Time does not stand still. It marches along and we humans are the foot soldiers of progress as technology carves out a new era for this planet.
Yet here in Cambodia, life often seems untouched by time. That boat now has a motor but there’s nothing here to say modernity has struck. The rural life, where living just above subsistence is considered good, must be gruelling. The fishermen are whippet thin with dark sinewy bodies that know no fat.
Today my path took me through places where progress has stopped at electricity and the combustion engine. A landscape where men work hard and women work harder to raise children who will leave school too early to follow in their parents footsteps.
There may be dignity in poverty but there is no glamour. I marvel at the simplicity of the life, and yet I am thankful I am not trapped in its net like a fish gasping for the possibility of the wide ocean.
I know that inequality will always exist and when progress ravages this landscape it will not free the fishing families from poverty. It will merely shackle them more efficiently to a newer form of injustice.
I am just passing through and will travel onwards with my privilege intact. For I am truly a twenty first century citizen. My unfiltered pictures are placed on social media, and my friends gasp at the wonders I capture. However I see this world through the bluest of eyes and this inequality is a filter on my reality.
Most of the time I just am. I forget the people surrounding me and I just feel and experience the sensuality of existence. My secret life is lived in full view and I am oblivious to the reactions of those around me.
Being born with a disability, I suspect I’m noticed often. My disability is not crippling or painful. It’s not even terribly noticeable. A funny walk and a limp wrist is how it manifests. It’s so easy to parody and some people are acutely cruel in their observation and mimicry.
Some people think I walk this way because I am gay. I am gay. I also have cerebral palsy. I walk this way because this is who I am.
However I only notice the reactions of others when they intrude into my world. Most of the time I live in my world. I have my few friends and my many pleasures. Not alone or cut off but perhaps at a slight remove from what others deem to be reality. In my spectrum disordered world, I am cocooned in my the beautiful landscapes of my mind. Aspergers is another gift the universe bestowed upon me.
We are all different. We are all unique. We all have intersecting facets that make us who we are. We are born different and now is the time has come to acknowledge our differences, to love our diversity, and to see the beauty of the other.
I am beautiful. You are beautiful too. I’m sorry I don’t notice you more often.
In Britain I was expected to be so much more than just a teacher. A social worker, counsellor, parent, friend, mentor, big brother and psychologist. A multitasking miracle worker who would whizz into a room and create a positive learning environment from whatever I found. With Pavlovian conditioning, I could change tack with every tolling bell, ploughing through a long day where breaks and lunch evaporated and needs were met, anticipated and dealt with. The gifted were stretched, the less motivated were encouraged and the hungry were fed. Sometimes even clean clothing was appropriated. I made a difference. London’s schools were challenging and dynamic, and not for the fainthearted.
Cambodia is no place for the fainthearted either. Grinding poverty, years of internal corruption, and searing heat bring their own challenges. However, like many foreigners work in elite, private settings with students who are relatively wealthy. The library has precious few books and the school feels under resourced but the parents all have big four wheel drive cars.
I set a task and my class of students do it. I have never taught students like this before. They are respectful and engaged, no matter what. Are we doing something creative and engaging right now. Not particularly. In fact, we are doing peer and self assessment of paragraph writing with a final draft to be produced by the end of the lesson. Deathly dull if you ask me, and I am theoretically a writer.
In addition to having no real classroom management issues, I am not expected to analyse or deep dive data. I do not produce reports or graphs highlighting student underachievement nor am I expected to contact parents and build home school relationships.
I come to class. I teach. I assess. I grade papers. I give feedback. However, this generation will be pivotal in the the changes that are need to happen in this country so I might be just a teacher but, like all teachers, I can still make a difference.
It’s been a year. How am I?
A year ago I lost my job in circumstances that were less than savoury. I discovered that discrimination is alive and kicking in twenty first century Britain. When it rears its ugly head its price is cold hard cash. Hush money was paid and I went. My head may have appeared to be held high but inside my tail was firmly between my legs.
So my first steps along the Asperger Path were walking away. Away from people who saw my weaknesses and seemed blind to what I could offer. Away from people who tried to get inside my head and happily trampled my self esteem and my dignity under dirty, corporate feet.
I went far and now my scars are no longer livid. A year has passed and my life has changed. I have taken my diagnosis, put it in with the rest of my baggage, and I have travelled. This rigid creature of habit who couldn’t cope without routines has slept on sofas, hitchhiked, stayed with strangers, made new friends and travelled half way around the world. I’ve seen the sun rise over mountains, deserts and oceans. With each sunrise came another day of my new life.
Here in Cambodia, I met an extraordinary man. With the gentle honesty that sometimes only a stranger can exercise, he pointed out my strengths and dismissed my protestations. He was passing through, geographically speaking, but he will be around for a long time. He gently told me that my fine mind is balanced by a fine heart. In doing so he reminded me of someone I used to think I was.
So here I am. That goodhearted man, blue eyed and smiling, is older but he is not lost. I’m not walking away anymore. The Asperger Path is mine. I don’t deny it; I own it. I will go where it takes me and I am confident it will take me where I want to go.
It’s been a year. How am I? I am fine.
Cambodia is a land that got lost in time. A dictator came along and declared Year Zero and tried to recalibrate the society into an agrarian socialist utopia. The ‘new people’, teachers, artists and intellectuals were purged and tortured in the genocide that followed. After years of bombing from the Americans and bitter civil war Cambodia decided to inflict even more lasting damage upon itself. The aftermath is apparent but I feel powerless to help because I’m not sure what I can do.
Cities were deserted and the people were returned to the land. Those that weren’t tortured faced starvation or hard labour and in two years about a quarter of the population were dead. Mass graves, horror and destruction were left as the Khmer Rouge were pushed back from the capital by the advancing Vietnamese liberators.
Now Cambodia faces new challenges. A prime minister who has been in power for decades and whose role in the Khmer Rouge is still vague, rules a country that is lurching into the twenty first century. Rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation carry on seemingly unregulated. Any attempts to preserve habitats and cultures are hindered by corruption at all levels. In Cambodia there are many complex and conflicting needs which are failing to be met. Sadly many of Cambodia’s population are as poor now as they ever were.
One the legacies of this newly democratic kingdom is waste. You see it everywhere. In a country with so many issues is it a liberal European concern that Cambodia is choking to death on plastic. Perhaps it is, but I am as liberal and European as they come. Plastic Free Cambodia launches today and I will do my bit. This country could be a jewel in Asia’s crown with its diverse habitats and amazing ecosystems. Mighty lakes and rivers dominate the country but, if they end up polluted and choking, Cambodia could find its still largely agricultural population falling victim once again to a leadership whose primary concern is not the welfare of its people.
While I am here, just a visitor passing through, I can ensure I inflict as little damage as possible. I can’t stop illegal logging or palm oil plantations but I can say no thank you when I’m offered a plastic bag.
It’s all too easy to romanticise the simple country life. How wonderful things could be without the complex trappings of our twenty-first century existence. The dream of a simple home and simple food and the removal of the stresses and strains of modernity. An Aga to bake delicious bread and organic produce from your own well tended garden. An idyllic life drizzled in lemon juice and virgin olive oil and bursting with juicy tomatoes and ripe plums.
In Cambodia, there are people who live a simple life. Wooden houses on a plot of land with garden and some chickens. They have no access to the modernity of sanitation or clean running water in their home. They don’t have the worry of electricity or gas bills because they aren’t connected to a mains supply. No mountains of email because they don’t own a computer and if they did would not have wifi or power to use with it.
I am a hopeless romantic but I am also aware that for many our notion of the simple life comes with many givens. Givens that much of the world’s population are still years from achieving. I don’t want to stop people from being dreamy romantics but we need to look beyond our first world lives with our second homes and those three well deserved foreign holidays and look at what they truly cost.
The gap between the rich and the poor is widening not only internationally but also intentionally. Change needs to happen in the developing world but even more so in the so called developed nations. We need to start thinking about equality not just between men and women or different minority groups. What about equality of access to clean water, education and health? What about looking at equality of life expectancy and expectations across the world? Nation states and multinational corporations encourage us to close our minds, markets and borders to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet. However we must be mindful of the poverty gap because it is the world’s biggest killer.