Kindall and I spent five days in Cambodia during a Chinese national holiday. And I have so much to say about this incredible place, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. This is the time the children of Cambodia captured my heart.
Even aside from the thousand year old temples wrapped in massive roots, wild monkeys playing in the fields, and floating villages on the rivers, Cambodia was a whole new thing for me. The children in particular were captivating. Everywhere you go, you are met with pleas from children ages four to fourteen, “Lady! Lady you buy my bracelet! One dolla one bracelet!” or “Postcards! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, TEN postcards lady! You buy ten postcards one dolla!”
In experiencing this situation myself, over and over, and also observing the experiences of the tourists around me, I noticed an array of responses. First, without fail, is that soft, melting-of-the-heart and softening-of-the-mind that only a child has the ability to produce. The Awwwww! followed by an automatic reach inside your purse, whether you want what they are selling or not. I mean let’s be real, if American kids are cute then foreign kids are even cuter.
But then, as the little girl skips away with one less bracelet and a new dollar bill in their hand, you feel a twinge of sadness and sympathy for her. And for all of these kids who live like this every day, spending their childhood selling pointless knickknacks for pennies, while me and all the other tourists have hundreds of dollars to spend perusing the world at our own leisure. This feeling is especially hard to get over. The feeling of, why am I so lucky? And what can I possibly do to help them?
But after you somewhat move past these initial emotions, you find yourself impressed. Impressed by how diligent these kids are, working so hard at such a young age, and impressed by their implausible ability to give their sales pitch in at least ten different languages. (Literally. There were a few times when I would pull the “I don’t speak English” card and start speaking Spanish or Chinese to try to shake off the mini-salesman that was tailing me, but she would just as quickly bounce around these languages without skipping a beat. One dolla, lady! Un dolar, senorita! Yi kuai qian! Incredible.) You also begin to realize the cunning business mind behind that cute, innocent face. Like the kid who meets my excuse, “But I don’t even own a refrigerator to put this Cambodian magnet on!” with a blunt, almost annoyed rebuttal, “If you don’t buy this magnet then I can’t go to school.” Really, whether he is telling the truth or not, how are you supposed to argue with that?
The only familiar thing that I can compare it to is that nice, summers afternoon when you happen to drive past a lemonade stand on the corner. You’re in a hurry and don’t particularly want some kid’s half-mixed cup of crystal light. But as you pass the kids behind their little fold-up table you can’t help but notice the hopeful look in their eyes as they jump up and down, waving their sign for the hundredth time that day as if they only waved it a little harder they could score a whole dollar.
Now if you think this is difficult to resist, imagine a small, brown, barefooted child trying to convince you in broken English to buy their post cards for just one dollar so they can go to school. And then imagine 100 of them. That’s a whole ‘nother battle.
As I continually encountered this situation while we toured Siem Reap and my thought process began to unfold, I decided that instead of divvying out hundreds of dollars and in return collecting thousands of postcards, I would try to give these kids something that I think kids should be more concerned with than money: Happiness. Warmth. Laughter. Candy.
There are a few occasions I remember in particular. One morning, after witnessing the sunrise behind the stone towers of Ankgor Wat, Kindall and I were sitting in one of many identical outdoor breakfast stands lining the outskirts of the temple. As soon as we sat down, we were instantly ambushed by a group of young Cambodian children, all pushing their baskets of goods towards us and chorusing the familiar routine. I had just ordered a massive pineapple pancake and it was sitting on my plate in front of me, warm and untouched.
“Anybody want a bite of my pancake?” I asked, disregarding their solicitations completely and holding the plate out temptingly. They instantly went silent and, with eyebrows raised, eyed it suspiciously as though trying to decide if a bite of a pancake was worth giving up the sale. But shyness and politeness took over, and one-by-one they averted their eyes and shook their heads. “Okay, but it’s really good,” I said, taking a big bite for myself.
As they continued to stare longingly, one of the little girls noticed that I wasn’t using the syrup on the table and shouted, “Chocolie! Chocolie!” The others lit up at once and, following her call of Chocolie!, ran back to the shop. They returned with a big bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, which the little girl handed to me with a giant smile. I haven’t put chocolate syrup on a pancake since I was like eight, but clearly that is exactly what these kids intended me to do.
Well, here we go, I thought, and lathered up my pancake with enough sugary syrup to make a diabetic cringe. I slowly, intentionally cut another big bite and put it in my mouth, with a loud Mmmm! just for show. After doing this a few times, my observers closely watching, I asked again if they were sure they didn’t want any.
Finally, the little boy with big innocent eyes and a wistful frown looked at me and slowly but deliberately nodded his head. “Do you want pineapple?” He nodded faster. “Chocolate??” He could hardly contain his enthusiasm. I skewered it all together on my fork, the biggest bite I could manage, and placed it right into his waiting mouth.
I will never forget what his little face looked like, chocolate on his mouth, cheeks so full he could barley chew, and a look of pure happiness.
We spent the rest of breakfast chatting with our new friends, sharing bites of pancake, and not one postcard or magnet was even brought up. As we left I decided that they deserved something, so I gave them each a dollar after they sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for me. Give a dollar and a pancake and get a song and some new friends! Win win.
I could go on for pages upon pages with stories like this. Like the two girls, Ned and Lisa, who told us of their dreams of becoming tour guides when they grow up and taught me a traditional Cambodian dance. Ned was beautiful and very bright, and Lisa had stained clothes and broken flip-flops, but a smile that light up her little brown face. She couldn’t believe how big Kindall’s hand was compared to hers. After noticing her eying my brown snap-on sandals, I told her to try them on and laughed as she danced around in sandals twice as big as her feet, wishing so bad that they fit so I could just give them to her.
Or the lone, three-year-old boy at the top of an empty temple who jumped into my arms and would not let go of my hand. When we finally climbed down the temple with him and his sister and told them we had to go, I was hoping that they had parents looking after them somewhere near by. As we watched, they ran to their blind mother, who was playing an instrument on the side of the road with a group of others who had been disabled by the horrific Cambodian landmines. It was the sweetest thing to see the mother’s sightless face, listening as her Eyes told her excitedly from her lap of the two tall foreigners they had just made friends with.
I was not only touched by the kids, but the adults too. I had never before met such a warm, congenial, and genuinely happy people.
The people of Cambodia taught me something. They opened my eyes to a glimpse of the real world, the world before it got so full of distractions and things that don’t really matter. Like family. Respect. Good manners. Charity. Smiles.
The correlation between material wealth and happiness is non-existent here. Happiness comes from within.
And I learned that, if nothing else, if I spent the rest of my days with Kindall feeding chocolate pancakes to Cambodian children, I think I would be happy.
One big happy family. These kids wouldn’t stop smiling.
My first purchase
FOUR YEARS OLD!!! And quite a bit of sass.
At the temple. The music was mesmerizing.
You’re hand is huge!!!
Ned and Lisa. One day I will go back and see these two ladies as successful tour guides.
I gave him a piece of candy, and he bowed in thanks
Kindall will be a good daddy one day
They are beauties