An Epidemic The World Needs

Einstein on Empathy~ quoted in Born to Love

As an expat living in Phnom Penh it is perfectly easy to ignore the poverty that the people surrounding you are immersed in.  Two nights ago I walked through a crowded Night Market making my way towards colleagues at a Sky Bar above the market.  A detached bystander weaving through the throngs, I declined the advances of a few beggars and sellers.  With a jolt of surprise at the mass of squirming fish in shallow metal bowls, drowning on a sea of bitumen, I took a sharp turn into a dark alleyway.  Did the man saying “Hello” to me from a plastic chair near the entrance even know there was a bar upstairs?  Was he guarding the entrance to ensure only a select few with the right profile were entering or was he merely sitting in his usual spot watching the world go by?

At the top of the stairs I approached the bar and ordered a $5 glass of wine.  That’s more than most traders working into the night two storeys below us could hope to make in a day.  But they were out of sight now.  From the open air verandah you look out across the single-storey, multi-coloured, rusted tin sheets crammed ruggedly together to form a patchwork roof over the block-sized marketplace, to scattered high rise apartment blocks beyond.  Looking across poverty to prosperity; across the foreign to the familiar.

The open air bar was crammed with people all enjoying our affluence, who had all entered via the Night Market below.  Every one of us knew we were two storeys above a mass of bustling traders existing in a micro-economy but it seemed no obstacle to our indulgence.  My national colleagues’ reference to “People From The Sky” seemed a pertinent phrase from this elevated position.  [Some of my Khmer friends talk about “the people from the sky”, who fly in, dominate with an air of superiority for their chosen amount of time, then fly out again].

A housemate once told me when I was studying indigenous health and planning to move to Alice Springs to work, that “you are enjoying indigenous health now but once you work with them you’ll soon change your mind”.  His comments proved to be very wrong, but they reflected an attitude I have encountered for more than 20 years now, that indigenous people deserve their disadvantage through their own individual choices.  So it comes as no surprise to learn that in Cambodia, some who prosper also malign the impoverished as deserving of their plight and undeserving of support or empathy.  This belief evades recognition that systems and institutions will favour some while excluding and even repressing others, based on factors that are often beyond an individual’s control.  Perhaps the issue is too abstract when black-and-white thinking is a much easier way for us to comprehend the world’s complexities.

Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and Maia Szalavitz, a journalist, describe this phenomenon well in their book Born For Love.  Expressly, from the book’s introduction, “There’s been a recent explosion of scientific research ….. that show how empathy and the caring it enables are an essential part of human health …..  Empathy remains both intensely important and widely misunderstood ….. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence ….. The <ability to empathise> helped us become one of the most successful species on earth.  We survive because <we can empathise> …..  This book is about why we need an empathy epidemic.  Empathy underlies virtually everything that makes society work – like trust, altruism, collaboration, love, charity.  Failure to empathise is a key part of most social problems – crime, violence, war, racism, child abuse, and inequity, to name just a few ….. By understanding and increasing just this one capacity of the human brain, an enormous amount of social change can be fostered.  Failure to understand and cultivate empathy, however, could lead to a society in which no one would want to live – a cold, violent, chaotic and terrifying war of all against all.  This destructive type of culture has appeared repeatedly in various times and places in human history and still reigns in some parts of the world.  And it’s a culture that we could be inadvertently developing throughout America if we do not address current trends in child rearing, education, economic inequality, and our core values“.

My personal theory is that the evolution of financial comfort triggers a risk of losing our ability to understand the complex reasons for poverty and disadvantage, as they become remote and therefore less important, to our personal experience.  We have also twisted our definition of what success actually means, with an exaggerated fixation on financial factors.  This is often accompanied by a focus on highly superficial concerns such as the suburb where you live, the type of car you drive, how many countries you’ve traveled to, or which university you studied at.  The quote above from Born To Love brings us back to the reality, that success is actually determined by our ability to relate to and care for each other.  As a society, we seem to have forgotten this!


It’s Not About Angels

Recently I discovered Birdy, an English folk musician with the most unique and dreamy voice.  Assisted by Birdy, the dulcet harmonies of Ed Sheeran, a good book and good friends, I enjoyed a week off with neighbours from Australia at Siem Reap and Battambang.  I must have listened to Birdy’s Not About Angels a thousand times in the past week and I am still listening to it obsessively.

My Siem Reap highlight was the opportunity to bring Rav with his two sons and their two cousins, to swim and play with my friends’ son, 10yo Dylan, at our hotel.  Dylan is having a very adult holiday with his parents and I, so the chance to hang out with other boys was welcomed.  Rav’s sons have been in English school for two years now, so there was a tiny bit of shared language, but it doesn’t matter where children are concerned as play is always a common language, especially when water is involved.

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A swim, some food, and an Australian toy to play with – fun in any language.

It was my third time making the boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang, across the top end of the immense inland lake known as the Tonlé Sap and up the winding, narrow Sangker River.  Only able to travel on the Sangker during the wet season when there is enough water, when Caz and I did this trip in February we had to disembark the wooden boat when it could finally no longer be pushed off the sand bed another time.  Along with dozens of other mostly foreign passengers we climbed the river bank and packed into the back of two pick up trucks for a 1+ hour journey through alluvial crops across the floodplains.

Last week the river was high enough that the same blue painted wooden boat could pass through floating villages from the mouth of the river, and as the river narrowed, past riverside villages.  Many if not most homes in this area are made from nothing but scraps of any material the residents have been able to scavenge so that those not living on their small canoe-sized boats are under tarpaulins attached to shabby frames of wood and bamboo.  These are the poorest of the poor.

As the boat burns it’s way across the Tonlé Sap, it’s impossible not to be awestruck at the magnitude of this inland sea.  Sun rays strike the water’s surface turning the lake into an immense sparkling diamond, barely another boat in sight despite the thousands out there.  At the mouth of the Sangker the boat pushes through dense growth of bright green sponge-leafed water hyacinth before reaching the first of many villages floating in the waters that fall and rise with the seasons.

Our boat picks up speed, generating a ripple of waves towards the embankment where I notice a gaggle of children in charge of a small boat bobbing up and down in the undulating swell.  One holds onto the nose of the see-sawing boat, another jumps off the edge into a soaring wave as his friends wave excitedly at the tourists gliding past.  Just behind them a man emerges from the water onto dry land, a cane basket filled with fish positioned on one shoulder.  I realise that the man at the bow of our boat is not another passenger, but working with the driver, waving him around fishing nets buoyed by plastic water bottles and checking for traffic at each bend in the river.  Occasionally a head and some shoulders emerge from beside a moored fishing boat.  A tiny boy lurches from a swing rope fastened to a tree branch, out across the water and back again, afraid to let go despite goading from his friends waiting their turn at the river’s edge.

Farmers plough land which we assume was probably submerged recently and new crops peek demurely from under alluvial soils.  Men swim and fish, sometimes at the same time.  At a wooden pier a woman in a yellow sarong washes a naked toddler who waves excitedly at our boat, taught by older groups of children who shout frantically as they dive into the water, showing off their moves to the foreigners.  I lose count of how many quite tiny children deftly manouever the boats in their charge.  Willow trees droop over short but steep waterfronts and I realise the impression of hundreds of sleeping birds hanging from their branches, are actually plastic bags, snared as they floated past during the recent torrents.  An old lady crouches on the edge of a tiny boat washing herself in the brown water from under the modesty of her sarong.  Three canoe sized wooden boats are pinned to each other by a single bamboo platform across their surface, forming a ferry upon which people sit on their motorbikes, being transported from one side of the river to the other.

A few days later at the bus station a small girl in a red pinafore dress smiles bashfully at Dylan as we decide that despite being significantly smaller than him, she is probably a similar age.  A station employee brings three plastic chairs for the three adults to sit on.  Dylan stays standing, smiling back at Red Pinafore who stands up and walks away.  A few moments later she reappears from around a corner with a fourth chair, presenting it to Dylan quickly before running to the safety of her mother for more sheepish ogling at the foreign boy she would like to have as a friend!

In Battambang we had a night out with Phare Ponleu Selpak, a youth circus of extraordinary talent who entertained us with their comedic acrobats which are as good as any international standard troupe I’ve seen, only on a smaller stage with a smaller budget.  Meaning “Brightness of the Arts”, Phare Ponleu Selpak began in 1986 at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border with nine children as a way to help them express the trauma of war.  In Battambang since 1994, the association now provides education, arts training and social support to over 1,000 disadvantaged youth.  Any visit to Battambang should include a visit to this circus, for your own sake as well as to support a very worthwhile cause.

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The Cambodian tradition of teamwork in action at Phare Ponleu Selpak

As Birdy croons at me that it’s Not About Angels, I think of little Dara in Kampong Cham telling his mother that he saw angels at the Night Market with me in 2015.  As this was translated to me I struggled to imagine what he was talking about, until I remembered that we had seen an Apsara performance.  Apsaras are celestial spirits in Buddhist and Hindu mythology, featuring strongly in stone carvings at ancient temples across Cambodia (most famously on the walls of Angkor Wat).  I have since had the privilege to learn a little about Khmer classical dance and that while used as a general term to describe this dance style, Apsara dancers are only one character in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  During the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, 90% of Cambodia’s classical artists were killed.  From 1979 the tradition was resurrected, beginning in the Thai-border refugee camps with the few surviving dancers.  Once more a proud tradition, you can see dance performances at various places around Cambodia including but not restricted to, the very talented village youth at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham, where I took the below photographs.