This interview is a collaboration between Faye Lessler and the tonlé team. Faye is a freelance writer working for environmental justice and seeking joy in the everyday. She sat down to speak with tonlé’s Head of Quality, Ravy, Head of Sourcing, Ny, and General Manager, Sreyoun. Ravy, Ny, and Sreyoun all live and work in Cambodia.______________
Earlier this spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic became more and more serious, I started to think about the connection between sustainability, self-care, and resilience. As someone who practices slow-living, I’ve built a number of habits that suddenly were trends of the pandemic. Hand washing laundry at home, having a cupboard full of preserved foods, baking my own bread, and meditation seemed like simple and unnecessary habits when I started learning them, but they quickly became my safe-haven as I navigated the new landscape of New York City as the epicenter of the pandemic.
When I saw tonlé talk about setting intentions for resilience at the beginning of 2020 and the importance of taking care of ourselves and our communities during the beginning of the pandemic, I immediately knew I wanted to go deeper into that conversation. How can we practice sowing seeds of resilience to help us through this crisis and build skills for the future?
Rachel pointed me in the direction of three of the tonlé team members in Cambodia; Ravy, Sreyoun, and Ny. She told me that in the time she has known each of them, they have shown incredible examples of resilience and have grown and continued to become people who care deeply for their community, and embrace community care as a way of supporting their own wellbeing.
I loved speaking with Ravy, Sreyoun and Ny. Their perspectives as Cambodians and humans who have lived such different lives from myself helped me understand that resilience comes both from within and from without, and that we can’t take care of ourselves if we don’t also take care of each other.
On Capitalism, Community, and Resilience
Under the capitalist system, it is difficult to practice resilience and build community. It puts profit over the wellbeing of people, encouraging us to use up our time on work or distractions. Capitalism wants us to be comfortable with a cycle of consumption and instant gratification, instead of working to build healthy habits and connections over time. Capitalism provides us with shallow fulfillment in the form of fast food, fast fashion, and the pursuit of “success,” yet cuts us off from the things that truly nurture us, like community and self-connection.
It’s very difficult to be resilient under these conditions. Those of us with some privilege can practice personal habits and self-care that help build resilience, but we will always be stronger when we are a part of a larger community. As Sreyoun said “I think helping other people is a way of caring for myself, too.”
Ravy told us that community is the number one thing she has missed as she has had to work from home during the pandemic; “[the virus] has made my life difficult, for example, because I am unable to go to work. Working from home is difficult for me because I’m alone. When I’m able to go to work, I get to connect and socialize with my team which is one of my favorite aspects about my job. It’s not as fun to work from home, because coming together is more delightful.”
Coming together to share stories and laugh with each other over a meal is one way that community ties are forged and trust is built. The way that Ravy finds joy in working with her team also leads her to take better care of them during tough times. For Ny, their first concern during the pandemic was for their fellow team members; “Whenever I have an update, I go into the office to inform everyone about what’s going on and to remind them about protocols and whatever else is happening.”
Self-Care as Resilience
In addition to caring for our communities, taking care of ourselves is a big part of resilience. Audre Lorde said that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” In the face of the oppressive capitalist system and a global pandemic, taking care of each other and ourselves is an act of resistance. Even though the actions may seem small, doing things that are good for our bodies, minds, loved ones, and neighbors is an important way of building networks of connection and structures of support that can help re-empower ourselves and build resilience from within.
When I asked Ny about self-care as resilience, they told me that there are some things they do to help deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic; “I try to think positively and avoid the negative news. I do things that I enjoy, for example listening to music that makes me feel good and helps me relax, or leaving the city to go to the beach to listen to the sound of the waves. That helps calm me down.”
Ny at the seaside in Kep, Cambodia in 2018
Sreyoun and Ravy also talked about focusing on positive aspects of the news and doing little things like exercise to keep them physically, mentally, and emotionally well. When life is “normal” it may feel frivolous to focus so much on these small acts of self-care, but their worth clearly shows through when times of crisis hit. Besides, these small acts can become rituals that help us find our own personal worth, sit with difficult emotions, accept our role in the present, and begin to dismantle problematic paradigms that capitalism has put in our heads.
In short, self-care is work. For privileged people in the western world, we often view self-care as nothing more than a “face mask and chill” mentality, but we are beginning to see now that paying attention to the wellbeing of our bodies and emotions can make all the difference in a crisis.
When I asked Ny how they learned what helps them calm down and how to take care of themselves, they said “I have had a difficult past. I experienced sickness when I was younger, and surviving from it has helped me to build a resilience to what’s going on today. When I was sick, I thought that I was going to die early, but I’m still here. I’m unsure about how the future will be, but I’ll accept whatever happens.”
Ravy also talked about how her past experiences have informed her actions during the pandemic, saying that “For me, if I were to compare the situation with a difficult time in my life, it would be the Pol Pot regime. However, the regime was much more difficult because people used violence as a means of control. Yes, it can be hard to stay at home and to develop the protocols necessary to stay healthy, however it is not nearly as bad as to what I’ve experienced in the past.”
Cultivating Resilience Through Solidarity
Sreyoun also talked about how difficult times in her past have helped her deal with the present crisis, saying that the difference between then and now is that she has grown both personally and professionally, and now she has the tonlé community.
Sreyoun at the Bayon Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia
“For me, I’m aware that the virus is not only affecting me, it’s affecting everyone around the world. I know that life doesn’t stop because of what’s going on. I have gone through difficult periods in my life, particularly when I was younger, I had a lot of issues with my family that felt harder than my situation right now. These difficult times in my past helps me to put things into perspective.” - Sreyoun, tonlé General Manager
This is the definition of resilience. To find comfort and joy in your community, to care for that community as a part of your personal care, and to be able to see hard times with a little bit of perspective. For many privileged folks in the U.S., it is the perspective and the solidarity with others that is missing throughout our experience with the Coronavirus pandemic. Since we’ve been taught to work long hours, champion individual choices and values, and to be comfortable with consumption, we have been cut off from that perspective and disregarded the power of mutual support.
It’s important to note that cultivating resilience is not about the absense of fear, but the ways that we respond to it. Sreyoun says “I read a lot of information about the virus. I’m scared to go out, and when the government said that they were closing everything including the schools, it made me afraid. I’m very concerned about my parents, my aunt, and my uncle because they are older and therefore more vulnerable. I’m always reminding them to stay home, to not go out, to wash their hands, and to eat healthy. I talk to them every day.”
Ny and Ravy both echoed Sreyoun’s fear, not only for themselves, but for their families and communities as well. Yet despite their fears, they also expressed feelings of hope and solidarity with the rest of the world. It is obvious to Ravy that “The virus hasn’t only affected me, it has affected everyone” and she hopes “that stronger countries will step in to help the vulnerable. I hope for everyone to continue with the health protocols and realize that we, as people, are the ones who started the virus. I hope that everyone will put more effort into caring for the planet after this, and that in the future countries will cooperate more and work together to create a more unified world. We’re all in this together.”
According to an article published by Medium’s Elemental, this ability to see your struggle as connected to the struggle of others is a core aspect of resilience. Solidarity helps us find opportunity and hope for the future amidst difficulty. Personally, I will continue to look to these messages of solidarity and follow the example of Ming Ravy, Sreyoun, and Ny by seeking joy in community care. I hope that those who read this will find some comfort in their stories, and leadership in their ability to not only survive, but thrive.
Thank you to Faye Lessler for collaborating with our team on this piece!
Thank you so much for this article. It’s great to learn more about the team and makes me feel more connected to my tonlé purchases. It’s also wonderful to get a new perspective from another part of the world, and to be reminded we are all struggling with this new normal, but that it is unifying us in so many ways as we work to figure out how to better our lives.