Traveling to Cambodia was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. I had long romanticized the notion of exploring Angkor Wat and the country’s many other enchanting temples so that, when the opportunity arose to make the trip, I was ecstatic. Part of what triggered such a strong reaction for me is its intoxicating blend of religion and culture. While I identify as Catholic, I have always loved learning about other religions. I’m endlessly fascinated by their many commonalities and also intrigued by their differences. Learning more about other religions helps refine my own faith, not by elevating the dogma of my church above any other, but by incorporating a fuller understanding of who and what God is.
In other words, this trip was to be both an adventure and something of a soul cleanse. And while there was certainly a great deal of exploring, laughing, and learning, there was also an aspect to the trip that weighed heavily on me throughout.
Upon arriving in Siem Reap, it is impossible to ignore the abject poverty apparent on every street corner. It is a gorgeous and enchanting country in so many ways, but financial hardship is evident nearly everywhere. In America, it is easy to visit a large city and simply navigate around the poorer areas. A smattering of homeless people may, at times, dot our path but it’s easy to sweep along with the incessant flow of pedestrians. Our privileges become momentarily apparent but are easily avoided and ignored. In Cambodia? Not so.
It’s not as if I was particularly surprised by what I saw. Prior to arriving, I had known that Cambodia is a relatively poor country and had considered myself prepared. But having a cursory understanding of something is not the same as experiencing its reality. And through all my excitement, a pervasive, somber undercurrent began to snake its way into the trip.
For the first few days, I navigated the uncomfortableness with a detached sense of gratitude. My family and I would discuss the innumerable ways in which we had won some sort of geographic lottery. We took care to learn as much about the country and its people as we could, peppering our driver, Wii, with an array of questions.
But no matter how hard we worked to converge our understanding of two radically different worlds, we spent much of each day being chauffeured around the countryside in an air conditioned van. At day’s end, we would take our reprieve from the seemingly inescapable poverty by relaxing poolside at our private villa.
I simply could not reconcile these convergent realities. It wore me down until, finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and began quietly weeping upon a river dock.
That evening, we had taken a boat ride out to a small village for something of a sunset cruise. Simple stilted homes rose out of the water as children navigated dilapidated dinghies with the same familiarity as other children ride a bicycle to and from school. Toddlers ambled down rickety staircases leading to the water’s edge while their parents tended to any number of laborious tasks. Deep in tourist mode, we were busy taking pictures, captivated by this tiny village. Then, from over my shoulder, I heard my brother mumble about how appalling it was to be gawking at their misfortune, to be capturing images of their obvious poverty for our own frivolous keepsakes.
He wasn’t wrong. And I felt a deep sense of shame.
How ridiculous I felt in that moment, suddenly aware of the absurdity of vacationing among impoverishment. Of course, that hadn’t been the intention but does it matter when the outcome produces that very result?
The sentiment only grew as we disembarked from our small boat onto even smaller rafts, floating amongst the swampy marsh at the edge of the village. It was there that we watched the sun set below the horizon in what was supposed to have been a calm and peaceful moment. Instead, it was all I could do to curtail my horror that the oarsman of my raft was a girl of about eight, accompanied by her younger sister. Why were they there, rowing around a privileged American as night set in? Why weren’t they at home playing with their dolls or packing their school bags for the following day? I understood they were there out of financial necessity, their families dependent on their work. And there I was, having spent thousands of dollars on a vacation to escape my own “stressful” daily life.
Who was I to complain? Who was I at all?
Reaching the dock, I walked away from where my group was standing and allowed the emotion to overtake me. I couldn’t have explained in that moment, even if I had wanted, what I was feeling or exactly why. I just knew I felt acutely uncomfortable.
And yet. That wasn’t enough. I had witnessed my privilege and been ashamed by it, but I had yet to recognize the value in such discomfort.
The next day, we continued our daily routine of exploring religious temples like Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Ban Srei. Stunning in their beauty and resiliency, I looked forward to each new stop on our adventure, captivated by their religious and cultural backstories. What I did not look forward to? Walking past the throngs of locals, often children, selling trinkets outside the entrances.
This, too, I had been aware of before my arrival. I had been instructed to look straight ahead and not make eye contact because any engagement whatsoever would result in incessant pleas to purchase a magnet, a t-shirt, or small statuette. And in the time it took to pay each seller, another would quickly take his place. The pleas would simply never stop.
It was difficult, of course, to ignore these people. My heart ached for them but my head reminded me that, practically speaking, I could not give to everyone. This was eased by notices posted outside some of the temples instructing tourists not to engage with children, as it discouraged them from attending school. This made sense and allowed me to walk past the locals with increasing ease. Eventually, it became a habit, one made easier by the rationalization that engaging would do more harm than good. The disparity between ourselves remained the same but my level of discomfort decreased markedly over just a few days.
One night, far from the temples, we stopped at a roadside ATM in anticipation of a trip to an outdoor market. While waiting in line, three young boys walked up behind me. Dirty and disheveled, the oldest could not have been more than seven. Walking beside him was a child of three or four, and slung over the eldest’s shoulder was a baby no more than eighteen months old. The baby was completely naked and asleep, relying upon his brother to safely walk him through the dark night. None of them had shoes. No adult was anywhere in sight.
And what did I do in that situation? I smiled politely, barely registering what I saw, and continued waiting in line. I ignored them.
After being overcome with emotion at the sight of a little girl working in a poor river village, I had failed to convert my sympathies into action. At the very next opportunity, I hid behind my privilege, afraid to look, completely unaware of how repulsive my actions were. After all, it’s what I had been conditioned to do.
The boys waited quietly behind me, whimpering half-hearted pleas, seemingly resigned to the eventuality that they would be discarded, ignored, as they undoubtedly had been innumerable times before. After an uncomfortable minute or so, I rummaged around my wallet for whatever spare change I could find. Handing over a couple dollars, the boys gratefully took the money before a worker at a nearby gas station shooed them away.
After they had left, I stepped into the ATM booth, once again overcome by what I had seen and done. Not only had I literally turned my back on helpless children, when I finally did acknowledge them, I had offered a pittance compared to what I was about to withdraw from the cash machine.
What disturbed me most of all, was that I had not really looked into their faces. Their obvious misfortune had made me nervous, unsure of how to react. I could tell you about the dirt that caked their little feet or the uncut hair that hung low over their foreheads. But I could not tell you the color of their eyes. Had they been a creamy almond, an enchanting hazel? I could not tell you about the shape of their faces or what kind of smile might light them up. I could not tell you because I didn’t take the time to look, to ask their names, or to offer a smile of my own. I didn’t take the time to see them as people, people who would continue to exist after our paths went separate ways. And it’s that stinging realization that has stayed with me.
I looked past them for two reasons: because I could and because it was easy.
It had not been a conscious choice to be rude or to decide that they were uniquely unworthy of my resources and attention. In reality, I had unconsciously hidden behind my privilege.
I didn’t really see them because I didn’t really have to.
Though it’s a difficult thing to acknowledge, I think it’s critically important. And this doesn’t just apply to random occurrences like my own. Indeed, it can be applied to any number of injustices committed around the world, in our own country, and in our own backyards. Without acknowledging that it exists and making a conscious effort to change that, inequality will reign supreme. And the insidious nature of it is that it is perpetrated by good people.
Read that again.
I consider myself a decent person. I try to do the right thing whenever possible. I don’t consider myself racist, elitist, or disrespectful. And yet….
The truth is, those three boys don’t take over my thoughts as much as they did in the immediate aftermath of my return home. Life has marched on inside my own plush reality, the days consumed by an array of distractions and responsibilities. The palpable impact of their appearance has dimmed but, crucially, it still exists. And I hope it always does. Because when the memory of their unwashed faces and bare footing wandering does peak through the veil of my everyday life, it hurts. It should hurt. Not because I deserve to feel guilty for the fortunes of my birth, but because I have a responsibility to acknowledge those fortunes in a meaningful way.
This goes beyond the superficiality of captioning an Instagram picture with #blessed or mumbling a vague prayer of gratitude around a Thanksgiving feast. It requires a deep introspection, an honest assessment of how I benefit from my privilege and the ways in which I can help those not born into the same circumstances.
The difficulty is that we are conditioned not to look because, when we do, our hearts ache. And perhaps that’s not surprising in a world where communication has become increasingly impersonal. We never have to look and our electronic screens don’t care whether we listen. It is easy to withdraw into shells of blissful ignorance, but it certainly is not beneficial.
Today, I challenge you to really see. Force your eyes open and don’t look away. Be braver than I was. When the opportunity presents itself, look into the eyes of misfortune. Acknowledge and connect with it. When you do, a vast new world is within grasp. And, yes, it will hurt. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and even dirty. But so were the feet of those three little boys whose paths intersected with my own, and I can only wonder at what goodness dwells inside them. I will never know, but I could have. And that’s a tragedy I don’t intend to repeat.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken a trip around the world for me to understand. Indeed, that same lack of introspection is at the heart of so many of our collective problems today. I could have looked into my own backyard and seen the same thing had I only been willing. Whether referencing police brutality, racial inequality, illegal immigration, or any other number of intensely debated subjects, we can’t even begin an honest conversation without confronting ourselves first; and that means acknowledging the uncomfortable realities of our privilege and the equally unsettling realities of the biases we all carry.
In the end, I didn’t find God inside the walls of ancient temples. I found Him, or the closest thing I can understand of Him—a call to genuine love and compassion—exactly where I should have been looking all along: in the lives of the downcast and disadvantaged.
Now how do I move forward from here? How do we move forward from here?
It starts with confronting the ugliness within ourselves and the willingness to expose it. Read. Reflect. Talk to people you would not have noticed before. Be deliberate in your actions and words. Give charitably. And be prepared to feel uncomfortable. That’s where the true journey begins.