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!


Battle of the Balance

Only in the past few years have I come to appreciate that I was born on the lucky side of life.  Not only do I have enough food, love and shelter but I have the ability of having experienced going on an aeroplane, visiting towns and countries beyond my home, obtaining a first class education and many, many other things which most in the world cannot even imagine.

A friend’s son is doing a project on Cambodia with his primary school class in Australia.  When the class learned that I live in Cambodia we tried to work out a meeting of some sort.  With various protections in place through the school, Skype and other meetings were not approved.  So the children’s teacher filmed each of them asking me a question about Cambodia which was then emailed to me.  For the past few weeks I have been working on a filmed response.

Some of the questions were far easier to answer than others.  Compare “what is the main form of transport?”, with “do you have fidget spinners in Cambodia?”!  One child will get a range of short clips showing motorbikes in their various forms of hard labour.  The other was more challenging but I managed it.  One of our doctors, who looks about 12 years old, was interested in the question and she went out and bought herself a fancy metal fidget spinner.  I filmed her responding to Ben’s question with “you asked if we have fidget spinners in Cambodia and yes, we do, and in fact I also own one <as she pulls it from her white coat pocket and spins it>, but to be truthful, I don’t really know what is the fun thing about this?”.  It’s cute.  But it is brief!  After a few days I came up with a solution.  Today I am going to Siem Reap to work on Project Rav (the tuk tuk website we are designing).  Yesterday I bought 4 cheap fidget spinners to give to Rav and Seth’s 4 boys.  Ben’s video will show the boys receiving / playing with their fidget spinners, with the message that these children have almost no toys so I bought them a fidget spinner each on your behalf.

Over the next few days in Siem Reap, as well as photographs for the website, I will be video-replying to the last few questions: “what are your houses made out of?”, “how many ruins are around your place?”, “how many rice paddy fields are around your place?” and “is most food imported or grown there?”.  All much easier to find relevant video footage of in a rural area, than in the city.

Last night I wandered around the busy market local to my home, taking video footage for the question “do you have supermarkets or do you have to go fetch your food?”.  Dying fish laid out on banana leaves streetside made their last few leaps of death beside rows of unpriced shoes.  A mother with two school boys on one moto pulled up at a vegetable stall and leaned out sideways to sort through the cucumbers and choose a few of the best, her sons both bored to tears and unaware I was watching them.  A woman with a large flat tray of food perched on her head and a small red stool hooked on her arm spotted me videoing her and stopped to pose for me.  A man with small twisted, twig legs sat on the ground, obviously placed there by someone who I wondered about (could they love him or could they be a pimp?) with a hat held out for donations, telling me that he comes from Prey Veng (a province bordering Vietnam).  A woman in pink pyjamas and a massive floppy brimmed sunhat poured fish cake batter onto a pan over an open fire burning inside a tin box attached to the side of her moto, at one of the many mobile takeaway joints.  Next to her a young woman in a wheelchair sat on the corner begging.  Motos crawled slowly through the sauntering crowds on this busy street which is really an al fresco drive-through supermarket.

Closing my $1000 iPad, the umpteenth moto-dup driver asked “Madame?”, hopeful of a fare.  I shook my head and the look of disappointment on his face suggested a stressful existence.  I walked over to the ATM, aware that the crowds all around me neither have bank accounts, nor anything to keep in an account.  Then I walked into a trendy, dim-lit bar to join a friend for drinks, aware also that the crowds outside neither know that this bar with it’s unassuming frontage exists, nor could afford to enter if they did.

The next few days will be spent with Rav and Seth, getting the final photographs for their website organised.  Yesterday Rav’s sister who lives in a $30/month rented room smaller than my bedroom with her mother and three small children, called me to say that she is in hospital with the 2yo (on a general ward) and 6mo (in ICU).  Our language barrier means that I remain unclear of what is wrong with either of them but the Kuntha Bopha Hospital offers free treatment which is less than adequate to western expectations, but more than she could otherwise afford.  Unable to offer any practical assistance, I sent some money instead, to help reduce her stress at being away from work (selling rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf at a local dust-tracked market) and unable to continue the daily loan repayments she must make to her loan shark.  When I told her I will be in Siem Reap for a few days she asked, was I going for work?  No, holiday.  Oh so lucky Helen.  Yes, I KNOW.  I really DO know.

Recently on a car trip to a work training session, our new translator asked me “have you ever been to Angkor Wat?”.  Without thinking I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!  Many times!”.  An ensuing silence brought to mind Sam, my tuk tuk driver who has lived his whole life only 350km from Angkor Wat but has never been there.  Could Sam be the norm?  Can most Cambodians not afford to visit their nation’s most famous attraction?  I asked the translator, “have you been to Angkor Wat?”.  He paused and seemed to compose himself before giving an awkward “no”.  After another pause I said to him “I think most Cambodians cannot afford to go to Angkor Wat?”.  He nodded and I said, as much for my own sake as his because I never want to be a bombastic foreigner, “there are so many things that foreigners don’t understand”.  Again, he nodded in silence.  That day we visited his family home, a sprawling wooden shack in a square of mud surrounded by verdant rice fields which at this time of year, he spends his weekends ploughing.

On that note I now have to get showered, dressed and packed for a $40, 50-minute flight to Siem Reap.  Because that’s the life I was given.  There is no way to express my gratitude for this fact.  Except to share in some small way, what I have, with those who have-not; and to share some of what I know of their stories.

We Can Survive Another Day

When you get as old as me everyone starts to look young.  Over 50% of the Cambodian population are under the age of 24 years old.  Coming from a country where 40% of the population are over 50 years old, it is no wonder that I spend my life wondering why I’m surrounded by twelve year olds.  These are typical demographic differences between the rich and the poor world.

The American hospital have agreed to cover the costs of Paula’s charity care!  Now we are at the nitty gritty stage – where will she stay during her convalescence, is there a Cham community who we might connect them with, how can we provide a guarantee to the hospital that they won’t be held responsible for any non-treatment expenses.  Once these details are nutted out we will move to the passport/visa stage.  It continues to seem as though she could be looking at an unexpectedly hopeful future.  Although life is dicey in her frail and vulnerable state – yesterday she attended an appointment in town but was dizzy and unwell and had to leave quickly to get home and lie down.  Anything could happen before she reaches the treatment which could save her.

Yesterday morning Chaz and I ate breakfast together.  As we finished off our eggs he said “we can survive another day now”.  I assumed he was referring to our attending another work meeting and muttered something about how we’ll be done by lunchtime.  He realised my confusion and said “In Cambodia this is what we always say to each other.  We ate a meal so now we can survive another day.  Tomorrow we will look for more food”.  Not a phrase my food-overloaded perspective could have understood without his translation!  We attended our final meeting at a city based organisation before he headed home on the midday bus in time for work today.  The tuk tuk dropped him off at the bus before delivering me to my hairdresser.  Only the salon was locked up.  So I popped into the cafe over the road and asked the waiter if said hairdresser (who I haven’t been to in almost a year) was still there.  The answer, “Yes!  But he open at 10 o’clock.  But now is 11 o’clock.  Because last night he was too much party”.  Hmmm…. perhaps not the best day to have my hair done?  I sat in the cafe for a couple of hours hoping he might show, before deciding to try again today.

Last night I arranged to meet up with Dara’s parents who I’ll call Rita and Nathan.  They are now working on a large building site in Phnom Penh.  Dara was recently in town for a hospital appointment about his leg, but has since returned home to his grandparents’ village.  As I walked out of the hotel, at the corner 100 metres away a young guy in a red t-shirt appeared, raised both arms into the sky as though he was surrendering to an army, and shouted “Tuk tuk Madame?”.  While I focussed on ignoring him, he disappeared around the corner.  A few seconds later he reappeared, chugging towards me in his tuk tuk, beaming a bright smile.  We negotiated a deal including to wait for me at my destination and bring me home.  I rang Rita’s number and he spoke to her for directions, before putting out into the harmoniously unharmonised traffic of this city of extreme contradictions.  Wealth mingles with poverty, designer motorbikes burn past hand pulled trash carts, guards walk into the middle of busy roads and blow whistles at oncoming traffic to give right of way to massive SUVs, beggars bow their heads humbly at patrons in expensive restaurants hoping to scrounge enough to buy a morsel with.  This city is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in today’s world.  As many battle to survive, others battle to make a dent in the injustices, while a few powerful individuals appear to have lost their hearts in favour of their egos.

Last week an Italian tourist sat with me at wine o’clock and bored me to tears about the destruction he believes immigrants are wreaking on Europe.  I listened in silence, wondering at the mentality of such thinking as he droned on about having been in the military and where he’s travelled etc.  Chai, the blind amputee, arrived on his nightly rounds and Chom joined us to have a quick talk with him about 2 metres from where Mister Italy was sitting.  I returned to my seat and without so much as drawing a breath, he returned to his monologue about himself.  There is no point arguing with an ego I will never see again, so I sat silently and thought about just how much he had in common with Chai, who sustained his injuries as a soldier at a time when they would have both been in their respective military jobs.  But being poor, foreign and visibly disabled, Chai was immediately beneath Mister Italy to even warrant a mention of interest.  His loss in my view!

As we approached the general vicinity of Rita and Nathan’s abode, a tall construction site came into view and Tuk Tuk Madame (TTM) spoke to them again.  For a surprisingly long period of time.  When he finally handed my phone back he explained that Rita was not able to tell him her location and had taken the phone to Nathan, who had a better idea.  Neither of them were able to give clear directions, which I explained was because they moved to Phnom Penh for work about a month ago, they are not from the city and do not read or write.  Nevertheless, we found ourselves on the right road and a young man who I recognised as Rita’s young brother, waved us down.  I’ll call him Phil.  He was standing beside the pitted bitumen track over the road from a multi-storey construction site with an older man who also seemed to recognise me, I guess because I only ever saw him from underneath his krama as he worked along the riverside in Kampong Cham.

The construction site over the road from us was alive with workers milling in and out under dim lights.  Thankfully, noone appeared to be working on the upper levels of the building framework.  On our side of the road a tall, makeshift fence of corrugated sheets obstructed the view of the corner block.  An opening between two of the iron sheets provided an entranceway through which workers were coming and going, obviously in and out from some sort of living quarters.  Via TTM the men said Rita was “at the bathroom”, so we waited for a while before TTM said “You can go in there if you want, but they said it is very dirty”.  No problem.  I followed them in through the opening, Phil lighting our way with his mobile phone.  A long muddy path was laid with wooden planks acting as bridges over the soggiest patches.  About halfway along Rita appeared, her hair wet, hugging me as she motioned that she had rushed home from work and washed as quickly as she could.

At the end of the path I entered another Shackville, only this temporary city of squalor, obviously housing hundreds, made Kampong Cham’s Shackville look positively swank.  Men and women wrapped in kramars were bathing at an open air communal “bathroom”, consisting of wooden platforms over the mud, large rainwater tubs and hand held plastic pots.  Below is the closest photograph I can find on the internet to show how people bathe at these open air public water supplies.

Cambodian bath

Past the “bathroom”, the “housing” began.  A busy estate of makeshift shacks made from various combinations of tin, plywood, wood and anything else that can provide shelter and privacy, all raised one high step above the muddy ground.  I was guided into an area underneath a large tin-roofed structure similar to, although much longer than, the open-air shed-like frame in the photograph below (sourced from the internet).  Instead of housing park benches, the shelter has been converted into many dozens of cubicles divided by thin walls of plywood, plastic sheeting and tin.  A muddy path runs through the length of the structure, like a tiny street dividing it down the centre.  On either side we passed many doorways opening into cubicles of about 2 metres squared with walls ending about halfway to the tin roof.  About halfway along we climbed into the little cubicle where Rita and Nathan now live.  A television blared in one corner, a rice cooker sat beside it and above us a square plank of wood balanced on the edges of the walls, taking up half of the overhead space just above head-height, used as a storage shelf.  They sleep on the plywood platform floor a step above the dirt.  In the dark I could not see beyond the dimly lit cubicle we sat in, to tell where the electricity was sourced from but I doubt it’s permanent or safe.

tin roof shelter

Nathan joined us for a while before returning to a group of men perched on a wooden log near the door just outside from us.  He reached up to the overhead shelf and pulled out Dara’s hospital appointment card and leg x-rays, pre-and-post his operation, to show me.  Phil and another young man sat in the doorway with their eyes glued to the television, listening in on our conversation occasionally.  A young woman joined us from one of the nearby cubicles, beaming at me and saying something I didn’t understand.  Eventually I rang Chom to get some translations of the conversation and it turned out the young woman was saying “I came to meet you because I never met a foreigner who can speak Khmer”.  Funny that, given that I had no idea what she was saying because I DON’T speak Khmer!

At one point they were talking about their work, climbing a ladder onto the multi-storey building frame and I was horrified at the image of them all those storeys up with no safety equipment to protect them.  I made a stupid joke with my hands, showing someone falling from a height and landing on the ground below.  They laughed but with a certain awkwardness.  Rita showed me her calloused hands and nodded when I asked if she wears her thongs up the ladder.  Later in the night I learned that so far, three people have plummeted to their deaths from this one construction site alone.  Part of my shock included the bad taste of joking about such a thing when I should have known better.  They earn $5 per day for their efforts – 7am until 6pm, seven days a week.  A friend in Kampong Cham tells me that “some offical people” use very bad words “against poor people”, calling them names which are “not even fit for humans”.  It’s difficult to grasp where such mentality comes from but seems to be a common human phenomenon to value human beings based on their status in society.

While he was on the phone I asked Chom to check if Rita wanted to come and eat something with me and her reply “Dov!  Dov!  Dov!” translated as “she really really REALLY want”.  Nathan stayed behind to watch over their cubicle of possessions which are safe during the day when most people are working, but more vulnerable at night to theft.  Phil came with us.  Walking out through the mud tracks, I was surprised to see young children and babies living in this workers’ slum and wondered many things, from how they manage to look so clean in such dire living conditions, to if and how they get their vaccinations.  A public health nurse would have a field day providing basic services to these people!

We reached the street and TTM jumped to attention.  I climbed aboard but Rita and Phil waited in the distance until I waved them over.  Giggling and whispering to each other, it became apparent that going to a restaurant in a tuk tuk was some sort of treat.  I assumed they would lead us to a nearby restaurant but when TTM asked where we were going they said they did not know any restaurants.  They eat rice out of the rice cooker in their cubicle for every meal and do not go out to restaurants.  I wonder if they have anything with their rice?  We did a u-turn and a couple of blocks away found a local corner restaurant to eat at.  TTM asked “It’s okay for you to eat this food?”.  Yes, no problem!  TTM sat on his tuk tuk waiting and we went in.  None of us able to read Khmer, I pointed to the only photographs on the menu and ordered – frog, pork, quail and rice.  Followed by an inward sigh of relief when they said they were out of frog!  We shared a happy, broken-Khmer meal together before dropping them back at Slumville.

The trip home was filled with contemplations and a very enjoyable chat with TTM, about many things including his baby son (“I VERY love him!”), the state of inequality in Cambodia between the super rich minority and super poor majority, his aspirations for a decent future, etc.  I returned to my boutique garden hotel with it’s private pool, ordered a red wine and spent the rest of my evening trying to come to terms with this world of haves and have-nots.  My sleep was disturbed by nightmares of Rita plummeting to her death after I made that stupid-stupid joke.