Growing up in Asia

Taken at Angkor Wat, c 1956
Disclaimer: Anything that I write is not intended to be a Booh-Hoo ballad. Whatever may have happened to me, by comparison to a vast number of my contemporaries, I have had a charmed life. Happiness is a bonus if you are able to create it. 
In my dark moments, reading about other people's experiences often made me feel less alone and less of a freak. I would feel blessed if what I write could in some small way help someone else.

After a single semester at the American School in Phnom Penh, I did not return, although I have never known why and never thought to ask. It had not been a particularly happy period as far as I was concerned, not because of the school itself, but because of a situation that rose out of my attendance there.

My memory of that time is curiously blank, except for that one experience. Within days of being admitted to the school, I was befriended by a girl of similar age and I suddenly found myself being taken home with her, not just for dinner or to do homework, but to stay and not just overnight, but for days.

As far as I can recall I was never asked whether this was something I wanted to do, nor was I in formed that I would not be going home for an extended period. I was just scooped up and added to the girl’s family.

All I can remember is that the children were all made to take vitamin supplements each day and that it was in the form of a foul-tasting green liquid. Sometimes it was added to orange juice which did little to improve it.

My main complaint, though I cannot recall voicing it, was that I missed my mother and I didn’t understand why I could not go home. There were no telephones, and I received no form of communication from my parents.

It was only after both my parents had passed on that I began to wonder why I never asked them about this curious episode, but based on other long ago situations, I suspect they would not have remembered anything about it. People seem able to suppress inconvenient memories.

It is entirely possible that the gap in my own memory of this time may be selective and when I thought about how the situation resolved, a rather uncomfortable possibility occurred to me.

The period of what I think of as my imprisonment certainly extended at least into one weekend and I can remember being in the bedroom that I shared with this girl. Mostly, I think we played in that room because unlike the rest of the house, it was air-conditioned. During the weekend at some point we both ended up in bed with some game of her invention. Her mother came into the room at this juncture and asked what we were doing.

It was only decades later that it occurred to me that my captor may have had any sexual intent. We were children, but that doesn’t mean anything. I would not have had that sort of feeling myself as I really didn’t like the girl. We weren’t touching each other, but the mother seemed disturbed and shortly after, my prison sentence ended! For the most part my mind has deleted this episode. Perhaps, as I was attending the American school with that girl, it was arranged for me to stay with her as a matter of convenience. It certainly would have been “convenient” for my father.

When I arrived home, as usual, nothing was said. For an extended period thereafter I had a fabulous time becoming some sort of street kid. We had moved into a house, and for a while I spent most of my time with Sai See, the maid, who lived in the attached servant’s quarters. She had a cat called Kliang.

In a sense, Kliang was my first cat. He was the first one I was able to become friendly with, and I had a lot to learn about cats!

One afternoon when my parents were taking their siesta, I was out on the street with Kliang when another cat came by. I decided that it would be nice if they could be friends, so I attempted to introduce them and ended up with a bleeding thumb. I still have the scar.

I had been warned by my parents to stay away from stray animals, and I knew it was because of rabies. I was too afraid to tell my mum that I had been scratched by a cat, and waited in fear for six weeks to see if I would become mad, since that is the way I thought rabies progressed.

Sai See liked going to the movies, so I was dragged along to see dramatic and strange Indian and Chinese films. I couldn’t understand a word, but you could get the gist of what was happening. The audience was always tremendously appreciative.

Sai See also introduced me to the many street vendors and the delicious food they sold. I would often sit on the veranda wall eating noodle soup or fried bananas and sometimes there was a sort of ice cream pop or shaved ice and sweet syrup. The water probably came directly from the Mekong, but I never got sick.

Water was never taken for granted. Our house had a big holding tank which my parents were responsible for filling. My mother and Sai See had no common language, as such, but they soon learned to understand each other. Our water was purchased from a young lad who would deliver it by the barrel-full. I shall never forget the words my mother spoke to tell Sai See of our requirements. “Two l’eau, temelaya”, Mum would say, which Sai See interpreted as “Two waters, tomorrow”.

Occasionally my Dad’s job required him to visit villages in the area and as I was no longer in school, if Mum went, so did I. Those visits were probably more informational than any day at school could ever have been.

Back then, although Cambodia had been colonized by the French, white people were still viewed with some amazement in the hinterland, and most of the people we visited had never seen a white child. Women often came up to feel my arms and stare at me.

Fortunately I was already used to seeing people in the Central Market in Phnom Penh, so the garish, alarming looking mouths many of them had did not scare me. Those people were merely chewing betel nut which was ground up and wrapped in lime-coated leaves. The result was a rather nasty-looking red mouth and black teeth.

When our Jeep passed people by on the road, mostly they would stop and wave and often they would call out to us. I had the sense of being a sort of nobility and yet in my mind I compared myself to the children I saw and I asked “why?”

Upon our arrival in Cambodia, my father had told Mum and I that if beggars came up to us in the street, we were to say “Allez! Allez”, meaning “Go! Go!” It seemed awfully unfriendly to me and I couldn’t quite bring myself to saying such a thing to an older person in particular, but why would I want to say it to another child? I had not yet begun to question what my parents told me, but perhaps that was the first seed.

I love Cambodian scenery, especially the lush paddy fields and tall palms.

The children here were destined to become victims, or perhaps followers of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the people I met are most likely no longer alive.

2 thoughts on “Growing up in Asia

  1. Your stories are so interesting. Things “happened” to me as a child that i also wish I had better understood at the time, and like you, i think about them now with adult understanding and have suspicions. No one is left to ask, and even if they were, I’m not sure I would get answers!

  2. I so understand what you wrote about with the girl. There are things in my past when I was so young that I can barely remember that I think about now and wonder, did that really happen? Thank you for being so open about your experiences.

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