My Selfish Altruism (Tales from Cambodia & Nepal)

by: hawkgrrrl

August 20, 2013

Why do we give?  Is our altruism ever purely unselfish or do we give in part because we hope to gain something?  What do we want to gain?

Our house building crew with the villagers whose houses we built.

In March, we had an opportunity to join a house building in a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  My husband was working as treasurer for a Cambodian women’s charity that provides jobs to women who would otherwise not be able to support themselves or their children.  In addition to providing jobs for these women, the foundation was also breaking ground to build a women’s hospital.

Our house building trip was an interesting mix of luxury and deprivation.  We deliberately stayed in a low end hotel with no pool and very basic rooms.  We used group vans for transportation.  We made our own sandwiches for lunch, picnic style.  But our group also had cocktails one evening at a very fancy cigar bar and also had a very expensive buffet lunch at the best hotel in town.  We all chipped in a large sum of money to participate, and also to buy a gift for the charity’s founder.

Bones and clothing fragments surfaced on the walkways at the killing fields.

The Cambodian woman who was the local manager of our house build was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the 1970s.  Unlike my childhood watching Schoolhouse Rock and Underdog, she was a 4 year old orphan put in charge of a room of 60 infants.  The teenage soldiers who gave her this responsibility charged her to keep the babies quiet.  If she did not, they would come in and kill the crying baby by dashing its head against the wall.  Then they explained that it was her fault for not doing her job.  Such horror stories of Cambodian survivors are common.  There are few old people because all educated adults, including those who wore eyeglasses or had other signs of education, were killed.  We had visited Phnom Penh before and seen the torture prison at Tuol Sleng (formerly a high school, but turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge) and the killing fields outside the city, a mass grave where 20,000 bodies were found, most of whom were killed without bullets using farm implements (shovels and hammers).  It is a harrowing place.  Through the effects of weather, the bones and clothing of the victims have risen to the surface of the ground on the walkways.

While it’s easy for many Americans to think that Cambodia’s troubles are completely foreign, the US’s actions in Vietnam, its continual bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war, and U.S. backing of Lon Nol (who turned out to be an ineffective ruler) over the deposed king actually created the circumstances that led to the Khmer Rouge rising to power.  Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge killed 2.2 million Cambodians, far more than were killed by the U.S. bombings.

There are a few things I noticed that are typical in Cambodia.  Tuk-tuks are the main mode of transportation.  Cambodian tuk-tuks are a motorcycle with a five seat covered cart pulled behind.  Some locals drive a scooter or motorcycle.  We have seen families of 5 or sometimes more on a single motorcycle, with children sitting between the parents and sometimes a little one standing in front of the driver.  Business people use motorcycles to transport just about everything.  We saw a man on a motorcycle with bags full of red meat waiting at a stop light, covered with flies.  Many Cambodians, especially women, wear pajamas in public and consider them dressy.  After all, the tops match the bottoms!  I think they are on to something.

A typical family traveling by motorbike.

As we prepared to go to the village to work, we were given some unique instructions.  We were clearly told not to compliment the children or even pay much attention to them; we were told several times not to single out any child.  Our children could play with their children, but adults were cautioned that the villagers would take a compliment as a request that we be given the child in payment for the house we were building for them.  We were also cautioned that if one of us was injured during the build, it was important to keep calm and quiet about it.  If the family thought that a worker was injured in building the house, they would be reluctant to live there as it could be unlucky.  One of the men in our crew was seriously injured requiring stitches, and we kept him quiet by the food table while we waited for transportation to take him back to the medical clinic.

Cambodian women on the go in their PJs.

We were given lots of water bottles to drink, and we were asked to drink them without leaving water in them which would be seen as wasteful.  We were also instructed to leave the empty bottles in the built houses as the families considered them very valuable commodities used for storage and other practical needs.  A portable bathroom enclosure was put up around the small latrine that was dug into the ground for our use.  We were told that locals would simply go in the field out in the open, and that if we preferred, that was acceptable.  However, we were instructed that going to the bathroom is considered a communal activity.  When local women see another woman squatting, they come join so they can make small talk together.  This reminded me of the toilet facilities in China in the hutongs (old neighborhoods) which are also open inside for talking to neighbors while using the facilities.  Gossiping while using the toilet is part of the glue that keeps society together.

A Nepalese woman carrying a heavy load.

At the end of March, we were trekking in Nepal.  We walked through many villages as we walked up and down in the Annapurna region.  I had my hair pulled back in one of those elastic double combs with beads in between.  At one point I passed a local Nepalese girl who appeared to be in her early teens.  She was standing alone, washing her face.  She pointed at my hair and said, using the few English words she knew, “Beauty.  Give me?”  I remembered what it was like being a young teenager, with no resources beyond what I had from my family.  Sometimes I would see something that was outside of the reach of the family (the types of things we wouldn’t buy), and I thought something looked cool or interesting.  I thought of this girl, grooming her hair and putting the hair holder in place, feeling more confidence, believing herself to be both beautiful and persuasive for asking for it successfully.  I briefly imagined this confidence increasing her prospects over time.  I wanted to reward her for asking for something she thought would better herself.  I took it out of my hair, and handed it to her.  My ten-year old daughter who was hiking with me asked why I gave it to her.

Why did I?  Why do we give?  Interestingly, on our house build, the group leader specifically cautioned that locals really do not understand why we are there doing this work.  They can’t really fathom why someone would fly to their country, drive out to their village and build houses.  They were skeptical of our motives.  They assumed we must have some exploitative intention (such as taking the children).

As I’ve thought about it, I have lots of reasons, and they are mostly for my personal gain.  In the case of the girl in Nepal, in addition to thinking of the scripture that says “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Luke 6:30), I had the thought that it was a way to leave something personal behind in such a beautiful place, a memento of me that would live on in this remote location.  In a sense, I was leaving a legacy of myself behind.  I also realized that I could easily get more of these hair holders, but that the girl would not have easy access to get them living high in the mountains as she did.  For all I knew (in retrospect), she may have had a collection of these from other hikers.

Nepali boy playing with a discarded Coke bottle at the village water source.

Aside from the idea of leaving a legacy and wanting to feel like a person who is grateful for all the opportunities and wealth I have, giving is a unique experience, different from the privileged daily life we live, particularly as Americans.  Life in the US especially (and even in Singapore) is very materialistic and boring.  So much of my time revolves around assessing what I have and what I lack, then buying to meet those needs, that activities like this are a welcome mental break and a chance to reassess my thinking.  It’s easy to realize that we really don’t need all the things we think we need.  For example, I’ve been searching for drawer inserts for my kitchen this week, imagining how I can best organize all the utensils I have.  Contrast that with the Cambodian villagers who are grateful for the empty water bottles because they are practical for holding items.  Part of this experience is about reducing my guilt for what I have, but an even more meaningful outcome is that I question my own choices in the future.  The experience changes me for the better.

My most important reason, though, is the duty I feel as a mother to teach my children.  I want them to be exposed to the world around them and to be educated that life is both circumstantially different yet fundamentally the same for everyone.  I want to help them want to engage in the world.  I want them to question their own cultural assumptions and to live with a global awareness they couldn’t get from the comfort of our own home and neighborhood.  I want to redirect their paths through these types of experiences so they naturally think beyond the comfort of the moment and beyond the comfortable American lifestyle that is our default.

  • When you give, what have your motives been?
  • What have you received when you give?  How has giving changed you?


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12 Responses to My Selfish Altruism (Tales from Cambodia & Nepal)

  1. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    Very nice!

    I generally give material stuff with the goal of filling at least part of a true need for those without and I give my time freely with the goal of helping others grow often including the well to do. I don’t usually think about what I receive although there is a comfort in helping and sometimes gratitude is expressed and received, as one of my Christian friends put it; it’s my ministry, my job as a disciple to help where ever there is need. I suppose giving displaces wanting so that’s something I receive.

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  2. Jeff Spector on August 20, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    I enjoyed your tale a great deal. One thing that always struck me about westerners doing this kind of service is that we attach our value system to the people we meet. We suppose that they know they are poor and deprived as we would feel living in their conditions. And while it appears that we are doing a good thing by building them houses. Maybe we are not.

    Certainly everyone in the world deserves clean water and food to eat and peace. Because it is within the world’s capacity to provide at least that, if it chose to.

    But, we sometimes try to export our values on people that may be perfectly content with what they have. All in the name of making ourselves feel better about giving or doing.

    The horror of war and genocide can also be avoided if world leaders chose to, but often do not for their own reasons. This I cannot understand. All societies and religions teach some form of peace, but yet, some chose not to abide by that.

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  3. allquieton on August 20, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    My brother told me about how someone in rural Argentina can find a spot of ground and build a crude but suitable house, with help from neighbors. No permits, mostly scavenged materials. I thought it may not be a nice house but here I am with a 30 year mortgage, and property taxes. Quite a burden. Who is better off?

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  4. hawkgrrrl on August 20, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    Jeff, your comment reminded me of Lindsay on Arrested Development, hosting her dinner to raise awareness of starvation and other clueless charitable endeavors. Excellent satire.

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  5. Howard on August 20, 2013 at 12:20 PM

    allquieton wrote; Who is better off? It’s a great question! I recently visited some people living in a rural part of the Dominican Republic they lived off the land on plentiful naturally growing fruits, a vegetable and coffee garden and they traded eggs for cooking oil. Their house was a flimsy shack missing most of one wall but life was good! The patriarch passed away the year before at over 100 years old and the matriarch just passed in her 90s. No one there appeared stressed by their lifestyle or lack of material things except one little girl who lusted for my camera after learning how to use it by watching me.

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  6. Hedgehog on August 21, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    Jeff, “But, we sometimes try to export our values on people that may be perfectly content with what they have.”
    Reminded me of a conversation I was privy to more than 20 years ago, in which young US American woman was complaining about an immigrant family that a ward she had been in had been required to assist – I believe they were Korean. Anyway, she seemed appalled that the family had bought a large TV to watch whilst having no sofas to sit on… the comment made whilst she was in Japan where it was traditional to sit on cushions on the floor, not necessarily on chairs or sofas. And a sofa was hardly going to teach then anywhere near as much about culture or language as a TV would do…
    It can be important to ask people what help they think they need, than take a view through our own lens I think.

    An interesting post. I do find it disturbing that people can become so inured to exploitation that they are forever suspicious of motive, and unable to recognise a desire to help.

    I remember making a charitable donation whilst studying inTokyo (living costs were very high for me there), and the person collecting complaining I hadn’t donated enough. Apparently I was meant to donate 2 or 3 times the amount because that would have paid for whichever of the items was listed (so many vaccinations or mosquito nets or whatever). I got quite annoyed with her. Did she or did she not want my donation? My motive, as always, had been a desire to help. On that occasion I ended up feeling aggravated.

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  7. hawkgrrrl on August 21, 2013 at 1:30 PM

    I thought it was interesting to learn in South Korea that they learned early on how to heat the floors via a chamber under the house to warm the house. Given the efficiency of their heating design, it would be a waste to raise the furniture and beds off the floor. By contrast, in Europe there were fireplaces in the room that families had to huddle around for warmth. Which is the better system? I have to go with the heated floors.

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  8. Hedgehog on August 21, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Heated floors every time… I wish. Of course we had them in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. Sadly they left with the collapse of the empire.

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  9. Jeff Spector on August 21, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    Heated floors are making a comeback!!!!!

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  10. hawkgrrrl on August 21, 2013 at 8:16 PM

    Hedge – of course, the Romans relied on unseen slave labor to stoke the fires whereas the Koreans were a bit more self-contained!

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  11. Hedgehog on August 22, 2013 at 2:05 AM

    They did indeed.
    We were taught also that the Angle and Saxon invaders (who also made slaves of their prisoners) tended to be superstitious of the abandoned Roman settlements. Too, they wouldn’t have experienced the benefits of the Roman heating systems. The Celts would have been too busy trying to fight off the invaders to pay much attention to household technologies, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make life comfortable for them by mentioning it.
    Your comment also reminds me that it was also the Romans who introduced plumbing. That didn’t reach the average household until there were no longer enough servants to be hauling water for the bathing etc. of the rich, though was employed for centuries in their decorative fountains etc.

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  12. KT on August 22, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    I enjoyed this post. I have to be honest though, before I read it and had just seen the title, I thought of tithing and the idea among Church members that ‘one will be blessed if they pay tithing’. Selfish altruism?

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