Friday, May 8, 2009

A Guest Gentleman in Thailand

This is a guest post from my friend Matt:

The Pied Piper of Siem Reap: The Conundrum of Charity in South East Asia

There was a time, not so long ago, that I was chased through the streets of a city in Cambodia by children. I’ll explain how exactly that happened at the end of this, because such a story does not come without a few narrative foundations needed to set up a reader’s expectations, and then showcase the protagonist’s raw failures in light of them. First, I should like to start from the beginning.

In May of the year before, I left America to become an English teacher in Thailand. After eleven months of perspiring the brouhaha that defined the feral classrooms of the all boys school that employed me, I discovered that one does not “become” a teacher as I had been telling my friends and family -- “A teacher! That’s what I’m going to be. Golly gosh the fun we’re going to have!” No, no-no-no-nopers. Not a chance, Bucko. You will be forged into a teacher. Forged by the audacious and glorious tension achieved when you must break down the battlements erected by fourteen-year-old boys who are supremely confident that they -- they alone! -- have mastered the conundrum of free will: we have it, and you can’t tell us shit.

So you develop guile. Grace under pressure. Callouses of the mental sort where your intellect meets theirs and the friction makes smoke billow from the tips of your hair. For teenagers are to teachers what velociraptors are to electric fences: they will constantly check for weaknesses, probing every spot, testing for bullshit. And you must push back when they push you, convince them of your worth-whileness, and even trick them into learning at times. In the end I don’t think I would have called myself a great teacher or even a good one. But a person often earns a steadiness by going back day by day. Or they go buck-nutty. Both instances remain plausible in my case.

A similar kind of steadiness can be earned over a period of time living abroad. When you travel in countries like Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia -- countries where laws are more like guidelines, (similar to accounting rules in the US) -- the initial experience for travelers can include a mild sense of frenzy -- that everything, everywhere is out of your control. As with anything, as you aggregate more experience in your foreign land turned hospitable home, the frenzy moves more towards domesticity, no less exotic or beautiful necessarily, but you find yourself on more even ground. Decisions come easier. Cryptic facial expressions are decoded. Street signs cease to burn your eyes from the inside. Traffic no longer tries to murder you dead. The cardinal directions on the compass of your life seem to realign. In other words, you are confident again, if not at least a bit more comfortable.

So that’s where I was in mid-March -- ten months after my arrival -- when I crossed the border into Cambodia by bus: confident, walking steadily on the avenue of my fate, happy that I was going to hang out with some kids who didn’t get to hang out with native English-speakers very much. But as anybody who has driven long distances before can tell you, it’s on the flat roads where misadventure tends to find you the most vulnerable.

Three friends and I -- all teachers at the same school in Bangkok where I worked -- arrived in the city of Siem Reap in the late afternoon. We’d be there for two weeks, teaching and living in a house that tripled as an orphanage for twelve children of varying ages, a guest house for the visiting volunteers, and a free school for the small village nearby. Families who could not afford to send their children to government school, indeed, some even too poor to free their children of collecting plastic at the dump during the day to attend a free school. As a result, the man who runs the orphanage, Vanna, collects money to buy rice for the families so that the children can come to learn.

Appropriate Digression: In Cambodia, it is the rich and the poor. They say if you see a car in the streets of the capital, it’s going to be owned by a government official or a family member of one. When I last visited as a student, the son of a government official saw my friends and I in a bar and decided he wanted to impress us. He came over and slurred over a glass of beer, “I have two cars.” His gaze fell on our guide who was drinking with us, and a kind of scowl came over it. “He has none,” he said. And the toughest part of it, any traveler who has been to Cambodia will tell you, is the army of children who beg in the streets, selling trinkets for a dollar or less. It’s while visiting a place like Cambodia that hopefully the steadiness we spoke about earlier comes into play. To see such poverty as a citizen of the first world causes us to feel a healthy measure of both guilt and helplessness. Guilt at what we have, and helplessness that we cannot use any of it to help in a real and lasting way -- not without great sacrifice on our part, sacrifices that we do not make for the some of the same reasons why the rich stay rich and the poor, poor. But the steadiness helps you through it. Give what you can, when you can and hope you’re making their day easier or better. For even if you gave a dollar to every child that asked you for something in Cambodia, you’d have nearly nothing left; and even that wouldn’t be enough. They would need more.

So in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, outside of the world renowned Ankgor Wat, we taught English to Cambodian children. The house and school are set across the road from a small river, which is actually more of a stream. Classes are held in two outdoor classrooms constructed from bamboo in the backyard, one classroom for the older children and the other for the youngest. The back yard itself is mostly dirt with a tufts of wild grass sprout intermittently like acne, and palm trees provide small stars of shade when the afternoon heat climbs. Lines are drawn between poles to dry clothes, and when the rain comes the older children rush to retrieve the clothes and bring them inside. A small hut on stilts serves as a chicken coop, and the chickens wander freely about the yard.

The experience of teaching these children versus teaching the sixty or so hooligans in Bangkok was dramatic. Where many of my students in Bangkok were unengaged if not contradictory, the students here were eager to answer questions -- eager to the degree that they would interrupt each other to be the one who had the right answer. That is not to say that these children were better people. They were merely better motivated. In Bangkok, coming to school meant leaving behind your computer and gaming system (the school was an elite private academy with a price tag to match). Coming to learn English at the orphanage meant you did not have to go out and work.

I won’t bore you with our daily schedules. But teaching in Cambodia, while not as structured as in Thailand and certainly not nearly the pace at which we move in the US, was still teaching. By the time we quit at five in the afternoon, we were ready for a break. Children, no matter how wonderful, will always have more energy than I am capable of reciprocating for twelve hours at a time. So a few nights a week, we would get away from the orphanage to grab dinner in town.

In nearly every major Asian city you will find a tourist district where western restaurants abound along with travel agencies, bars, and people trying to sell you their wares -- including children. Many come up with bracelets or postcards. Ten for a dollar. If you say no then it is fifteen for a dollar or maybe twenty. “Please, please buy from me,” they say, and you either buy or you steel yourself and repeat no, “I don’t want it,” or if you’re feeling particularly ironic, “I don’t have any money with me.” It’s easier to say no to the adults, but the children are a different matter altogether. Saying no to them feels evil, which is probably why there are so many of them out selling. To answer this my friends and I carried individually wrapped packets of cookies or crackers in our bags. The children are happy to take them, and one can give out many more packets of snacks than dollars.

On one of these outings to town I was by myself. It was Sunday, and having spent all of my time with my three female colleagues I needed a day to things on my own. (Burp, fart, break dance. Male stuff.) I spent a day in a local museum, and at dinner time I came back into town for food. I picked a restaurant that served traditional Khmer dishes and ordered beef and rice. As I waited for my food I read. In the alley a group of boys and girls played a game where one group ran to the wall and then ran back, after which the second group would go and the entire affair would end in screams and side splitting giggles. They reminded me of the kids at the orphanage, how happy they seemed, how effortlessly they broke into dance, what genuineness they lent the wicked world around them, how they loved to sing. The steadiness welled up inside of me, and then my food came.

As I ate, a few of the children came over and asked me to buy bracelets. Ten for a dollar.

“Where are you from?” a girl asked me.

“America,” I answered.

“United States of America. Capital, Washington D.C. Population 300 million. Say another country!” she said automatically, as if she drilled the answer time and time again, but she would not make eye contact.


“Capital, Madrid.”


“Canberra! Can you buy from me? Ten for one dollar. Do you have a girlfriend? You can buy for her,” and she held up the bracelets, small rings made of dyed bamboo.

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I don’t want them.”

May as well be honest, I thought. And I knew if I did buy from her, more children would come over and ask me to buy from them. More eyes, more hands, more helplessness than I would be able to handle.

“You’re girlfriend will like them.”

“But I don’t have a girl friend.”

“Why not?”

“Because I smell bad.”

To my delight, she laughed at this, but quickly regained herself and persevered nonetheless.

“Please! You buy!”

“No, no, no,” I said, shaking my head dramatically with each no. “I will not buy them.” And I raised my chin and looked down my nose at her, daring her to continue what had become our silly stand off at this table in the Khmer restaurant.

This continued for a while. More children came over after others left and I did my best to talk to them and make them laugh, while still saying no. There was a part of me that wanted them to leave so I could eat in peace, but the other part reminded me that this was how they managed to eat at the end of the day. When I finished my dinner there was nothing to do but pay and leave. But there was one stubborn boy who had kept at me for most of my meal. He sensed he had a hook in me, and his boldness made the others bold too, so they stuck around and would come back trying new tacks to get me to buy. When I rose, the stubborn boy was visibly stressed. He saw all his work on me sliding away as I went to pay my bill. And when I finally grabbed my bag to leave, he dramatically change tactics, and he went for something completely fresh: “Well you can buy food for me, can’t you?”

Of course! Food! I could give him and the others the snacks I kept in my bag. I could have kicked myself for not remembering. But when I reached into my bag, I had nothing left. All the snacks I had were given away the day before, and I had not bought any more.

“Well, is there a market nearby?” I asked.

At this his eyes lit up in victory. “Yes!” he said. “It’s this way!” and he grabbed my hand and we left for the street. By this time, word had gotten out that a foreigner was going to buy food. So when we first entered the street, there were three following me. OK, that’s fine, I thought. Three is completely doable. But then there were six more, and then ten. By the time we turned right at the end of the street a line of twelve to fifteen children were following me to the market. This was bad, but I wasn’t panicking. They sold large packs of crackers and cookies at the market. I could buy a big box and they could share. This would be okay. I could buy something for everyone without breaking the bank

The sun was setting quickly. Orange sunlight curved around the tops of the buildings like urban halos, and shadows began crowding around corners like rowdy gangs, creating shallow pools of nighttime. When we reached the market my heart, already hovering precariously at the edge of a horny cliff, plunged. CLOSED -- it said in great red letters of “Ha. Ha. Screw you, ass hat!” And so I stood, feeling utterly exposed to these children. Children that reminded me of my kids at the orphanage. Reminded me of my brother! And not merely exposed, but angry! I was angry that the market was closed, angry that I had gotten myself into this, angry at these fourteen other kids who hopped on the snack train, angry that I had been needled and poked as I was eating and afterwards for an hour straight, angry that darkness was now here and not even light would help me out of this. Angry that I had no control over anything.

So I bailed.

“I’m sorry. I can’t buy any food,” I told the stubborn one, and I made a beeline for motorcycle taxis that were waiting across the street. The fifteen followed. You would think that having fifteen kids follow you after you bailed on a promise to buy them crackers with every intention of speeding away on a motorbike would pull on your heart strings a bit. Not so, my friends. The human heart is capable of going as cold as you need it. Besides, these were not my kids. My kids were back at the orphanage. These kids were taking advantage of my kindness. So fuck ‘em.

I reached the first motorcycle taxi and told the driver the street I needed to go to. He didn’t understand me, and my frustration bloomed anew. What kind of taxi driver in the tourist district doesn’t understand English? I thought.

“I’m sorry but you need to understand me!” I said and I went off towards the next driver But apparently he didn’t understand, because he joined the parade.

And so the fifteen became sixteen. One taxi driver following behind me calling, “Taxi, sir! Taxi!” and fifteen children behind him crying, “You promised!” and on I walked head high and ears numbed to their pleas. It all must have looked like some vaudeville reenactment of the Pied Piper, the immediate status of wealth that came with my westerness serving as the mesmerizing tune that kept them in my wake.

I reached the next motorcycle driver and told him my street. He eyed the rabble behind me momentarily but apparently paid it no mind, because I hopped on the back of his bike and we sped off, leaving all that behind.

I tried my best to stay angry, and thus justified. But I didn’t even get back to the orphanage before the anger melted away or was carried away by the night wind, and the familiar guilt and helplessness took its place. But this time crushing. The type that just makes you sigh out of exasperation and declare, “Fuck my life.”

What else can you do?

You can always do more, can’t you? I’d like to tell you that I went back the next day, found those kids and bought all of them crackers and cookies like I had promised. But I didn’t. I taught the next day. I didn’t even have the courage to tell the girls what had happened. It embarrassed me, and I wanted to ignore it as if it didn’t happen. And for the most part that worked. The rest of the week we taught and played with the kids. Each afternoon I brought out my guitar and sang American songs. The last day that we were in Cambodia, we canceled the last hour of class and played group games until it began to get dark. The next morning we left.

I’m back in the United States now. And I do think about the kids at the orphanage a good deal, and I miss them. I think about the kids that chased me in the streets too as I ran away, but I don’t feel any of that guilt I felt or the helplessness. They just feel more like a story to me now. Like a story that I tell.

(Matt in Thailand)

1 comment:

Kat said...

I feel so humbled after reading this. And extremely envious of your experiences.

Thank you for sharing. :)