Everything is broken in Cambodia
It is something volunteers say a lot. We use it in the broadest sense when speaking about an education system in which teachers don’t come to school if they don’t feel like it. Or a health system in which healthcare providers don’t wash their hands. Or the corruption that is rife throughout this impoverished country.
However, we also mean everything is broken in the literal sense. Consumer products are always breaking here. There are no pictures in my blog right now because the new battery for my camera was defective.
The packing list for Peace Corps Cambodia explicitly advised us against bringing clothes we wanted to bring back. I see why now. Washing clothes by hand destroys clothing -- if the dust doesn’t first.
Clothing from here doesn’t fare much better. But, a $90 shirt costs $2 here, so I’m not complaining.
Granted, low-quality consumer goods shouldn’t be much of a surprise in a developing Asian country. There is low human capital and a lack of consumer protection and accountability.
But sometimes the quantity of broken things borders on absurdity. In the course of a single day, I’ve ripped a pair of pants, had a flat tire on a new bike, broken a fan and found a gaping hole in the spigot of my water filter which leaked water all over my floor. This is a heavy day, but not a surprising one.
Sometimes broken things do astonish me, though. Our kitten was nibbling on my computer wire, so I picked him up and gently tossed him on the ground (about a foot) and he landed flat on his face. Who said cats always land on their feet?
These little annoyances can add up to making me quite frustrated, especially when combined with a stomach bug, watching a Cambodian teacher give a monthly test about something he’s never taught, and my being asked a dozen times about my salary.
However, Cambodians seem used to everything being broken. They don’t seem visibly bothered when their radio breaks.
They’re also expert at fixing broken things, although they’ll still break eventually. When another fan broke a year ago, my host-brother wired it back together. I was ready to buy a new spigot for my water filter, but my host-brother offered to glue it back together for me and it hasn’t leaked again (yet).
This speaks to me in many ways. Among Americans, I’d say I buy new things less frequently. But, I’m much more eager than Cambodians to throw things away. They fixed the antenna on my radio twice. They fixed my water filter and fan after I asked them about buying a new one.
It’s not only that it wouldn’t occur to me to fix it, but the way to fix it doesn’t come to me immediately. I think I could figure it out, but my mind is programmed to do other things. It seems Cambodians possess a kind of fix-it intelligence we don’t bother with much in the Western world. As a poorer people, they are probably more mindful of fixing something before replacing it.
There’s also less specialization in their skill set, while we’ve become more specialized, so they dabble in repairing. When something is broken, we instantly go to the mechanic or just throw it away. It seems more time and cost-efficient to focus on our day jobs. Conversely, the host-brother who fixes all of my things is also a pharmacist and a math teacher.
Specialization is known to contribute to economic growth, hence America’s wealth. It’s also clear that the average rural Cambodian is not able to do a lot of things we consider rudimentary. While most people I see on a daily basis don’t know where the Middle East is and can’t use the Internet, they can figure out a way to rig a door on one hinge with no doorknob to function for two years. However, I wonder if we’ve lost a way of problem-solving, and become more wasteful, by being slow to find a creative solution to simple problems.
I don’t wish the “everything is broken” experience on anyone, except as a brief cross-cultural foray. But, like most cross-cultural experiences, it gives us a chance to look critically at our own behaviors and practices, and to grow from it.