33 or older lived through the regime) and 15 years removed from the multi-factioned civil war, shouldn't Cambodia have the opportunity to heal their spiritual, psychological, emotional, and physical wounds with the spiritual tradition which is their "religious" home? I mean that it is a known entity and not a foreign conception of spirituality/religion. Isn't the Cambodian culture and psyche uniquely married to Buddhism through its everyday usage of spirit houses, traditional medicine, offering alms to the monks, protective tattoos, making offerings to deceased relatives and ancestors, and rich iconography of Cambodia's Buddhist history? Is the spreading of a "Western" faith in a country that was so recently forcibly robbed of their historic faith a sort of religious/spiritual imperialism that capitalizes on desperation and loss?
2. Some of the NGOs working in Cambodia (organization names omitted) are quite direct in their evangelical message and some are a bit more selective in how they portray themselves. Each of the organizations I mentioned has done anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation work in the field of forced prostitution and each of them has a ministerial religious component to their programs. The vast majority of the young women rescued or assisted in their exit from the sex industry have overwhelmingly expressed a desire to return to their communities and villages in rural Cambodia. Their experience as prostituted women and girls made them "broken" and "unworthy" in the eyes of Cambodian society while they were sex workers. Once they exit with the help of one of these organizations there is an immense pressure to become like the "rescuer." Even when it is not an overt part of the mission statement, though it is a part for most of the orgs I listed, their is an underlying desire to please the individuals and orgs that have helped them out of such hellish conditions. This is understandable. But Christians are a marginal population within rural Cambodia and are often seen as separate and different from their Buddhist counterparts. Doesn't including a Christian mission or even subtle undertones prevent these young women from achieving what they have overwhelmingly expressed is their desire to successfully re-integrate into their communities? Doesn't becoming Christian just place them in another category as different from their larger community as well as their families and friends? Does including the Gospel message in anti-exploitation work actually serve to benefit the young women and girls exiting forced prostitution or rather does it serve to benefit the ngos themselves and increase their international funding appeal?
3. I've spoken to several highly qualified Cambodians working in the development and social work sector and asked them about (name omitted NGO) and various positions within that org. The responses I got were a bit surprising to me. They said that to move up or advance within (name omitted NGO) it was important to be a part of the religious activities within the organization. The folks I am referencing have years of experience and degrees that qualify them for work at (name omitted NGO), but they were all quite resentful at the idea of having to become or appearing to be Christian in order to do what they are are already qualified and capable of doing. Doesn't this place (name omitted NGO) and other likeminded ngos in a position of having lesser qualified staff due to their official/unofficial declaration of promoting Christian workers in a predominantly Buddhist country? Does this internal policy actually place them at odds with the largely Buddhist populace they actually aim to serve? Through efforts such as this is Cambodia producing Christians who are essentially doing little more than changing religious labels in an effort to find gainful and meaningful employment (I know this is not entirely the case as I have met some wonderfully kind Khmer Christians, but they stand out from many of their Christian counterparts)? Is Christianity being used as a means of discrimination towards Cham (Muslim), Buddhist, and largely shamanistic animist ethnic minority groups within Cambodia based on unofficially official policies?
4. These questions have larger implications socially but much of it is based in my own inability to rectify Christianity with my own Buddhist beliefs and my experience of religious intolerance back in Georgia. I feel like letting you know that is pertinent to the questions. How is Christianity able to rectify such practices as feeding hungry ghosts (Pchum Ben holiday), honoring the spirits of ancestors and appeasing local spirits (spirit houses and spirit shrines), and making offerings to monks/nuns/wats as a means of purifying past misdeeds? I know as a convert to Buddhism years ago, having "Christians" tell me that I was going to hell for not being a Christian was hard to take. It was hurtful though I really believe several of these folks really meant it and did not intend it as a personal attack. How is this taught in Cambodian churches? If a young woman or man becomes a Christian out of sincere faith and belief, how do they rectify that with their Buddhist mom, dad, siblings, and grandparents? How are they taught to view the other 98% of the non-Christian population? A sweet Khmer young woman flatly told me that anyone that does not believe in Jesus Christ as God will not go to heaven and it seemed to escape her that she was saying that everyone of her friends, classmates, and coworkers would be denied entrance into the heaven of her conception because they were all Buddhist and Muslim. This point was not missed on her peers however and I wondered if they felt how I felt those years ago; that by following my deepest convictions and beliefs I would somehow always be "condemned" by folks that were a large part of my life. From a Biblical or church perspective I don't know what the answers are. I know what I believe but I would like to know what Christians believe in this regard and more specifically what Cambodian Christian denominations are teaching and preaching in this vein.
To sum all of this up I want to give an example of a conversation that stuck with me that I have been trying to make sense of the past few years. The pastor of a Khmer church also worked a day job as a barber in rural Cambodia. I went to him for my normal haircut ("Cut it short like the monks.") and seeing that I was a white skinned foreigner he asked me if I was Christian. I told him no; I practice Mahayana Buddhism (technically Vajrayana Buddhism but that is splitting hairs here). He said "That is too bad. I am a Christian." I told him that my family is Christian and that I went to Christian schools as a child, but that I became a Buddhist a long time ago. He asked me why I became Buddhist and I did my best to explain what led me to becoming Buddhist. It was in a mixture of Khmer and English and it wasn't an easy conversation. Then I asked him why he became a Christian. Before he could answer, his buddy and fellow barber chimed in "Look at all of the Buddhist countries. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia everyone is Buddhist and everyone is poor. It is difficult to get food. Most people don't have any money and have difficult lives. Look at Western nations, everyone is Christian and they have big houses, expensive automobiles, lots of food, and money. He got tired of being poor and Buddhist and thought that if he becomes Christian maybe Jesus will give him lots of money, food, and a life that is not so difficult too." My Christian pastor friend then tried to give his answer but to be honest it didn't stick with me and his friend's quick reply has stuck with me for a few years now. Both of these guys were covered in the "protection tattoos" given by monks and "magic" people and they said those tattoos had been a part of their protection during the Khmer Rouge and civil war years (keep in mind I lived in an area that was a Khmer Rouge stronghold until they laid down their arms in the mid-90's). He believed that these tattoos had protected him from bullets from entering his skin and made him invisible to his enemies. Many men in my town were covered in these tattoos, but once he became a Christian he no longer needed these tattoos and saw them as unattractive and part of his past as a soldier. They had lost their magic to him. I can't presume to know his thoughts and I realize that there is already some speculation on my behalf along these lines, but I can't help but wonder if he wouldn't have been better off with his magic tattoos and the shamanistic Theravada Buddhism of Cambodia than he was with his foreign Christian faith in a Jesus that his friend perceived as blessing Western nations with wealth and excess.
I hope I haven't overwhelmed you with my questions and observations. As a Buddhist, I realize that I am not necessarily impartial in my perspective and opinion, but I am asking these questions because I really would like to understand some of the motivation and dynamics that are involved in Christian missionary work in Cambodia. Being limited in my understanding of contemporary Christianity and partial to Buddhism, I hope that my questions, observations, and wording is not offensive or rude. Thanks for any insights you can shed on these questions because I have been asking them for a while now and I just am not coming up with any satisfactory answers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why I Came Back to Cambodia and What Keeps Me Here

   It has been quite a while since I sat down and wrote anything on this blog. Since my last entry I have finished my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moung Russey district, Battambang province, Cambodia, returned to America and my wonderful family, missed Cambodia terribly, and hopped on a plane to get back to the Bode as fast as I could having little more than a heartfelt sense that this is where I am supposed to be. The moment I got on the plane to fly back to America, I thought "Why am I going back? What am I doing?" and the only answer I could come up with was because my family was waiting for me to get off the plane and give them a hug after two years overseas. Seeing my family was wonderful; for a Southern man like me there is very little that can compare to sitting around a dinner table eating a home cooked meal and laughing with my mom, sisters, and brother in law. It may sound silly, but my aunt's special fried shrimp recipe, my mom's simple but un-improvable salad, and my sister's pot roast are just dishes of food, but somehow sharing them with my family is one of my most treasured memories. If I live to be an old man, I am certain I will be able to recall my sisters' laughs and my mother's smile from a witty comment made by my brother in law over one of those delicious Southern meals. So why did I move back to Cambodia with nothing promised to me and give up the happiness that comes with being surrounded by family and friends? That is a hard question to answer, but I'm gonna try.

    The life of a Peace Corps Volunteer is fairly simple: move to a foreign country, learn some basic language, move to a rural village (usually), try to be of service as much as possible (or as much as you can stand it), integrate into the community as much as possible, and try do make a sustainable and lasting contribution to the community. Peace Corps has a motto, "The toughest job you'll ever love," and it was true for me. This is not meant as a "poor developing nation, let me help you with my Western knowledge" rant, but living here changed me. Everyday I got to teach a group of little kids (some of whose) families couldn't afford to send them to private classes and who would most likely never have the opportunity to go to high school, much less college. These were children of local farmers or sellers (market vendors) for the most part, with a few kids that lived with a grandparent or aunt because their parents weren't around for a variety of reasons. Five days a week, every week, for two years these kids came to Moung Russey High School to study English with me. At that time I was still learning how to teach and my grasp of the Khmer language was tedious and rudimentary at best. That never stopped them from showing up. If I got sick (as I did many times), they would show up at my house and knock on my door insisting that we have class. When I felt homesick for my family and friends back in Georgia, they would lift my spirits just by being excited and happy to see me when I showed up at school. When I questioned my effectiveness as a volunteer and the sustainability of my projects, hearing them ask me questions in English and watching the friendship that bloomed between the kids who have a little and the kids that have nothing, it showed me that for them I was a part of a sustainable change for the positive. To see over a couple years, a young boy whose 16 year old brother is working illegally in Thailand (one of the many), who knows he is most likely the next to go, whose family has nothing and watch him gain confidence in himself, go from knowing only "hello" to asking a new question in English everyday, and see him share his new found knowledge with 3 other boys who come from eerily similar situations... it is hard to describe how that impacted/impacts me. Knowing that right now, today, he went to school and still has a hope of getting an education and finding a way out of the stifling poverty he was born into, and getting to play a role in that change is amazing.And he is just one kid, a really persistent and incredibly intelligent kid, but just one kid. I was lucky enough to be born with the means, the opportunity, and a family that pushed me towards education. He didn't have any of that. This isn't meant as some "Philip is a good guy" story, but to try to convey how awesome an impression one student has had on my life and he is one of many. The day I left my house in Moung Russey every kid that I had been teaching 5 days a week for 2 years came to my house and hung out while I packed. Some of them cried and told me how much they would miss me. Some told me they had dreams about riding a bike to America to see me. They all told me they didn't want me to go. To tell the truth, I didn't want to go either. Everywhere I went in Moung those kids followed me two to a bike. When I talk about Moung Russey I always end up calling them "my kids" because I feel responsible to make sure they are okay, to try to give them the opportunities I took for granted as a kid, and to make sure they know that I am proud of them. I could rattle off all of their names and try to explain how back in America I missed each and everyone of them, but it wouldn't really give the thought/feeling the significance it deserves. And this is just the kids; there are friends in Moung and older students that impacted me very deeply as well, but I can only write so much.

   My assignment as a PCV was to be a health and education volunteer which means that I was supposed to teach high school English and work with the local health center contributing where I can. That isn't what I did. The Moung Russey health center was fairly well staffed and didn't really need or want a whole lot of help, but my neighborhood did. There were roughly 8 karaoke bars/brothels in my neighborhood filled with young women and girls varying in age from 15 to 28. Each brothel/karaoke bar could have anywhere from 3 to +20 girls/women working and living there at any given time. The HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Cambodia (and Battambang province particularly) ridiculously hard when the UN came in to establish "democratic elections" in the 1990's. When I asked what happened to the women who were infected during that time period I was flatly told "They all died" because there were no anti-retroviral drugs available in Cambodia at that time. Anti-retrovirals are available now and HIV education and prevention has increased dramatically since that time, but everyday as I rode my bike to school to meet my kids I rode past the brothels and bars. When I would ride home around dusk, there would be young women, around 18 or 19 years old if that, standing near a particular brothel close to my home. I wondered what happened to them, how did they get in that position, what was being done to help them, why did I see them everyday and what was being done to protect them? In Moung the answer was largely "Who cares? They are bad girls." I asked around a bit and got some help from a high ranking friend at the health center and a local ngo and set out to go to the brothels and karaoke bars to teach about HIV and STI (sexually transmitted infections) prevention. It met with some success and then was shut down due to an ngo that will remain nameless that was afraid I would apply for and receive their US AID funding. When I asked to volunteer with them, they said "No thanks." Once the PC helped me establish with the local bureaucracy that I was not interested in anyones' funding and that I was there on a purely volunteer basis, I was given the green light to go back. The oddest part of this is that if I had been going to the brothels and bars for sex, no one would have cared or intervened; in fact, men in the community would have and did openly invited me to go with them. It was only because I was not interested in having sex, but wanting to help the young women that were living and working there that a "conflict of interest" arose. Oddly enough as well, I NEVER encountered the ngo that was afraid I would take their funding when I went to the karaoke bars and brothels. I went multiple times a week for two years and I never saw them or heard anyone talk about them visiting. When I resumed my work in the brothels and karaoke bars the folks that had been helping me previously were unable to continue, so I recruited a friend who spoke decent English and proceeded to go back and teach. After a while, I started going alone and just sitting and chatting with the women when they weren't busy. Every week I bought a case or a couple cases of condoms and made the rounds passing them out. I sat and joked with some of the women who by now had become friends. They played cards and I tried to follow the inconsistencies of their bets. I brought fruit and we ate. They cooked their lunch and made me a plate too. Some of the women came to trust me and that means a lot when every other man that comes to the bar is there for one reason. As a rule, sex workers don't trust men because it is men who have raped them, beaten them, lied to them, and continue to do so on a daily basis. One young woman sticks out in my mind more than others because she was so angry. When I first started going to the bars she would ask me if I wanted to sleep with her, when I said no she didn't know what to do. When I kept saying no over a period of weeks she became really angry, but then over a period of months she saw that I really didn't want anything from her except to try to help her if possible. At first she baffled me with her anger, but over time I realized that her anger was absolutely and totally appropriate. From a young age she was told that she was "broken" and not equal to men or even other women. Rape and violence are part and parcel of the sex industry, if someone tells you they aren't believe me when I say that that is total and complete bullshit. Her male contact on a daily basis was dominated largely by men who were there to get drunk and have sex with her, willingly or unwillingly. When I came along and treated her like a normal person, it scared her. It should have because it is nice speaking and seemingly friendly folks that largely control the intake and recruitment of young women into the sex industry. Often it is an aunt, cousin, family friend, boyfriend, etc. that first pushes these young women into forced sex work. There is also no shortage of seeming "do-gooder ngo folks" (both Khmer and foreigner, though in rural Cambodia the amount of foreigners is minuscule)who while seemingly altruistic in their professional lives have no problem taking part in the sexual exploitation of girls and women. I say all of that to say this, gaining the trust of some of these young women was the highest complement I have ever been given and it took a courage I can't begin to imagine. Because of that trust 3 of my friends who had been working at a local karaoke bar/brothel were able to enter a safe house run by an amazing ngo called AFESIP. The young woman who had been so angry before was one of those young women. The day AFESIP came to Moung and gave their presentation in a local brothel and took my friends back to the safe house in Phnom Penh after driving deep into a more out of the way village to get another of my friends out of a brothel/bar, was and remains the happiest day of my life. That is the only time in my life I can remember crying tears of joy. How can I ever walk away from their trust when I know that brothels/karaoke bars/massage parlors/etc. litter the Cambodian landscape from city to village and they are filled with young women and girls just like my friends? 

   Cambodia is complicated and things aren't always what they seem; while I was back in the States all three of my friends left the AFESIP shelter. Without going into how's and why's that are all just a bunch of pointless words unless you have met these women, tried to see their lives through their eyes (and how impossible that is), and made a commitment to a friend to help; it is hard to explain. A week after returning to Cambodia, I found 2 of my friends in the same bar I helped them leave before I went back to America. Where I was once welcomed to teach, pass out condoms, and just sit around and chat, I am now unwelcome. When I went back I sensed violence could happen quickly and it is the only time I have truly felt unwelcome in Cambodia. My friend couldn't speak; when I asked questions someone else answered. They trusted me when every experience in their lives told them not to, how can I break that trust by walking away from a danger that they live inside everyday? I will go back and that scares me, but not going back scares me more.

   Right now I am living and working in Stung Meanchey district, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I am an English teacher at an ngo that helps disadvantaged folks from the countryside gain experience in the IT field and provides scholarships to four year universities. I am a five hour bus ride from everyone and everything that called me back home to Cambodia as soon as I got on the plane to leave. Though Phnom Penh is drastically different from a farming community of 15000 people, the streets are filled with "my kids" and my friends. Every KTV (karaoke bars and sometimes brothels) and street kid reminds me of the responsibility and the trust that was placed in me back in Moung Russey. I don't know what my next step is, but I know it isn't to walk away. I don't want to confuse anyone with my words; I don't have a "savior complex" and I don't think I have all the answers to any of the problems here, but I do have a responsibility to be a part of the solution.

   And that is part of the reason I won't be eating delicious Southern food with my mom, sisters, and brother in law anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Faith based initiatives and why I'm weary of the wording

I was reading up on an organization I was unfamiliar with and stumbled upon the term "faith-based" for what feels like the thousandth time in the last 6 months. Like every other time I read this term I became instantly weary and that seems odd since I consider myself to be a "person of faith." Maybe it is my Bible Belt upbringing, but when I hear that term I associate it with Christianity which isn't entirely fair to Christians since there are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist,Jewish, and other faith based programs. Al-Queda describe their actions as "faith based" but they are hardly representative of the majority of Muslims, just like the "faith based" actions of Christian terrorists aren't representative of Christ. Christ never advocated shooting abortion doctors, blowing up gay clubs, or any other terrorist act but every time one of these folks gets caught they claim to be acting on their faith in God/Allah/Jehovah/Yahweh/etc. Obviously not all faith based programs are of this extreme variety but it leaves me wondering what "faith based" actually means and if it is really a useful term at all. To apply this to myself and the spiritual tradition I practice: The Buddha taught love, compassion, honesty, peace, selflessness, generosity, forgiveness, patience, integrity, wisdom, etc. So to be a person of faith should really mean to be a person of principle because these are universal principles that are found in all of the major (and most minor) spiritual traditions. The Buddha claimed no monopoly on these principles, neither did Jesus or the Prophet Mohammad or Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva/etc. So my faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha should inspire me to act in a manner in accordance with the principles Buddha proscribed. My actions should be "principle based" rather than "faith based." To look at this in a slightly different light, the word faith is easily used as a standard replacement for religion. For example: Followers of the Buddhist faith/religion believe in rebirth, karma, any number of deities, and lack an independently existing creator or god. You can read that sentence with either faith or religion and it makes sense, but try it with "principle" in the same place... It doesn't work. This leads me to think that if I am calling my actions "faith based" then there is a certain likelihood that I am not overly concerned with passing on the principles advocated by the figure whom my spiritual tradition is founded on so much as passing on my religion itself. This is not to say that religion as a synonym of faith cannot work in close proximity to faith; Mother Teresa was a deeply religious woman who acted on the principles of Christ's teaching. She didn't let her religious conviction of the Holy Trinity as a multi-faceted expression of a singular God stand in the way of feeding, clothing, and nursing to health thousands of Hindu children. Her religious faith convinced her of the application of principle as her highest priority. Her actions were "principle based" rather than "faith based." Because of this Mother Teresa is regard by many Catholics and non-Catholics as a saint. Now to back track a bit and examine those more extreme versions of "faith based" action such as the Christian and Muslim Crusades. How difficult is finding a justification to kill someone if your actions are based upon the principles of peace, kindness, love, etc? Pretty difficult to create a scenario where killing is an expression of love and kindness. How difficult is killing someone if your action is based on a sense of religious superiority? A glance through the history books or turning on the news should answer that fairly quickly. To take this point back to the original idea of calling an organization that seeks to help others in need a "faith based initiative" does it a great disservice in my opinion. If the goal of the organization is the conversion of people belonging to a heathen faith then "faith based" fits. It lets the rest of the world know where you stand. When an organization is acting on principle to help those who are in need regardless of their beliefs, when those organizations act with love for the sake love, we should call it "principle based" because that is what it is.

Apologies for the lack of paragraphs to space this out a bit, but as I wrote it it felt like a continious stream of the same idea and I tried to write it accordingly. This is meant only to be critical of the term "faith based" not the organizations that use the term. There are some wonderful groups working tirelessly to improve the lives of others, who base their actions entirely on the principles advocated by Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, etc.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Overdue update and what is weighing on my heart

It has been quite a while since I posted anything on the blog so I figure I am overdue. My lack of entries has been the result of two specific causes. The most recent cause was the fact that the Cambodian government blocked several blog domains due to the criticism of the government from a few select bloggers. This left me unable to access my blog for a while and I didn't realize that I could access it now until about 5 minutes ago. The second reason I haven't posted much was simply because I am not sure what to say and what to keep to myself, so I try to err on the side of caution. This lead to a build up of unpublished drafts and a blog with no recent entries. Today I am throwing the second factor out the window because I just want to rant a little bit about some of the stuff spinning around in my heart and head.

Part of what has grabbed my attention in Cambodia has been the difficult role women are forced to play in Khmer society. There is a Khmer code of conduct for women known as Chbab Srey which specifically states that a woman should not hold herself to be her husbands equal, to always be quiet and shy, to keep herself hidden, not to laugh too loud, not to sleep with her back to her husband, etc. Women and men are often described through this axion "Men are like precious gems, if they are dropped into the dirt or mud they can easy be cleaned and restored to their original nature; women are like fine linen, if they are dropped into the dirt or mud they will forever be tarnished regardless of how hard they try to remove the stain." I remember hearing this when I first arrived in Cambodia and thinking "What a bunch of bullshit." Almost two years later and seeing how Chbab Srey actually functions in society I often find myself disgusted by what is seen as normal behavior by men in Cambodia. Not all men are guilty of this and I can say that I know a handful of men that to all appearances treat their wife as their equal. This is not the norm though. Many of the foreigners who arrive here adopt their own sick versions of Chbab Srey to justify their own exploitative desires, so it is not strictly a phenomenon relegated to Cambodian men. To clarify how this shows up in regular everyday life for young Khmer women, if a girl has a boyfriend before she is married and losses her virginity her prospects of marriage decrease and the stigma placed on her will follow her for years if not for a lifetime. her boyfriend however may be called a playboy or a gangster (a broad term here) but he really won't have any signifigant difficulties. Girls are taught to guard their virginity because without it they have little value and because of this the majority of Cambodian men have their first sexual encounter in a karaoke bar, brothel, or at another location with a sex worker. Others turn to the use of force because they know that having a consenting partner is difficult due to the risk a woman faces if her sexual activity is disclosed openly or even slightly questionable.

Part of what I do in my town is to distribute condoms at local karaoke bars and to provide education about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Most of the young women that live or work in this places are so socially marginalized that they literally have no other option. They are largely deprived of education, sometimes lacking even the most basic education such as reading and writing Khmer, and have no marriage options because they lost their virginity to a boyfriend or had it taken by a rapist. Others have been tricked into sex work by traffickers that promised their families that the girls would be given jobs in a factory. Some are sold into the brothel or bar by an aunt, uncle, or acquaintance in order to make a few hundred dollars. The girl is expected to have sex with customers in order to pay off the debt that the bar owner took by purchasing her. These young women are at the absolute lowest rung of the social ladder in Cambodia and have very hope of escaping a life filled with violence, rape (usually more than once), and poverty. Other women in the community look down on these women, who are often still more girls than women, because they are no longer "pure" and they can never be made pure again. It is striking to hear a young woman who makes $10 a day (which is decent here) talk about a sex worker of the same age and describe her as "a bad girl who only wants to have a lot of money and likes to be with many men." The truth is that this is a lie the girl must tell herself because there is actually very little social cushioning to prevent her from being in the same situation. Walking in a rice field alone and being discovered by a man or group of men with hurtful intentions can not only leave her emotionally shattered and traumatized, but it can also be the symbolic piece of straw that breaks the camel's back. It goes unsaid but it is important to remember that it isn't any one action that leads to the life of quiet desperation sex workers live, just as it wasn't one piece of straw that broke the camel's back, it is the millions of other pieces of straw underneath it. Not all girls that lose their virginity before marriage end up as sex workers, neither do all the victims of rape. However, listening to the women that work in the sex industry reveals that almost all of them experienced a situation along these lines that left them "impure" or "stained" in the eyes of their society. Most of these young women were born poor to begin with, so they entered the world with a heavy burden to shoulder anyway. In a society where a male child is openly preferred to a female child and without enough money to escape the multiple burdens of poverty, these women are viewed as disposable once they no longer possess the redeeming quality of being a virgin. They have a social stigma, no education or trade, an empty stomach, and very often they are expected to make a financial contribution to their family. Where are they supposed to go in a society that considers it normal for a married man to go out drinking with his friends at a karaoke bar with his friends and sleep with one of the girls there. If his wife were to dress even slightly immodestly, she would "lose face" as well as her husband and she would likely face strong reprimand by her husband. For his infidelity, which is usually an ongoing occurrence, he probably won't hear a word from his wife or from anyone else simply because it was expected. When there exists a social mechanism that demands that a man be able to quench his sexual appetites while simultaneously demanding that women maintain a rigid sense of purity, it gives rise to a market that actively creates a disposable class who no longer have any purity to maintain and that can be used and discarded by men.

So where am I going with this? Where is the silver lining to this grey cloud? At this moment there isn't one. As I go about passing out condoms and talking about HIV, people think that I am quite odd. Even the women in the karaoke bars sometimes seem confused that I'm not there for sex since the man who hasn't had sex with a prostitute here is a rare find. There are organizations putting up a valiant fight to help these young women. Organizations like AFESIP, Action Pour Les Enfants, International Justice Mission, and others are dong all they can but it is only making the smallest of dents in what is a country wide (and region wide) problem. Through no fault of their own they are somewhat limited to trying to help the absolute worst cases of exploitation and due to funding and distance I have never seen them in my town, but I pass multiple karaoke bars filled with young women on a daily basis. The only organization I did run into was a small Cambodian run NGO that had me summoned to the local health center director's office out of concern that I would try to apply for their USAID funding. Once they heard that I am a volunteer and work for free and have no interest in their funding, I never heard from them again. Even when I asked them if I could volunteer for them and help them in any way, they said thanks but no thanks. Maybe they do great work, but I can tell you that when I am talking to karaoke bar owners or trying to teach basic English to the children of the sex workers I have never run into that NGO.

So this is where I am at; these young women need help. They need a future. Every piece of purity they have supposedly lost is totally intact. You can see it in their eyes and hear in their laughter during those moments when they realize that your not there to take anything from them, not there to hurt them, not there for sex, not there to throw another piece of straw on the camel's back. I'm no Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dr. King or anyone else along those lines and I don't want to pretend to be. I'm not even particularly good at what I'm trying to do, but I can't look away. I can't pretend that I don't know that no one else is going to try to help the young women in the seven karaoke bars within a kilometer of my house. It has broken my heart and I'm glad it has. It is my prayer that this breaks your heart too. I hope it breaks so deeply that you can't look away and that you have to do something even if you don't know what to do. Call your Congressman, write him/her a letter, donate to an NGO fighting the exploitation of women and children, start an NGO for this, just do something.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Writing from a while back

Theory of Relativity
we have a second to birth, breathe, feel, think, love, die
in every moment I have felt as if I knew everyone before we met
since the first goodbye impermanence and death have held my hand consciously
there is an order to the dyed particles of the karmic kaleidoscope which escapes each viewer
can’t stand still; can’t move
the lens has been lifted towards the sun so we assign our own meaning to the fractured light
the millisecond of childhood is the closest we come to understanding

Friday, July 23, 2010

Some of my favorite quotes

This is a somewhat random collection of quotes that inspire me or echo something within. Hope they bring as much delight to the reader as they have brought me.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”
E. E. Cummings

“Unless you love someone, nothing else makes any sense.”
E. E. Cummings

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
Haile Selassie

“We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”
Kalu Rinpoche

“Looking for peace is like looking for a turtle with a mustache: You won't be able to find it. But when your heart is ready, peace will come looking for you.”
Ajahn Chah

“Open your eyes, look within. Are you satisfied with the life you're living?”
Bob Marley

“Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Jimi Hendrix

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”
Albert Einstein

“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
Albert Einstein

“You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”
Malcolm X

“I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against.”
Malcolm X

“If you're not ready to die for it, put the word ''freedom'' out of your vocabulary.”
Malcolm X

“Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Karl Marx

“I am not a Hindu,
Nor a Muslim am I!
I am this body, a play
Of five elements; a drama
Of the spirit dancing
With joy and sorrow.”
Kabir

“It is the mind that makes the body.”
Sojourner Truth

Thursday, July 22, 2010

One year in Cambodia

Time has flown by and though it seems somewhat unreal to me, I have now been living in Cambodia for one year. From the first few months of living in Traing district, Takeo province without electricity or indoor plumbing to my current home in Maung Russey district, Battambang province it has been an interesting experience so far. Whether it is something as simple as greeting someone new or more complex normative social beliefs, Cambodia is certainly very different from everything I was accustomed to in Augusta, Georgia. As a new group of Peace Corps Volunteers enters the country this week I am struck by the fact that things that once seemed strange and foreign to my Western mind now seem ordinary and everyday.

There is little Western context for some of the discussions I have had here on a fairly regular basis. For example it is common to be asked if you believe in ghosts. At first this may seem to be a childish question that offers little insight into the people as a collective, but as time progresses the fallacy of this first impression becomes apparent. In a country thirty one years removed from a genocide that claimed the lives of millions there is a certain inexpressible something that lingers in the atmosphere of Cambodia. Most commonly I am asked about ghosts by teenagers who were born after the genocide and saw limited amounts of the civil war that followed the Khmer Rouge's forced evacuation of Phnom Penh. These teenagers have hears the stories of family members and know of many of the atrocities that occurred, yet in they seem to have a certain amount of disbelief as if they don't believe that their fellow countrymen are/were capable of such things. In Takeo I was told that I lived down the street from a unmarked mass grave and the belief in ghosts was fairly high I gathered from the limited conversations I had with the people around me. As time has passed I have set aside the horror movie idea of ghosts for one that I find far more real and frightening. From hearing what I thought was initially a silly question, I have come to believe that there are ghosts throughout Cambodia. These ghosts are the unresolved traumas of a people that have seen and experienced too much; these ghosts inhabit every aspect of the alcoholic men forced to watch their family members killed or starved to death when they were ten years old. Ghosts torment the mothers who have been told that the only way to survive is to remain quiet and subservient in their daily lives. These ghosts feed on the suffering of the young women pushed into prostitution because of economic desperation; the young men who rape and abuse these women are haunted by the same ghosts that have made them unable or unwilling to see their own inhumanity and hatred. The common image of ghosts here is a disembodied head that is in search of a body to feed upon and the reality is just that; the great suffering to which everyone above the age of thirty was forced to endure still inhabits the minds of most in one way or another and seeks peace in the only way it knows, more destruction of self and others. Pchum Ben is the holiday in which the people make offerings to the ghosts of their ancestors and believe that they can ease any suffering of their ancestors in the process. No other Theravada Buddhist country celebrates this day, but in a land of ghosts, disembodied spirits of suffering and pain, it makes sense. While last year I simply observed the holiday as an outsider, this year I will make offerings for those ghosts haunting the living and the dead.

The ideas of material gain and success that I grew up thinking were the norm for every society have been proven false from my perspective. In a malnutrition and preventable illness kill many people every year, I see no value in having a big home, SUV, and televisions in every room. These things aren't bad nor are the people that want these things, but for me they are ways we use to escape the suffering of the rest of the world around us. For example, I don't have to think about the homeless man sleeping outside the local church when I am watching American Idol. Even now I feel that I am too far removed from all the pain around me. The true value of expensive clothing is not lost on me when I know that a pair of jeans in America could easily feed a Cambodian family for a week. Is looking nice more important than their hunger? This is what I ask myself and even now living on a volunteer allowance (far from a salary) I find myself feeling guilty for too much self indulgence when those near me are struggling to have just enough. There is a pronounced difference between the "have's" and the "have not's" in Cambodia and I have no interest in becoming part of the former if it means denying the latter. Too often this is what the price of "success" is and I now hope for something different. In reference to the ghosts of the last paragraph, it seems clear to me that seeking my own material gain while denying assistance to those with little or nothing is inhumane and continues the feeding cycle of those rapacious spirits.

Certainly I have noticed far more changes in myself and differences between life in my childhood home and now in Cambodia, but at the moment they hardly feel worth mentioning. The most important aspects of my experience in Cambodia are inadequately worded in the last two paragraphs and I don't have any desire to lessen or cheapen those observations with some of the more obvious differences. It may seem corny to some, I know I would have thought of it that way at another point in my life, but I find myself always adding "Peace and love" when ever I am communicating with anyone via the internet; this has a distinct reason. That is what is needed here and by "here" I mean in Cambodia, America, all over the world, within yourself, and within me. Everything that is truly beneficial to others and ourselves flows from peace and love and until we have these in abundance we will all be haunted by our own ghosts to varying degrees.