Thursday, October 27, 2011

Avoiding Cynicism

One of the interesting aspects of living in Cambodia as a foreigner is the concern that you are often paying more for every thing outside the Western supermarkets. If you go to the local markets you pretty much bargain for everything unless the seller says it is a fixed price. It is easy to get cynical and if we are not careful, it has the potential to lead to mistrust of everyone as the enemy uses that as a foothold to make you believe that you are getting ripped off as you can easily believe that everyone is out to get you. You may feel your rights are violated. If you are paranoid or fearful, this just adds to the fear of mistrust.

One of the advantages of living here instead of vacationing, is that you learn what the real prices are. A case in point, outside the hotel where we arrange for our Ratanak guests and volunteers to stay, there are several tuk tuk drivers. As I am living here, they all know me as I used to use one of those tuk tuk drivers on a regular basis so whenever I go to the hotel to meet guests or drop off stuff, I have a little 'fan club' that greets me. They all want to know if I need a tuk tuk. Now that I can speak a certain level of Khmer, I often joke with them that I am not a foreigner and therefore should not pay foreign prices. Typically a 'borathai''---a foreigner, could pay about US$20 a day on the high end if they use one of those tuk tuk drivers. So recently, when I was talking to my 'tuk tuk fan club' and trying to arrange for potential tuk tuk drivers to take Ratanak volunteers who will be coming here shortly, my friendly tuk tuk drivers were asking for a minimum of US$15.00 a day. I simply laughed at them all and told them in Khmer that they were crazy and that I was not a foreigner, therefore I should get a cheaper price. Bargaining here is an art...the secret is to keep smiling as you negotiate the price and to not take things personally.  So they asked what I wanted to pay and I told them US$10.00. They in turned laughed at me. But I know that is a good price as I have a new tuk tuk driver who is a young Christian student that goes to a local Khmer church that I have been attending recently and he gladly accepts that price. All this made me realize that last year I was paying too much when I was here for 2 months. But more than that, my strategy now is to find student tuk tuk drivers and train them up. They tend to speak some English which is helpful if you have guests and more than that, they tend to be more punctual and reliable.

Anyway, the verdict is still out as to whether I will use these other tuk tuk drivers who hang out at the hotel. In one sense I can appreciate their thinking. After all, they are just being capitalists, trying to get the best price for their services. Yet, in a conversation I had with one of them,  I was trying to explain to them that if they gave me a good deal, our firm would use them on a regular basis since we have people passing through constantly, so that they could receive regular and steady income. This was my attempt at persuading them to reconsider and give me a discount. But to no avail. Here in Cambodia, it is all about the short term, it is about surviving and making sure you have enough for today. Much of this again can be attributed to the history of this country during the Khmer Rouge era where people lost all their possessions and belongings and so its understandable that such a short term mindset exist today. Saving or putting funds a way for a rainy day is not something that is too common here. For one thing, people just don't have that kind of disposal income here and secondly, their focus is on surviving in the present.

My other bargaining experience was at the hands of my 'Mango man'' who I call 'Pou Swai'---that means Úncle Mango.' Every week there is a man that rides his bicycle in my neighborhood selling mangoes. So each week I would buy six mangoes for US$2.00 but in talking with my missionary friends they told me that I was paying way too much as I could get a dozen for the same price. Armed with that knowledge, the next time I saw my Pou Swai, I shared with him my new found revelation and he suggested those were little mangoes that  the market was selling and his were much larger. Like a good capitalist, he had to find an angle for why his mangoes were worth the extra price. Actually I think he was right. Nonetheless, I decided to haggle with him until He would give me a reasonable deal. I finally got him to give me 9 large mangoes for US$2.00. Since that sale, I think he's avoiding me now as he is not making much money off of me.

All this to say, one of the ways to avoid cynicism in all of these situations is to really just laugh it off. If you take yourself too seriously, if you are always suspicious of people, if you tend to focus on the negative it can easily lead to paranoia such that you trust no one. Ironically, this is the kind of mindset that was prevalent during the Khmer Rouge era as people did not trust anyone and were suspicious of their neighbors. So it is not surprising that this kind of spirit still is perpetuated here. However, the bigger picture and really the most important truth in all of this is knowing that the Lord is sovereign and even if we are over paying or do get ripped off, even if we feel we might be taken advantage off, He knows, He sees and He will redeem the situation. It is this knowledge that the Lord is in control of every dimension of my life here that allows me to not live in fear,to not worry or be anxious, but to try to see the best in each person and each situation knowing that even if their intentions may appear to be disingenuous or there is a hidden agenda, it doesn't matter, His purposes and His plans will not be thwarted. God still sits on the throne and He will provide for all my needs despite man's attempts to over charge me. As Romans 8:31 says ''if God is with us, who can be against us.''

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