The kind of remark I hear all the time was addressed to me an unprecedented three times in one day, on Tuesday, a record that surprised me.
This being Southeast Asia, indirection often is the way questions are answered, criticisms are provided and requests are made. My experience on Tuesday was all about requests, though no one actually asked this barang (foreigner) outright for help.
The English dailies these days seem to be accelerating their coverage and analysis of corruption, the wicked stepmother of deprivation in a nation with great potential that is far from realized. As I have written previously in this regard, I keep thinking about thriving Singapore, the tiny city-state that was approximately at the same stage of development as Cambodia half a century ago and that has far fewer natural resources.
The veiled requests concerned a need for money, and the question always is whether the stories — always stories — are truthful, no matter how likable the individual citing problems they need to solve. With money.
Except for backpackers, all foreigners are considered to be rich. That makes us targets, easy or not.
Plight number one was from the 22-year-old man who now cuts my hair. He says he moved to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap four months ago because his mother is seriously ill. From the best I could make out with my fractured Khmer and his gestures, she has a blood or heart disease.
He moved here, he says, because he couldn’t make enough money in Siem Reap. Maybe so, or does he want money only to indulge himself? I’ll never know.
Not an hour later at my gym, a cleaner on whom I practice speaking Khmer volunteered that he was poor. I am sure he is, but I am equally certain that he’d like a donation from me.
I was still working out when one of the trainers — who suffered a serious illness several months ago and was out of work until recently — mentioned that his son’s school was badgering him for $100 in tuition.
He worries all the time, this nice guy said, and he looks troubled, indeed. But the likelihood is that he will have to put the boy into a decidedly inadequate public school from a second-rate private school; he had to put the pre-teen in that school after being unable to afford the better one in which his son had been enrolled before illness struck.
I have no doubt that the second two masked appeals are honest. I suppose the first one could be as well. Either way, each of the Cambodians who spoke to me is, in fact, impoverished. My heart goes out to them.
However, as much as I would like to help them out, there is no end to the want and no way I can help everyone who asks for money. The tuk-tuk drivers with whom I exchange greetings on my daily forays from home often tell me that they haven’t made much money that day. Occasionally, they go so far as to ask for some directly.
All of this is not to say that I have turned a blind eye to individuals who, in my estimation, can improve themselves — for example, an exceedingly bright guy who could complete college in two years if he would accept a scholarship from me. Unfortunately, he hasn’t left his menial job in the months since I made the offer, which would surprise you in its modesty. The problem seems to be his need of a salary and the work he must do on his family’s farm on his days off.
Of course, I would like to give to all those who ask in their way, but I decided a while back to draw the line in wet cement and follow Nancy Reagan’s advice.
Although I don’t “just say ‘no’,” I am left with nothing more satisfying to them or to me than what feels like the expression of an empty concern: “I am sorry.” Truly, I am deeply sorry, yet there is only so much a person, rather than a government, can do.