It's fascinating, how you can be walking along, thinking thoughts, counting steps, wondering what to eat for dinner, wondering what you always wonder, and then have your life flip-flopped and tweaked.
Yesterday, I was heading home from work, my white-dress shirt gradually growing damp with sweat as the hot Khmer sun slowly made its lingering descent. (A Cambodian dusk is always a welcome event.) Approaching the stoplight at Sihanouk and Monivong, I heard the excited chatter of children up above.
"Hello! Hello! Hello!"
There were maybe six of them, waving at me, smiling. I waved back, smiled. Cambodian children embody goodwill.
And then the nun came out.
Like, a real nun, the Mother Teresa kind, wearing the same blue and white traditional garb.
"Hello!" she said. "Come inside, come inside, sir."
She grabbed my arm and tugged me along, this smiling Cambodian woman. I checked out the sign on the side of the building: SISTERS OF MERCY MINISTRIES, I think it said.
What am I going to do, say no to a nun? (Even agnostics have to hedge their bets every now and then.)
Up the slight row of stairs, and there they were -- kids, a couple dozen of them, from infants to ten year olds, playing on the ground, resting in their beds. Some of them were smiling and healthy. Some of them just layed there, their eyes distant and blank. I met one boy, perhaps two, who had no hands; they looked as if they had been hacked off, leaving only two little stumps. So I smiled and shook the stumps.
Does that sound strange? It is. It's strange and bizarre and heartbreaking beyond belief, shaking the stumps of a two year old boy. It makes you feel sick and guilty and helpless.
The nun pointed out another child that had just arrived that day. He had five brothers and sisters, and the father had just been killed in a construction accident, leaving the mother unable to care for this newborn. So, here he was. The nuns took him in, no questions asked, mind the stairs on your way out. Simple. There was an Asian-Canadian woman there from Toronto, where I went to university, helping out with the kids. Strange, the connections that can be forged so far from home.
Have you ever been in an orphanage? After teaching in a few of them, I can reassure you that they are very, very humbling places. And a Cambodian orphanage can take the cake. Any worries you have about your own life are thrown out the window, instantly. You don't want to consider the lives of these children in the future. Even their lives now are somewhat sad, or completely sad. One little boy just came up to me and grabbed onto my leg and wouldn't let go, as if I were his favorite uncle, not some total stranger. The nun told me that these children have very few people to talk to, hug, hold. Come back anytime, she said. Anytime.
And, of course, as the announcers on TV would say, 'these are the lucky ones'. And they are. There are a lot of kids in Cambodia that dwell on the streets, sleep in the rain, scavenge for food. These kids have light, space, warmth.
I'll come back, if only to chill with the kids for a little while. If only to get in touch with something that is so remote and yet so near.
I walk by this place every day! I'm outside, and they're inside, and that's the conundrum right there. None of this is different from what goes on back home, of course; none of this is necessary unique. It's the details and degrees that are different, the hacked off limbs, the deformities from birth. I have hands and some of them don't; I have a place to go to, and they don't.
Maudlin, I know, and self-pitying, and all those other emotions that Cambodia drags up from inside you. A perpetual pity party, if you want to look at it that way.
But it's important, I think, to remember that there are places, on the same roads that we walk, the same streets that we drive, that are filled with the forgotten, the left behind, and those who dedicate their lives, with no reward, to helping them get by. It's important to remember what society chooses to forget.
If we don't, how else can we truly, honestly call ourselves human?