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?
AK: Do you remember your first impressions of Cambodia? What surprised and what still surprises?
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.
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.
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?
SG: 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?
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.
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.
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.
AK: What are some of the things you miss about living in Canada?
AK: What are some of the things we’re missing by living in Canada?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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!