It’s not about gay rights, it’s about human rights

I’m very happy that the Supreme Court decided to allow same-sex couples to marry by ruling against California’s same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8.

All I want to say is that we should take time to celebrate this great victory forward. There is also much more work to be done around the world with this issue.

Here are some great videos:

NYS Senator Diane J. Savino makes a compelling and funny case for same-sex marriage

 

The myth of the gay agenda

 

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Why buy a kid a toy castle when a spoon will do just fine?

So many people in my life are having babies now and I’ve learned more about kids without even trying. Before I knew it, I was sharing advice on what books to read or what tips to avoid to new parents with such confidence, people would have thought I was a mom myself. Mamma Meesa? NOT!

How much stuff do kids really need?

One of my former colleagues has a son who is two years old and he told me, “We got him all of these toys and all he’s entertained by is his spoon.”

Fast-forward a few months, and I’m in Koh Pdao, a small island in Northeast Cambodia seeing how kids “entertain” themselves. I find it funny when people are so shocked at how happy “poor kids” are when they have so few material things. The kids grow up playing with their neighbours and use their vivid imaginations using what they have around them without ever experiencing toys as we know them. Last time I was in Cambodia, one of the founders of an NGO told us when, “People in the village didn’t know they were poor until they were told so.”

I went to the community centre on the island and fifteen kids were working together to build what I first thought was a train, but was actually a motorcycle that could hold five of them. There haven’t been to many times where I’ve seen so many kids working together so well so everyone can enjoy the activity at such a young age.

When I was staying with a homestay family for a few days, I went by the river with them, including their six-year-old daughter. Since we couldn’t communicate with words, I thought we could throw rocks in the water together. I’ll never forget, the daughter would always pick a rock for me first before getting one for herself. She would never throw the rock until I was ready and we would throw it together at the same time. She has the consideration of many of the people I’ve met in Cambodia at such a young age. I hope I see her again before I leave the country.

What are we teaching them?

I’m not against getting kids nice toys. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing if I ever did have kids. But are we training kids to expect things from people and distracting them from what are really important lessons?

One Christmas, my high school teacher’s five-year-old son got 20 toys, he said, “Choose three toys and we’re giving the rest to charity.” He regularly takes his son to the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in British Columbia, Canada to show his son how other people live and not shelter him.

I couldn’t believe I caught myself sounding like a parent when I see the toys that kids get now. I thought, “When I was a kid, this never existed. Kids are so spoiled these days.” I too was spoiled myself when I hear stories of how many things people gave me. But I have absolutely no memory of these things as a kid.Considering how much stuff people bought for me as I was growing up, I am actually quite minimalist and non-materialistic.

I’m honestly not sure why, you’d think I would have been trained to be used to having the toys I want and live in very comfortable places. But I actually like seeing what I can do with less stuff, eating street food and sleeping in huts in the mountains. Had I had nothing but a pile of sand an a bucket to play with growing up, I’m sure I would have turned out the same.

Existing as a community, not an individual

This is one of my favourite examples of how people co-exist as a community, which is the norm in so many parts of the world. I think we would be considered weird and possibly going against our nature as social beings when we don’t share what we have, help each other when we can and working together to build community.

“An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them.

He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself.

So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away.

The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded:

“Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?

The fact that we are so touched by this story shows how unusual it is for where we grow up. I think if I tell this story to some of my friends who grew up in these communities in different parts of the word, they would laugh at my and say, “This is normal where I am from. Why is this so special?”

I think other cultures should study Western culture more and I’d love to hear what they think of our behaviours and their perspectives on us. For my next posts, I will do my best to talk about what we do differently in the West in relation to Cambodian culture rather than the other way around.,

I learned I don’t have to text before I knock

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I went to visit a friend and her family today and, as I’m used to doing in Vancouver, Canada, I texted, “Can I come and visit at 5 p.m.?” For many people in Canada, it would be considered rude to just show up without a warning or not letting people know in advance. I did this especially because my friend just had a baby.

But as I learned the last time I visited, even if they are feeling tired or sick, they like having people around. I asked them, “Is it ok to come without messaging first?”

The husband said, “Yes it’s ok you can come anytime. It’s a different culture. You don’t need to message first.”

It made me think a lot about how much we value our personal space and what’s comfortable for many of us in North America. In Cambodia, space is shared by friends and family at any given time.

Next time I visit, I may just show up, though the thought of showing up unannounced makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Food feature: fried crickets

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Everywhere around Cambodia you can find crickets cooked in various forms to be enjoyed by both Cambodians and visitors who are open to trying this common food. I have yet to try it, but it’s my goal to try a fried cricket before I leave the country and do it sober.

Crickets became part of Cambodians’ diet during the famine years of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. People ate crickets in order to survive.

Every time I see crickets, I think of passages in Luong Ung’s book First They Killed my Father, of when her mother would find crickets and other bugs to feed her when she was just a young girl because the family had very little food to eat under Khmer Rouge. Even with crickets, families had to be very secretive about eating anything more than what the soldiers would ration out. People could get beaten or killed for getting caught taking extra food.

But now, crickets are a lucrative business and sellers can make a good profit. One seller from Thun Mong village, Soun Sang, said he can make a decent profit from crickets. “If the crickets come, I can make a really good profit. Some nights I collect up to 30 kilograms,” the father-of-two says.

Everywhere around Cambodia you can see cricket traps (see photo below). The light source attracts the crickets at night and when they jump, they hit the plastic and fall into the water.

Some of my friends had a bug party last week and had bags of crickets. I wasn’t there, but I heard they were feasting off of the bugs. I still need to build up some courage to try the cricket and I know it’s all in my head because people say it’s not that bad.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with friend noodles, coconuts and rice.

We don’t deserve local price, we need to earn it

Snacks in Kralanh

Cambodia generally uses a bartering system when people buy things or services. Vendors, unlike some other places, are generally not aggressive, and if you’re lighthearted and friendly, it’s totally fine to barter to a reasonable price or at least what you would consider a good deal.

This post is more for people who are living in Cambodia for two months or more. I almost want to laugh when people expect to just be given local price or think that everyone is trying to “scam” them. I’m amazed at people who complain that they are being screwed over when they don’t take the time to learn some basics and for some reason expect everyone to speak English when you are in an Asian country. Honestly, a month is more than enough time to ask a few Khmer people what the local price is to get a benchmark or learn some basic Khmer, Cambodian language, to get the price down.

Why should a vendor give us local price automatically? If I was a tuk tuk driver and I could make five dollars for driving tourists for seven minutes compared to $1.50, I would do it if they agreed to the price.

I have definitely paid way more than local price my first few weeks in Cambodia. At the time, I thought I paid a fair price. I got a decent deal, the vendor made a good sale, everyone won. Or it was my fault for not putting a bit of effort to do some homework to find out the average price. If I agree with the vendor, then it’s my own fault for overpaying. Some days I’m just lazy.

I talked to this vendor who was very friendly and very honest too. Unlike most other people I pass at the market, she didn’t try to sell me anything, so we chatted for a bit. She said, “If I think a tourist is only here for a few days, then I will charge $12 for this item. But if I become friends with someone, I don’t need a big profit I just charge $5.”

There are generally three prices in Cambodia:

1. Local price: $0.60 for a full plate of noodles
2. Know-a-bit-of-Khmer price: $1.25 for a full plate of noodles
2. Tourist price: $2.50 for a full plate of noodles

Two ways to earn local price

1. Make friends with some Khmer people to help you develop relationships
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I’m always grateful for my Cambodian friends who introduced me to the key places I need to shop. I asked them to tell some of the vendors, “If you give my friend the local price, she will keep coming back to shop here.” And I do. It’s nice to be able to know the names and greet the same people on my weekly grocery run.

Even people I know who don’t speak Khmer can get a reasonable price by developing a relationship with a vendor or being friendly.

2. Learn some basic Khmer

After a month, I learned some basic Khmer, including knowing enough numbers to barter. Now I usually get the mid-range price or local price if I develop a relationship with some of the sellers.

I generally know how much it costs to get a tuk tuk from our place to the city centre. When they initially ask to charge me $3, I say, “6000 riels” in Khmer and they generally don’t argue back because they know I am in Siem Reap longer than two days.

When I went to lunch with a friend and of course, they knew we were expats and handed us the tourist price menu, which was $2.50 for a plate of rice, which expensive for Siem Reap. So I politely turned to the waitress and said I Khmer, “One plate of rice, $1.25?” looking surprised that I knew some Khmer, she immediately agreed.

I think it is more respectful to at least make an effort to learn some basics of the country you are living in, not just visiting. It’s beyond the point that people don’t need to learn Khmer to be able to get around in the very touristy city of Siem Reap. It’s about learning about the culture and immersing yourself.

Develop relationships, ask questions, learn from a Khmer friend, and you’ll get around just fine.

Taxi ride conversation on family struggles and a love for learning

Happy that he caught a fish

I took a taxi from Kralanh District, 70 km from Siem Reap city, and ended up having a long conversation with a 23-year-old boy who’s studying in university. I was amazed by how openly he told his family’s story after just meeting me and spoke about his struggles to put himself through school.

He is one of many people of this generation who’s passion for learning fuels him to keep working hard to earn money to finish school. In many rural areas around the country, it is the parents and grandparents who often don’t value education. As a result, kids are offered pressured to drop out of school at an early age to find work to earn for the family. Right now, many people, including kids as young as 15 years old, go to Thailand to find work.

This young man I spoke with was taking the taxi from Poipet, a Cambodian town on the Thailand border, visiting his family. Here is his story:

“Three years ago, my parents’ rice fields flooded in Pursat (a province in Cambodia). So they had to move to Poipet to get a job selling vegetables and push carts to earn money.

My parents encouraged me to go to university. My father wanted to study but he didn’t have the opportunity and my mother was very poor. My grandfather couldn’t find money to support my father to study. So my father decided to stop studying and find a job and grew rice. He is smart . . . very smart. But he didn’t have the opportunity to go to school and that’s why he always encouraged me to study.

Now I work at a job in microfinance. When I’m done work, I have to study and there is no time to hang out. I earn $150 a month in Siem Reap. In 2010, I used to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week for $60 a month. My cousin works in a clothing factory in Phnom Penh and works eight hours, six days a week and gets $60 a month.

In my village, only 5 or 6 students went to university. The rest gave up studying and went to Thailand to find work. Their parents are ignorant they don’t know the advantage of studying. The parents play cards all day. Right now there are only 500 people in my village. Before, maybe there were 2,000 people.

I have three sisters and two brothers. In my first year, the university in Banteay Meanchey (West of Cambodia) is very far from my house. Now I live with my brother in Siem Reap.

I’m always late for study because I work until 5:00 p.m., sometimes half past six, and my class is from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Then I study until I sleep at 12:00 a.m.

I want to study other languages but the best one is English. I want to quit my job to learn other languages. But if I do I won’t have salary to support my studies. I really like to study, but I don’t have time.  My favourite corporate finance, money and banking.

When I have time I volunteer with NGOs. I used to volunteer with an NGO where I educated children about bad drugs. I also volunteered for a climate change international organization. Two days a week, I would to tell the villagers about climate change and why it’s important. I asked them to grow a lot of trees to get better weather.

I always join a workshop to get experience and I can improve my knowledege too. I would also like to help my people. I always have plan to help my villagers.

I was so struck by his constant motivation to finish school and even more impressed by his self-initiative to volunteer to gain experience when he had such little time to study and earned such a low salary.

One of my friends told me how competitive it can be at the universities and such little extra support to help students so people easily give up hope and drop out of school.

I have no doubts this young man’s passion for learning will carry him to his life’s goals and do great things for the people in his village.