What am I supposed to do? Whenever I can, whenever I have time, whenever I'm on the back of a moto and I'm heading into Star-Mart, which is right near where I work, I stop, give her the remnants of my lunch, even buy her and her friends or siblings a bottle of water.
Is it my fault she's homeless? (Or, if not homeless, at least desperately, relentlessly poor?)
Is it my fault she looks twelve but is probably sixteen?
Is it my fault that sometimes I stop, and sometimes I don't, and sometimes, from the rapid, slightly blurry vantage of the motobike I can see them playing in front of the store, doing
cartwheels, laughing at each other's stupid jokes, pestering all the other customers and drivers who stop for gas or smokes or chocolates?
Back home, see, I never thought about kids without homes, street kids, starving kids. Didn't enter my consciousness. There was school, and work, and snow, and movies, and popcorn. With lots of butter and salt, the key being to ask the kid at the concession stand to put butter half-way through, so that you can get messy, slippery, butterfinger hands all the way down to the end of the bag. This was the important stuff; these were the things that mattered.
And now I often go for lunch at Chi-Cha's, this super-cheap Indian place down by the river, where, for only two dollars, you can get rice and fried chicken and japatee and all kinds of other stuff. What a deal. (Actually, the owner is Bangladeshi. I know because I asked him. He was the first Bangladeshi man I've ever spoken to. In my life. I'm starting to keep track of stuff like this. In the last few months, I've talked to my first Bangladeshi and Swede and Finn and Pole. You always remember your first.)
Then I get whatever I don't eat to go, and I give the rest to the girl in front of the Star Mart off of Monivong Street. Yay for me, right? What a saint. Mother Teresa is shaking in her grave.
But sometimes I don't stop there, at the convenience store; I head straight to work. And I know that that girl is probably waiting. Probably doing her cartwheels and hiding behind the bush and not noticing, not caring about how utterly ripped and dirty her otherwise pretty dress is.
Three, four years ago this wouldn't have bothered me, the fact that she waits there.
Now it does.
But what bothers me more, what sometimes keeps me awake at night, is the possibility that someday I'll leave this country, go home, and this girl, this poor Cambodian kid whose chances in life are slim steadily approaching none, will slip from my mind. She will be a dream-face who will fade the instant after waking, or, if she lingers, only in time for the first jug of juice. By the time the toast is done, she'll be gone. Or she will be shamelessly relegated to an after-dinner anecdote to illustrate my time in the orient, a potent, vanity-strewn plug at my own rather pitiful knowledge of third-world poverty. I will sip tea and finish my story and see the saddened faces of my listeners and eventually I will say, will have to say: "Well, enough of that. Shall we move to the den for dessert?"
I fear that the process has already begun, this desensitization, this exploitation of others for personal glory. She is out there now, under the sun, and I am here, writing this blog. My hope is that you will be moved for a moment or two; my hope is that you will understand what I am trying to get across.
There is something unseemly about this entire process, though I justify it all by believing that exposure itself is akin to empathy; that empathy, in turn, can lead to a shift in one's actions, one's own behavior. You will read what I write about the poor, and perhaps the next time you see a homeless person, a drunk, you will extend a hand, a coin, a coffee. That would be more than I could ask for, and I wonder if it's enough, or even relevant.
While she, the nameless girl, continues her daily dance around the Cal-Tex gas station, waiting for change, for food, smiling her smile, oblivious to me, her fate, the future.