I am so confused.
Maybe it’s the “settling in” part of living in Southeast Asia, or the seasonal return of the oppressive Cambodian heat, or middle age, but while trying to wash my hair – not once, but twice in the same shower experience – I found myself frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t get the damned shampoo to lather. I was about to launch into a grouchy tirade about crappy Cambodian personal care products when I realized that what I was holding in my hand was not jasmine silk shampoo, after all, but CVS brand hair gel.
The onset of senility and my inexorable march toward curmudgeonliness notwitstanding, the experience has brought to the fore some of the things that simply don’t work very well here.
Like power strips.
Being a fully acutalized American man, soon after arriving in Phnom Penh eight months ago I trotted off to the central market and loaded up on extension cords to power the lights, fans, iPods and laptops that populate nearly all the undeveloped turf in our living room. There were a host of options, ranging from 3-meter, three-plug power stips to those with cords long enough to reach Laos and with enough outlets to power the horrifically gaudy Nagaworld Casino on Phnom Penh’s waterfront.
They all seemed flimsy, compared to the sturdy American types we left behind, but I ponied up and bought a bunch anyway, in doing so making our personal contribution to the ever-expanding Chinese economy. Hence the problem: it seems as though just about everything made in China is built not to become obsolete – as often seems the case with US goods – but to simply stop working shortly after you get them home.
These power strips have quickly become the bane of my existence, right behind mosquitoes and the horribly amateur drummer who ceaslessly practices the same annoying four-beat every time I decide to take a nap. As I sit in front of our fan on our living room sofa, tapping away at my laptop keyboard and eagerly awaiting the breeze as the fan rotates back and forth, I realize that oil was still at $70 a barrel the last time I felt the benefits of the machine-generated relief.
The power strip had failed. Again. It’s become a game, jiggling the fan’s plug so it makes contact with the electrical points inside the cracked plastic casing, watching the fan as it stutters and stops, much as people twisted the rabbit ears on the 1950s-era TVs to get the best possible reception. I get it working and sit down to resume my writing when I realize that my fiddling with the fan connection has detached the one for my laptop, which of course runs to the same offending power strip.
I’m up again, heading across the room to mess with them both and somehow keep one eye on the fan and the other on my laptop six feet away to make sure they receive power simultaneously. It’s working.
I sit down, and am instantly interrupted by a beep from my cell phone across the room. It’s an alarm that the Chinese charger has lost with the Chinese contacts in my Chinese-manufactured “Bluetooth” phone, a knockoff replica I bought in a roadside stand for $20. So I’m off the sofa again and head a different direction to address the most recent power interruption, tripping over the power strip and once again disconnecting both the fan and my laptop.
Sensing a conspiracy, I shut down the fan and laptop so I can direct my attention to the phone.
Five minutes later, with the instrument carefully balanced on a basket to ensure the contacts will restore the phone’s battery, I pause to wonder what all the fuss is about in terms of Chinese threats to the US manufacturing sector.
Our 1.3 billion dear friends to the north might know a ton about low-cost manufacturing and how to exploit cheap labor, but if the struggle for economic supremacy comes down to a nation’s ability to make stuff that works, the proof is in the power strip.
And I’m betting on any place but China.