Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 13: A Wave of the Magic WandAugust 27, 2012
A phrase I hear so often in Cambodia which drives me mad is, “Don’t think too much!” In hindsight, after reading over my memoirs, I guess I was somewhat guilty of over-thinking things at the expense of seeing the obvious. If I had my time again, would I be any wiser? Would I want to be? Here is the insight into my mind at the time – what do you think?
In the last report I wrote something about needing to distance myself from a certain person and situation. The very day I put the finishing touches to that report I completely blew it.
That girl is either going through a phase of unparalleled bad luck or is a catalogue of disasters. I’m trying to convince her that in a couple of months she’ll look back and see the funny side but right now she’s so overwhelmed by the series of mishaps that she’d begun to seriously and literally lose the will to live.
Still battling the debilitating illness brought on by the stress of family disasters the poor lass was mugged and had her bag containing the phone I’d bought her, her medicines and her month’s salary stolen. She retreated to her room and didn’t eat for two days while I worried that we’d lost all contact.
She didn’t want to tell me but I surmised what had happened after she called me from a public phone. I dug her out and took her to dinner but I had to go far beyond what I’d intended to bring her out of a deep depression and sense of hopelessness.
Earlier in the day I’d been reading a testimony by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and he’d written about the sense of numbness that afflicted everyone during that time and for long afterwards and that was exactly what I detected within the crushed soul of this girl.
Destitute and dejected, the only thing the poor girl had left was her dignity and I couldn’t take that away by giving her yet another hand-out so I had to think of a way of having her earn the money she needed whilst taking into account how fragile she was.
The obvious solution was to girlfriend her but I was aware that I’d be taking advantage of her helplessness and vulnerability and whilst I was 99% certain, I couldn’t be absolutely sure that’s what she wanted since she wouldn’t say anything to hurt my feelings at the best of times and these were the worst.
So I hit on an alternative. I told her that ina few days I was intending to move into an apartment I was considering and I’d need a cook and cleaner – and a Khmer teacher to boot.
I’d have to pay her about twice the going rate to match her salary plus tips but it would be a lot less onerous, thus giving her space to recuperate. This entirely reasonably proposition was somewhat compromised when my efforts to piece her back together resulted in the evening ending with my arm around her shoulder and her head on my chest. As you’ll be aware by now, for a good girl that’s marriage ‘round here, thus my suggestion had taken on an implication way beyond that which I’d intended.
If you’ve been following my story closely you’ll know I’d developed a special if largely platonic relationship with this girl over a period of some four months. I’d seen her almost every day over that time but I still felt it was too early to take anything to another level, but a sequence of disasters was befalling her so rapidly that external events were moving at a pace I couldn’t control.
Even if I could manage to ‘go with the flow’ – a flow that was more like a tsunami. I needed to make sense of what was going on in order to gain some kind of internal control so that I could actually help her rather than add to her woes as I so often do.
She asked me directly, if I was in her situation I’d want to die too, wouldn’t I? I took my time, I really thought it through and I came back with the answer – no. She said that I’d always be alright because I always have money, but I explained that the nearest I came to her state of mind was when my ex-wife left me and stole all my money leaving me unable to pay my rent and so my experience wasn’t that different – although of course it was.
That night thinking things through I tried to make sense of that – why did she assume that anyone would lose the will to live in such adversity? The next morning as I finished the book I referred to above the penny dropped. How did I miss this?
On the surface this girl is such a sweetie and all the guys who come into her workplace love her to bits. They go with the hookers because they are available but most of them really like the one who is funny and charming without being uncouth and who remains behind the counter, tantalisingly beyond reach.
None of them – and none of the girls who work with her see behind the mask. Beneath that façade she is so frail, she has no self-esteem and she trusts no one. She’s older than all the other girls, being twenty-eight. In other words she was born during the regime of the Khmer Rouge.
What the book reminded me of and clarified for me was how long the scars remained long after the fall of the regime. What the Khmer Rouge obliterated was trust as they turned an entire populace into emotionally numb spies, denouncing innocent neighbours before those neighbours denounced them.
I don’t yet know her story of that of her family but all the signs are there. Taking this girl into my life means declaring war on the Khmer Rouge, nothing less. That sounds obscenely melodramatic, I know but seriously, the Khmer Rouge never went away – not when they live on in the traumatised minds of a generation.
This girl’s mind is the arena, and the weapons needed for my guerrilla tactics are quite inadequate given my former mis-use.
You see, through brutal force of my quick wit and personality I’ve persuaded her to trust me like she’s never trusted anyone – but I’ve been blatantly lying to her time and again so if I’m making some sort of commitment to her that’s got to completely cease and here in Cambodia that’s tough.
I really mean it because this girl is broken and what’s more for me she epitomises the state of her country – superficially it might appear okay and even happy-go-lucky but look deeper and you can find the evidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome: unhealed wounds of a quarter of a century.
Part 14 follows on the 3rd September