“3 for 1 dollar, its a good price” She told me as I tried to walk by her. I looked down and saw she had 10 bracelets tied around a section of bamboo, it was undoubtedly her way of helping her and her family eat. Her eyes seemed so big and I think she knew how easily I could pity her. She held her bracelets out and made her face into a pleading expression, I considered giving her money even though I didn’t want what she was selling. I could feel my instincts reaching out, so many parts of me wanted to help her. She was too young, she didn’t even have shoes, how could I not give her a tiny portion of the wealth I was born into. I didn’t give her anything but my attempt at a smile.
Today I saw children begging for food or 10 cents. I saw a man dragging a cart so old and broken that it looked as if it were held together by tattered plastic bags, there wasn’t an unbroken piece of wood in the whole cart. I saw a child bathing in a mud puddle and a man without legs begging for his dinner. The effects of poverty are everywhere I look, every house is built on plastic and bits of rubber or sharks of glass. It is poor and the contrast from the city I am from is stark.
Its easy to feel sorry for the people I see around me but I don’t think many people want to be pitied. I think the general idea in America is that people that live in poorer more economically depressed countries need our pity. Sometimes we act like they could not possibly be content with their lives, as if a hot shower is the gold standard for an excellent life. I catch myself feeling sorry that I have so much and they have so little. There are parts of my emotional response that are warranted but the part I don’t think they need is the idea that my life is inherently a better or more worthwhile life because my home in America has a carpeted floor and a fridge that makes ice. My life is amazing and I really value the privilege that I have, I have a million opportunities and most things are easy for me. My life is a good life in many ways but I won’t let myself feel like my life is more valuable than the people I see around me here in Cambodia. Having sympathy for other human beings is an excellent trait in a person but when that makes you feel better it has gone too far. Someone can live in a mud hut and have a beautiful life, a flat screen TV is not one of the needs of a human being and eating only what you can fish for or gather is not inherently poor. I have seen too many happy faces here to let myself believe that these people live horrible lives just because they don’t have the luxuries I’m used to.
Cambodians have suffered greatly and I cannot imagine the kind of cultural grief they hold. I can only admire their strength more with every new lesson in their history. The kind of terror these people have lived through must be a burden, and it makes their smiles even more shocking. I’ve heard stories of the great depression in America, people struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads, those stories would have been fairy tales to the children here 30 years ago.
It is easy to be humbled by the people of Cambodia, I have an easy life but I don’t think I am happier because of it, poverty doesn’t mean sadness. Economic depression does not entail actual depression. I’ve seen many struggles made lighter by their positive attitudes and community support. I love how close to their community they seem here, some of these towns aren’t small but the people still seem so connected to each other. I don’t think there are many communities in America that are as close as the ones I’ve seen here. I know back home I don’t know any of my neighbors, it just seems normal to live inside a house and not be connected to the things immediately surrounding it. Maybe the people here don’t have the luxury or maybe their shared daily struggles bring them close, for whatever reason I see a lot of close bonds between people. It’s a beautiful thing to see these thriving communities.
I really hope the western world will support Cambodia in the ways that help Cambodians. I bet if they had the kind of help that let them help themselves they would grow into a thriving economy very quickly. A way of making money is much stronger than a one time handout. Tourism is one way for a country to get back on its feet but it hardly seems like a sustainable economy when a earth quake or a few bad stories can stop the flow. I’m not an economist but I like to think about how to help people in the ways that support their future. I don’t like making someones life easier in the moment only for them to face the hard truths later, always want my efforts to make the person more capable of dealing with their own life. That’s what I hope for Cambodia and the other countries in the world that have a low standard of living.
I am keeping my eyes open for the lessons I can learn from Cambodia. I am so curious to see what the rest of my time in Cambodia holds. I strive to treat the people here like human beings, and not to give into pitying, I will strive for compassion and sympathy.
I think I can learn a thing or two from the Khmer people.