Her voice is plaintive, frantic in pitch but mechanical in rhythm, and her spindly arms with brown claw hands scratch at the sticky air between where she and I sit. She bobs on the water in an oversized aluminum mixing bowl, while I sit under the shade of the canopy that tops our eight-man boat, knees tucked primly together, my fingers spread out on them. Those fingers rest no more than a meter from where her fingers grope toward me.
I re-adjust a fraction of an inch. But I have nowhere to hide.
And honestly, I have nothing to give her. Not “one dollar,” for which she begs, nor Cambodian riel, for which she is not, oddly to me, begging. I don’t have her native currency either, the Vietnamese dong.
The day’s heat and mugginess — it is mid-July and this is middle Cambodia — and the persistence of her nasal chanting weakens my patience. I ask Randall, “Didn’t we bring anything?” He mouths, “Only a fifty.”
She’s leaning precariously in that bowl, and the waters reach all the way to its upper rim. Again, out of nowhere, that grinding hate I feel toward water. I’m thinking through what I’ll drop — handbag, cell phone — to jump in when she flips over.
The boat driver snaps something at her that silences her for two beats. Then she resumes, a Vietnamese refugee cum auctioneer in the last seconds of a bid that’s going nowhere. This all produces a wilted bill from our tour guide’s breast pocket, which his limp hand draws out and his tilted head offers, crossing right in front of my eyes. He crumples the paper, leans toward the boat edge, and her fingers — unwashed for months, probably — grab the wad.
While trying to stuff it in the pocket of her sodden and oversized yellow pajama bottoms, she adjusts something I only now see is wrapped around her left leg and is lying across her lap. It could be a deflated bike tire or a waxy rope. But bike tires and ropes usually don’t have grayish-green geometric patterns. And they don’t slither.
Without ceremony, the girl whips the python up over her shoulder in order to grab what is the more important object of the moment to her; a very large wooden spoon paddle. With a quick flick of her shoulders, she adjusts the snake like another kid the same age might adjust the hood of a sweatshirt, and plunges the paddle into the water ahead of her. The serpentine figure-eights she finesses through water as murky and foamy as my father’s winter mugs of Postum.
She’s elegant. Feisty. Proficient. Gritty.
And she’s outta there. There’s another boat approaching.
There are different types of passage, and in this blog, I write of what I have learned from those passages with which I’m intimately acquainted.
The passage from life to death has been by far the most radical teaching experience I have ever known. It continues to teach me something new every day. Surviving the death of your beloved drags your living heart along the cutting edge of the veil causing the kind of spiritual injury that either destroys inch-wise or teaches endless much. It can teach you something about suffering.
I thought I’d learned something when I was sliced wide out of the insularity of illusion in which I’d lived, that cozy idea that my family and I were somehow safe, that tragedy only happened to other people and always “in another country,” as a fine poet has written. My small corner of agony connected me viscerally, I thought, with the whole map of humanity and history and with some private corners of hell and heaven, too. Personal pain has been a grim but thorough tutor. I have learned something.
But it has not taught me everything or enough. I know I still have much to learn.
Another passage, the geographic passage from west to east has, luckily, continued the tutorial. One of the bitter blessings of living in Singapore — an oasis of plenty in South East Asia — has been the immediate access to the surrounding countries where there is exquisite cultural variety and historical wonder, but also frequent extremes of poverty, disease and corruption. You can mark “Exposure To So Much of Asia” as #8 on my list of things I will really miss from Singapore. (My brother Aaron will miss the exposure, too, since he came and visited with his family. Totally converted. Many of these photos are courtesy of him. Thanks, Aaron.)
Over these two years and in the crowded orphanages and prisons, contaminated inner cities, unlit mud huts, rotted rice paddies, refugee camps, filthy and poorly staffed hospitals, inhumane juvenile detention centers, ill-equipped school shacks and cinder block women’s shelters I have stood in — and in the Vietnamese refugee villages on Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia I have floated in— I have seen suffering and bleakness that overstretch my writerly powers of description.
But let me be quick to be clear. Though I know something about suffering, I can only claim to know of one kind. About the countless other forms of pain and loss like those I’ve just alluded to in the last paragraph, I know nothing. It would be ludicrous — offensive — for me to suggest that by being a “poverty tourist” I could know about poverty. I can no more know about the poverty and suffering of refugee life from staring into the face of that girl in the aluminum bowl than I can know about the realities of cancer by visiting a girl in a cancer ward. The experience is vicarious and therefore escapable. I stay in my boat. Get back to air con. Sleep in clean sheets. Eat until I’m full. And catch a flight home. Because the experience of observing extreme poverty is escapable for me, the lessons, however deeply felt in the moment, are too easily unlearned.
(Just wanted to put that out flat on the table, if we’re all good with that.)
So if I cannot know about the suffering of these people I have visited unless I enter fully into their lives — valuable question: am I truly willing to have their lives? And what good is achieved if we are all impoverished? — what, then, can I learn from this girl? Better put, what must I learn?
Lesson #1: Who is this girl?
Her age is hard to tell, but judging from the proportions of everyone else (our boney twelve-year-old Luc out-sizes most adult Cambodians I’ve seen this week), this girl who looks eight for western standards is probably closer to Luc’s age. Still a child.
This means she is the same age as my Indonesian friend’s daughter, who for four days went missing in the countryside of central Indonesia. When she finally staggered into the family village, she was dazed, her manner and countenance darkened. Where had she been? Even she couldn’t tell anyone. She retold what she remembered: riding her bicycle close to the beach; men in a car asking for help; walking closer to help them; a cloth with a bad smell over her face; then awakening far from where she remembered having last been. Disoriented and petrified by every passing car, she wandered home by following the sea coast, all the while adjusting her clothing, which had been dirtied and, for lack of a better term, rearranged.
The scenario was so typical for a girl in Indonesia that the family thought it useless to cause a fuss by calling the local police. Best to forget it. At least she was one of the ones who came back.
If this story feels too sensational, it’s enough for me to suggest here that the girl in the bowl stands a very good chance of being abducted, abused, and/or sold into the sex trade which is rampant and prefers poor Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai female children. Even our guide, when I asked what the biggest threat to local children was, said, without a pause, “Being sold or abducted into human trafficking.”
Malnutrition (including lack of potable water), slim chances to be educated, few suitable job opportunities, or even the inaccessibility of adequate medical care were all secondary, in his estimation, to the burgeoning business of child pornography and forced prostitution for which Bangkok and Phnom Pehn are hot spots. For either of the last two fates, the girl in the bowl would be a sitting target.
She is also a sitting target for the virulent strain of hand-foot-and mouth disease killing dozens of children in Cambodia even as I write. Since April, 59 children have fallen ill, of whom 52 are dead. The virus, a form of EV-17, is spread by body fluids and feces. The water in which the girl paddles her bowl is not only her work space, but is where the floating village sewage is dumped, where clothing and dishes are washed, where fish (a dietary mainstay) are caught, and where the children bathe and swim.
Will a girl in an aluminum bowl, if she is not sold or stolen into the grisly world of child prostitution, be correctly diagnosed should she fall ill with such a lethal virus? Will she be taken to a doctor? Has she ever, in her life, even seen a doctor?
Lesson #2: What is this bowl?
Most probably, the bowl is vital to this girl’s and her family’s survival. If I were cynical, I might say the bowl is a means to keep her grandfather in his pack-a-day habit. But it’s more than likely she needs that bowl to beg that one dollar, and that one dollar will buy a bag of rice, food for a family for a month. In a country where the average annual income is between $700 and $800, a dollar is a windfall. A bowl the difference between life and death.
I’ve seen bowls a lot like this one before. At bobbing-for-apple contests. At church parties where they’re filled with Jell-O marshmallow salad. At double baby showers, filled with dozens of fingernail polish party favors. Full of caramel popcorn at a teenager’s movie marathon. Filled with fertilized soil to plant window pansies. Puffing over with dough enough for eight loaves of bread for the middle school bake-off.
One man’s eight-loaf bake-off entry.
Another’s daily bread.
Lesson #3: What is a python?
That snake gives her power. Near superpower. The boys were wowed by the snake, amazed at the spectacle, and later, when we passed a mother holding up her child while shoving a live python’s head into her child’s mouth, our normally talkative two were left speechless. Could there be, for a western audience, a better show of super powers?
What power did we, in turn, have? Simple: we were white. To be white, our guide explained, is to have power, and to be white and to speak English, he added, was to have superpower. I tried to assure him that there are places in America that are very, very poor and where people die, too, of malnutrition, lack of adequate medical care, violence, contaminated water. But he just stared at me, smiling broadly at what he was sure was a joke.
“Prosperity, it seems, speaks English.” So writes Russ Rymer, and as I noted the several television antennae and the few satellite dishes perched atop these floating homes — satellite dishes powered by car generators so these Vietnamese can pull in western programs, our guide explained, and many from the U.S.— I understood clearly Rymer’s observation about some eastern cultures that idolize the west: “The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, its luxury-consumption proselytizing, is … irresistible.”
Even if she only speaks two English words —“one dollar”— those words are, in the mind of the girl with the python, the only ones she needs. They mean super power.
Lesson #4: What is this water between us?
Beside the differences, there is one watertight similarity between the girl and me: the girl in the bowl and the woman in the boat are all floating in the same water. Humans, both of us, either one of us can capsize, perish. That’s a given. But the wake from the larger vessel has a disproportionate effect on the viability of the smaller one.
I am at relative ease. While she’s paddling her guts out.
I somehow feel I bear a responsibility for her welfare. Does she feel that about me, too?
What keeps her in her bowl, then, and me in my boat?
(I don’t need to answer that question, I don’t think, because if you’ve read this far, I suspect you’ve formulated an intelligent opinion. And I would just love to hear it. Please feel free to comment at the end.)
Just let me admit to something, first. It happened right here while I was typing out this post.
As I described the place of these floating villages, I typed the name of the vast body of water whose tributaries house these communities of refugees. Its name is Tonle Sap. T-O-N-L-E. S-A-P. You might have seen that.
What you did not see, however, is what my fingers— white, clean, soft and privileged — wrote first. Another one of my ingenious typos:
Freud himself couldn’t have forced a more incriminating slip.
There is so much more than water that separates me from the girl in the bowl. There is the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, his killing fields, the Vietnam War, all subsequent governments both American and Vietnamese and Cambodian. There is more water than the whole of Tonle Sap, in fact.
But I know as I watch her paddle away from my boat, metal bowl swirling in the brown water, arms flicking as if dancing, paddle churning like a rudder, and snake sliding noiselessly down her back, “There I go. There goes my sister.”
If she beats the many odds stacked against her and most of the children of her culture and gender, her life might stretch out for a few decades yet. But it will be a life of material scarcity, likely abuse and probable illness. She will scrape by every day, barely eking out survival for herself and for her family. She will know the kinds of lack and loss that would, I know, drain the very blood from every speck of my being. If she one day has a child, and if he actually survives to eighteen, and she then loses him to death —loses him, let’s say, in a water accident on Tonle Sap — that loss will probably be just one of the litany of losses she will endure. She will suffer a black grief then, I imagine, but that blackness will be felt against her life’s general backdrop of charcoal gray, her maternal grief just a few more degrees of saturation.
With each loss, that polished face with its steely determination of youth will grow lines of surrender, will bloom the grooves and drapes of defeat. And she will finish her brief passage of life — at least the passage I’m picturing here— thoroughly intimate with suffering.
Which brings me, as such reflection always does, to thoughts of another who is intimate with sorrow, well-versed in grief.
How modest that description has always seemed to me: “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
How self-effacing for a King.
How self-controlled for a God who groaned under the load of all creation’s many faces of suffering:
Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit — and would that I might no drink the bitter cup, and shrink — Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
How graceful for a Son, to suffer as such.
How moving for this sister, to know a Brother suffered it all.