Last Sunday afternoon, I accompanied my fiancé shopping at a local market in Phnom Penh named Tuol Tom Pong commonly known to foreigners and tourists as Russian Market.
We did not literally go into the market, but shopped at the stores around the market for around 30 minutes when it started to rain like cats and dogs. So, we had to seek for shelter under the roof of a nearby flat in order to avoid getting soaked up by the rain.
After sitting idle for around half an hour, we began to feel hungry. We could not leave the roof because the rain was so heavy and because we did not have any rain coat as we were riding motorbike then. So, we looked for any street snacks that we could find. Suddenly, we saw an apparently middle-aged Vietnamese woman pushing the carriage attached with a big umbrella to protect her from the rain and loaded with at least 40lbs of rice, bean, coconut flesh, and many other ingredients to make a kind of Vietnamese cake named “Soy”, almost phonetically similar to a Khmer word meaning ‘unlucky’.
Then, we called her to stop by shouting “Soy”. She heard it and surely enough stopped her carriage. We signaled to her with a “V” hand sign to indicate that we wanted two cakes.
After making the cakes, the lady–walking with bare feet because the shoes were used to block the wheels of the carriage from moving wildly in the street and dressed in highly casual clothes–took the cakes to us. In the exchange for the cakes, I asked her in Khmer language how much I would have to pay her. To my surprise, she started mumbling with broken Khmer language that we fluent Khmer speakers were not able to understand. So, to make herself understood, she gave us the ‘V’ hand signal that the cakes cost us 2000 Khmer riels or 50 US cents.
What do you think we did after buying the cakes?
Yeah, we spent around 1 hour discussing how the heck the lady could make a living in Cambodia without even knowing the language.
Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia
In fact, the lady that my fiancé and I saw was just an example of how Vietnamese people have been making a living in Cambodia. Over the past years, there have been a considerable number of Vietnamese coming to Cambodia in order to live and survive.
What is so strange about them is that most of these people are not much aware of Cambodian culture or language at all before they decide to come to the country. It’s like they make the decision by saying “Let’s go and see what is going on over there”.
They come, live as a group in a community, and don’t even care to perfection-ize their Khmer language so that they can merge easily to the culture. Instead, they just do the business by selling things or doing whatever they can to live.
These Vietnamese people work on so many jobs from low class to high class almost like Cambodian people. But, what you would not find about these people is that they don’t beg for money. (Maybe I have not seen Vietnamese beggars in Cambodia yet).
Without pre-knowing people in Cambodia and Khmer language properly, it’s so logical that some of these poor people should beg for money. But they don’t. They choose to work even on some of most low-class jobs ever such as picking up trash, polishing shoes, restoring the sewage system, selling street foods without any specific location, and etc.
Have they no choice?
Seeing these Vietnamese people working is so inspirational. They are the have-nots but they choose to fight back against their life destiny. They are poor but they don’t give in.
The reason that they are inspirational is because I have seen a similar scenario which is so de-motivating and somehow de-humanizing, and the scenario is about people such as beggars who have choices but choose not to use the choices they have.
In my life, I have seen so many kinds of beggars such as those who are old and sick, those who are old but pretend to be sick, those who are young and sick, those who are young but pretend to be sick, those who are lazy, those who are capable, and etc. There are so many kinds that I find it hard to describe, but from the bottom of my heart, I hate almost all of them not because they are beggars, but because they choose to become beggars without even trying to do something else.
I’m a Cambodian citizen, and I feel so ashamed to see Khmer people begging for money either from other Khmer people or foreigners. Whenever I travel abroad such as to Vietnam and Thailand, I feel so painful to see Khmer beggars there. I feel the pain not because they downgrade Khmer reputation but because I don’t understand why they make such a life decision.
I completely understand that some of them are forced by life and never genuinely want to do such things unless they have critical conditions as can be reflected from the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” depicting poor and homeless Indian children whose life is tricked and destroyed by big brothers.
However, what I don’t understand is that ‘do they really have no choice?’ Why can’t they do like the Vietnamese who come to Cambodia to work, not beg?
Is begging a good business?
I have heard some beggars claiming that begging is a good way to make a living and better than working on low-class jobs as mentioned earlier. What do you think?
Personally I would be speechless if I were in a conversation with people who actually believe that begging to live is a good because I really can’t see the value of life when a person can’t wear any nice clothes or eat nice food because they will not receive money even if they beg when they look nice or fat.
In addition, I am also so sick and tired to see beggars using their children, as small and young as 1 or 2 years old, to help them earn more money from begging because kids attract more sympathy. Some cruel beggars who are generally addicted to alcohol or gambling even indoctrinate and train their children to beg so that they have money to drink and gamble. Without even a chance to go to school for education, the kids will almost automatically follow their parents’ paths, thus becoming beggars or even thieves. This is one scenario of the cycle of poverty.
What have I learnt from the ‘Soy’ lady and the beggars?
Undoubtedly the Vietnamese lady taught me a lot about struggle and commitment. In life, we sometimes don’t have to have all the green lights in order to a move. Instead, we move one green light at a time. With consistence, persistence and regular momentum, we surely enough will succeed.
When we are fortunate enough to wake up everyday, we all have choices. But, most of us take these choices for granted and pretend to have no time to think about these choices, thus making us doing the same things over and over even though we know that these things won’t lead us to nowhere satisfactory. So, in order no to follow the foot-steps of beggars, we all should start to use our divine gift called ‘brain’ to think of things that we really want to do and that can make a big difference for ourselves and the society.