A 12-Minute Read.
So I went to Cambodia again.
I saw Angkor Wat again.
And again I ate of the delightful mangoes that country has to offer.
While passing through Phnom Penh – that mad city of tuk-tuk drivers, charlatan monks and sparrow-catchers – I decided I would get myself a pair of sandals of higher quality than your standard flip-flop variety. More often than not, I frequent markets in an attempt to simply look and browse, and am pretty much the opposite of an impulse buyer.
As I always like to explain to my Vietnamese students, “I am the kind of person who likes to keep the money.” This translates into haggling more than the av-er-age bear, much to the chagrin of merchants and sellers who would otherwise see me as an easy target to price-hike.
In any case, I found a decent pair and talked the stubborn seller down to $12. The label said “Made in Viet Nam,” much to pride of my travel companion – a Vietnamese – and the seller of course assured me of its quality. Off I went, wearing awesome high-quality footwear.
The next day, as I emerged from an overnight bus-ride to Siem Reap, one of the straps broke. With an exasperated sigh, and a sense of stubborn pride, I came to the resolution that I would have the things repaired, rather than simply replaced.
I sought someone to do said work, and while I am no stranger to stitching, often enough I see cobblers on street corners or people in the markets in the process of mending someone’s sole. Using body language as well as English, I asked on the outer periphery of the Siem Reap Central Market.
“Inside,” one of the sellers told me. I went in, asking another shoe-seller. They shook their head.
“Outside,” someone else told me. I emerged out the other end, asking various people, and following the pointing fingers of a number of sellers – as well as a friendly tuk-tuk driver or two – I made my way to a street just off to the side of the Central Market.
“Down street,” another person said with a gesture. “Unda da trees.”
We continued, until at last finding some lads sitting on tiny, plastic chairs. Their workstation included a coffee can full of various small tools and a key-copying machine.
I demonstrated through hand gestures that the sandal strap was in need of repair, and it took them all but half a second to understand my need. My companion soon discovered that the two boys could apparently speak Vietnamese fluently and, as they began to work, we sat with them. Chatting ensured, though I was, as is the norm, part of possibly 6% of the total conversation.
Turns out the boys’ mother is Vietnamese and their father is Cambodian, and apart from their parents’ mother tongues, they boasted of speaking fluent Burmese as well. Being trilingual is a valuable skill in any crossroads cities, as one might imagine, though their English was extremely limited.
I watched them work, and had bits and pieces of the conversation sporadically translated to me. They were aged fifteen and sixteen, two brothers, though by all appearances (whether a result of genetics, malnutrition, or simply my own lack of ability to guess, I could not say), I would’ve estimated them to be around ten or eleven.
But it was only in outward appearance that these two resembled adolescents. I watched the way they spoke not only to my companion, but to other people – adults or otherwise – who rolled up on bicycles, motorbikes, or sedans to do some form of business or other. Turns out the two kids were quite well-known, able to perform repairs not only for shoes, but the mechanics of motorbikes as well. I saw a multitude of people seeking them out for various purposes.
Through translation and simple observation, I learned that the two young men knew how to do many things, and many other people knew this as well. These were the guys to whom most people seemed to go when they needed something done, and much like how I arrived at their “shop without a sign” they were probably known simply by word-of-mouth.
I found the experience rather eye-opening, as well as simply interesting. I saw them hand a pair of shoes that looked noticeably more expensive than my multi-strapped sandals to a car-driving businessman; I watched the older brother pay off a patrolling street guard (common practice for anyone operating a small entrepreneurial — illegal — business like this), and through my companion I asked a few questions.
“Do you go to school?”
“No,” was the translated answer. They said they quit school to work. And I soon found out why: according to them, they made as much as $50 a day doing their various work. Even if these are the hyperbolic words of an emerging teenager, and in fact they made an average of about 20% of that, this is still nothing to sniff at for Cambodia. Indeed, I found myself struggling to reason why anyone in their position would continue going to school when they had a business to run that — proportionately — brought in more cash than jobs I’d done back in America earned.
Hell, if you know where to eat, $50 can feed you for a month in Siem Reap.
They seemed savvy and street-smart, not the type of children you see advertised on television commercials stating “If you send us just $1, you can feed this child for a day.” They played mobile games on a new-looking 5-ish-inch Samsung Galaxy (the exact model of course I could not know), though they wore shoes and clothes tattered and dusty.
“Do you have plans for the future?” I asked them.
“No,” was the simple reply, though the younger of the two brothers said that maybe one day he would try to go to America, where he would do the same work of cobbling shoes. They were quick to jump on the prospect of work, and even quicker to laugh and smile. If there’s one thing that continues to intrigue me about Cambodia, it is the attitude of the people living there. People will over-charge you without a second thought – it is expected and customary, especially in the tourist areas – but there are just as many who’ll gladly give directions or recommendations for “the best” place to go, like where to buy mangoes or get a decent exchange rate for converting money.
“Are Vietnamese shoes good quality?”
“No,” was the laughing reply with a vigorous head-shake.
In any case, meeting the two Cobbler Boys whose names I couldn’t possibly write here with any accuracy, I reached a minor realization while watching these “adults in the bodies of young people.”
Whenever reading a YA novel or watching a movie based off one, or even simply a film written for the Young Adult audience, I always had difficulty swallowing the premise of characters who spoke and acted like adults. I always felt like novelists wrote such characters more because they were, themselves, adults, and the best they could do was write child-characters as “small adults.”
Perhaps I found my suspension of disbelief strained on account of bad acting, or perhaps indeed due to inept writing, but I will also unabashedly admit that my experience with children (or teenagers who, gods be good, are half my age) is probably limited. Perhaps I simply haven’t met a lot of street-smart young adults to which to compare to characters of which I read in books.
The two Cobbler Brothers had a sense of independence and responsibility about them that I am quite unaccustomed to feeling from people so young. Living in a country as famous for it’s abject poverty as it’s nasty, bloody, recent history, it would appear that these guys are doing pretty well for themselves given the obstacles that a foreigner such as myself might otherwise find discouraging and overwhelming.
In fiction, a few immediate examples come to mind. One being Locke from one of my all-time favorite fantasy books The Lies of Locke Lamora. Another being Liesel, from the The Book Thief. Last, for the purposes of this list, is one of my least favorite characters (at least initially) from A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark. She got awesome later, don’t worry, I ain’t hatin’.
Each of these characters were thrust into situations where they were forced to leave behind their childhood faster than most people reading the books would ever encounter. People who got street smart – fast, and for different reasons – or they would have died early (like many of their peers who simply didn’t grow up fast enough). At various points in their respective stories, I sometimes found myself thinking “Would a child really be talking like that?” They each have their supports, of course.
Locke has an origin making him a bit more than an average human (as revealed in the third book).
Liesel had one of the most wonderful and encouraging adopted fathers in a story I’ve ever ‘met.’
And Arya had the outrage of a murdered family to fuel her will – which in and of itself isn’t unique as stories go, but she seems to stand apart from all the other vengeful young people we see in fiction all the time.
My encounter in Cambodia gave me first-hand experience with street-smart young adults that made me rethink my earlier ideas, and my future perceptions, of such characters. Perhaps such people may even appear in my own fiction-to-come as a result.