I remember the first time I ...

I remember the first time I ...

This entry has been kept closed in my journal for almost 18 years. It feels nostalgic sifting through the pages of this dusty leathered moleskin book, one of a dozen used to document my life in Cambodia and adventures around Asia since 2005. Today, with the re-launch of Version 8.0, I inaugurate a new literary series reflecting back these lost private moments called, "The Lost Files."

The first piece takes place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, mid August 2005. After a few days living a controlled itinerary of Yahoo chatting in internet cafes, lunch at the family's used car shop, and a quick snack while heading home across the Japanese Bridge, I wanted to begin connecting with local folks that I knew or had develop online friendship prior to my arrival. I was eager to socialize, learn more about the city, and speak English to other 'Khmericans.'

Prior to this, my well intended relatives showed me around town to places like Central Market, Dreamland near Naga Casino, Wat Phnom, and treated me to lavish meals on the riverfront. I became numb seeing limbless uncles and grandpas begging on the streets. But I also saw the gentle Sambo, the beloved elephant that walked down Sisowath every late afternoon putting joy to locals and tourists. I was confused seeing underaged kids work during school hours selling books, when they should be reading them. But I also saw their smiles and laughter when they hear your broken Khmer. The first week settling in Cambodia for the first time ever in 25 years was an explosion of emotions, but it wasn't until August 16th that I experience my first breakdown.

On that scorching Monday afternoon at Sorya Mall, I was outside patiently waiting to get picked up by a new Khmer American friend, Bora (not real name). Bong Bora is a deportee around 8 years older than me. Dark, muscular, and a habitual smoker, Bora was someone you didn't want to mess with. He had learned about my Cambodia travel plans 3 months via websites like KhmerConnection (non-active) and my personal blog.

While standing there in the heat, a young shirtless and shoeless boy comes and asked me for some money. "I don't have any spare change, but I can get you some food. Have you eaten yet?" in my best Khmer. I asked him to follow me while the two of us find some snacks for him. I bought him two sandwiches, two bananas, and two bottles of water. He thanked me, I smiled back, and off he went.

Or so I had thought.

I am now back at the same pick up point waiting for Bora. About five minutes later, the young boy returns back to where I'm standing. Quiet and non-disturbing, he enjoys his sandwich. We don't talk. He's about six feet away from me while I begin to impatiently stare at my watch.

Then the world felt like it just paused in silence.

As I quickly glance back at the boy, I noticed in one hand the clear plastic bag with all the food, and on his right hand, a smaller plastic bag with a substance I could not tell. Everything feels like its in slow motion now. He takes a bite of the bread with one, and he lifts the other bag to his nose and mouth and inhales.

My heart skipped.

Right in front of me was a young boy (probably 8 to 10) sniffing glue. I wanted to do something, but what? I wanted to lecture him, but would that be crossing the line? I wanted to report him to the local police to suggest rehab, but was that too much?

Then Bora came screeching in with his Suzuki motorcycle.

Hours hanging out with him visiting the Returnee Assistance Program (RAP), sightseeing, and having some quiet time over an early dinner I asked Bora what was really on my mind that day, "How do you handle these things? Doesn't poverty through the children and elders make you feel some kind of way?"

He replies:

"Yes, it does hurt seeing our brothers and sisters suffer. I use to always want to give money, although little that I had back then or now, but I know that it's only a temporary fix, if at all. If you want to live and succeed in Cambodia, you have to be 10x times stronger emotionally than what you're used to in America."

We parted ways an hour later and I returned to my relatives home to lay down and rest. All of a sudden and uncontrollably, tears started to fall.

This was the first time I ever cried in Cambodia.


Photo credit: Phnom Penh Post

© 2024 Phatry Derek Pan