A 20-year-old waiter at the Starbucks in my Phnom Penh neighborhood recently told me a bit about his life. His story is much like that of the other employees who work there and in the myriad cafes around town.
A finance major with very good command of English, he starts his college classes at 7 a.m. They don’t end until 1 p.m.
He normally has to be at work an hour later, and Starbucks is a half hour moto ride from school. He—call him Dara–doesn’t leave his job, which means being on his feet all the time, for the next eight or nine hours. Although he is not allowed to divulge his monthly income, I suspect that it is approximately $150 and unlikely as much as $200.
If he is lucky, Dara will have the energy to study for all of 30 minutes before falling into bed. He follows the same routine day after day. Other students study longer, he related, and do better. Dara, who has a winning smile and engaging personality, also works weekends at Starbucks and, on days off, with his family. There is no room for fun in his life.
I asked about his family, with whom he lives. His mother is in her late 30s and his father, in his 40s. Sopheap doesn’t know their exact ages. There is a sister, but an older brother died some years ago of “a serious illness.” A grandmother also is part of the household.
They most likely reside in crowded rude quarters without a refrigerator or stove, buying ingredients daily and cooking outside over wood or charcoal.
On weekends, the family works their modest plot in Kampot province, about two hours away. There, they have mango trees, which require minimal but not no care. Crops that would produce more income—for example, peppercorns or durian—are too demanding, Dara explained. During the week, an aunt lives at the farm alone and provides whatever help she can.
The young man’s mom does house cleaning and makes simple candles for sale in her spare time. His dad, who commutes to the family’s farm most days, delivers produce to vendors at a local market when they order the product.
“It is a hard life,” I said to him. It is hard, Dara conceded shyly, adding that it is, however, the path to a better life.
His spirit, energy and thirst for education could not be a more encouraging sign for this nation. Like other countries with an awesomely great need to improve, Cambodia’s best hope lies with its youth, and Dara exemplifies that hope.