Sunday, March 05, 2006

Not So Innocent Children

We thought we'd seen it all in India, but Cambodia provided a whole new level of discomfort. Child sellers...and sellers of children...are everywhere. And nothing, neither the tiny bands of kids peddling photocopies of Lonely Planet books in Phnom Penh, nor the sweet faces hawking bracelets and bananas on the beaches of Sihanoukville, prepared us for our enounters among the temples of Angkor.

Siem Reap, the tourist-infested, scam-central city around Angkor Archaelogical Park, boasts more children selling during school hours than India and Thailand combined. And in the most bizarre, repelling, sad way. Every time we arrived at a new temple, a battery of kids, usually ranging from ages three to eight, pounced on us before we'd even climbed out of the tuk-tuk.

Sweet chocolate-almond eyes seared us, and tiny mouths uttered the same eerie phrases of English:

"Postcard, lay-dee? 10 for one dollah."
"Tee-shirt? Storybook? Please, suuhhrr. You want?"
"Cold drink? 2 for one-dollah. You buy from me, kay?"
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And, as we gently waded through them, chorusing, "No, thank you. No. No, thank you!" they whirled 'round and 'round like a twister of tykes trying more urgently to suck us in.

"I have what you want, lay-dee. Anything, you want, I have!"
"I remember you, 'kay? If you buy, you buy from me. 'Kay?"
"I remember you...."
"Where you from, mee-stuhr?"

Jesus. It is SO HARD to try and relay the feelings of strangeness, guilt, sadness, anger and questioning that scene presses on your heart and soul. You cannot imagine the creepy-sweet robotic voices uttering those phrases to you repeatedly. Time after time after temple again. It happens every time you set foot near a monument site, of which we visited over 20, and often as you step away from your guest house. No where is safe in Siem Reap, and there is no good solution on what to do -- either in the moment of the situation or how to remedy it.

Andy and I can't buy something from all of them, let alone every time, and we also question if that's even helpful since their own flesh and blood families are putting the trinkets in their hands, the weird snippets of salesy English in their heads. If the kids bring home even $2 per day, that may never incentive their parents to stop. But, Cambodia has suffered greatly and I can't imagine what many of the families do on a daily basis to survive, so am I, as privileged white Westerner allowed to judge? I don't know.

What I also don't know, but can extrapolate from the disturbing billboards and magazine ads all around Cambodia, is that this explicit selling to foreigners by children leads to deeper, darker things. Child sex and sex tourism. And, after hearing the phrases of, "Anything you want, I have..." and "You buy from me, 'kay? I remember you...", and seeing them delivered with learned manipulation and cuteness that beguiles us from the West, it's easy to see how this might come next as they come of age. If you think about it, when a child knows how to smile at you grandly, instantly illuminating his or her darling, brown-skinned face with white teeth clamped tightly in a magnetic smile, point to your camera and hustle for "one dollah, mister", I feel they've learned lessons more powerful than anything they're missing by not attending school.

Cambodia has one of the worst child-sex trafficking and prostitution problems in the world, and while international organizations are increasing legal action against offenders and purveyors, it's hard to break a lucrative cycle of income. Especially for the families who benefit. The warning is clearly out and about to those of us who arrive in Cambodia, with an ominous photo of an adult and child in a sexy silohuette with stark letters reading "Break the law here and be prosecuted in your home country" at the airport, on billboards and in tourist magazines. To us, it all felt like an awareness-scare campaign and while that's a start, it doesn't save the lives of the once-innocent. What's being done to diffuse the gain from the supply side of these human economics? The government is madly building more and more infrastructure to accommodate tourists and lure our dollars, but nothing to mandate schooling or assistance for children of Siem Reap.

So, as you trek to temples, you have this unpleasant image of children as sex workers in your head, and you're greeted by a bevy of smiling faces eager to sell you up and please you. Ugh. It's so confusing and confounding -- I want to help them all, yet I'm not sure how, and selfishly, this is my trip of a lifetime, so it's a bit of a bummer being accosted and brought down every time you're walking somewhere. Sigh...very selfish, but I'm being honest.

Andy and I cope with this on a case-by-case basis, and while we never just gave out money (after all, there were a plethora of landmine victims to see and consider for that), we did try to buy basic things like postcards and water from them. When possible, we also tried to talk to and compliment them, but we couldn't often get involved in answering the questions of "What your name? Where you from?" as it almost felt too intimate. We and the children knew it wasn't a genuine exchange and segueway to friendship, it was business pure and simple. And that was, perhaps, the hardest part of all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aunt Mary - When I was reading Andy's last entry I was thinking of the "kids" - "how are they dealing with the 'kids'?" And I proceded to your "all encompassing experemce." It must to get to be so much that you have to block it out. Just feel blessed that you will never be able to do that - always know the reality but have the strength that comes with being so immersed personally. Take care. Love

9:03 PM  
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