I don't know if I consider myself an adult, exactly, but considering that I'm turning twenty-nine tomorrow, I sure as hell ain't a kid anymore, and I vividly remember the day, the moment, I realized that.
Two years ago, I came to Cambodia for one week as a volunteer with a Japanese NGO called 'Children Without Borders' (www.knk.or.jp), an organization that helps teenage street-children get their lives back together by grouping them together in a house, teaching them skills (like moto-repair or hair-styling) and helping them gain some self-worth. I taught English to them, while Japanese college kids taught Japanese, and English, and Japanese calligraphy, and other cool stuff, none of which I could do, because I'm kind of a twit.
This was in Battambang, the second biggest city in the country. It's about a five hour drive north from Phnom Penh. Not much there, really, which is really code for saying that there's a lot there -- you just have to know where to find it.
Take Homeland. It's an orphanage that me and the Japanese students visited one day, and if you want to have an emotional experience, friends and neighbours, visit a Cambodian orphan-
age filled with a hundred or so HIV infected kids.
What surprised me was how energetic the kids were. (If were in Japan, they would be
suuuuugoi genki). They jumped on your arms and tugged at your shirt and smiled the smile that can only be found in Cambodia.
I was sitting down on the steps of the orphanage, taking it all in. Watching the kids play. Letting myself take a break from the heat, which is pretty much impossible in Cambodia, but still. You gotta try. And there was this one girl sitting beside me, left hand clenched against her cheek, eyes staring at the ground, head drooped low. I smiled at her and she gave me a let's-humor-the-foreigner smile back.
My first thought was: Why isn't she smiling? Why isn't she playing like the others? What's wrong with her?
And then I realized where I was. It sunk in. It hit me, slapped me, pounded me in the face.
Why should she be smiling? She's nine years old (if that), and she probably has AIDS, and she's not going nowhere, not anytime soon, thank-you very much. She's stuck there with a hundred other kids who, very possibly, could be dead within dead years. No mother, father, family. Why would she be dancing with glee, laughing with delight, doing cartwheels in the sun?
Just one moment. Just one kid's wan little smile.
But that was it. Bang. Life is harsh, and cruel, and desperately, relentlessly unfair. I knew that intellectually. Sitting next to that kid, though, whose name I never knew, whose face I still remember, made it real. And that made me say good-bye to something inside.
Not a very uplifting birthday message, I know, but the point is:
I'm thankful. I'm thankful that I'm not in an orphanage in Battambang. I'm thankful that I've made it to twenty-nine years of age. I'm thankful that I've led a pretty diverse life, and, hopefully, there'll be many more years to come.
Just thinking about what I've seen and done makes me dizzy, but here goes:
I've lived in St.Catharines and North York and Toronto and Manotick and Sagami-hara City and Phnom Penh, and I've run races (and sometimes won races, like the when I won the Junior Boys SOSSA cross-country title and my brother won the Senior Boys SOSSA title on the same day, same course, and was that ever a good day for the Spencer brothers, yes it was, one of the best, if not the best), and I've watched Spike Lee and Oliver Stone speak at the University of Toronto (same building, years apart), my high school gods come miraculously to life, and I shook their hands, and had them sign their books, and I've studied creative writing, and actually, somehow, got a freakin' degree out of it, and I met John Irving (twice), and met Norman Mailer, and met Pierre Trudeau a week before the Quebec referendum, and met Tom Hanks with my friend Eric as Forrest Gump himself strolled out of the Four Seasons hotel, and ambushed Charles Bronson in the lobby of that same hotel, and got the autographs of Michael Caine and Gene Hackman within ten minutes of each other, and sat next to Ben Johnson on a high jump mat in the track centre at York University, both of us resting, him saying nothing, me saying nothing, and I taught a student in Japan, my first student in Japan, first day, just off the plane, who performed the first pacemaker operation in Japan in the mid-sixties, and I've taught the former head of research and development of Toshiba who went and had a private meeting with the president of China, and brought me back the pictures to prove it, and I've visited the set where Akira "Seven Samurai" Kurosawa made all of his films, and seen the machines he edited them on, and walked around his private screening room, and held the slippers he wore, and held the actual model that is used in all of the Godzilla movies, and I've been to Hiroshima, and travelled around Hokkaido, ran on the beach in Shimane, been attacked in Sagami-Ono by a homeless nut with a two-by-four, and I've injured myself training for the Nagano marathon, and I've studied Japanese, in Japan and Cambodia, and taught at an orphange in Phnom Penh, a university in Phnom Penh, and I've seen my brother get married, and I gave a speech, just last month, toasting his wife and his life.
A full, rich twenty-nine years.
So, thanks to all who've played a part. (And who've made it through the above paragraph.)
Here's to the next twenty-nine!
And here's to that little girl in that Battambang, Cambodia orphange.
I may not have affected her life, but she sure as hell shifted, swayed, jolted mine.