Thursday, October 18, 2007

We're living next door to millionaires... my misplaced guilt

This story is for all the other ex-pats out there who struggle daily with feelings of guilt and unease about their comfortable existence amidst poverty and injustice. It may seem black and white (literally) at times, but all is not what it seems.

For 20 months I have been feeling uncomfortable about our elderly land lady who lives next door with her family. While we are renting their family home, a 1960s three bedroom bungalow with a pretty, shady front yard full of mango and coconut trees, they live in a dark, windowless corridor of a house and cook outside on charcoal. Their son has tantrums twice a day because he does not like cold water baths - of course they have no water boiler. I have tried to make friends with the daughter who is my age, speaks English, works at the Ministry of Education and has two young kids. But she has only recently stopped calling me ‘madame’ and has yet to accept a cup of tea or a glass of water. She comes over and puts up with me practicing my Khmer but still behaves more like a nanny, nervously following the children around, than my friend.

I used to thump on the gate most days to invite her kids over to play but I’ve given up recently. Partly because it is such hard work – I’m pretty sure they are just humouring me - but mostly because I feel embarrassed about the way we live, especially when I see them looking at some piece of furniture or the presents that Jemima was given for her birthday. I have wondered if the daughter wishes she were living in this house, with space for her kids to play and enough rooms for her to have some privacy with her husband, away from her mother and brother. Of course this is merely an assumption, based on what I value in life. She appears to be very happy.

They are lovely people and have mostly been model landlords. Of course whenever anything goes wrong in the house, (every week), if her son can’t fix it, we have to pay. How could we argue with that given how little they appear to have and the fact that they see us spending money on ourselves. And they did recently change the contract so that when white goods break – we have an ancient washing machine and oven - we have to pay. Now I think of it they also seem rather less committed to mending the holes in the roof where the rain comes in than they were at the beginning. It has been a few weeks now since I asked them, despite the fact that we have had huge electric storms and thundering rain more or less every night for a month.

If I am really honest I have begun to find their outdoor cooking antics less romantic and rather irritating. The hour-long dawn chorus of plinking pestle and mortar, the smell of fish sauce wafting over the fence, the smoke that fills our garden at every meal – it all seemed attractive at first, somehow connecting us to ‘the real Cambodia’! Now, particularly after three months of broken nights feeding Bella, it strikes me as downright unsocial and hazardous to both the environment and our health. But how could we possibly complain about this, when we are so obviously better off than they are. They depend upon our income after all.

Except it turns out they don’t. At least not just our income – that is peanuts compared to what they rake in from their four other properties the son-in-law proudly told James about last night, when they met on the street. Four massive buildings in the smartest part of Phnom Penh – rented at roughly $2000 a month to NGOs and businesses. Oh yes! We have just discovered that we are living next to millionaires.

All these months I have tried to appease my guilt by dropping my volunteer work into the conversation, explaining the principles behind our decision not to have a car, hinting at the sheer expense of life back home where NGO salaries don’t stretch too far. On the night that the ceiling caved in and rain gushed down the walls into the fitted cupboards packed to the roof with a four year supply of organic tampons and biodegradable disposable nappies (both are very absorbent) and filthy black water drenched our brand new, cream sofa, I was sure that God was punishing us for spending so much money on a sofa in such a poor country. Turns out the roof just needed fixing and we chose the wrong colour.

At one point we even considered paying for a new kitchen which would have dramatically increased the value of this house. “Your future ex-pat tenants will pay a lot more for an open-plan kitchen. Think how much lighter the house will be!” I told them over and over again, as we tried to get them to agree to our plan. In the end I gave up on the idea of my dream kitchen (I spend a lot of time in the kitchen) because it seemed so utterly indulgent and the money would be much better spent on one of the children’s NGOs in town.

It is not that I begrudge their good fortune in the least and I do admire them for living modestly despite their riches. They are probably saving for an overseas education for the children which is far better than building an ostentatious four storey villa and driving about in an unregistered bullet-proof Lexus as many of their peers choose to do. It just makes me realise that my guilt, that has been, at best, self-indulgent and, at worst, self-destructive, is actually entirely unfounded and based on my own, very limited understanding of real life in Cambodia. In a country deeply scarred from 30 years of war and genocide nothing is quite as it seems. If anything, I should simply be thankful that they are happy and safe and comfortably off.

In 1975 my landlady was a young mother living in this house with her husband and two small children, just as I am now. But one day she, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was forced to leave her home and her city by the notorious Khmer Rouge. All Cambodians were put to work in the fields, in a fanatical Maoist attempt to return Cambodia to ‘Year Zero’. There would be no rich or poor, just happy peasants enjoying abundant rice harvests. What actually happened of course was that the country fell into such desperate poverty that those who were not killed starved to death (an inevitable result if you kill all the people who know anything about agriculture and irrigation and put children – separated from and indoctrinated against their families – in charge). My landlady’s husband was among the thousands of educated people who had to be ‘removed’ because he posed a threat to this delusional rural idyll.

Widowed, she returned to Phnom Penh with her children, and thousands of other refugees at the fall of the Khmer Rouge four murderous years later, and was one of the few lucky ones able to return to their former homes. She also claimed four deserted plots of land as hers for $50 each, and used them to grow vegetables. This land once belonged to someone else, but they were presumably dead or living in a refugee camp somewhere. Now it was a free for all. Rich became poor, poor became rich, some poor stayed poor and some richer just got richer. The building on just one of those plots of land is now worth $600,000.

How my neighbours acquired their wealth is in itself a perfect, if tragic, illustration of how precarious material fortune is in a country such as Cambodia. How they spend it may simply reflect a family who has suffered enough to understand what is truly valuable in life.

Still, I can’t help wishing that they would buy themselves an oven.


Melisa said...

Andrew and I have just reread about Esther and the cat and the accidents and also your 'millionaire' neighbours. You are an EXCELLENT writer and should definitely be writing in a newspaper: what about the NY Times or Washington Post? I am serious or being syndicated in French, Brit and USA papers? I don't know how you do this, but someone does! I am going to print out parts of your blogs for my friends to persuade them to follow them.

Nick Angel said...

Ha ha, Georgie, I have just been reading your blog, very good. This is my favourite entry - it is so you! And very nicely told.