Steve and Aime Gosselin - in ultimate frisbee gear

My friends Steve and Amie Gosselin live and work in Cambodia, where they have been since 2008 when they moved to Phnom Penh to pursue meaningful work. Steve is an Electronic Systems Engineer who grew up in Saskatchewan. Amie is a Journalist from Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Steve and Aime inspire me with their panache for adventure, their habit of living simply, and their commitment to help others. I was really interested to learn from them what life is like in Cambodia, and what their unique perspective is of a country with a painful past, a country I’ve yet to see.

Andrew Kooman: What was your reason for first packing up your bags and heading to Asia?

Amie Gosselin: We have been intrigued and captivated by Asia since college when we both did university internships in the region. When we graduated from uni and got married, “work in Asia” became our singular fixation. Both of us really wanted to take our skills, experience, and passion, and apply them in an international context. We craved the challenge and the adventure. When Steve got a job with a renewable energy company in Cambodia, it was the open door we’d been waiting for for 3 years. And now here we are.

AK: Do you remember your first impressions of Cambodia? What surprised and what still surprises?
Aime Gosselin
AG: It was the rainy season when we arrived in Phnom Penh in September, 2008. Cambodia was a giant mud puddle. There were power outages every day that could last hours. We’d get home from a day in the city and the tray under the ice box would be full of water – and there’d be no ice in the fridge. Traffic was nuts – motorbikes and cars driving on the wrong side of the road; no one stopping at stop signs or red lights – or anytime for that matter. But amid all the chaos, Cambodians always display big, beautiful, shining smiles.

I distinctly remember standing in line to get our visas when we first arrived. We knew we were staying for at least 6 months, so we wanted to be able to stay in the country for as long as possible. The immigration officer (smiling, calm, very friendly) told us that this would be no problem. He would just take our passports for a few days and call our guesthouse when the paperwork was done. And it would cost $500. We didn’t take him up on his offer.

Often, it shocks me how simultaneously simple and impossible it is to do things in this country. For instance, it only takes a few seconds and a bit of cash to procure a driver’s license, buy a motorbike, and unlock a cellphone. But then other things that should be easy (like getting mail, doing anything at the bank, and paying the internet bill) can take hours. It seems the important things, like building relationships and pursuing justice, are the things that take forever – or that just never happen at all. This is an infuriating reality and one that continues to boggle our minds.
AK: Can you both describe your individual work in the country?

AG: I work for Hagar Cambodia/International. Hagar is an organisation that works with women and children who’ve been trafficked and abused. It’s a tribe, really. A tribe of committed and passionate people (nationals and a smattering of expats) who believe in hope – who really believe in the impossible (that stories of violence, horrific abuse, and oppression can have a different ending).

Hagar focuses on recovery, empowerment and reintegration of women and children to community through relationships, long-term support, recovery shelters,education, counseling and social businesses. I work in the communications department where I’m training a Cambodian to take over my responsibilities at Hagar Cambodia. It is very exciting and challenging because every day I remind myself that I am working myself out of financial security and investing in Cambodia’s future. Every day I am honoured to work for Hagar and love my job.

Steve Gosselin: I work for a social enterprise called Kamworks about an hour outside Phnom Penh. Social enterprise might not be a common-place term back home but it is pretty hot right now in development circles. The idea is to have a company rather than an NGO but have a deliberate social focus. Kamworks is a solar power company that was originally started on the grounds of an orphanage in order to give technical training and work to kids once they leave the orphanage. 6 years later, the office is still on the grounds of the orphanage and many of the skilled workers grew up here too.

There are a couple main focuses right now. We are developing an ‘end kerosene’ campaign and we have a small solar LED light which we hope to promote as a replacement. One of many options we have is to rent out the light at a slightly lower cost than people pay every day for kerosene. I am currently managing a different project surrounding solar home systems which is the next level after portable solar devices. Basically, we have several options for people to install permanent solar systems in their homes to power lighting, mobile phones, radios, TV, etc…

Working out in the countryside is definitely laid back, inefficient at times and full of daily challenges. Overall, it is a wonderful community with great coworkers and interesting projects.

AK: I understand there’s scores of NGOs in Cambodia doing a hundred and one different things. Of all the organizations you could partner with, why these?

AG: It may be the first time in my life where I’ve actually really believed in redemption. That is a terrible thing of course for a follower of Jesus to say…(That I haven’t run into pain and suffering and trauma before this!) But I’ll be honest. This may be the first time it’s hit me fair and square. At Hagar I have seen incredibly broken people find hope. I have met young girls trafficked into brothels as children who are now confident and courageous teens nearing high school graduation. I’ve met women who have bear life-long disfigured scars from acid attacks who are now designing and producing beautiful clothing in tailoring shops. I’ve met children with intellectual disabilities who are learning in integrated classrooms alongside their peers.
For me, Hagar is synonymous with hope. There are hundreds of NGOs doing marvelous work in Cambodia. But Hagar compels me in a way unlike any other. The journey to healing isn’t perfect. It is messy and unfinished. But I appreciate Hagar’s honesty. I appreciate that we are committed to survivors for the long run. And I love our mission: whatever it takes for as long as it takes to restore a broken life.

: I am drawn more to more technical organizations. There are few of these with a serious social component to their work. There are even fewer of these that will take on challenging rural projects with poorer people knowing that it will be difficult to turn a profit. Maybe that’s why I had to go across the world to find this type of organization
AK: What has been particularly meaningful to you in your work?
AG: I hear the most inspiring stories of hope every day. I see redemption over and over again in the lives of the women and children Hagar works with. For me, I have experienced Jesus by being connected to the least of these and seeing their journeys to wholeness and healing that is (there are no other words) miraculous and beautiful.

SG: It’s meaningful for me when I connect with workmates in ways that transcend barriers of ethnicity and culture. There are lots of people over here who are ambitious but lack resources or opportunity. It’s meaningful to be able to provide an initial start-up and and watch people run with it.

AK: Beyond the “we-left-our-homeland-traveled-across-the-world-and-jumped-with-both-feet-into-a-new-culture,” where would you say the heart of adventure in this season of your life has been?

AG: Work has been challenging and adventurous and a steep learning curve for both of us. That constitutes an adventure of sorts right? We have both been thrown into responsibility and experiences that we never expected and have grown through them – it’s terrifying and exhilirating all at the same time. We’ve also had a chance to explore more of this part of the world, learn a new language and grow more and more in love with Asia every day.

SG: I think the heart of adventure is the day to day routine. Nothing ever goes quite as planned. There are things every week that surprise us about the local culture. Traveling inside the country for work or pleasure can be difficult but never without adventure. There are daily adventures stumbling through the local language and interacting with a local culture that can possibly be understood but not easily adopted by a foreigner.
AK: How heavy does the cloud of the Khmer Rouge and the history of genocide loom over the country?

SG: The KR history still plays a major role here. On the one hand, most of the people are too young to remember anything so there is a vibrant optimism and forward thinking generation. But there are still plenty (anyone over 40) and every single one of them has a story and the story is one of pain, death, and suffering. As far as I can see it, these experiences have scarred the people involved and only through the passing of one generation to the next will people be able to truly move forward. But even after moving forward there are some things that are now built into the culture as a result of this history.

One I call the ‘survival mentality’. Growing up with parents who survived the war has instilled the notion of ‘every man for himself’ or rather every family (or network) for themselves. This is apparent by the growing polarity between the rich and poor. Everyone is getting a little richer but some are getting extremely rich and over the last 5 years have started to display their wealth and power. (Like driving Lexuses, Ferrari’s and other luxury cars, etc.)

Another example I see with this survival mentality is the lack of foresight. There is hardly any planning, investment, or saving with the local people. A coworker of mine resorts to eating a couple packs of instant noodles a day by the end of the month just living paycheck to paycheck. Dig deeper and you find that the same guy throws extravagant parties half way through the month which is great on the one hand that one would spend everything they have on friends and family but on the other hand there is no concept of next month or sometimes even next week. People will also job switch into an entirely different career for an extra $30 to their salary. Salary is everything to people who live on seasonal or contract work.

AK: How do you see the consequence of the country’s political history play out in your daily work and in every day life in Phnom Penh?

SG: The war was terrible. Cambodians don’t want war again – the 30 year reign of Cambodia’s one party state continues because of this. Cambodians vote for them because there is stability and peace, even if it means turning a blind eye to corruption and an emerging class of uber-rich Khmer elites. That is one consequence – one of the most corrupt countries in the world. So many things are done under the table, there is a huge black market, everything has a price, and you can bribe anyone for nearly everything.

Here are a couple of examples: traffic violations are solved by a) escaping from the police (they never chase if you can scoot around them), b) negotiating the price of the infraction – usually comes down to $1-$5. Importing anything into Cambodia is a nightmare of lining pockets, so is getting a driver’s license, crossing a border or getting out of a sticky situation.
AK: How has the country’s history and its current social and political reality informed your concept of justice?

AG: We’ve started to see justice more as an issue of reconciliation and peace than ever before. The government of Cambodia along with the UN has been going through KR tribunals and pursuing a very Western-oriented form of justice. And while it does set a standard for dealing with perpetrators of genocide, I’m not sure that your ordinary Cambodian has recovered from the deep and raw trauma of the KR regime. Justice goes deeper than a court case. It affects hearts and attitudes and mindsets. And we’ve been challenged living in Cambodia to see God’s world and His people, and human sin, through His eyes and not our own Western worldview.

I also think a lot about international justice. And now, more than ever before, I just don’t believe its enough to give financially to great organizations doing great work (though this is important and we do this ourselves). Charity isn’t enough. God calls us to a higher standard – where we actually believe (and make good on that through our actions) that the people on the other side of the globe who are making our clothes and growing our coffee – are of equal value. We are called to live life in such a way that we pursue justice in the multitude of decisions we make everyday – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the money we spend, the people we love.

AK: What are some of the things you miss about living in Canada?

AG: I miss my family and I miss being cold. What I wouldn’t give to wear a sweatshirt once and awhile.

SG: I miss occasional cool weather, mountains, hiking, wilderness.
AK: What are some of the things we’re missing by living in Canada?

AG: We see global connections in hypercolour here. Cambodian women work in factories that produce American Eagle and Gap and Lulu Lemon clothing. We know how much they get paid every month – and we also know the price tag on the t-shirts and shorts and pants that are sold at home. We aren’t removed from the interconnectedness of the global economy and I think becoming aware of how decisions in the global north impact the global south has challenged us to make some lifestyle changes. Living in Cambodia we’ve learned some amazing values – like family, and community and joy.

AK: Something I’ve picked up from you as a couple is that wherever you live, in Canada or beyond, you choose to live simply. How has living in Phnom Penh made the simple life more of a reality?

SG: Simple living is easier in Phnom Penh because the local people are doing just that. Seriously, the resourcefulness is astounding. Nothing is thrown away. Everything is repaired and re-engineered.

Some daily things that show our simplicity are as follows: we bicycle a lot. Asia isn’t built for the car (thankfully). We cook from scratch a lot – ever made yogurt? wraps? refried beans? ice cream? We rely on community a lot more – can I borrow your moto? We wash clothes by hand in a bucket. We don’t have every tool we need in the kitchen and that’s ok (did you know you can live without a microwave, garlic press, oven?). It’s been exciting and remarkable to learn that we actually don’t need that much to be happy.
AK: Do you think living simply, in North America is a luxury or is it a reality? Do you have any tips for people who want to reduce their level of consumption and live a more simple life in North America?

Steve Gosselin

SG: I think we could write a book on this. The concepts are pretty obvious. It is just a little counter-cultural to live them out and sometimes impossible altogether when you flow with normal everyday North American life. Things like cutting down on time in the car, home cooking, living in intentional community, sharing resources, etc… are things everyone has heard about but implementing them takes some serious life decisions. Can I live close to where I work? What if everyone is going out to eat again or going to another movie? Do I need that new kitchen contraption?

I feel like we work really hard at making things convenient in the West (driving, microwaves, coffee grinders, clothes dryers, snow blowers, dishwashers) but for what purpose? I think asking that question is a good first step at reducing consumption and living more simply. What are we freeing up the time to do? And maybe, why are we so busy in the first place? Maybe hanging clothes out to dry or washing dishes isn’t such a bad thing – can you put a price on winding down after a rough day, thinking through an issue, or turning something into a communal event?
AK: I’m no psychologist, so it might seem silly to some for me to venture into this question. But I do want to ask about the complexities I imagine that exist for you as white foreigners from wealthy countries living in a country that the US State Department describes as rife with poverty, populated with young people who face high unemployment, and rampant with corruption. Enter the Gosselins. How do you think you are seen and understood by average Cambodians?

SG: We are the upperclass, no discussion required. White skin = wealth no matter what your story is. They all know you bought the plane ticket to come and when 95% of them have never left the country, just crossing a border is something only for the upper class. Aside from that, average Cambodians are continually confused by us. Firstly they have expectations from hollywood that always fall short. If they are rich, why do they ride bicycles? Why would they want to tan their beautiful white skin? Why do they dress so casually or poorly? How could they go a meal without rice? We recently force fed peanut butter to a colleague who promptly gagged and said it was the worst culinary experience he’s had in a long time.

These perceptions are difficult to overcome. After being here for a while, you kind of want to avoid the stares and just fit in. But as time passes, I am seeing that this can never be totally possible. Even if a foreigner could take on the economic lifestyle of a regular Cambodian, there are deep relational networks of family, relatives, and friends that are extremely difficult to break into. Largely, no matter how long your stay, you will always be a visitor. Also, it is extremely rare to see a foreigner (including ourselves) who has tasted wealth and can give it up. We have the expectations of travel, eating healthy, holidays, etc… and our connections, job possibilities and skin color keeps those opportunities available.

AG: With all of this in mind, it becomes really important for foreigners to plan an exit strategy. To equip local leaders. To train. To encourage Cambodians to take on leadership. And to let go and move out when the time is right.
AK: Do you ever find that “Where you are” and “Where you are from” creates internal or external conflict, and if so, how do you negotiate it?

AG: Oh gosh, yes, everyday. Everything from traffic, to work, to buying stuff at the market, to making friends is always a reminder that we live in a country that is not our own. How do we negotiate? By trying to fit in as much as possible, and also not letting ourselves feel too guilty when it doesn’t work. We try to laugh a lot. We have become more patient with ourselves and are learning to let things roll off of our backs because there will always be that tension. And I think that tension drives us to our knees everyday. And ultimately, that’s a good thing.
AK: Steve, I’m also not a scientist, but I’m interested to hear from you about your experience as an engineer. Power (not the political kind, but the types we use to run the world and its economies and machines) is of utmost importance to nations. Why is renewable energy important to you, personally, and what, if anything, is at stake for Cambodia in this regard?

SG: Arriving at renewable energy was a long process. Most engineering jobs in Canada lead either to the electronic (mobile) communications or the oil industry and those areas soon lost their appeal for me. I worked for a couple years in the wind power industry and while this was a excellent introduction to the area, I quickly realized that the small scale community based approach was the most interesting. This type of focus is not very wide-spread in the developed world and I set my sites overseas and specifically to developing countries in Asia. It’s funny that you should compare electrical power to political power because I think in the next decades power is increasingly becoming power!

Renewable energy is largely a battle for decentralization and community based projects. Often massive energy grids are controlled by the rich and access for the poor is a long and expensive battle. In Cambodia, only 20% of people have access to the electricity grid and while this might not be the most important development compared to shelter, food, health, schooling etc.., it is often just as desired. Most of the time lighting falls second to mobile phones and TV. In a very social society and one where rural people are largely cut off from the world, communication within their family and networks is priority.

Solar energy in particular is important to me because I think it will play a huge role in the future. I like the modular and small-scale approach as well. It ’empowers’ people and opens up many opportunities for imaginative applications and businesses. While I do care a lot about the environment, I wouldn’t say it was my primary driving force. I am more interested in the experiences at the community level and the opportunities available outside of the mainstream, big business and government way of doing things. In a tropical country like Cambodia, the energy potential is literally beating down on us every every day.
AK: Aime, a visit to your blog – Musings of a Social Conscience – reveals that your experience in Cambodia is sometimes gut wrenching and often soul searching (aka your reading list). I know from my travels there seems to be an accumulating force of experience that at some point starts to tell you something about your own self and about reality that reveals truth you might not otherwise know. How has it all added up for you, so far?
AG: When i first started traveling in high school – I was overwhelmed by poverty. Overcome with pity (for desperate people everywhere trying to survive). And burdened with an urgent desire to somehow make that right.

But I’ve learned something important. First of all how profoundly selfish I am and how that works into every single corner of my life. Secondly, I’ve learned that people don’t want pity. They want to be taken seriously. As farmers. As students. As mothers and fathers. As educators. As investors. As business people. They don’t want the Western World’s charity. They just want to have the same opportunities we’ve made (and protected) for ourselves. Like access to global markets. Like access to land and water and fuel. They want to grow their own food and not just routinely accept the cheap castoff grains the West dumps on them (if you don’t believe me, read my reading list on my blog). They want their kids to go to university. They want to transform their own countries.

I really believe that if we want to make God’s Kingdom come alive on earth as it is in Heaven, that the Body of Christ should be leading this. Going beyond pity. Going beyond charity. Staring our collective selfishness in the eye and naming it. Dying to ourselves (really and truly believing that people around the world are of equal value to us and created in the image of God), picking up our crosses (living more simply so others can simply live) and following Jesus in bringing healing, restoration and new life to the global community. I believe that is beautiful Good News.
AK: Something I can’t shy away from is your seeming fixation as a couple on Ultimate Frisbee. What gives?

SG: Ultimate frisbee goes way beyond just being a sport. Yes, the game is enjoyable but the sport is tied very strongly to good spirit and community. These are the aspects that keep us coming back for more. Some tournaments only give spirit awards! Some other defining features are the fact that the sport is self-refereed, non-contact as well as co-ed. These aspects allow everyone to participate while keeping down aggression and over-competitiveness that can result from other sports.

Ultimate is growing in Asia! I would say that people talk about at least 20 important Asian tournaments every year. February is Bangkok, March is Phnom Penh, and Kunming, April is Kuala Lumpur, June is Singapore, November Manila, December Saigon and on and on. We try to get to one or two of these a year and they are always a treat. It’s nice to travel somewhere with a purpose and also to be instantly welcomed into a community. As Cambodia is a tropical country, we also play every weekend year round!! Beats the 4-6 month season in Canada!


Follow Aime on her blog and twitter.

You can also follow the couple on their adventures on their official website.