Her blue jacket is beautifully graphic and I lose myself for a moment. The lines of white and grey intersect, forming squares within endless squares to consider and reconsider. Her face, though equally lined, is softer, less mathematical. It’s human. Life has been witnessed, lived and ultimately survived with a quiet dignity.
Having dismounted from an ancient bike, which is possibly older her, she passes through the early morning coffee drinkers. Each is addressed with a low, gentle voice and an open smile. Few refuse this woman, for her poise and grace starkly highlight that life can be far from fair.
Finally, she comes to me. Her smile becomes a soft chuckle and there is an impish, mischievous glint in her eyes. Unlike her back, her spirit is unbowed. She offers me her lottery tickets, fanned out for my perusal. We both know I don’t really understand what she is selling and that I don’t speak the language. However, she chooses to include me in her day and as she looks directly into my eyes I see the kindness of one who has known what it means to be left out.
She remounts her bicycle and cycles away but she has left me behind, knowing that happiness isn’t found in a winning ticket.
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.
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.
Everything is relative. Am I rich or am I poor? Maybe I am both and it depends on how you view my position.
So if everything is relative does truth become less absolute and honesty then a much more subjective concept. Perhaps the problem lies within relativity itself. If you look at something in relation to something else you are, fundamentally, making a comparison. You are trying to fit something into a bigger framework where things can be judged as being within or outside of parameters. You can calculate a standard deviation from the norm and label and classify.
I don’t so much mind my wealth being measured. My emotions however are something else. I view myself as a happy fellow. I live my rather unremarkable life with pockets of joy which I find, for me, in quite the most expected of places. A random chat with a stranger or a piece of music can lift my mood. The brilliance of the dawn or dramatic descent of the sun can captivate me and leave me feeling awestruck at the grandeur of the natural world.
So I must admit that I don’t really like relativity. I have found my happiness and I hope that you find yours. My happiness isn’t greater or better it’s just different. I hope only that my happiness is not at the expense of yours. This is my truth and this is my honesty. Is it relative or absolute? Maybe it’s both and it depends on how you view my position.
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.