It's just so complicated, is what I'm saying. The whole thing. All of its aspects.
(For those that came late, I'm not talking about the theory of relativity or the two Darrens on BEWITCHED, although those two things right there are pretty complicated in and of themselves, and both concepts, the relativity one and the two Darrens one, screwed me up big time as a kid. I mean, you can't just switch the lead actor like that -- you can't. It's not fair. )
It's a very strange feeling indeed to wake up one day and take a look around and realize that you have not only gotten used to the idea of child labor, but you expect it, too.
The kids in front of the supermarket hawking papers. The children toiling behind their mother's cart as she goes round the city collecting garbage and tins, metal and refuse. The little tykes who diligently scrounge alongside their siblings through the endless black garbage bags that litter Phnom Penh's streets like wretched treasure chests torn asunder.
These are child laborers. They exist. They're authentic. It was an electric shock to my system to learn that these poor and desperate kids are not just random, flickering images of guilt designed for Jack Nicholson's epiphany in ABOUT SCHIMDT, or convenient emotional scapegoats broadcast every few months on PRIMETIME LIVE, or holograms of tsunami-like degradation glimpsed between brilliant, snow-white flashes of Katie Couric's Joker-like grin on the TODAY show. They are all around (if you care to look, know where to look), sleeping on the streets, shitting in the sewers, sniffing up glue. They are small and stunted, dirty and smelly, smiling and honest, these kids are, and I've seen them so much, so often over the last few years that I wonder if I truly recognize how absurdly tragic their endless situation truly is.
The realness of these kids and their plight are what make the concept of sweatshops such a difficult one to reconcile. Of course no rational human being wants children working ten hours a day in a factory designed to keep Kathie Lee Gifford in designer duds the rest of her life. (Then again, no rational supreme being would knowingly construct Kathie Lee Gifford in the first place, but that's a whole other post.) No sensible, sensitive adult could possibly advocate kids stuck inside in dark and gloomy factories that make Dickens'darkened hovels look like Romper Room.
As I mentioned previously (for those who were taking a leak during the last few posts, or watching AMERICAN IDOL, or contemplating Proust, or ignoring your mother-in-law), Cambodia has recently had the supreme honor of being voted the 10th worst country to live in for children and women. Why? No drinkable water. No employment. Early death. You name it, Cambodia's got it.
Cambodian families are big. Lots of people. Lots of mouths to feed.
All too often, kids no older than five or six have to go off and earn some coin for their siblings and parents. If they don't, no one will eat. If they don't, terrible medicine can't be bought. It's sad and unfair, and it happens every day.
I have no answers. The great travel writer Pico Iyer said that the purpose of travel is not to find answers, but to find better questions.
I ask myself a lot of questions here. Some are random and silly, others are profound (to me, anyway). Most are in between.
Seeing kids work, out of school, selling you stuff, collecting trash, makes your heart break and your mind whirl. (They are also nicer kids than any you would ever want to meet back home. Cue the breaking heart; cue the whirling mind...) The kids I see outside the shops begging and working should, instead, be relaxing at home, should, instead, be kids -- playing video games, watching cartoons, farting on their little brothers' faces while holding their heads down with oversized cushions.
They shouldn't be outside, under the sun, wasting their lives away.
But they are. And their families prosper because of it. And a sweatshop, hideous as they are, would actually be a step up for most of these kids, and their families.
I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's good. But living here has taught me that not only is it not a perfect world, it's not necessarily even a good one, let alone a fair one. Nine, ten hours a day under the hot sun, selling newspapers, or nine, ten hours a day in a sultry sweatshop, stitching clothes, is not much of a choice -- the evil of two lessers, I guess you could say.
The tragic thing is, in Cambodia, there usually isn't any choice at all.