Saturday, June 16, 2007


Just another story in the paper.

From this morning's International Herald-Tribune:

Dengue Fever has killed 102 children but no adults in Cambodia this year and is expected to spread further when the rainy season peaks in the next few months, officials said Friday.

A small, one sentence, almost offhand story, one of those wire-service dispatches from the AP that clots the corners of the daily paper. We read these stories, and shake our head, and move on to Dilbert and the Sports section.

But I lingered on this story.

Couldn't let it slip from my mind.

Because I'd been there.

In that place.

With that sickness.

Because I had lived in Cambodia. (Two and a half years of my life that seems an eternity ago, and also like this morning, or five minutes ago, or now.) And because, I, too, once had dengue fever.

At the time, I didn't know what it was. I was feeling sick, and tired, and nauseous, and the expat doctor told me that if I broke out in spots, at any time, day or night, to call her. That night, out broke the spots, all over my chest. I called her. She gave me medicine. I spent the next four or five days crashed out in my room, puking, having nose bleeds, hallucinating in bed. (I kept thinking: I have to get to Baltimore. I have to get to Baltimore. I have to get to...) I remember trying to jog ten meters outside, in the brutal afternoon heat, and stopping after five. I was exhausted. In five days I ate a bowl of cereal and a banana. Then it was gone. The fever broke. The spots disappeared. I could eat again. I could run again.

So here we have a story about a hundred children dying of a sickness that I once had, in the same country where I once lived.

I had medicine.

They didn't.

I had twenty dollars to pay for it.

They didn't.

I am sitting in a suburb of Tokyo typing these words.

They died.

I didn't.

Just another story in the paper.


I sometimes see the occasional foreigner bopping their way up and down the stony steps of Sakura-gaoka station, where I live, an hour outside of Tokyo. Some of them are African. Brazilian, perhaps. Possibly even Filipino. I don't know where they work. Often, in the morning, I'm going up the steps, and they're going down. They're coming home from work (the night shift, perhaps?), and I'm heading in to work. I am white and they are black but we are here, all of us, foreigners.

When I first went to Asia, back in '99, it was for a job, yes, but it was a lark, a journey, a step beyond myself and something else. Not better, not worse -- else. I could have stayed in Canada, found a job, settled down. But there was something out there, somewhere, and I felt I should see it.

But for most of the world, work remains paramount, and they don't have the luxury of introspection, or quixiotic quests of self-enlightenment. I first noticed it in Japan, spotting a handful of Africans here and there standing on streetcorners in Machida, the same town where I'm writing this blog. They had come to Japan, opened up clothing shops, made a life.

In Cambodia, I discovered a large Filipino community, and, at the school where I taught, there were teachers from Kuwait, and Cameroon, and India, and South Africa. (Not to mention Canada, and England, and the States.) They did not necessarily come to Cambodia for adventure. They came because there was work; they came because it was a way to live, or to find a means to live.

Later, in the Philippines, I was startled at how many people wanted to get the hell out. Not because they hated their country; quite the contrary. They loved it, loved it so much, and the people in it so much, that they had to leave to support both their nation and their families. In Canada, telling people I've worked in Japan and Cambodia and the Philippines sounds adventurous, exotic and, dare I say it, debonair. (Not that anybody would accuse me of being debonair -- the intentional act of exile itself, I mean.) In the Philippines, they don't bat an eye. Half of their relatives are in Hong Kong, or Canada, or Dubai, or the United Arab Emirates. Washing dishes. Changing old people's diapers. Cleaning up after rich folks. Wipping their asses and tucking in their beds. You go where the money is.

It's been good for me. Perhaps that sounds self-centred, or elitist, but what I mean is that I grew up in small city in a country that is big and wide and prosperous and full. I've now lived, for a total of almost four years, in countries where I saw poverty on daily basis, the deep kind, the type where somebody with no arms and no legs begs you to put a twenty-cent note between their teeth, and where a desperate, dirty child, lugging a wagon full of garbage, runs up to me to return an American one dollar bill that I had accidentally dropped, an act that brought a lump to my throat.

I've seen the bottom of the barrel, and the humanity underneath it, reaching up.

And now I'm back in Japan, where I can sit, and compare, and try to figure out what it all means.

I can watch the foreigners in this land of plenty go to and from work, trudging up and down the same steps I do, and although I'm not sure where they come from, I can sense why they're here, and why I am, too.

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