I hunch over my laptop in a tiny room shared by 8 people. It’s 5pm. I’ve been in this position since 8am. I’m pretty sure scoliosis is setting in.
This is my daily routine in Phnom Penh, writing grant proposals for People Health Development Association (PHD). I only have 4 weeks so I want to accomplish as much as possible. The more grants I apply for, the more funding PHD can receive.
With that goal in mind, I finish each assignment at a New York workaholic pace (about 4 hours quicker than anyone anticipates). Then I sit for 2 hours, waiting for my boss to find something else for me to speed through.
PHD’s 7 employees are male, Cambodian, and under 30 years old. Only my boss, Ratanak, and the project manager, Socheat, know enough English to communicate with me. I’m the first foreign volunteer to work in their office.
I can’t communicate. I’m the only female. I haven’t slept in days because I live in a furnace-like room with no air conditioning. Bottom line: I’m frustrated. I feel like I shouldn’t waste time in an office with nothing to do. I feel like I’m not making a large enough difference. And I’m not seeing the impact.
PHD is a small, local NGO that began as a project under CARE International in Cambodia. They educate and train Cambodian university students on sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and gender issues. These students become peer educators who organize youth awareness activities at their universities.
Cambodia’s youth population is massive, with 70% of the total population younger than 30 years old (a result of horrific genocide). Most never receive sex education, and if they do it’s neither accurate nor comprehensive. This is a huge issue considering the prevalence of the sex industry and HIV/AIDS.
PHD’s staff provides a safe, comfortable environment for youth to learn about sex and ask questions. They discuss the female and male reproductive systems, how you contract HIV/AIDS, how to prevent disease, and many of the issues surrounding gender based violence.
Ideally, PHD’s programs will eliminate the stigma surrounding sex education in Cambodia and help change social attitudes of future generations.
The PHD boys plan a Friday night out, sensing we need a chance to connect outside the office. We hop on motos and arrive at a vegetarian restaurant. I point to what I want on the menu and they order in Khmer.
Ratanak leans over and says, “I ordered you a coffee, too. I think it’s about time for your hourly injection.” He smiles. I laugh. And that gesture was the icebreaker we needed. Free coffee. (Really. If you’re ever in Nashville, go to Frothy Monkey. The baristas will tell you every time they gave me a free cup I begged them to run away with me.)
After Ratanak’s little joke the banter was effortless. We talked about crazy siblings and awkward dates. My attitude switched from frustrated work mode to human connection mode, and I felt at ease.
My desire to make the biggest difference possible in a short amount of time had prevented me from relating to another culture. I was moving too fast – missing each day’s beautiful moment – just like my Italian friend warned.
I’m disappointed I wasted my first weeks in a cloud of frustration. But I went to work on Monday with a fresh outlook, ready to embrace what the day provided. I realized the opportunity I had ignored. I’m exploring the ins and outs of a local NGO. It’s intimate. It’s cultural. It’s full of “where’s my stash of aspirin?” moments. And while my ability to help may be limited, I’m learning, and that’s the most important part.
I’m not sure where I derived such an intense work pace. A competitive school environment? Most likely. Self-inflicted perfectionism? Definitely. But I’m beginning to question whether an robotic work ethic (so frequently attached to the American businessperson stereotype) creates barriers when forming relationships?
Within myself I think I’m finding the balance. Human connection is a universal desire. We want people to accept and understand us. And, sometimes, the simple recognition of your caffeine addiction is all it takes.