22 March, 2017

Being a foreigner in a foreign land.

For the past 6 years I have lived in Cambodia.  For 5 months prior, I lived in Nepal.  The two experiences are non-comparable.  I cannot say “I know about” Nepal’s culture, its people or their traditions.  I can say I learned about the wonderful family I lived with and why they had 30 vulnerable children in their care.  I can talk about the school those children went to and how the particular family I lived with celebrated holidays and went about their lives.  I cannot possibly know about the neighbor down the dirt road, about the hundreds of other children who attended the school after only 5 months of living there.

After 6 years, I feel I have a much better grasp of Cambodian culture in the area I live in.  I have a small grasp of the language, drive to the local market and take the kids to their hospital appointments.  I’m not now and will never be considered ‘local’.  No more than a Cambodian who was born in the United States is looked at as American to most of the population.  This is okay to me as I understand human nature.  I am accepted, though.  If I walk down the road, the village children call me ‘mommy’, which is seemingly my name now.  Younger women call me ‘bong srey’ (big sister) and in the market I’m not as likely to get cheated over price as I was 4 years ago.  I’m part of the scenery now, I’m same same but different.

I used to know all the children in my care inside and out, but in 2016 we received 16 new kids and so far this year, we have 4 more.  That’s 20 new children to get to know and understand.  Twenty children who have their own sordid backgrounds, internal issues, behavioral problems, and trust issues.  Twenty children who have come from different family situations.  If I were to lump them into the phrase “we have 20 new kids”, I would be giving you a statistic.  An accurate, but enormously misrepresented statistic.

This is what I feel happens with those who come and go (even frequently) in any foreign country, they believe they ‘know’ the culture, the people.  Don’t judge a country on what you read in Travelocity or on any website or book.  Statistics are not people.  Someone could come spend a year abroad in my home town of Kansas and they may leave thinking they know American culture.  They will have a grasp of a minute group of people and their way of life, but this will differ greatly if they lived on my sister’s farm or a house in the city.  Even in a small Kansas town; what if you spent a year in a home of a Trump supporter vs. a home that is based in moral and ethical reality.

Conscientious travel makes one aware of different people, culture, religion, etc. but do not confuse that with ‘knowing’ the place.  It does not make one aware of the needs of the people. Travelers heart’s strings can easily be pulled.  Does the tuktuk driver have an old beaten up tuktuk because he’s poor or does he not buy a new one because he makes more money from driving a beat up one because people who think he’s poor pay him better?  

The idea that an outsider can come into a foreign land and ‘access’ what they deem inappropriate, unhealthy, cruel, abusive, etc. without a very long-term commitment and willingness to move outside of your box is completely irresponsible.  It’s like being appalled at seeing dog meat being roasted in a shop…but having no problem whatsoever eating a roasted chicken sandwich an hour later.  

It is irresponsible to access a situation without all the facts, but that is what happens over and over in “poor countries”.  That is many times what makes up statistics, such as the children in my care.  They are institutionalised in the eyes of many; not beautiful individual souls with their own stories to tell, but a number in a book, article or website…and in turn the magical place they call home is just another negative statistic, an institution.  A place not one of those people have ever spent time in.  We are a blurb, a 'not-of-the-most' in phrases such as "most orphanages are bad".

Statistics like to leave out words to make their case plausible.  Such as instead of 

"Eighty percent of children in orphanages more than likely have at least one abusive, neglectful, desperate, uncaring, unloving and/or alcoholic parent", they just say 

"Eighty percent of children in orphanages have at least one parent." 

Straight and swaying the point they want to make, loose the important words and you have built a case for the horrors of orphanages.  Tug at those healthy foreign heart strings!  If it tears your heart out to think of your children being taken away from you and put into an institution, then the statistic has done it's job.  If it didn't tug at your heart strings, then maybe, just maybe, your children would be better off in my home or maybe you can relate to this phrase:

"One hundred percent of children living in private boarding schools have at least one parent."  hmmmmm.....

How many people can look past the aesthetic differences of ‘the other’ and see genuine people.  How many visitors can ignore the unusual house and see the happy people inside.  How many realize that lower income is not a prerequisite for unhappiness and/or unhealthiness.  A child napping on a cool tile floor in the heat of the day does not mean that child does not have a bed, or a home, or loving caregivers.  Have you ever tried to sleep on a soft mattress in the heat of the day with no AC?  If you had, trust me, you would opt for the tile.

Look, live and feel before you judge.  Is that child a ‘poor orphan’ living in an ‘awful orphanage’ or is it a child given a second chance at life and this chance includes happiness.  Has that child in that ‘institution’ been torn from his biological parents arms, or did a caring neighbor call the Village Chief who then called the local Social Services agency who then called a sociologist who then did a family assessment and decided that the child should be removed from the family home because of any number of reasons.  Reasons that exist in each and every country on the globe. Reasons that exist in homes regardless of their financial situation.  Reasons that exist because there are just people in the world who should not be allowed to raise their children (or any children for that matter).

The next time you travel, read a statistic, view a documentary, hear some other traveler spew their ignorance, I challenge you to see the positive instead of the negative.  SEE the man.  SEE the child.  SEE the house.  SEE the situation.  Is that dirt or chocolate on that ‘poor child’s’ face? The dog roasting in a shop is income to the people who raised it, much like your chicken.  SEE the people who look different than you with joy and curosity, not with an air of sadness on your face or in your disposition, and for those situations that deem it, look not with pity, but with compassion.

Leave your judgement at home until you are ready to be present and open minded in another place for a very long time and those statistics, take them with a grain of salt.

25 January, 2017

Nature or Nurture; that is the question.

I’m more than a bit moved by the response I had when I posted this photo of me and Srey Kah, our newest watopotian on Facebook. 

This has been such an emotional start to 2017.  January has not always produced the best start to a new year.  This wisp of a child put the icing on the cake for me.  A beautiful child whose biological family didn't want.  I am so tired of neglected kids, babies!  Children that get thrown away, when there are those who are begging to have the opportunity to have one more hug from their own. One more hug, one more kiss, and one more conversation, one more laugh…before they left this world.

One more laugh with my father, sigh, how amazing would that be?  He was extremely sarcastic.  It’s no wonder that my whole family has the same sense of humor.  The stories we have!  Laughter is the best medicine.  I smile freely.  Just a facial movement that happens so naturally that I didn’t realize how much a smile can mean when you are given a child that doesn’t.  

Srey Kah didn’t smile for 4 days.  FOUR days without a grin, a smirk, a laugh.  When she finally did, it was like, “yeah, everything will be okay now.”  How many many people cannot smile because of the situation they are in?  How many children cannot or have never known what that means.  For someone who was raised with laughter, it is almost inconceivable that there are those who do not. 

Depending on what era you were born in, or what news channel you subscribe to, you can believe you are a product of nature or nurture or a mixture of both.  I have meet Srey Kah’s father and paternal grandmother.  Both smiled (as they were giving up their flesh and blood).  When Srey Kah smiled, it wasn't only with her mouth, she laughed out loud.  Other than a grunt and a cry, that was the first sound she had made.  And it was our much loved animals who were responsible.  Ben the dog and Tido the cat got extra treats that day!

My genes were infused with an innate sense of humor, which was made stronger by the environment my parents created.  My genetics also gave me gangly long arms which I finally grew into and thin fine hair, which I still battle.  My genetics gave me a pretty good mixture of both sides of my family.  I was told time and again while growing up “oh you look just like your dad” (not necessarily something an insecure teen wants to hear), but then “oh you look so much like your mom” as I got older (and love to hear).

The children in my care look like their biological parents but many act like me.  For many, I have enhanced their already predisposed level of sarcasm, and for others, I have respected their need to have a more subdued caregiver (which is hard for me).  I am constantly amazed by the love most do not hold inside.  For the hugs that come out of nowhere and sometimes hold on for a bit longer than I am comfortable with.  That is something I  did not have growing up.  I knew I was loved, that wasn’t ever even a thought in my mind, but the actual physical aspect of it, was not nurtured in me.

It wasn’t until I attended my Masters in Peace program in Austria that I first encountered unconditional hugging and realized I felt really uncomfortable with it.  I wrote a paper on it, (you can’t bring about peace, until you find it within yourself), about how it felt to be hugged by everyone all the time.  Seriously, sometimes I wanted to say “Shit, I will see you in an hour, no need to hug me!”.   After contemplation, I realize I associated hugs with a physical relationship.  Many times a prelude to sex.  So to be hugged by men, was awkward.  I didn’t want to have sex with my classmates! 

I had to learn to hug, to enjoy the platonic feeling of another human being in my arms.  To overcome the feeling of it being wrong, until I could give a hug back without feeling like I was ‘leading someone on’.  I hugged a naked man and a naked woman in one night and only felt slightly uncomfortable.  That is true growth – European style! 

As I emerged in life, there were and continue to be so many opportunities to leave my comfort zone; to be a part of something that either challenges or enhances my natural or nurtural instincts. 

When my dad died, a certain ‘standoffishness’ went away.  I was all of a sudden thrown into a situation where life slapped me square in the face.  A f-ing hard defibrillating life-lesson right to the heart that I can still feel today.  My dad’s sudden death jolted my heart and ripped out a chunk that will never fully grow back.  As my heart slowly started beat again, that innate ability to say goodbye to my family without so much as a glance, seemed a bit uncaring even though it never had before.   In Europe, I grew to respect the physical closeness of my friends, and now I was able to become closer to my family by a natural –albeit painful- life experience.   I lost the ability to walk away without showing that I care.  And a further process allows me to freely say “I love you” without feeling awkward. I can give and receive firms hug without feeling like I’m intruding on personal space (most of the time).

I have the utmost respect for Miss Srey Kah and am okay with the fact that it took her 2 weeks to the day to smile at me.  I still am a bit too loud and a bit too physical for her taste.  She doesn’t know when I grin and poke her, I am showing love.  She was born with the ability to be loved, but because of her circumstance, she doesn’t know it.  She has been through more in her 2 years of life than many will experience in a lifetime. I was in my late teens when I first experienced the death of a loved one, she was 12 months.  She also has overcome every odd life has thrown at her in the 2 weeks she has been with us.  It took me 35 years…

It’s not only my unconditional love for the kids in my care; it is my indescribable respect for them.  I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without the nurturing from my parents, the chance to grow up with siblings (for better or worse) and the closeness of extended family.  And I would not have continued to grow as a person without the support of family and friends, whom I have known along my path.

That is what the children have here an unconventional large family complete with parents, siblings, friends and extended family.  A big (and at times messy) multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious family!

This is what all humans deserve, a reason to smile, regardless of where in the world they so happened to be born. 

Can it really be made any more clear?  

Photo courtesy of my friend Scott http://www.scottrotzoll.com/ (who got Srey Kah to smile at him first!)

15 January, 2017

Tangy Butt Nuts and other pieces of sh#*.

My life now is extremely demanding.  Most days I am exhausted.  Emotionally, mentally and physically, but mostly emotionally.  And then there’s all the shit.  Literally, I mean shit.  The (usually) brown substance that emerges from the bowels of sweet toddlers; beautiful –full of shit- toddlers.  It’s all the time,  “Mommy, Likha is stinky”….”Mommy, Somnang pooped on the floor.” Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, poop, poop, poop.

We have 3 little ones who are not able to control their posterior and out from those sweet little cheeks come the rectum warriors.  I (along with Sophia) have to deal with it all day every day.  Body boulders in the morning, sewer serpents in the afternoon, fudge babies at dusk and tushy tots before bed.  Our toddling poopers have a sense of humor as well.  It seems they hold it in until just when I sit down to eat.  Absolutely nothing doing 30 minutes before or after, no, there’s something symbolically synonymous about my butt finding the comfort of the kitchen chair and their butt exuding fanny fudge.

It's not just the ones in diapers, though.  Take today for example, I had to help another small child release his stinkers into the toilet.  And when it was about to happen, it's not like the child sends me a memo ahead of time, I sprinted into the nearest bathroom with the child hanging mid-air arms length away and just made it in time.  A big sigh of relief, but then I glance down and notice my skirt had graced the calm vortex of the diaper soaker, the crapsters dungeon, a place where no woman's clothing should ever ever touch down.

I now have worn shit.

It has gotten so bad that I have taken to paying a child to change a diaper.  In a country where the poorest of the poor make less than $1.00 a day, I will pay up to .75 cents (depending on the stench) for someone, ANYONE to get rid of the lovely lumps which having traveled so far and finally liberated themselves from the confines of a little colon, have emerged and begun to settle into their new padded home.

“It can’t be that bad” some of you will say.  “You could not be more wrong”, say I.   “It really doesn’t affect your life and the lives around you” others will say.  “I am willing to bet a days worth of smelly pebbles that you could not be more wrong” said the others around me.  There is now a fine of 500 Khmer Riel (12 and a half cents) that I must pay for every time I bring up anything remotely sounding like poop.  One thousand riel (.25 cents) if it’s a blatant description of a screaming mimi.  I have lost so much money, I no longer count.  Sophia has lost her fair share, but I’m definitely in the lead.  Some meals I find myself unable to talk for fear of spilling the beans (so to speak).

You can ask Josh, our regular weekend volunteer.  One day I butt (no pun intended) called him.  As he responded with “are you there?”, “hello”, he then heard kids at play and then loud and clear, my voice talking about someone’s dumper crying brown tears and realized the call was not meant for him and he quietly hung up.  When I noticed I had inadvertently called him and the call had lasted 23 seconds, I just sighed knowing he had overhead bits of about how we could convert a waterbottle into a portable toilet for Somnang (our infamous anywhere-pooper). I promise, Josh, we were joking!

You think this little patootie is cute…come walk a mile in my shoes, friend, a mile in my shoes.

03 January, 2017

so long it's been good to know you...

Good bye 2016.  It's no wonder why I haven't posted since July...I went in and out of a sterilized funk, in and out of a mild depression, in and out of a "why am I here, phase" and probably a couple of other's that I cannot name.

The whole US election made me want to crawl under a rock or jump off a cliff. (I chose the rock as it seemed like the safer of the two).  I had open talks with the kids during meditation about what is going on in the country of my birth.  Not political, but ethical and moral characteristics, about how one of the most powerful countries in the world had the option to put a horrible man in power.  A man who will put more powerful and horrible men (and a couple of women for good measure) in power and collectively they will have the power to destroy an insurmountable number of lives.

My nightmare came true. Humanity will leave the white house in 2017.

I told them that they can kiss their chances of visiting the US goodbye (although I would not have encouraged it regardless who was the president).  I talked to the kids about, not only the US, but how many many bad things are happening in the world.  Things that will really not affect their lives whatsoever, but happenings they should know about in order to be global citizens.

I couldn't talk too much to the older kids about the massive death and destruction going on even as I type.  About the fear in the lives of children who at one time had a life like theirs.  How I fear that 2017 may bring much more of the same.  I didn't want my kids to see my cry.

It's not that I've given up hope.  I'm an idealist and a peace worker, but I am a realistic idealist...or an idealistic realist.  I have not been given the choice to have a quiet life only thinking of myself and my loved ones.  Somewhere in my DNA is a driving force to not turn a blind eye, even if there is absolutely nothing earthly I can do about it.

I went off of social media for over a month.  A month where the only negativity I felt was here in my physical presence, and it was few and far between.  I felt free, a bit disconnected, but free.  So this is what life could be!  Concentrating on those issues and people in my physical presence.  Forgetting there is a wide world outside our gates.  Outside of the confines of Cambodia.  If only I could have made it last...

It wasn't possible for me.  Not only did I miss what was going on in my family and with my close friends, I missed being a part of something bigger, a part of the wide world.  How could I turn my back on the world?  I am no longer that innocent little Midwest girl I used to be.  Dammit.

With little to no internet, a month or so ago I bought a refurbished iPhone. I needed to be able to use the phone as a hotspot to get online on the office computer.  With this new toy, I unfortunately  became used to having news at my fingertips.  Posts I deemed having negative content (anything that made my blood rise) started showing up regularly.  It didn't take long to notice a change in my attitude.  I was not as forgiving with the kids, I was not as tolerant of noise, I desperately wanted a drink some nights.

It wasn't because of reading what was going on in global news, it was reading the thoughts and opinions of the global news from the mouths of people I knew.  People who I found out all of a sudden had extreme differences in opinion from my own.  Hearing hatred and sexism and how people were regarding someone with any kind of a different ideology with such a forcefully negative attitude was something that took me by surprise.

I'm not new to someone close to me not understanding my point of view, and not even trying to think outside their own little box..  Quite a few years ago, it was remarked to me by (at the time) a good friend,-when I had traveled home to visit my family-  "Oh, one of these days, you are going to come home with a black baby."  she said.  Not wanting to rock the boat because we were in (of all places) a catholic church, "God loves all babies, " was my reply.

I think that's the first time I really felt like an outsider in my own town.  Amongst "my people".  The remark was dumbfounding to say the least.  I didn't get it, "like what the hell". I started to question what she actually meant by it.  Why did she say it?  What did she mean by it? What does she think of me?  and on and on.  Then it occurred to me that there was probably not much thought put into the comment at all.  It was a remark from someone who thought that having a baby with darker skin than my own would be an atrocity.  It stemmed from pure ignorance, racism and fear of  'the other'.  From a lack of understanding, from a lack of realizing that a 'good Catholic woman' such as herself has forgotten the teachings of her savior.

The year 2016 brought people into my life, people with beautiful souls who carried their pain and suffering with dignity and with a strength that many will never be able to achieve.  Resilient children who have embraced the new life (at Wat Opot) that they have been given, adult's who are learning to live without their only child, and others who are just beginning their journey to find peace.

With many new faces joining our large family, it's easy to get swallowed up in daily life, but each evening in the quiet sanctity of my bedroom, I am aware of what is going on outside my home, aware of those whose lives are not going as planned, and those that are overcoming odds. Aware of the pain, the suffering but also the joy and living.

It feels like a delicate balance to live a sane productive life.

30 July, 2016

a bit of a rant

Just plain pissed off...I'm so very very sick of all the hype of the TERROR of orphanages!  It started off innocently enough (my pissy state, that is).  Clicking innocently on a link which let me to explore more links until I just couldn't hold it in.  Instead of curling into a fetal position and crying in this nice coffee shop in the city of Phnom Penh, I will instead blast my frustration to my blog where maybe, just maybe I'll feel better and be able to enjoy my $3.00 latte in peace.

According to the organization Child Safe, "Out of an estimated 8 million children living in institutions across the world, more than 80% are not orphans."


and what?

So what that tells me personally is that 3 of our kids (siblings) should be back living with their paternal uncle and his wife when their widowed mother was forced to leave her children with them to go to work to support her fatherless children.  We should not have accepted those young children because although their uncle's wife physically abused the oldest (a 6 yr old) to the point he feared for his life, she was his biological aunt nonetheless and the children were in a 'family unit'.

By the way, that's their mother, a woman who loves her kids, a young widow who wants her kids to NOT be abused.  She is a mother who visits regularly and is so very thankful we are educating and keeping her children safe because (at this time) she cannot.

But wait, that's only three lives who are better off in a so called "institution".  Surely they are the only ones?  Right?  Wait, actually there are more more of our healthy happy kids we could throw to their biological wolves.  I mean they are healthy and happy now, but if they would not have come to Wat Opot Children's Community 2 would be dead from AIDS complications since their non-poverty stricken biological families choose not to put them on medication, until finally sending them to us - sending them to us with only the clothes hanging on their skeletal backs.  


Or those who (probably about 5 more) who were not given their medication regularly by their parents or grandparents, thus making their small bodies resilient to the first line of ARV medication.  Those kids had to get on the 2nd line of ARV medication.  FYI - there's no 3rd line available in Cambodia...

For all of those  I guess if they were dead then they could not possible end up truly messed up "For all children, living in long term stays in institutions have lasting negative impacts," according to thinkchildsafe.org   

Hmmm...nothing seems more lasting than death, (shrug shoulders) maybe I'm wrong, though, since I've never died.

Let's see, that's 10 kids or so who would not be growing up educated, un-abused and happy in a non-traditional home.  Wait I am sure I can come up with more. 

"Evidence shows that (particularly those under 3) are at risk of permanent developmental damage by not being cared for in a family setting" so not counting the ones listed above, whose  development would be permanently damaged if they were dead, there are 16 kids that have been at Wat Opot since they were less than 3 years old or just a bit older.  

 Of those kids, 4 are in Preschool, 5 are in Primary School, 3 will enter high school this fall and 4 are currently in high school.  Out of the 16 kids all get an education, participate in sports, jewelry making, crafts, have chores, help out in the kitchen and cafe and play and laugh.  Wonder when the permanent damage kicks in? 

Our Youth in Transition program supports (and has supported) over 25 kids who are functioning quite well, getting (or graduated from) higher education or trade school.  Some have married and now have kids of their own.

Guess it kicks in later in life...although if "Children who are institutionalized find it difficult to function in society when they leave the orphanage" is true, then I am really getting fucking confused. (sorry for the profanity, mom!)  But what am I missing here?

"We got thousands of dollars...but don't know where the money went." - former residential staff care member. Oh please, Child Safe, but that's a lack of ethics PEOPLE problem, not slotted solely to Orphanages, "Quite frankly, as long as the accountants had told me that they thought this was an appropriate structure, I felt comfortable with it." Jeffrey Skilling - Enron.

Ah, it's working, I'm feeling better!  Frustrations thrown to the universal internet realm.  Or the fact that I'm in Phnom Penh and looking at all the cute photos of the children in my care, has made me feel better...yeah, that's probably it.

Or maybe it's these photos I came across while perusing my huge repertoire of photos...

Oh shit, wait, is that what "they" mean by permanent developmental damage???