Chapter 1: The Urchin’s Book
Three American teachers sat around a small, circular table eating pizza in Phenom Pehn, Cambodia. It did not taste the same as an American pizza, but we had all learned to stop comparing. It wasn’t bad, either; just different – something in the sauce or type of cheese, maybe. The outdoor table was in a tiny courtyard. The bricks of the ground were small and uneven. The metallic white chairs with designs on the back showed rust. The plates seemed clean enough, though.
The three Americans had been the only customers there, but the entire place was overcome by a crowd of urchins scattered all around the ground and settled in the laps of the Americans, closely resembling a herd of street cats.
We had eaten our meager pizza and drank water from bottles, knowing full well not to drink anything that wasn’t from a sealed bottle, and little by little the children had come.
Some carried baskets of flowers, others of books, others of oddities. They had been begging all day and their hollow eyes depicted their hunger and exhaustion. The children were as filthy as in the movies – only this wasn’t makeup.
Even though the three of us were rich by their standards, we knew better than to give one child any money. We had been warned. They are sweet until they know they can get something out of you.
What a harsh and awful reality.
I found myself wanting to buy the wilted flower or broken oddity just to give one poor child something to eat. But I had seen first-hand a long time ago in another desolate country what that could do. I had given something to a young boy and suddenly there had broken out a fight where all the other children around the boy beat each other up for it. It made a lasting impression, and I would never be the reason for that kind of fight ever again.
I had yet to hand any money to the urchins of Cambodia because of this memory, but it was painfully difficult. A small boy had climbed up onto my lap and pretended to paint my nails, dipping his finger into an imaginary bottle and brushing that finger across my nail. A small girl sat at my feet doing the same thing to the tops of my closed-toed sandals.
It was the most obscure thing I have ever experienced. Even as I write the memory of it today, more than a decade later, nothing has ever been that obscure since.
We sat in silence. Two more children had boldly climbed onto the other two teacher’s laps and were playing odd things only understood in their imagination. No one spoke. The children knew we didn’t know their language. We knew the children wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn ours. It was very likely they hardly had any education in their own language.
And there they were, surrounding us; some sitting on the ground playing quiet hand games with each other, others just resting in silence. Eventually one boy jumped off the male teacher’s lap and began trying to teach him the hand game the others played. That brought along laughter, but still no words.
A comfortable, sweet silence sometimes broken by childish laughter. The smells of the red clay that blanketed Cambodia and another, odd scent I could only guess came from the children. It wasn’t overwhelming and rank, like I had first expected upon seeing so many unwashed bodies. Even the boy on my lap hadn’t caused me to politely point my head away from him. Perhaps because they were mostly covered with earth? Perhaps because the situation was so surreal the scent didn’t matter?
No one begged. The children did not try to eat the scraps. We did not offer. Again, there was the understanding that to give one child something was to invite possible chaos. Also, I just couldn’t see myself tossing the crust that I had chewed on to someone. I wasn’t a queen throwing scraps at the dog under the table.
I don’t remember much surrounding that moment. Details like where we had gone before stopping at that pizza place or where we went after that elude me. But that peaceful time where three American teachers sat outside, around a small, white table and crowded by street urchins remains.
Eventually, they slipped away – one here; two holding hands there – as silently as they had arrived. I had no idea where they would go, if they had a home or were in an orphanage. Had they made any money?
The last boy to leave was the one on my lap pretending to paint my nails. He hopped up, gave me a big smile, then grabbed his basket of books
I saw the title The Killing Fields and stopped him. Quietly, with the other two teachers looking on but not advising me against it, I bought the book. I do not remember how much it was, though I can guess it amounted to pennies in American currency. It meant the world to the little boy, though, and I hope it warmed his belly with something nourishing or maybe made him happy a sugary treat.
I started reading the book that night. We were going to the Killing Fields the following day and I was curious about this survivor’s story.
The first story to penetrate my total lack of knowledge surrounding the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.