Monday, November 7, 2011

Being Helped

Having just read Kathryn Sockett's hit novel The Help, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship that exists between the helpers and the helped. The world in the novel is one all but gone with the wind. Ideas of racism and classism are no doubt still alive but in very different ways and much diminished in their present state compared to the openness with which they were celebrated in the past. Admittedly, I was raised with the aid of a single black nanny with children of her own. When I told my Australian friend this her eyes sprang wide with surprise. She had only heard of this actually happening in books or movies. But Dean was a big part of our family, my sister and I loved her like a second mother, we see her on visits home and my parents are still very vested in her well being. However, living abroad is almost like taking a trip into the past. Here there are many distinct echos of the master-servant relationship borne of years of Colonialism that recall much of The Help.

Here in Cambodia you never see a foreigner in a service position and almost always 'foreigner' is synonymous with 'white person'. Rather it is the local staff who bend over backwards to ensure our comfort, even when we don't want it. There is a hyper sensitive sense of service and hierarchy here in Cambodia and I'd venture to say in Asia in general. Conversely, many Westerners, including myself, aren't that comfortable having strangers anticipate our needs and pander to us so obsequiously. For example, the girls at the dorm will jump to serve me rice when I want to eat with them though I'd much much rather use my own legs. When I went shopping this weekend the attendants would snap to attention the minute I walked in the door like marionettes jerked on a string. Without exception they subsequently trailed me around the store, watching my every move; one was so close that I accidentally hit her with my purse as I turned around. To a lesser degree this happened in Mongolia also. Before this made me feel like a teenager in Tiffany's, thinking that the attendants were narrowing their eyes at me assuming that I would steal something. But I think rather it is their version of customer service. At either possibility I am rendered uncomfortable.

On a more personal level I have a man, Somnang, who drives me around in his tuk tuk. I am happy to support the local businessmen and know that he has a young baby. I buy him coffee every day when we stop for my morning fix and we have a genial relationship. When I tried on a dress and was unsure about it, I looked to him waiting outside the store; he gave me a huge, goofy grin and two big thumbs up. But recently he has been very late. It's frustrating because I don't want to play the bossy pants card. I don't want to be a disciplinarian for an unruly employee, pointing out the fact that I pay him handsomely every week and touting our socio-economic differences. But what choice do I have? Be late to everything? I wish it didn't have to be like this. And I wonder what he thinks of me, this young blonde girl slumped luxuriously across the back of his tuk tuk while he, an older family man, carts me hither and yond.

There are, of course, those who take advantage of the foreigner-local relationship. 'Sexpats,' old Western men sharking for young Cambodian women, line the Riverside on Friday nights. Every newspaper includes a story about Westerners who have been caught in compromising sexual situations with local children. In Hong Kong I listened horrified as a friend of my host told me about 'guino power.' His eyes lit up as he described what it was, the power of 'guinos',, or foreigners, to dismiss and override anything that the local people tell them. He even thought it appropriate to wave away a bar tab on the basis that he is white, ignoring the distressed protests of the local staff.

Though I know it is in my grasp, I don't want to abuse my power as a Westerner. It's wrong, pure and simple. But still it is something that must be dealt with, this dance that is the dynamic between the helper and the helped, and I can't chose but pick a side. Perhaps pick isn't the right word, I was born into my half of this relationship. Maybe in a few years time someone will write a novel about Cambodian tuk tuk drivers and maids working for Westerners in their own country. I hope so. It would certainly be another interesting read.


Linda Davick said...

What did you do about Somnang?

Steppe Up said...

In the end we just had a chat about him not being late. I asked him to not be late. He said ok. He's still late just not as often. I could get another driver but then I thought about what I want to leave here when I go and how I want to remember my time in Cambodia. I'm sticking with Somnang!