I know I should be listening but I’m zoning out.

Teresa*, the head of A New Day Cambodia, is explaining to my family and I how the school works as we sit cross-legged in their main hall.

But my gaze is on the long scroll of paper tacked to the wall and covered with Magic Marker illustrations. One end is headlined ‘Our Past.’

I rise to my feet to inspect it closer.

The drawn figures have sad faces. Their thought bubbles contain bananas, loaves of bread, and fish. Some of them march across a mass of black and gray squiggles. I know what that is.

The Dump. 100 acres of trash.

The Stung Meanchey landfill in Phnom Penh is where most of the students at this school spent their formative years. Their families would not only gather, sort, and sell garbage. They lived on it. Ate off of it. And died over it.

But then, this school paid these families to take in their children for the weekdays, teach them English, and send them to school. It’s made possible by donors. Like my father.

The center of the scroll of paper is headlined, ‘Our Present.’ Beneath it is an illustration of the figures playing soccer and sitting in a classroom.

Then there’s ‘Our Future.’ My eyes hop across figures of firemen, doctors, and police officers.

“You can meet them now,” Teresa says.

I snap to attention. Girls trickle in and gingerly hug me around the waist. Some of them hold their palms together and bow. Out of the swarm of girls, I spy two boys.

We all settle back down cross-legged, and Teresa invites the kids to ask us any questions. There’s a moment of silence. Then Dad begins to introduce us.

Funny how, you’re twenty-three, in Cambodia, on the other side of the world from your home, and here, now, is where you see a side of your dad that you’ve never seen before.

I always knew him as charitable. This is the first time I’m seeing it out loud.

“…this is my son, Chris. He lives in Michigan. This is my daughter, Rachel. She lives in Florida. My wife, Susan, and I are in Boston.”

One girl asks us why we don’t all live at home. We can’t find the words.

Yeah, why don’t Chris and I live at home?

One girl sidles up close to me. She’s twenty-one but she looks fifteen. We talk about American music that she likes. Then she asks me:

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

After a tour of the school, the kids ask us if we want to play soccer. Chris and I agree. Neither of us are athletic but give us a crowd of kids and we’ll give in.

As I stumble across the sand in my flipflops, a strange thought comes to my mind. I glance at the twenty-one-year-old girl who had whispered to me about boyfriends and music like we were at a slumber party. I try to picture her, maybe a little younger, pacing across the Dump.

I don’t know why but I do.

Except that, I can’t picture it.

The girl bubbles over with laughter as the ball bumps into her feet.

I can’t picture it with any of these kids.

They do tuck-jumps whenever their opposing team scores. They roll their R’s when they call our names.

“Chrrrrrrrrreees! Chrrrrreeees!”

It’s ninety-seven degrees and some of them are in sweatshirts, but they tie back their hair and keep playing.

When it’s time to say goodbye, they burst forward to hug us. My family and I pile into the tuk tuk and the kids linger behind us to wave. We trundle off and I realize how tired I am. The heat really gets to you.

“Wasn’t that cool?” Dad says.

“They’re all so happy,” I say.

Dad’s tone changes.

“Yes. See how happy they are with so little.”

Contentment. That’s something Cambodia lives and breathes. Despite their tragic history. Despite the Dump. The Khmer people I’ve met—especially the kids—have exuded a peacefulness that I can only aspire to.

To be so happy with so little. I know now that it’s possible.

*Name has been changed for privacy

One thought on “What the Khmer Kids Taught Me

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