Rural Farmland or Urban Slums?

“Since 1980, the proportion of the developing world living in urban areas has grown to about 50 percent, from 30 percent, and according to the World Bank, that migration of hundreds of millions has been instrumental in pulling down poverty rates — and will be for a broader set of countries going forward.”

NY Times Article “Is It Crazy to Think We Can Eradicate Poverty?”

This article is interesting for so many reasons.  After my first visit to Cambodia, I was clearly in the minority in a class on Eco-theology because I actually wanted to argue for the benefit of cities and at the same time was wary of over-romanticization of remote and rural living (especially in the developing world).  But looking at this now from Cambodia, I decided to focus on how we might think about the issues in this particular context.

First, I asked a friend, a Filipino who works on development with a Christian organization, who’s been in Cambodia for years what he thought about this argument.  When I asked, in his experience, is quality of life better in poor rural Cambodia or in the slums here, he responded first by claiming not to have any sort of objective answer.  He thought that in the villages life is better.  This largely spawns from his insistence in relationality being the key to quality of life.  But, in the course of our conversation, he wanted to grant that there is some benefit to living in the city (slums) as the article suggested.  Perhaps when people come here (to Phnom Penh), although it’s not necessarily their intention, they are exposed to more, able to access services, and realize their own potential.  But because spirituality and relationality were so important to him, the amount of money you make and access was not necessarily the best indicator of good quality of life.

Second, Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF) from Cambodia just sent a contingent to this very World Bank conference on eradication of poverty in Washington D.C.  They were mostly trying to highlight the detriment of Cambodia’s land titling process on the indigenous communities here subsequent the moratorium on Economic Land Concessions.  This Economic Land Concessions program allows the government to lease up to 10,000 hectares of state land for up to 99 years to private companies for industrial agriculture.  The detriment to the poor has been documented in various reports, including the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee report on the important of Large-Scale Investments in Farmland.  This includes effects of policies that subsidize one product, like the E.U.’s duty free access to Cambodian sugar, which has had deleterious effects as foreign investors or “big people” have bought up large amounts of land to set up plantations, leaving the rural poor with less access to natural resources and food security.  (The particular paper HBF presented is about the difficulties indigenous communities face, especially when in close proximity to Economic Land Concessions, for obtaining collective titles even when these economic land concessions have been halted and private titling expedited.)  At least one HBF staffer thinks that ensuring people have their own land, changing the focus to supporting small farms, is the most logical next step for Cambodia and will have the greatest positive impact.

While this article about poverty eradication and the goal of eradicating poverty can be (and should be) interrogated in various ways, the article also brings up interesting questions.  How do we measure quality of life?  What are the effects of international and national policies on people in the developing world?  Why are individuals in the developing world increasingly moving to the (mega-)city slums and how it it benefit (or harm) them?

How do you buy a car in Cambodia? Part II

The search continued…

After the viewing and mulling over the Tico, I was a little down but a (seemingly) serendipitous meeting was coming.

One day a week I go to another office, connected to my research of women pastors.  I was sitting in the cubicle I had sat in on previous visits.  A man came in and over to me.  “Am I sitting at your desk?” I asked.  Yes, I was.  I moved my stuff to a nearby space with his help.  I introduced myself and asked him his name and what he works on.  He told me he was a teacher in a ministry that trains young men to be auto mechanics.  Really?  Can you help me buy a car?  I immediately asked.  He asked me how much my budget was.  I’d increased it, deciding that it was better to spend a little more to buy some piece of mind.  $2000-$3000.  He recommended that I get an Atoz, the car that was made by Hyundai, the next model after the Tico.  It was a better car with a 4-cylinder engine so it didn’t have as much trouble running the air conditioning.  It was a cheap but good car.

He said he’d call around and see if he could find one that someone was selling.

A few days later I got a call.  I learned that his brother had a friend who was selling a gold Atoz, a 1997.

When I went to see it, the car looked well cared-for.  It was clean outside and the seats were in remarkably good shape.

atos frontI needed a vehicle to really start a lot of my fieldwork and I trusted this teacher of mechanics so I decided to go ahead and buy it.   The man selling the car wanted $3000 which seemed like a bit much for it.  I said that I’d pay $2500.  In the end he wouldn’t go lower than $2800 which my new friend advised was a normal price for this car.  I agreed to it.

I didn’t have the money with me and the bank limits the amount of money I can take out per visit to the ATM.  Hence, I’d need several days to get the money together.  We wrote out a contract and signed it and added our thumbprints.  Then after paying a down payment, I took the car home.  This seemed like a good solution.  I wanted to take it on a substantial trip before paying the rest of the money.

When I went to back it out of the parking area, the engine started missing and the gas would not work.  My friend called the guy who sold the car who got his mechanic to come take a look.  After many hours of work on the spark plugs and cables, finally, it started to sound normal.  I drove home.

A few days later, I nervously drove it to Oudong with my research assistant as my co-pilot.  We made it there.  We made it back.  The shifting seemed to be off but I felt a bit better.

Then the day I paid the former owner the rest of the money, as we had agreed, his mechanic fixed the oil leak and the driver’s side power window which wasn’t working.  This took almost the entire day.  That night I stopped at a coffee shop on the way home.  When I tried to move it from one parking space to another, the accelerator stopped responding.  I thought it had run out of gas because the tank was low and the mechanic was running the car all day.  I paid a guy to get me some gas.  He did.  I tried it again and it still didn’t work.  I called my friend to come help.  He came.  The sparkplugs again, he thought.  He went to get his tools and came back with some guy who was apparently a mechanic.  My friend had seen this man while he was on his way home and decided to have him come take a look.  This man had his hands all over the engine plugging and unplugging the cables while it was running.  He wanted to replace a cable to the spark plug but the store was closed so he wrapped some of them with electrical tape so the car started again.  Then he wanted to clean the spark plugs.  I went with him to his shop.  My friend came, too, not wanting to leave me alone.  We sat at the mechanic’s shop while he worked near a puddle of putrid water at the entrance of the garage.  Darkness had fallen and mosquitoes were feasting on my feet and legs.  The space and this mechanic’s tools were makeshift versions.  He syphoned gasoline from his moto to use to clean the spark plugs.  Finally he finished and I was released.

atos back

Before my next trip I did some preemptive work on the car–replaced all the spark plugs and the cables and some other maintenance.

Now I have a car.  Sometimes when I honk the radio turns on.  Actually, the radio turns on often without warning.  It’s been on some trips–to Kampong Speu, to Kampong Chnang, and more recently on trips to and from the airport, filled with suitcases and tall adults.

It’s served its function and I will drive it to the provinces for my work, but not without a little bit of trepidation.  And so, I still don’t really know.  How do you buy a car in Cambodia?

Weeks after this ordeal I found a “helpful” article on Khmer 440–So You Want to Buy a Budget Car in Cambodia?

Seriously?  Now you tell me?

Before Sunrise (mun bale bombrieng) [មុនពេលបំព្រាង]

Today is ថ្ងៃសីល tngai sel, Precept Day, when Buddhist followers go to the wat to receive and reaffirm the five precepts.  Hence as part of my participant-observation, I was up at 4:00 am and at 4:30 biked over to the វត្ត wat.  I walked downstairs and the guard was still sleeping, everything securely locked.  I woke him to let me out and he asked if I was going to exercise?  No, I’m going to the wat, I explained.  It was still dark.  As I walked out of the garage, I looked around.  The street was the quietest I have ever seen it, not a soul out.

Most streets, including my own, were well lit with street lights.  As I rode my bike toward the wat, I came across a person or two walking–doing their morning exercise.  Some stray dogs were up, too.  I avoided a pack of dogs down one street, opting to go a different way.

As I biked north, I saw more and more people.  There was a group of about 5 people doing their walking and many more doing their exercise on their own.

I passed by the Toul Sleng Museum on the left, which was eerie to pass in the darkness.

I rode by a tuk tuk parked on the right side of a the rode, the tarp-like shades/walls drawn, and the driver likely still sleeping inside.  Here and there I would see a woman walking in a white shirt and  សំពតsombot (long wrap around skirt) with her container of prepared food and rice to offer to the monks at the wat.  One family had a fire burning, ready to start cooking rice, probably as a part of a street food shop.

I also passed a fancy Chinese restaurant with covered tables and wooden chairs, lights on inside, where people had already eaten and were leaving.  In this area there were more and more places where food was already being served.

I finally arrived at the wat following others on ម៉ូតូឌុប modto​dops, motocycle (or scooter) taxis.  I saw what many people were doing before sunrise–getting ready to take the precepts and give offerings to the សង្ឃ sangha.  As you can see, 90% were women.  There were ដូនជី donji, or Buddhist “nuns” and old “grandmothers” and middle aged women.  There were some–very few–men and kids there, too.

sala chan

The សាលាឆានsala chan, the large eating hall, was filled with well over 100 people.  The room featured a large Buddha at the front and the walls, round columns, and ceiling were brightly painted.  On each bay was one scene from the Buddha’s life.  Outside the room was a patio with candles that people had offered and incense that they were offering.  People filled this outside area as well.  At about 5:05 the monks processed in and everyone rose and with their hands together, showing respect.

The monks sat down near the center of the room (away from the Buddha) and the monks and ពុទ្ធបរិស័ទ buta barisat, Buddhist followers, chanted.  Then one monk introduced the monk who would be preaching.  The sermon began, and focused on ស្ងប់ which means quiet, calm, silent, motionless, tranquil.  Before the sermon was finished and the precepts were recited, at about 5:30 I could see the daylight through the open door.  The sun was up.

Valuing hierarchy, valuing autonomy

Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?

As many of you know, in this research in Cambodia, I aim to try to understand concepts and their relationship to women’s empowerment, empirically, through conversations and observations.  Are underlying values of autonomy, individualism, freedom, equality–what I’m calling liberal values–necessary for women’s empowerment?

As any amount of time in Cambodia shows and many other Cambodia scholars have attested to: hierarchy is important in Cambodia. (This is clear from Chandler’s famous essay, “Songs at the edge of the forest” and reaffirmed by many others.)

I have presented on the possibility of having a feminist ethics that values hierarchy (SEASSI student conference in 2009) and now, reflecting on my fieldwork observations, I’m wrestling with hierarchy again.

More recently, I have been pondering the larger question of whether there exists a type of empowerment that is not based on liberal values or a liberationist framework.

How do we approach the question, “Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?”

As one friend has implied, these concepts are at best vague outside of a context.

Granted, I’m thinking about a Cambodian context.  Autonomy is, at first thought, acting in one’s self interest (not considering others‘ interest or limitations imposed by others).  This feels a lot like the way “rights” is understood around here as in “I have the right to marry who I want even if my parents don’t approve.”

Similarly, my first thought on hierarchy is that it is a respect for the limitations imposed by those higher up rather than solely following one’s self interest.  Or, perhaps it’s more helpful to think about attention to a system, a group, institution, family of which you are a part, rather than your individual desire.  Surely, doing what your parents say might be in your self interest.  But choosing to “follow your own heart” instead of the wishes of your parents might be–for me–valuing autonomy over hierarchy.

In some cultural contexts, it would be unheard of (or at least generally disapproved of) for the parents to refuse to let their daughter marry who she wanted.  Maybe this is not a denial of hierarchy but a redefinition of which aspects of life should be subjected to it.  (This makes this concept of rights seem a little culturally contrived.)

Thinking on a broader level, even institutions which depend on liberal presuppositions or profess liberal values need hierarchy.  It’s not bad to make some decisions on your own and defer to the higher ups for others, right?  While people have tried, it’s proven laborious if not impossible to conceive of another way of running a system like an institution.

Is strictly following the procedures and checking with superiors about some decisions beforehand valuing hierarchy over autonomy?

Another friend suggested my question itself makes a categorical mistake.  He suggested we think of four cases, systems with autonomy and hierarchy, or just one, or neither.  Because he could think of examples of each, he concluded they are independent concepts.

I still think there’s something there.  There’s something about limiting the autonomy of the individual or conditioning one to think first of the whole and only second of the individual self that goes against liberal values, like the idea of the liberation of the individual.

Feminism with which I’m most familiar is steeped in these liberal values.  Many activist organizations want to empower women (to seemingly follow their self interest or exercise their rights).  Is there another type of empowerment possible that values hierarchy over autonomy?  Is the question merely a false dichotomy or does it provide a helpful lens for thinking of which values are necessary for women’s empowerment?

How do you buy a car in Cambodia? Part I

Truth be told, I’ve never sought and bought a car in any country.  I have a hand-me-down 1991 Acura in the U.S.  But in order to get my work done in Cambodia, to be able to visit the communities of the women leaders I’m learning about, I needed to figure out: how do you buy a car in Cambodia?  Here in Cambodia my first thought is to ask for help.  (Surely this already says something about the culture in which I’m more or less engulfed or something about me or both…)

I decided to ask the driver of the organization that graciously hosts me for advice and help.  I told him I was looking for something cheap, maybe $2000, to use to drive to the provinces during my 10-month stay.

He said I probably would want to get a very little car, like a Tico.  I did some internet “research” and learned that this was a Korean car that has been very popular in various Latin American countries and  other places where cheap cars are in high demand.  It’s a tiny car with a 3-cylinder engine and was made from 1991 to 2001.

After a week or so, he told me that he found one. It belonged to the mechanic who worked at the shop that the company car was serviced.  The mechanic bought it for his wife and wanted to sell it because she was pregnant and they would need the money for hospital cost.

The driver from the office took me on a very long motdo ride out to the area where the car lived.  It apparently had a new engine, a Japanese engine which was supposed to be better than the original Korean one.  I drove it a few hundred feet on the tiny road in the outskirts of the city.


The mechanic said that when I was in traffic, I would have to turn the air conditioner off but when I was driving normally it would be fine.  It looked a bit worn out (with a crack in the windshield and no gear markings) but it was probably fine, reconditioned to sell.

The driver from the office thought this 1996 or 1997 was a good choice for $1800 (or a little less).  I should get it checked before making long trips to the provinces but this was normal.  I didn’t know whether to buy it or not.

I liked it fine–it was a car and that was my sole requirement–but I was also nervous.  I had only test driven it a few hundred feet.  What if it couldn’t do a normal trip?  I asked at a mechanic shop near my house if they would check it for me.  They asked about the car and said it shouldn’t be more than $1500.  Finally, I made up my mind.  I would ask to drive it into the shop by my house to see how it did on an actual test drive and get it checked and I’d ask him to drop the price to $1500.

When I told the driver who was helping me to find a car, he talked to the mechanic selling the car.  The mechanic said he didn’t trust me to go without him and he couldn’t leave because his wife was very pregnant.  He also was not interested in reducing the price.  That made me mind up for me.  Finally!

I was a little down, feeling guilty because the driver had done so much work for me and also worried because I didn’t expect he’d do any more which made me wonder, How do you buy a car in Cambodia?


meaty mushrooms

“Meaty” Mushrooms


Feast–curry, fruit, and sweets

fish amok

Fish Amok

bongaim (dessert)

បង្អែម Bongaem (Dessert)


Breakfast–pork with rice and pickled veggies, some kinda soup, and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk

Consequences of the Gendered Culture of Engineering

Judging from the responses I’ve received, the publication of a 1-page article in the February 2013 issue of STRUCTURE magazine was well worth writing.  Overwhelmingly the responses have been positive, thanking me for my contribution.  Both women and men have contacted me, affirming that they have had similar experiences or that they recognize the intrinsic difficulties for women in the culture and that they want to open up the culture for the good of the profession.  Some report fiery conversations with colleagues who disagree.  So glad to have instigated some good conversation!

The second article in the set, focusing on the consequences for women especially, is in the current (April 2013) issue of STRUCTURE.  Here’s the link:

Consequences of the Gendered Culture of Engineering

[Here’s a little background if you missed the post announcing the first article: After completing my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I worked as a full-time structural engineer.  Since then, I have continued to work part time in that profession (and hope to go back to it upon my return).  Even when I’m not working within engineering, I am committed to it and interested in helping to help make it better.  My contribution to STRUCTURE magazine comes from my new perspective, benefiting from the distance gained and different tools of analysis developed.  Here’s a piece I’ve written primarily to those within engineering, intending to makes strides toward strengthening the profession.]