Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I, and people in "the West" take Sabbath for Granted

Perhaps one of the more disturbing elements of my trip thus far, is the fact that I stopped in for a Cambodian massage. Another member of our Peace Fellows cohort, pointed out that a 1 hour massage was advertised for $4.00. Later in that day, I happened to walk past the same $4.00 massage location – and decided that I needed one. I wish I would not have gone in.

The massage itself was perfectly comfortable – and while I am not used to people rubbing my body – I will admit that the massage for my muscles was relaxing in many ways.

The complicating problems for me stem from the conversation with the delightful Khmer (Cambodian) girl who provided my massage. Her English was good, but far from perfect. But, I am quite certain I accurately got the gist of her story. Her name was something close to “Presawn.” She is 23, with four sisters and her parents living in a village somewhere outside Phnom Penh – I am not sure how far away. Her sisters ranged in age from 12 to 19, with two sisters the age of my girls. She has been in Phnom Penh for 2 years, and at this massage storefront for 6 months. She said speaking she liked speaking English with me because it gave her good practice. She pays $10 per month to take 1 hour per week of English. She said she is taking the cheap course, because she can afford it. Her English teacher is himself studying English at University. If I understood her correctly, she did not like her teacher too much because in her one-hour course, he often tries to speak Khmer and she is there to learn English.

Her English class is important to her – not only because she wants to learn English and is paying for it – but also because it consumes 16% of her monthly salary – and is the single hour she gets off work every week. She works 7 days per week, from 9 a.m. to midnight (15 hour days). She sleeps in a back room of the massage store – and has access to a small kitchen area there for preparing her meals. For her work, some 105 hours per week, every day, of every week for 15 hours per day, she earns $60.00 per month - $2.00 per day. 14 cents per hour.

I paid for my $4.00 one hour massage – but before I left, I insured that I emptied my wallet of every U.S. Bill that I had, by privately handing it to Presawn. It was about $24.00. I would have given her a $100 if I had it.

She was not and is not a conscripted labourer – she had freedom to move for work and she had not debt – as best I could discern in our communication – but she works in a country, as part of a culture, within a context, where something close to slave labor is permitted – or – at the least – labor that does not value full human dignity for their time, for their personal existence, for their rest and refreshment, for their Sabbath.

In the Westt we fail to live into the provisions of the explicit commands of the Jewish Tradition, six days you shall work on the seventh you shall not work. In the West, we see such a law as oppressive and restrictive.

I wonder, though, how Presawn would respond to a law that forced her to cease from her labor. I wonder, though, how Presawn would rejoice in a culture and a God who not only permitted – but required her rest and relaxation.

I wonder how much I – and those with me in the West – do not “get” the pleasures intended by God for the Sabbath when God commands, “Stop!” I wonder, how Presawn would stand in awe and adoration of someone who would go to her boss and require from him, that he give his employees an entire 24 to cease their striving.

Sabbath has taken on new form for me today.

And my awareness of my privilege leaves me humbled – and willing to work for a better world.

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