“How many people does it take to change a lightbulb in Cambodia?”
Inspired by Tamie Davis’ (another CMSer) post on changing a lock in Tanzania, we wanted to give you a sense of what it’s like to try and get a job done around the house.
So basically, we’ve noticed the light in the kitchen flickering for a week. It is annoying enough that it becomes one of the jobs that we decide that we are going to do something about (many jobs don’t make it this far because of what we are about to describe).
Sam mentions it to our house helper. She suggests we ask our tuktuk driver (who is supremely helpful majority of the time) and he proceeds to remove the faulty fluorescent globe in order to replace it. However, in removing it either he busts the socket or the socket is already busted. Good chance for the latter as there is a bunch of water damage in a number of areas in our house, combined with cheap construction. So at this point we need to call in an electrician. Sam and our helper don’t know who to call, so our tuktuk driver makes a call. This moves from a job where we are chatting to one Khmer person (our tuktuk driver) to a full on Khmer conversation with multiple Khmer voices and opinions. We have our tuktuk driver chatting with our house helper about the situation who are both chatting to the Cambodian electrician.
We watch on as the electrician removes the damaged light fitting, and attaches a new, smaller, fitting. There are some questions about tape, and Sam finds the electrical tape and sticky tape. Both are used, electrical tape on the light fitting, and sticky tape to secure the empty globe box to the hole in the ceiling. Job complete, the light is turned on, and it is declared that this light is “brighter than before,” and so obviously better. To us, there is a loss in aesthetic quality, but it’s still functional. Then there’s negotiating payment.
Here’s how we see the conversation. We have our house helper who is extremely loyal and who we assume is going in to bat for us. We have our tuktuk driver who is extremely well connected in the neighbourhood and is loyal towards us but not in the same way as our house helper. We overhear the Cambodian electrician state a higher price than our house helper is happy with, with the reasoning being we are foreigners living in a gated community.
We get lost in this cacophony of Khmer. Leaving aside the Cambodian electrician who seems to be overcharging us for dismantling a light fitting and leaving our new bulb just hanging from the wires that protrude from the ceiling. We are comforted because we have our helper who is supremely looking out for us and a guy who knows everyone involved. This mediatorial grouping means that we have connections and a decent chance of not being fully ripped off despite the lack of language.1
The job gets done in some fashion. Not the way we had thought or would prefer. But done according to them and so (for this time) done according to us as well. So how many people does it take to change a light bulb in Cambodia? We would say at least 4.
- My guess is that language is one of the major barriers to being able to function in any new culture. So a lack of language already puts you at a distance, even while living in the culture. Just trying to do basic jobs in a new culture is stressful unlike doing them in your passport country. ↩