Shared Experiences, Different Contexts

30 03 2012

The wonderful thing about having lived in our host community for six months now is that the relationships we’ve been cultivating are finally turning into real, meaningful friendships. Unfortunately, that means that lately, as these friendships solidify, we’ve been privy to a lot of difficult stories. People in the community have been opening up to us about their struggles, and in many ways, the recent stories we’ve been hearing are just like the ones faced by our friends and family in the US. They are stories of lost love, infidelity and infertility; tales of sacrifice, deceit and family feuds. And while it’s easy to write these off as “normal” problems, there always seems to be one element in each story that snaps us quickly back into the Cambodian reality. In telling these stories, I hope to describe how these shared human experiences can be complicated by cultural factors that many of us from the United States are never forced to think about.

Tim on his way to grab a drink with a friend

Take for example, the heartbreaking reality of seeing someone you love marry another man. This is the tear-jerking, devastating plot of hundreds of sappy movies. It’s a story line that, in some way, we can all relate to. And we all probably know someone who feels like they missed out on their true love. However, for our friend here at site, his story played out a little differently. He had been courting a girl for months and was absolutely smitten. Then, one day out of the blue, he received a phone call from her, asking about the status of their relationship. He replied that he needed another year or two to save some money before marrying her. Then, she dropped the bomb: her parents were forcing her to marry another man. After all, they feared she was getting too old to find a good suitor and this young man makes more money than our friend. Parental acceptance and money certainly play a role in marriages in the United States, but it isn’t often that parents force their children to marry someone. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that the parents of the bride and groom would then sit down to negotiate a bride price. Although many would agree that money is an important factor to consider when looking for a partner, it just doesn’t hold the same social, financial and political power in the US as it does here in Cambodia.

Or, let’s take the story of a neighbor of mine. She was married very late, and tells me on a regular basis how old and ugly she was on her wedding day. Her husband has been married before and has children, but my neighbor does not. She desperately wants children of her own, pleading with me almost daily to have four kids so I can send her two. Often she asks me if I am using any form of birth control. When I reply affirmatively she looks to the ground, and, maybe it’s my imagination, but she almost seems angry. Recently I found out that she traveled to Vietnam on three occasions to visit a fertility doctor, but the doctor was not able to help. Other women in the neighborhood tease her and tell stories about their young nieces who are having their second or third child already. In Cambodia, infertility is almost always considered the women’s fault for reasons ranging from hot blood to bad karma. Additionally, married couples in Cambodia have to reproduce in order to complete their social roles; it is extremely rare to see married couples who choose to remain childless. So, not only does this neighbor have a medical condition that makes it difficult or impossible to have children, but she also carries a load of guilt and a sense of failure, surrounded by an environment where other women are having, on average, nearly five children over the course of their lifetimes.

One third of Cambodians are under the age of fifteen

Finally, husbands cheat on their wives the globe over—sometimes, unfortunately, even with sex workers. But when a man from our village decides to visit a brothel, there is a one-third chance that the prostitute is under the age of 18, and a 55 percent chance that she was forced into the industry. The Southeast Asian sex industry is a much more abusive system with a much broader scope than that of the sex industry in the US. Currently in Cambodia, monogamous married women account for approximately 40 percent of new HIV infections because, in a society like this one where male infidelity is highly tolerated, men serve a bridging role between relatively high- and low-risk populations. Fortunately, I do not know of any women who have been infected by their cheating husbands, but I do know of plenty of men in my community who frequent brothels or beer gardens; married men who pay for sex. I know several other Peace Corps Volunteers whose host fathers or direct supervisors engage in these activities, as well. And as our relationships with these people grow, whether we’re bonding with the men or the women, our role and our realm of influence become simultaneously more important and less clear. With an estimated 40 percent of Cambodian men frequenting brothels, it’s a widespread problem that not only presents deep emotional implications for those affected, but also life-threatening health implications.

Many times when people travel abroad they conclude that “we’re all the same.” And, to a large extent, I believe in the shared human experience. However, these three stories illustrate the ways that problems we consider to be more or less universal can morph based on the context. I tell them not to elicit pity for these individuals because they don’t want or deserve it. It’s simply another insight into the lives of of my coworkers, neighbors and friends, and a way for those of you back home to better understand the context in which Tim and I are currently living.

Katie

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One response

31 03 2012
Mike Warner

This would make a great article for the paper. Good human drama bringing real people to life.

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