Friday, January 21, 2011

Looking Down on People

Category: Life

Across the street, there was a woman sitting under a tree with a baby at her breast and three other older kids, playing.  I had seen her before, doing her washing in a bucket under a tree in the nicely landscaped park across the street from my new apartment.  If the kids weren’t hers, well, she at least knew them, because they were always together and they hung around and ate together.  I think they were hers.  I dunno. 

I went to have a nap.  I had to work later.  Hmph.  As I was sporadically napping, riddled with anxiety about the fact that I was probably not going to get enough sleep to be comfortable standing in front of a class and teaching later, I could not help but hear the shouting from outside and down below my cushy balcony that looks out onto the nicely landscaped park.  I thought that the shouting would probably stop, and I tried to go back to sleep, but the screaming and yelling went on. 

It was a woman, shouting in Khmer.  She was very, very angry. 

It’s unusual to hear that much shouting, nay, screeching, in Phnom Penh, really…. People here prefer to get along. They may poison each other later, for all I know (and there is an ongoing issue in the newspapers about people throwing acid in other people’s faces), but they don’t usually shout much in public.  I guess it might be, as we westerners say, a Face Thing.  Saving Face.  You know.  No Cambodian has ever said anything about it to me, but I must say that everyone is very nice here until they get mad, and nobody really wants to get mad. 

I went out onto my balcony, which I am very pleased to have, from which I can see all kinds of stuff.  Before, I lived in a place without a balcony, and couldn’t see anything except other people’s windows; but now I can go outside and even have a plant.  (Its name is Steve.)  I can worry about whether my cats will jump off, which they never do.  I can, if I want, sit outside in my free time and watch people living their lives down below.  Interesting fact:  People, like horses, rarely look up

I just spy.  Nobody has noticed me so far. 

When I saw that it was the woman with the kids and the man with only one leg who were shouting at each other, I craned my neck.  Mostly the woman was doing the shouting and the man was standing there, balanced on his crutches and making the odd (apparently really annoying) rejoinder. 

Some people had dropped some stuff (white chunks of Styrofoam, maybe) that the three youngest children had been playing with.  (I don’t know where the baby was in all this.)  If the stuff hadn’t been broken before, it was broken now.  The children had played a bit with the pieces of the broken stuff, and now they were standing around looking at the broken stuff.  The shortest one had his thumb in his mouth, and the other two were looking around for opportunities. 

At some point, the second tallest one kicked the shortest one in the back, at which point I gasped.  He fell right over onto the nice cement walkway around the nicely landscaped park which I can see from my balcony, looking like general paralysis was about to ensue.  Then he got up and resumed sucking his thumb.  The tallest one came and kicked him in the back, straight down again, at which point I gasped again.  He fell down, got up, and resumed sucking his thumb.  This continued more or less endlessly, except when things got especially interesting among the adults below me, as I watched from my cushy apartment balcony at which no one looks up. 

The woman would not shut up.  I don’t know what she was saying because, although I am taking Khmer lessons, I do not understand the language well enough to know.  I heard the word, “Jow!” which means “robber” in Khmer.  So maybe someone accused someone of stealing something. 

The guy with only one leg had been standing around in front of my apartment when I moved in.  One of my friends who had been helping me move, who speaks a bit of Khmer, relayed that he had been in the army but lost his leg from a landmine.  He was around a lot, always wearing a beige uniform of some kind.  I had nodded to him on my way in, but never really talked to him.  I’m busy, man.

Anyway, so I had seen them both.  I had watched the woman doing laundry in a bucket and wringing it out and pouring out the water and suckling her baby and feeding the kids, under the tree across (and DOWN; this is important) from my apartment.  The guy with one leg had seemed nice enough as I was moving in. 

Next thing you know… Well, I had given up on sleep and went inside to make a sandwich… When I got back out, there was a Brawl going on.  The screaming woman and the one-legged man were actually entwined on the ground.  His crutches were about twenty feet away.  He was grabbing onto her hair and she was pounding away at him.  People were standing around, but no one was interfering, initially.  Apparently there is no 911 in Cambodia.  The kids kind of stood there and watched.  Occasionally one of them would kick a piece of broken stuff, but no one thought to kick Thumb-sucker at that point. 

Since there is no 911 in Cambodia, I called my friend, who shall remain nameless, who is from the USA and has worked in a helping capacity (I suppose you could say) in Cambodia for four years.  I told her what was going on.  I just told her; didn’t tell her I was horrified or anything, because I really wasn’t.  I have been living here for a couple of years, too, so I am not as green as I used to be.  My friend has got an even cushier balcony than I do, with an even better view, and has been living here longer than I have, but she was interested and supportive.  She has seen some stuff from her balcony, you betcha, and tried to fix it.  So don’t get me wrong; when she laughed, she laughed with the requisite amount of frustrated anguish.  But she did laugh. 

I felt a bit better. 

In the course of this conversation on my cell phone, I looked down from my cushy balcony and found that I had been (not quite) able to keep tabs on the situation.  Honestly, I don’t know how it happened, but the woman was back up, the one legged guy was back up, and he was hopping around on his leg while the woman attacked him.  Between him and the woman was a guy who was waving his arms around, trying to keep them apart, ostensibly (heh heh) to protect the one-legged guy.  It took a couple of minutes for me to notice that the guy who was waving his arms had no hands. 

So, we got this one-legged guy and a guy with no hands, pitted against an extremely angry woman who will NOT SHUT UP, and three kids standing around, one sucking his thumb between bouts of getting kicked onto the nice tiled pavement of the landscaped park by (I guess) his elder brothers.  Dunno where the baby is.  Somebody probably has him/her. 

It all reminded me, of course, of stuff in Canada.  I guess the main difference would have to be that, most of the time, people aren’t missing hands or legs in Canada.  And it’s too cold to live in a park in Canada, most of the time.  And someone would stop you if you tried. 

How it ended:  Nobody got killed, or even hurt.  Eventually,  some of the people who had been standing around intervened and cheered everybody up.  A couple of women came over and fixed the woman’s hair.  The guy with no hands got a cigarette and a light from someone, and smoked it by holding it between his stumps.  Everyone was really helpful towards him, and if he wanted a drink they would put it between his stumps so he could drink it himself.  It was all very practical and pragmatic.  You didn’t get the sense that he was really disabled, apart from having no hands, which was obviously par for the course. 

Somebody brought the one-legged guy’s crutches back.  (Somehow, they, the crutches, had made it all the way across the street while I was eating my sandwich and talking on the phone.)  He went and sat on one of the benches in the park which has the logo of a local bank here, and had a smoke or whatever with some of the other guys. 

The woman walked around a bit, looking busy, and her kids followed her.  After awhile, she walked away (I think she had the baby with her, but I couldn’t swear to it), looking frustrated and still angry.  I don’t know where she went.  I haven’t seen either her, or her kids, or the one-legged guy, since then.  I had to go to work after that.  I’m busy, man. 

I wonder where they are.  I hope they are all okay.


Posted by julianyway on 01/21 at 03:17 PM | Permalink
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