Last summer, as we senior-weekedappliedforjobspanicattackedgraduated, our parents’ advice seemed both resigned and hopeful: “Fake it till you make it.” They realized as well as we did, or likely even more, how little we actually knew. But they trusted we would figure it out. And for the most part, I think they were right. Nearly a year later, we’re on our way: interning, renting first apartments in unknown cities, figuring out online banking, and navigating new metro systems.
And I’m in Battambang, helping launch a new program for women in our community, living in a student center, mastering the dollar/riel conversion rate, and navigating muddy roads on a moto bike. But as different as it may seem on the surface, I don’t know that my transition has been that different from my peers’.
Almost all of my closest friends are in “helping professions” too. They’re working with people who are homeless, disabled, mentally ill, immigrants, refugees, drug addicts, pregnant women, and high school dropouts. “Fake it till you make it” seems like pretty good advice in some fields, and maybe it’s good advice for us as well. But our mistakes seem to come at a much higher cost. Or rather, the human cost of our mistakes is immediately apparent to us: deportation, ectopic pregnancy, domestic violence, arrest, eviction. Under these circumstances, what does it mean to fake it? Do we have any other choice?
And if we make it, how will we know?
* * *
I owe a lot to a few older women from the U.S. and Australia who have been here for nearly as long as I have been alive and taken a special interest in my work. Through their encouragement and connections, I’ve been able to have meetings with women’s health and social entrepreneurship professionals who really know. their. shit. When I go into these meetings though, I never know quite how to act.
Option 1: Take our parents’ advice, and pretend I have it all together. Allude to past work in Honduras and Swaziland, drop buzzwords like crazy, refer to “my staff” and gossip conspiratorially about the NGO goings-on in Phnom Penh. Perhaps gain respect and street cred, but miss the opportunity to ask certain questions from people whose input could be invaluable. Spend the next day (week, month) wondering if they saw through my bullshit. Remind myself that it’s not actually bullshit; I really have worked in Honduras and Swaziland, I really do know what those buzzwords mean, I actually have a staff, and I’m in Phnom Penh often enough to have opinions on coffee shops and Clinton Foundation staff drama.
Option 2: Cut the crap, and be completely honest. I live in a small community in Battambang, I speak Khmer well, I read about bestpracticescommunityengagementmonitoringandevaluation voraciously, but most days, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m barely out of college with no formal training in development or aid work, I am hoping&praying to get a Master’s sometime soon, and to top it all off, I work for the Catholic church on women’s health education. I’m at the mercy of anyone who will take my hand and offer advice, encouragement, and direction. Walk away feeling like a child, who has earned empathy or even pity, but probably not respect. Feel satisfied that I was able to swallow my pride and ask basic questions, but frustrated that I came across as naive and unprepared. Wonder if I’ve burned bridges for future partnerships or collaborations with these professionals. Grasp at straws of hope that perhaps they found my honesty and vulnerability refreshing.
* * *
A foreign doctor visited our office a few weeks ago. She’s a big whig, has experience working in rural Cambodia 10 years ago, consults for the UN and major NGOs on women’s health, and is young and approachable. She came to visit a friend of hers who works in Battambang; this friend mentioned her visit to me, and she stopped by to say hello and answer a few questions that I’ve been dying to ask an experienced doctor.
With a smile on her face, she ripped our program apart. She told me that we would never accomplish anything without listening to Khmer women first, that workshops are useless unless the take-away from every one was correct condom use, that reusable sanitary pads (a product we’ve been testing with some women) are culturally irrelevant imports that reveal my bias towards Western practices. She especially abhorred the title of one of our workshops, “Menstrual Hygiene,” which to her suggested that menstruation was unsanitary. “If you’re not focusing on HIV, you’re not meeting the most important needs,” she concluded.
I thanked her profusely, and held back my tears until she had left. In that moment, I felt devastated. But my (Khmer) colleague was just angry. “She talked about our programs as if they were all your ideas and I had nothing to do with them,” she said. “And we spend every day in women’s homes. We ask them about their health needs, and they all tell us they have vaginal infections. So that’s what we’re teaching about. Plus, I like the pads. They’re more comfortable, cheaper and they’re really pretty.”
“And if we teach about condoms as directly as she wants, our whole program could get shut down,” I added, referring to spookily omniscient Rome.
In a venting conversation with a friend later that day, she reminded me what my plans were for the program before we launched here: we were going to lead community-wide education about domestic violence. But the women in our village were asking for something else. They have chronic yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, STIs, and normal discharge – but they don’t know how to tell the difference, they don’t know the causes, and they use douche (helpfully marketed as “hygiene water”) as a cure-all. So we created a series of workshops about the menstrual cycle: what it is, why it exists, what is normal discharge, and everything you ever wanted to know about different vaginal infections.
The women want to be modern, so they buy sanitary pads for their periods. But the pads are expensive, so they use one for 12, 18, or even 24 hours at a time. So with water bottles and stopwatches, we tested the absorbency of different fabrics in a Phnom Penh market, and created prototypes of reusable sanitary pads, which are now being used by 50 women in our community.
My friend was right. There are undoubtedly legitimate critiques of our program, but they aren’t the ones that this doctor had ranted about. An hour or so later, I was back at my desk. My colleague picked up from where we had left off that morning: “You know, sometimes the women laugh at you because you always tell them not to use ‘hygiene water’ and because you say that menstruation is clean. They believe you, but they think it’s funny that you care so much about this,” she said, refuting one more of the doctor’s criticisms.
I couldn’t help but feel that we had been misjudged; the doctor’s criticisms were all based on years of experience and common mistakes of young NGO programs, but they were things we were already seeking to address on a daily basis. A fog of critical self-doubt lifted. I didn’t know if we were “making it” yet, but I felt certain that we weren’t faking it anymore.
* * *
So when I read this description of one type of aspiring NGO worker, who is “guaranteed to be a disaster,” why did my heart fall?
Missionaries: While the Mercenary was laboring his way through an undergraduate business diploma, the Missionary was valiantly skipping classes to protest in front of the Chinese Embassy. She is the first to arrive in a mission, and the last to leave, sustained throughout by her fervent empathy for “the people”. For some reason, they are typically the only ones to contact dengue or dysentery, the details of which they garrulously share, believing it demonstrates their solidarity with the Timorese. The problem with hiring the Missionaries is that while God has blessed them with passion, he has not been as generous with competence (and a lot of classes were missed to play hacky-sack in the quad). Their good intentions are not enough, and the resulting drag on the project team can be disastrous. The Missionary can be usually be spotted wearing local garb with a macramé shoulder bag slung across their chest, talking passionately about “empowerment”.
Skipping classes to protest in front of the Chinese Embassy? Nope, but I was too busy skipping out of Boston as a student organizer for Northern Uganda. First to arrive and last to leave? Not so sure, but I know I’ll be here a lot longer than most other expats my age. Fervent empathy for “the people”? Check. God-given passion? Check plus. Local garb? Krama, yes, sampot, no. Talking passionately about empowerment? Guilty as charged. Competence?