Wednesday, June 15, 2011

End of School-Year, Slogans and Stock-taking

The ending of the school year is always a time for ceremonial trashing of workbooks, paging through finger-paintings and favorite reports. It is also the time of final email reminders and parting words from  vacation-hungry school administrators. This week I was reading emails from both countries. It is a time for that age-old cliché, how the year has flown by! But we are still in Phnom Penh, so I don’t want to say that yet.
For me this has also been a week of long office hours and many meetings. My supervisors from Washington visited to take stock of the progress on my work here since February. It has been a confused stock-taking, because a few months ago our headquarters put an indefinite suspension on new initiatives and lending to government of Cambodia. In the past few days, I witnessed several awkward conversations with government officials while we hedged and waffled, and they tried to look sympathetic and helpful, and at the same time we were all left confused. What exactly are we offering to do? The stranger conversations are the ones about keeping things going “at a working level” and then the knowing smiles and nods. What does that mean? We have a beer afterwards among other donors and admit that other agencies are eagerly gobbling our piece of the aid pie, that Hun Sen couldn’t care less if we leave in a huff, that we probably won’t, and that the Chinese are keeping the show going on a much bigger budget anyway. And there is an embarrassing sense of the self-preservationist in all of us. Please just let me have my little project, some justification that I can hang from, and I will hang in there and make it through this “difficult time”.
So do I have much to show for my time here in Cambodia? If I were a Chinese investment firm, I’d have built an airport by now, have broken earth on a mine or something. But I’ve got the internal clock of a Chinese investor trapped in the career of a Eurocrat. Collaboration trumps implementation, and signaling is everything. The government of Cambodia has sent some pretty bad signals, so we are signaling back, I guess, in long pregnant pauses, in pin-drop meetings, doodling in my notebook. Well the Chinese will have their highways and airports, but we will have our standards!
Oh, what the hell!
On the home side of things, the absence of a school routine is putting a stretch on Atey’s energy, and each night in the apartment is some new mix of boredom, inspiration and aggression. Ah, life is like a glob of mashed potatoes. It’s up to you to make it interesting. I think if I could rephrase the stock end-of-year message to parents, I’d say time isn’t flying by, it’s plodding along every day. I was not climbing a professional ladder when I came here, just plodding through six months of this mucked-up relationship with the government. My efforts to mold and direct the kids are not really arriving at some grand conclusion, either. Some nights we are getting along, playing together, having a good, solid, 20-minute read. Other nights it is all wailing, foreheads banged on table corners, smashed crackers in couch cushions, water pouring out from the bathroom floor, and we are just muddling through. My brain is all scrambled eggs, and it doesn’t seem like I could put together a two-sentence storyline if I tried. With no school to drain the energy and aggression, Tika and Puck keep up a steady whimper-wrestle-wail all day. Up at 5:30, down at 10:15. I am pumping coffee on weekends to keep two-steps behind their upsets.
Maybe I need to be me 20 years from now to see that there has been some order or result to all of this. I’m not sure if Cambodia will be much different with or without us donors scrambling over each other for some kind of engagement. But the kids and I are different people for having had this time here. I just can’t put my finger on what it is that’s happening to us. You could say parenting is like painting the Waterlilies, and I’d need to stand back to take it all in. But it’s more like our museum run-throughs, impressionism on the fly, and you’ve got to take it in while being tugged, whacked over the head, and persistently whined at.

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