The Conversation that Changed Me
In Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, my father and I once ventured to the marketplace, where we encountered an old blind beggar sitting on a burlap sack, his hands outstretched. My father was a prince in the royal family of Cambodia. As his daughter, then four years old, I had known only privilege, so seeing this man moved me deeply. I was too young to understand the awful circumstances that might have brought him to that street corner. But I was old enough to take note of his emaciated body and realize that he was hungry.
My father and I bought him steamed rice wrapped in lotus leaf. As I stepped forward, my father said, “Don’t forget to take off your sandals before you make your offering.” I didn’t understand. In Cambodia, removing one’s shoes, a sign of deference, is done when giving alms to a Buddhist monk. “But why?” I asked.
“We are all beggars,” my father said. “It doesn’t matter what we wear—rags or silk. We each ask the same of life.” So I made my offering, to the confusion and discomfort of strangers watching. On our way home, my father explained that no matter how impoverished the man was, his life was worth as much as any other and he deserved our respect.
Shortly after, when the Khmer Rouge had taken over our country, my family faced suffering, starvation, and the threat of execution. My father’s life was cut short because he was a prince. But through it all I held on to the words he had uttered in that marketplace. Even as my mother and I escaped alone to America and I grew up in this country, amidst plenty, those words stayed with me.
When my own daughter was five, my husband and I moved our little family back to Cambodia temporarily for his work. One day, while we were en route to an outing, we came upon a long row of elders and children heaving water onto the dirt road. I was stunned by their gaunt figures and by the surroundings: the dilapidated straw huts, the leafless trees, the scarred and broken landscape. Our driver explained that the people watered the road to keep the red dust from coating our car. In return, they hoped we would stop to offer food to the children among them.
My daughter, seeing my tears, pulled my head to her chest. “It’s OK, Mommy,” she said comfortingly. “We can get them food.” I saw myself as a child reflected in her hopefulness—the belief that there is always something you can do.
The three of us got out of the car. I gave the people the change I had in my purse; my daughter offered the food we had packed. And when there was nothing else to give, we spoke with them. I was moved by the elders who should have been meditating in the nearby temple, trying to find peace in their old age, but who were instead forfeiting their own comfort to stoop on this dusty road and beg for food. They reminded me of my father, who forfeited his own safety to protect our family during the Khmer Rouge regime.
I think my daughter will remember those elders and the children. And I hope she will grow to understand that neither poverty nor wealth defines us, that our empathy is the highest expression of our shared nobility.
Vaddey Ratner is the author of In the Shadow of the Banyan ($25, amazon.com), out this month. She lives in Potomac, Maryland.