Wednesday, May 11, 2005

THE EVIL OF TWO LESSERS

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.

And yet...

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.

4 comments:

Alayne said...

My sister (http://www3.telus.net/cpandmh/mhoule/mhoule.html) & I (http://hastobeshasta.blogspot.com/) have talked about this off and on. How tragic… How we as Canadians are such huge consumers and how this country ignores the plight of children everywhere. These people that take for granted 1 & 2 showers a day, 8 glasses of clean water a day, the roof over their head and the list goes on. Why are we so blind to people and cultures that need our help? My sister & I do what we can. We don’t purchase consumer goods that are known to be child labor induced. We donate what we can, when we can…

Canadians, as a whole, can do more…. Why don’t we? I’ve come to the conclusion that it is greed. The SUV soccer families that are caught up in their tiny world of self-indulgence; they go to church once a week and ask for forgiveness for the sins they are about to commit. They consume until they are satisfied and turn a blind eye to the fact that most of their world is jeopardizing children in 3rd world countries. If their little Johnny’s and Jane’s are happy…who cares... right?

My sister is right… When is Mother Nature going to press Ctrl/Alt/Delete and cleanse herself of these self-righteous beings called humans?

Anonymous Midwest Girl said...

DAMN you for making me actually THINK about the condition of the world before I have had a chance to drink to soften the blow.

AMG

Scott said...

Hastobeshasta -- I think a lot of it has to do with distance. Canadians are so far away from any of the problems that really affect the rest of the world, and, if you're not exposed to these problems firsthand, empathy requires another quantom leap on your part. It's also a lack of hard-core education on the subject; I never knew shit about the world in school, and it may be because I wasn't paying attention most of the time, true, but I think also we weren't taught really relevant stuff, either. We have to educate young people to make them realize that they are the luckiest people on the planet, and that's no exaggeration. Growing up in suburbia is as good as it gets on the planet earth; if we can recognize that, acknowledge that, than maybe we can begin reaching outwards.

Thanks for reading.

AMG -- I can only quote the line Woody says to Sam on the last episode of CHEERS (which I've quoted before) when Sam says: "Thanks, Woody. You've really given me something to think about."

Woody: "Aw, I'm sorry, Sam, I hate when somebody does that to me."

Maybe you can grab a drink WHILE you read? I tried to soften the blow by leading into it with the whole 'two Darrens' comparison. Wait. Maybe that 'two Darrens' comparison was what made you think about the condition of the world?!?

Thanks, also, for reading.

name of the rose said...

"that the purpose of travel is not to find answers, but to find better questions."

or to learn how to travel to the edge of self...

your contrast between cambodian and canadian culture for children, juxtaposed next to the two darrens...the skin of culture is hard to shed

...interesting post