We’re in Cambodia now, safe from the red shirt protests. We spent the day touring the killing fields and interrogation prison of the Khmer Rouge era. So…not the most uplifting day.
Cambodia can be draining. I remembered it being draining last time I visited, at least in Phnom Penh, so I tried to develop a general emotional strategy for this time. I keep telling myself that this poverty, these children pleading for money on the streets, it all exists all the time, regardless of where I am. I am just as responsible to this suffering at home as I am right here and right now. I need to take the actions that I would take in any normal circumstance, and then I need to let it go and have joy at this incredible experience that I get to have. We’ll donate to an organization, we’ll treat people kindly, and we’ll pass out spiderman and hello kitty stickers to the kids on the street. And we’ll let it go. Or try to.
Last night we ate dinner at a little sidewalk café overlooking the Tonle Sap River. We watched the motorbikes pass, crammed with bags of rice, or blocks of ice, or maybe just an extra passenger or five. We watched tuk tuks filled with white tourists clutching copies of Lonely Planet as they scanned the storefronts for their destination. There were Lexuses (Lexi?) filled with wealthy Khmers headed to night clubs, bicycles teetering with fruit for the market, and motos driven by teenagers who were texting when they should’ve been watching the road (a new cultural universal).
We also watched a little girl down on the sidewalk in front of us, not more than six. Her pink shorts and mickey mouse shirt were scruffy and coated with dust. She sat stretched out on a beat up lounge chair, tapping away on an old nokia cell phone. I think she was playing snake. A tiny kitten was curled in her lap. The kitten looked like it hadn’t seen much food in its short life. It pawed at the girl’s stomach. She picked it up roughly, held it tightly to her shoulder, and patted its tiny kitten bottom. Then she flipped it over and cradled it like a baby. She pulled at the kitten’s paws, then wrapped her hands around its mouth briefly suffocating it. I expected the kitten to protest eventually. It didn’t. She would slap it—hard, then gently kiss its head. She bit its paws, and then left it for a bit to play on the cell phone. It slept curled in her lap every moment that she wasn’t flicking its ears or pulling on its legs. It was alternately adorable, horrifying, and fascinating to watch.
The girl was sitting at a book stand, and we soon realized, was the sole book seller. Her parents were nowhere to be seen. Eventually they did return briefly, at separate points. Her mother brought her a bowl of soup. Her father and brother stopped in to chat for a moment and play with the kitten, each of them carrying their own basket of books to hawk to tourists. The little girl picked up the kitten by one leg and let it dangle for a moment. Her dad saw her and grabbed the kitten, showing her how to hold it by the scruff of the neck. He handed the kitten back and walked away. She grabbed the kitten again by one leg, and hoisted him onto the table full of books.
That’s the thing about Cambodia, and so many foreign places really, it’s so hard to know what you are actually seeing. Am I watching a little girl who is copying the abuse that has been done to her? Or just seeing a little girl playing roughly with a kitten? Is that lovely, young Cambodian woman eating dinner with that old, white man because she enjoys his company or because… It’s so easy to make up stories in my head. To look at every snippet of life that I see and assign it to right or wrong. But I don’t know the story. For right now, I have to just keep letting it go.