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Act, Don’t React

February 1, 2010

Act. Be proactive, not reactive. This is one of my struggles in Cambodia. How do we fix problems before they arise? What systems do we put into place now to avoid possible hiccups later? Do I speak the stilted English that I know is easy to understand or use proper English which will take longer to convey my meaning but ultimately improve the English skills of the Khmer people around me?

When the dyer tells me it will take 7 days to dye 16 kilograms of cotton, 8 kilo per color, I have to dig and ask why. Why does it take 7 days? Because she cannot use the same equipment for both colors without thoroughly washing the bowls and pots when she switches color otherwise the red will contaminate the blue or vice versa. Ok, that makes sense. Next question: if I purchase an additional set of bowls, buckets and pots, would she be able to work on both colors? No, she already has multiple sets of equipment. However, she uses her hands in the process and her stained hands would contaminate the dye. Well, that makes sense. What if I give you permission to hire an assistant for the day – is there someone you could hire and supervise? Yes. Great, how much would that cost? And so a typical meeting went in Takeo Province.

Thought patterns are different here. I guess the village staff isn’t used to thinking long-term about a project. Weaving is so ingrained in who they are and how they make a living; the tradition is passed down between the generations in a family. However, I’m a barang (foreigner) and don’t intrinsically know this information, so I ask lots of questions and often find that there are things not being considered. Sometimes I get excited by a response and forget to keep questioning, which leads to a misunderstanding or frustrating situation.

For example, after dinner one evening I asked the Creative Manager and Weaving Manager how long it would take to make a product sample. The translator asked them and they conferred in Khmei before telling the translator it would take 11 days. Okay, great, 11 days. I got it. That’s great news. I worked it out on my calendar, told my boss and was really happy with that projection.

That is, until we went to see the Dying Manager the following day and I realized the men didn’t build the amount of time required to dye into their quote. Oh, and they forgot about the two days the weaver spends tying the ikat and the day to dye the ikat. Now, I’m looking at an additional 10 days. In the course of 12 hours, 11 days to complete a product turned into 21. Frustration levels rose.

I found myself on the brink of tears – while this new projection makes it impossible to meet a tight deadline imposed by the customer, I was also just supremely frustrated. It is hard to be in a working environment where you don’t speak the language and can’t communicate directly with someone. There is always a go-between. There is always someone I have to trust to use the correct Khmei words, to convey my meaning, to understand me.

Sometimes the translator can’t understand my American accent. At home, if someone didn’t understand what I was saying, they’d probably ask me to repeat myself. Or to explain in another way. Here, when the translator didn’t understand my question he took it upon himself to ask a different question (perhaps something he was curious about) and respond with that answer. So, I might ask, “What type of dye process are we using for this color?” and the response would be “Ms. Yeun very much enjoys working with you.” Wait, what? How does that correlate?

In those moments, I’m frustrated. I’m dumbfounded. What can you do? What else is there to do but to take a deep breath, a short walk, center myself and start again? This truly is a lesson in grace under pressure. In graciousness. In working even when it’s hard. In overcoming frustration. In continuing to question and work and talk until a solution can be found. It’s hard work. Probably some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

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