Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reality Journalism



Reality Social Experiment

Over the years, especially during the past two decades, I have heard on numerous occasions about young Cambodian women jumping onto the marriage’s bandwagon for the opportunity to come to live in the United States, or some other developed countries. Some of these young women sometimes married men as old as their grandfathers or married people they didn’t even know. Though there are reasons regarding our individual personal choices, the issue of a woman, especially young woman, deciding to marry someone as old as her grandfather or someone she didn’t even know and took the risk of possibly living unhappily ever after has always stirred my curiosity. After giving some thoughts to the issue over the years, I came to a hypothetical conclusion that the reasons these young women took the risk might stem from the following factors:

1) Lack of education
2) Lack of opportunity to find jobs and maintain a secured livelihood.
3) Uninformed or misinformed about what life is really like living in a foreign country

There are many more factors that could be added to the list, but I believe, if people have these three factors eliminated from their lives, they would certainly not take the options mentioned above.

Late last year, I had an opportunity to put my hypothesis into a test. Because I was not a researcher, and, by no means, an expert on what I was doing, my life-altering experiment was somewhat eccentric, to put it mildly.

After having gone through a divorce, I found myself feeling lonely and sad. So I took a three week vacation and went to Cambodia to look for a soul mate. Upon arriving in Cambodia, I met M who is an independent factory inspector and my cousin. M offered me a temporary job as an assistant factory inspector so that I could tag along with him to visit the many garment factories located in and around Phnom Penh. My compensation was $20 for each day I went to work. Though tiny comparing to my salary working at my job in the US, the $20 a day pay was a huge sum comparing to the salary of factory workers who make only $61 a month on average. So, without giving it much thought, I accepted the job offer and became an assistant factory inspector during my three week stay in Cambodia.

A brief bio about M: M was a rather dimwitted boy when he was growing up. His mother told me that she had to make him repeat the first grade because he could not read or understand the basic letters being taught to him in the previous year. As a result, his younger sister caught up with him on the grade level.

When I left Cambodia almost 3 decades ago, M was just a tiny boy running in the dusty country road naked. He knew me only through my picture when he was growing up. Because I was somewhat successful in terms of overcoming adversity in life, his mother occasionally used my picture as a role model to inspire him to learn and be successful in school. With his mother’s cajoling, M was able to make it to the 12th grade at which point the family was no longer able to support his schooling. So, M’s mother told him to write me a letter asking for financial support for his continuing education at the college level in Phnom Penh. M’s letter was the most uninspiring one I had ever seen coming out of a 12th grader’s writing that it made me thought he was not college material. I did not answer him. A few months later, M’s younger sister wrote me a letter asking for financial support for her higher education. It was the most convincing letter which could only come out of a brilliant young mind. So, I decided to fund M’s younger sister to go to college instead of him. But through a twist of fate, I ended up funding M’s college’s education instead of his younger sister as there was no place for her to stay in Phnom Penh except for the pagoda which was not suitable for a girl to seek refuge from.

The promise had been made; the money had been sent; nothing much I could do except for going through with my commitment investing my hard earned money with a less than ideal candidate. After funding M’s college education expense for 2 years, I had an opportunity to go visit Cambodia in late 1997 which enabled me to meet him for the first time. During our initial meeting, M struck conversation with me in English which revealed a rather determined young man who would not let life’s adversity hinder his struggle for success. After that initial meeting, my confidence in M grew and he has become one of my trusted friends from whom to seek consultation when I need to get things done in Cambodia. This is how M and I get to know each other at the personal level.

My decision to become M’s assistant was not so much to earn that $20 per day pay but rather to peer at his career and to find out what has become of him after I spent so much of those hard earned money funding his college’s education. Now that you know M’s background, let’s go for a ride with a factory inspector.

The first garment factory we went to inspect was located in Khan Reusey Keo. We showed up at the factory’s gate in a dilapidated 16 years old Toyota Corolla. The security guards were not impressed and reluctant to let us in even after we told them our credential. So, a phone call to the factory’s higher-up had to be made in order to gain access into the premise. While we were waiting, I asked M why isn’t there any memo of our inspection left with the security guards so that the process would go smoothly. M told me that this is how things normally operate in Cambodia. He told me of an incidence he once had showing up to inspect a factory on a motorbike. He was not allowed to get through the factory’s gate and made to wait outside for hours. After a few phone calls to his headquarter in Hong Kong, an apologetic compliance officer came charging out to get him in.

After a few minutes of waiting, we were given access into the factory’s compound. The manager came down to meet us at the parking lot and we were taken up the elevator to the executive suite where a number of administrative staffs waited to greet us. A VIP’s treatment I felt, while a few minutes earlier we were not even accorded any regard by the security guards.

The first order of business for us was to meet with the factory’s owner or general manager (GM), who was usually a foreigner, to go over the protocol of our inspection. Because he was the lead inspector, M did most of the talking while I observed him in awe and amazement. Based on M’s fluent conversation in English, and his confident exhibition of skill and professionalism, it was painfully clear that the once considered dimwitted boy has now earned my utmost respect. As a US trained journalist, I even doubted my ability to perform the tasks anywhere close to M’s professional level.

With the factory manager acting as our guide, we began our inspection from the very bottom of the organization’s echelon and moved our way up to the administrative areas where we spent a lot of time inspecting payroll and legal paperwork to ensure that the workers were not abused one way or another. It took us one full exhausting day to complete a factory’s inspection. After work, M took me to dinner at a restaurant to go over my first-day-on-the-job experience and to see how I feel working in Cambodia for the first time. I told him that I was very excited to be able to gain unlimited accesses to a factory and had a good look at what was going on inside. However, after observing how the workers were organized within the factory’s organization, I noticed a group of office personnel sitting in front of computers as they were working. This group of people was given air-conditioned rooms in which to work and appeared to be mostly performing administrative function. The majority of them were women in their late 20s or early 30s.

I made some inquiries about the backgrounds of these administrative staffs. M told me that those who worked at the factory’s administrative level were mostly college graduates. They were among the most successful, the crème of the crops one would say, in the private sector. They generally came from the province and had to overcome a lot of adversity in life to get that far. As administrative staffs, they earned between $300 to $500 per month, plus some other perk such as free food and transportation to and from work. Based on what M was telling me, it appeared that the young women who worked as factory’s administrative staffs were among the most secured people as far as careers and incomes were concerned, not to mention their educational assets. After a quick thinking, I decided to put my hypothesis into a test by using myself as a subject of experiment.

Without revealing what I was up to, I told M that I came to Cambodia to look for a soul mate, and that I was interested in searching for a prospective mate among the young ladies who worked as administrative staffs in the factories. Upon learning of my desire, M was so excited. He told me that he knew a lot of the young ladies who worked as administrative staffs in the garment factories because he had been in frequent interaction with them when going about doing inspection. After careful discussion on what we would go about meeting my prospective dates, we decided to use dinner as a venue for our endeavor. M and I would use the occasion to talk about our lives and in the process evaluate the compatibility between my date and me. We both agreed that I would go to the next step by asking my date if she would like to be my spouse and go to live in the US with me only if both M and I unanimously believed that she was the right person.

My first date, Ms. A, was a 34 years old lady. For a woman her age, she looked great. However, after the meeting, I didn’t feel any spark igniting up in my emotion. I asked M if he had any sense of positive thought about my date. He too was feeling rather hapless. So, we decided to move on.

My second date, Ms. B, was a 31 years old woman who was very bright and intelligent. Being the first born child, she had to quit school at 19 in order to work and help support the family. Her income helped put many of her siblings through college. She was truly a selfless person. After the meeting, both M and I agreed that I should go on to the next step. Next day, M made a phone call to Ms. B on my behalf to make the proposal. Her answer was a disappointing no, as she already had a boy friend. Whether having a “boy friend” was just a diplomatic way of rejecting my offer to take her to the US was anybody’s guess. But we had to accept her answer on face value though.

Feeling a bit dejected, M and I went to conduct another inspection on a factory located in Chaum Chao. At that factory, I met a very attractive young lady, Ms. C, who was working as compliance officer there. She had a Westerner’s name and could speak English fluently. At first I thought she was an expatriate, but upon further inquiry she only had relatives living in the US, and her Westerner’s name was bestowed upon her by one of those relatives. She happened to know M as well. Thus, after our initial interaction, I conferred with M if I should explore a possible dating with Ms. C. M told me a bit about her background and we both agreed to pursue the subject of my desire.

We were scheduled to inspect the factory where Ms. C worked for a period of two days. So I had ample time to interact with her. M and I planned to invite Ms. C to dinner in the evening of the last day of our inspection. However, due to her busy schedule, she was unable to join us for dinner. So we took the afternoon of our last day of inspection, which by then our works had been completed, to talk with Ms. C about what was going on in our lives. To my absolute surprise, I learned that one of Ms. C’s relatives, who lives in the US, and I know each other. What a coincidence! Without even consulting with M, I decided to move ahead to the next step by telling Ms. C what I was up to. I asked her to call her relative in the US to inquire about my character and let me know about her decision in a couple of days. M and I waited for two days for Ms. C to call and give us her answer. But no call from Ms. C was forthcoming. So, M decided to give her a call, which was met with dead silence, another diplomatic way of saying no, I assumed.

By the time I met Ms. C, it was the last weekend of my stay in Cambodia. Both M and I were a bit depressed after failing to accomplish our objective. In a last minute effort, M’s girl friend arranged for me to meet Ms. D over dinner. We ended up having breakfast and lunch together the following day. Due to the breakneck nature of this high speed dating, I had to leave my tacit agreement to go on to the next step’s pursuit of this affair of the heart with M after returning to the US. Three weeks later, I was informed that Ms. D did not want to come to the good old US of A, or, to put it in other words, NO to my matrimonial offer to sponsor her to the US.

Back to my hypothesis: It appears that when people are well educated, well informed, and have a means to maintain a fairly good livelihood, the allure of a better life in a faraway land does not have much appeal. Of course my experiment was crude, by any scientific standard. But it nevertheless provides us with a tiny glimpse into people’s behaviors. Though I feel a bit disappointed over my failure to find a soul mate, I am somewhat happy to see that my hypothesis has been supported by this rather short and silly experiment. And I welcome those who wanted to challenge my finding to conduct a more structured experiment to see if this result could be rebutted.

Chanda Chhay
cchanda@verizon.net

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