While being a foreigner abroad, it is hard to miss how incredibly privileged I am simply because of the shade of my skin, country into which I was born, and the life I am able to lead mainly thanks to my parents. Really, it makes me thankful for all the ways the Universe conspired to make me, me. Over the past ten months in particular, I have been spending a lot of time looking at and thinking about power in this strange world in which we live. In a world where far too often the few with power and privilege are making decisions for everyone, where fear and hatred seem to be running rampant in defense of the existent power structure, where the worth of some human beings seems to be placed much higher than the worth of others, I felt the need to share some of what I have experienced and learned.
Many of you know last year I traveled to Australia with a Cambodian colleague.
As a US Citizen, my visa application was simple - less than one page of information. The cost was minuscule and the application was approved almost instantly. For the time being, my country has a decent, though some argue deteriorating, reputation internationally. Thus, by carrying that little blue book, I am viewed as a non-threat, an asset visiting the country. In contrast, my Khmer colleague's tourist visa application was equally as extensive as applications that I once filled-out for people looking to permanently immigrate to the USA. It was pages and pages of information about him and his family. Additionally, we had to attach about a half dozen support documents and explain away a number of discrepancies. You see, the Khmer alphabet does not have a standard phoneticization like pinyin in Chinese. Therefore, when different agencies issued documents, the English spellings varied on a number of the documents. Thus, we had to list that he had used multiple names. Not because he had aliases or participated in nefarious activities, just because translations were spelled differently (from my limited experience with immigration law, I know this is a red flag). Additionally, when issuing one of his IDs the authorities printed the wrong birth date. He was responsible for paying to have this fixed. In Cambodia, this is a non-issue, apparently, because it is so common. Thus, the discrepancy was not remedied until he needed to apply for this visa to travel internationally and we had to get documents changed.
His application took me nearly two hours to complete, as a native English speaker with a very good understanding of immigration documents. A Khmer colleague assisting to interpret for the parents told me it would have taken him at least a day to complete this form, as he is unfamiliar with the lingo and documents. Following the application being submitted, my colleague had to report at a certain time to be fingerprinted. Then, we waited to see if the application was approved. I should also mention, it cost more than three times the cost of my application (even though my stipend, as a volunteer, is more than three times his monthly salary). These things really hit me. I am an immigrant to Cambodia. That alone is a privilege. Many immigrate or try to migrate to other countries every year so they can feed their family, be safe from war, provide their children with a childhood free of violence, and so many other reasons, yet, these very legitimate reasons are often not accepted while those coming from places of privilege and power can easily travel or relocate. It should be noted, I would have been more likely to overstay my Australian visa than my colleague. Australia had lovely trees and gelato, he was freezing the whole time and missed good rice...
For me, ability to travel (or not) is something I notice but I have encountered differences in power dynamics closer to home as well. Here there have been a number of situations where my cultural beliefs on power and privilege clash very strongly with the Cambodian cultural norms of power. There is an organization called VBNK that does capacity development in Cambodia and has put out a number of amazing resources. In one short paper called "Working in Cambodia" they talk about how in Cambodia "might prevails over right: whoever holds the power is right and good." In comparison to the USA approach, "The use of power should be legitimate and is subject to criteria of good and evil." While I actually think might prevails in the USA far more than we choose to admit (look at the power of money in lobby groups), the idea of this distinction is definitely true to me. If I examined this and wrote my own statement of how the world should work it would be say, "The greater good should be the measuring stick not the 'mightier good' because this inherently implies a judgement upon some people having greater human dignity and worth." (Sadly, I don't run the world, though it may interfere with my sleep schedule). So, why has this been bubbling to the surface a lot lately?
One example is that some content was placed on an internet site without the permission of a number of my colleagues and the language used was rather offensive (FYI - Deaf Dumb and "mutes" are not acceptable ways to describe people who are Deaf). Since my organization was mentioned, and as the communications person who monitors these things, I went to talk with the person responsible to explain why we were uncomfortable with the situation and ask the content be removed (I felt I did this in a rather culturally competent way, not wanting to make anyone lose face). And, I even tried to explain in such a way that the person would understand if others saw this the person who posted it would lose face, so really we were on the same side and I was here to help (ha!). I forgot a couple of key things. One, logic as I know it is a cultural construct that is not universal. Two, might wins. To save myself from being re-traumatized let's just say government connections and names were dropped constantly throughout the conversation and the offensive content is still up. The rights of a marginalized group are of less value than government connections. Here, government connections mean right. Again, I do not want to say this is universal, as many, many of my colleagues and Khmer friends are equally irked by this but unfortunately, that is the norm under which we must operate.
Power and Privilege - much of which is inherited, luck, or a great confluence of circumstances- really do seem to dictate the experience of the world for everyone else. May we take time to question and examine those stereotypes and structures that oppress many for the benefit of the few. Since the only things we can control are our own thoughts and actions, may we each strive to develop ourselves in a way which makes us more aware of the dignity of others we pass along the way.
This post originally appeared on The Life and Love of Karen in July 2016.