Tuesday, 19 August 2014

A Lesson in Khmer

by Kevin Hattie

There is undoubtedly something different about people here (in Laos), different being the only word I can think of even if it fails to grasp the true meaning of what I'm trying to say. It is no secret that different societies contain their own unique norms and values, with some similarities to be found thanks to geography, historical colonialism and modern globalisation. There is a hint of French-ness about Vientiane and the reason for this is no secret, but what will happen to cultures like this one when globalisation and the notorious Americanisation seeps through its borders and attempts to create another Asian New York or London?

There is a question I have been asking myself since I arrived here: how much development does this part of the world want? And does this development necessarily mean the loss of tradition and culture? Coming from one of the most developed parts of the world I know from experience that living in a modern industrial and technologically advanced society does not guarantee happiness(it can even lead to disillusionment and unhappiness). I believe and I stress the emphasis on "I" and "believe", that education, free from state or corporate agendas is a right all should have access to. I also believe food and adequate housing are necessary for living a dignified life. Health care should be free and available to all people and furthermore there should be a safety net for people who do not have an income that allows them to meet the demands of everyday living. Cambodia and Laos do not provide all these things to their people and along with the political stage the economic distribution of both countries is anything but exemplary. It is important in a certain respect to try and learn about the social order in the country you are visiting but this is all I want to say on the subject of development and politics for now. Instead I feel compelled to discuss something altogether more human. This includes what I have observed from others and what I have learned upon personal reflection. 

I am fortunate to have gone beyond mere tourism in my travels so far, living with the local people in South America and here in South East Asia. I have come to understand Khmer culture through participation in the education system, attending a wedding and countless conversations with the local people about their lives, hopes and dreams. I know through observation that I am materially better off back home in Scotland than the people I am living and working with here, but as those who have travelled to such regions will testify, spiritually we are impoverished by comparison. 

I am here in Asia as a volunteer English teacher for hope agency. Despite my intention to help children further their education,  I find myself playing the role of student on a much more regular basis. I have learned how little I 'need' to make me happy and also the importance of community and solidarity. In Bakod village where I am based in Cambodia,  people would not survive without each other. The government has neglected the area, leaving locals to fill in pot holes on the dirt track roads as well as erecting their own homes and farming the land. It is a defiant example in the face of people like Ayn Rand who believed that the working people of any society would struggle without private tyrannies and their self congratulating 'entrepreneurs'. My empirical experience is that people are capable of running their own lives and when the need for solidarity presented itself and the political classes are absent, people pull together and answer the call. 

Learning about a culture so different from my own has been an enlightening experience.  Looking inwardly I have to try and honestly assess the inevitable change that occurs in a person who travels afar. Back home in Scotland as the push for independence and hopefully a fairer society reaches a crucial stage, people can appreciate that no matter the outcome we are fortunate to be part of our society and enjoy the stability we do compared with places like Palestine at present. That being said we have our problems at home and poverty which shamefully still exists in Scotland should never be accepted as an inevitable outcome of our economic system. We need to find the same solidarity that the villagers of Bakod have found in order to build their lives and keep extreme poverty at bay. In doing so we will not only be able to tackle physical problems such as poverty and injustice but we will also make inroads in fighting the psychological problems and spiritual poverty that is common to all capitalist, consumer based societies. 

Alienation, depression and anxiety that comes from feeling like an outsider in society and feeling like more of a consumer and worker than human being can be overcome and we can move towards a society that is more humane in nature. My own feelings of hopelessness and frustration have dissolved as I spend time with people who care about others. If I were part of the ruling oligarchy that controls so much of the worlds resources, wealth and power, I would be making sure people keep buying the favourite line of the political right: that human nature is inherently selfish and we are all in it for our selves, and keeping people away from the little pockets of hope in the world where it is made clear through actions and not false prophecies that human beings can live in harmony as equals. Thanks to the people of Bakod village in Cambodia, most of whom are children, this dreamer has found enough hope to fuel his desire to see peace, justice and respect not only in Scotland but the world. Until that day comes I can only try to embody the spirit of Bakod village with my actions, beginning with a show of faith in my own community and voting Yes in September.