Dutch Author Gina Wijers launched the English language version of her book Swimming in Uncharted Waters last Thursday at Monument Books in Phnom Penh. But when she started writing her speech for the big night, the advice she received was starkly different.
“I would have started it off with a simple ‘thank you’, but my Khmer friends said ‘no, no you have to ask for forgiveness.’ I was like, well, the book isn’t that bad. But they said no, you made all these candid assessments about all these people and you need to ask forgiveness. My expat friends said I just needed to include some good jokes. But everybody agreed it needed to be short.”
Swimming in Uncharted Waters is a series of anecdotes from the time Gina spent working in Cambodia as a strategy and management advisor to the Ministry of Environment in 2005 and 2006. Originally published in Dutch in 2009, she put together an English version with the help of an editor. And, in a way, the dueling banjos speech advice she was given before the launch sums up the book in a nutshell – it’s about conflict and tension, both inner and outer, between expat and Khmer.
Gina meticulously documents her life as an expat, from casual conversations with a friend while watching soap operas, to participating in a dragon boat race, to the trials involved with her work-life. But running through every story is her biting self-awareness about living a rich life in a country that is poor.
“When I first arrived I had never been to a poor country in my life,” she told 7Days. “I stopped eating, I stopped doing a lot of things because I felt guilty. Usually when you’re on holiday, you give money to poor people, you have fun, and you leave. This time I came to help these people and I felt so terribly inadequate.
“I think there’s a trap you see many people fall into – they want to show Khmer people how much they are equal, and local, and the same. But we’re just freaking not. And in the end, it’s pretty much luck of the draw. It’s very hard to reconcile yourself with that.”
The book is fragmental, with chapters made up of self-contained anecdotes – hardly surprising, since it is based heavily on her blog.
It kicks off with perhaps the funniest entry in the book: a story about her escalating war of passive-aggression with her house cleaner, known only as Pa-own (little sister).
“My first disillusionment is practical,” she wrote. “You find yourself a cleaner and regard this as quite decadent. However, this should be a win-win situation: while you have more time for your noble plans, she will have a source of income to provide for her family. It does not work…without a doubt she is the most incapable cleaner I’ve ever encountered. And yes, two people are at fault here. Without a doubt, I am a most incapable employer.”
As the book goes on, it shifts more toward her working life, and the difficulties of attempting reform in calcified Khmer bureaucracy.
But Gina’s writing is not simply empty cynicism at NGO or government work. There are uncomfortable realities described, but honestly rather than gleefully. She told 7Days that she regards development work in Cambodia the same way Churchill described democracy: it is the worst system, except for all the others.