Before I stepped foot into this country, I was fully aware of Cambodia’s widespread battle with child labor and prostitution. Yet for the first time, I truly felt like I saw it. Last night I went out by the Riverside, a popular night life area in Phnom Penh. As I’ve said before: reading about an issue that is happening somewhere in the world, safely far away from you, is sad. Witnessing it with your own eyes, however, is devastating. I’ve read the statistics, I’ve learned about the roots of these issues, I’ve seen stray children roaming the streets on my way to work. Despite my familiarity with the problem, I was not prepared for the pain that seared through my chest like a hot needle when I found myself walking through streets that were teeming with tiny, filth-covered children begging for money. Standing in clusters outside of bars (if that’s what we want to call them) were scantily dressed Cambodian girls, many who didn’t look a day over 18. Considering how conservatively everyone in this country dresses, there was no effort to hide that this neighborhood was swarming with young prostitutes.
Just when I was convinced that the scene couldn’t get any worse, it did – along the river front, dozens of children were sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. The final straw was seeing a toddler and a baby, so young he was still wearing a diaper, huddled against their mother as they slept on top of a dirty cardboard box. I cannot stop asking why. I cannot understand how the government – the people, even – can allow so many children to live without a home, especially considering how much the culture values family and community. Foreigners are heavily discouraged from giving street children any money as it keeps them away from school (not to mention the money likely goes into the pockets of gangs that force children to beg, as well as drug-addicted parents), and although it makes sense, it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to deny a child in need.
I arrived to CCH the next morning with a heavy heart, feeling utterly drained of emotional energy. I will shamefully admit that during the first two class breaks, I hid in one of the rooms to avoid facing the children’s joy, instead wallowing in the misery that was still seething within me from the night prior. I couldn’t bring myself to partake in their happiness when so many other children were somewhere in the streets of Phnom Penh begging for their next meal.
Little did I know that my 6th grade class would be the one to uplift my spirits. As I was waiting for the students to trickle in, I made small talk with some of the kids. Communicating with the 6th graders is still a feat, but it’s made slightly easier by their higher knowledge of English and the assistant teacher who roughly translates for me. Some of the kids asked me if I went to university, which soon transitioned into curiosity of what I did back in New York. When I wrote my job on the board (“digital marketing”), I was surprised by the awe I saw in their eyes. This sparked an idea.
Earlier that morning, when debating my next lesson, a fellow volunteer suggested that I teach the kids about dream jobs. I quickly dismissed the thought – the words would be too difficult to translate, and knowing how horrible the Cambodian education system is, I was frankly terrified that asking them what they wanted to do wouldn’t elicit an optimistic answer. I quickly I learned that I was wrong.
I began my lesson by asking them: “what is your dream?” I was met with puzzled looks. It took a series of gesticulations and assisted translations to help them understand what I meant by “dream.” When the question finally sunk in, something amazing happened – their eyes lit up, and the room began to buzz with conversation. In an unintelligible sea of Khmer words, I deciphered the only English ones that mattered: superstar, policeman, doctor.
One by one, I asked each student to go up to the board and write down their dream. After assisting the first student with writing down her dream of being a lawyer, I turned around to see the next student, a 14 year old girl, with tears in her eyes. I instantly got nervous – this was my second crier in just 2 days. I approached her and realized that, unlike yesterday’s student, her tears weren’t of embarrassment or not knowing the right answer. They were of sheer surprise. I wondered whether she’d ever been asked that question. At that moment, this little girl filled my heart with love and she didn’t even know it. I wish I could have told her, but the next best thing I could do was show her. I took her hand and together, we wrote her dream on the board: to become a teacher.
I felt a mixed pang of joy and sadness when I took a step back and looked at that beautiful list of dreams. These children revealed to me that, despite their difficult situations, each and every one of them aspired to study and make something of their life. Their excitement towards the future was infectious not to mention unprecedented – I certainly wasn’t expecting it considering Cambodians’ penchant for living in the moment. While I felt so much gratitude for the hope they had invigorated in me after feeling depressed from last night’s events, I also felt renewed hate for the system that works to beat down these children’s dreams.
After class, I expressed my sadness to a staff member and asked, for the 1000th time, how do we allow this misery to happen? As I recounted what I witnessed last night, he gave me a resigned smile and said “you just get used to it.”
This really stuck with me. I suppose that, when you see something every day, eventually you cease to really see it – even if it’s horrible. Does this mean that if you are surrounded by suffering, you become hardened to it? Is this why children are allowed to roam the streets and partake in terrible acts in order to survive? Is this why the people who seem to be actively tackling these problems through NGO’s, donations, and volunteering are those who visit the country and are shocked by what they see?
I don’t want to get used to it. But I understand why it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s bearable to feel this suffering at its fullest extent, every day. I would break. I think that, if I had to live here, I too would hit a point when I’d have to turn a blind eye in order to be capable of happiness. We all deserve to feel happy, and in order to do so, we sometimes just have to make the best of the situation that we are dealt. And that may mean numbing the sadness.
But, to change something like this, we have to let some of that sadness in. The strongest resolve is not driven by reading about these issues. It’s driven by allowing the hot coals of reality to blaze a trail of compassion within you, one that could not have possibly been lit without witnessing the pain you want to remedy first hand.
We don’t have to get used to suffering. We get to choose what we are willing to accept and how much kindness we inject around us. When we decide to become agents of change – however small and insignificant it may seem when compared to the innumerable problems that haunt this world – the happiness that will inevitably follow is made all the sweeter.