See the nation through the people’s eyes,
See tears that flow like rivers from the skies.
Where it seems there are only borderlines
Where others turn and sigh,
You shall rise
“Hey! How are you?” she called out to me from across the empty street. I’d seen her beneath that same tree just a few days ago, with her 3 girls and their few possessions sprawled over the pavement.
“I’m good thankyou, and you?” I said, crossing the road.
“Fine. Where are you from?”
“Oh, I love Australians. Australians have very big hearts.” And big wallets.
“I’m glad you think so. K’nyom ch’moo-ah Chris.” My name is Chris. She laughed. They always laugh when I try and speak Khmer.
“K’nyom ch’moo-ah Sreapong.”
“K`nyom reak reay nah bahn juop niak.” I’m pleased to meet you. I know I said this one wrong because I have to say it again before the a-ha moment dawns and she repeats it with the correct pronunciation.
“Come, sit down,” she said, and I pass a Styrofoam box full of fish as I walk toward her mat. I don’t want to get so close that I can’t easily get away if need be. Men that didn’t acknowledge me busied themselves around us. One touched her, and she snapped at him. It was very late, and none of the others knew where I was – I’d planned on walking straight home.
“Are these your children?” I asked.
“Yes. They are my girls. I have 2 boys also, but no husband. He left me.” The youngest girl crawls over me, eager to share her sticky fingers, her drool, and her adorable smile.
“How old is she?”
“8 months.” She hugs me for a long time. The middle sleeps restlessly beside her mother. Her oldest daughter shoveled some dirt into the Styrofoam box, and Sreapong starts– “They aren’t my fish!” torn between anger and a resigned laughter. Sometimes you can’t do much better than to laugh it seems. We talked for over half an hour. All the while, I wondered: should I give this woman money? She clearly wants it. How did she get here? Who can help her? What does it take to change a lifestyle and a mindset of poverty?
Over lunch at the Australian Ambassador’s residence a local Cambodian’s perspective on giving to child beggars was well articulated by local filmmaker Kulikar Sotho: “Although I am a mother, and I want to help these kids, I will not give them money. My research has shown me that most of these kids belong to district-based mafia that force these kids on the streets, and giving money only makes it worse.” Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, Cambodian classical dance teacher added that she likes to buy them food directly: “I survived the Khmer Rouge, so I know what it’s like to have an empty stomach.”
Considering their lifetimes in this culture, as well as personal research, I have decided it’s best not to give directly to children. The elderly, I am happy to give to. Cathy, our supervisor pointed out that “anyone over 35 in this country has lived through hell,” and if they are still alive and on the streets they genuinely deserve compassion – all locals I’ve spoken to give to the elderly without qualms. But middle-aged people? I just don’t know. Apparently many beggars do it just because it’s a good way to make money. I echo the words of Jillian Keenan: “Simply put, as tourists, we just don’t have the knowledge, experience, or long-term investment in the communities we visit to understand whether our generosity might do more harm than good.”
Despite my ambivalence, I took out my wallet and gave her the biggest note I had. Instantly, four other hands appeared alongside hers, including those of one of the previously uninterested men. This was another affronting moment I wasn’t prepared for. I emptied my wallet of the smaller notes too, and they thanked me and left.
I went for a walk along the touristy riverside to help me process the whole encounter, during which time I was propositioned twice, offered marijuana, and introduced to a lady-boy by a young fellow named Borek. I told my new friend what had just happened, and how I was trying to process it. He tells me that he thinks he knows her… that she’s just going to buy marijuana and smoke it all away. He thinks she could get cheap accommodation if she really wanted to.
Hearing such skepticism so suddenly felt like someone took the rug out from beneath my feet a little bit. Is she just gonna blow it? But the more I think of it, the more I stand by my decision to give. If she lied to me, then she deserves my pity all the more. I pity anyone that has got so low that they depend on deception. I pity the young man whose experiences have taught him that so many people in his country are essentially dishonest. His skepticism is probably well-founded: there is a sense in which trust is a felt reality, and must be earned over time – but there is another sense in which trust can be chosen, even despite being untrustworthy. Some of the most precious gifts I have ever been given have been opportunities to rise to the challenge of being trusted.
Sreapong told me that she believes in God, and that she doesn’t usually call out to people across the street, remarking at such a happy coincidence. We sung an old hymn together; she learned it during her time with the NGO: This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.
I’m not sure how significantly that $20 will affect change in her family, but having the chance to talk, sing and pray with her seemed meaningful for her – and certainly was for me.
The whole experience brings to mind an interview with Justin Duckworth, the Bishop of Wellington, NZ. He said that the church in the western world needs to “re-engage with a God who does have a priority for the poor and for justice. And I think by doing that, by re-engaging with a God who turned his back on power and instead chose to embrace redemptive suffering, that we actually transform and we save the world through joining in the suffering.”
Locals and NGO’s undoubtedly have more insight than me as to where money would best be sent to affect real change in impoverished families; but I still believe it’s important to respond to the person immediately. I think there is a power in simply sharing her in her story, and letting her share in mine, if only for a short time.
I do wonder how differently I might share their stories if I could shed this white skin and this English language. Seeing through “the people’s eyes” is not as easy as I hoped it would be.
Apologies for the length. That’s quite enough for now. Now, listen to this song:
It says in so few words what I struggle to say in so many (music says a lot too! quite stirring I think). If any of this sparks some conversation for you, write a comment, or send me a message… I am missing you lot in Aus! It’s not all heavy either, I’m having a good time, honestly. I’ll try to write about some fun stuff next time 🙂
Thanks for reading!