Walking away from a life that served me no more. My time spent in South East Asia and the lessons I learned
I haven’t always been passionate about the right things. For a while I was a lost soul with all the empty trappings of materialistic wants: nice cars, large homes, fame and fortune.
This all changed after spending a few months in South East Asia, I connected with the spirituality of the land and the people. In Thailand, I seriously contemplated joining a Buddhist Monastery — taking a vowel of silence and never returning to the United States — instead I continued my tour of Asia; super feeding my ego on consumerism, booze and men.
The day started out normal enough, me slightly buzzed/hung-over walking down the streets of district 13 to a mouth-watering bowl of pho. I noticed a child with a shocking deformity, very large head, bulging eyes — I kept it moving but couldn’t get his image out of my head. The day before I had booked a tour of Saigon, which is the former name of Ho Chi Minh City — a city with traffic that moves in a swirl similar to a school of fish — you walk at your own risk and they break as if you’re the predator and they’re the game.
I saw all the sights that day, The Independence Palace, Saigon Central Post, Notre Dame, and so on and so forth. But when we got to the Vietnam War Museum; LIFE began to change in a major way. I had never really thought about what being an American meant, how that identity co-existed with the identities of so many other sovereign nations and weren’t mutually exclusive. I came to a photograph of a young boy who had the same malformation I had witnessed only hours ago, it felt as if there was a rip in the fabric of time, my present smelted with the past, chipping away towards future destructions to come. I’ve never felt anything as intense and couldn’t stop the flood of tears. Below the photo the simple words, effects of Agent Orange chemicals. Image after image, relic after relic the agony, the pain and utter destruction caused by my country in a cloak of freedom, justice, and liberation. The pain I felt for the people of Vietnam that day began a process of change within me. You see it wasn’t a pain for what happen in the past but the realization that the continuation of pain would be forever perpetuated through the singularity of time; past future present. I no longer looked at my experience on this earth as an exclusive entity to the person on a continent afar. I began to understand that my actions, my thoughts, my words cause a ripple effect that supersedes our present understanding of time. We are doomed as a race if we do not come to a collective understanding of this concept.
As if the aforementioned experience wasn’t jarring enough, my next day would prove to be another formative event.
I met Tim in the streets on my third day in Vietnam, after what I am sure was a nightlong bender of booze and debauchery. I was nursing a major hangover and searching for a vantage point high above my towering ego where I could take a much needed respite from the dense atmospheric heat of Ho Chi Minh City — my sybaritism and the persistent hammering of my frontal cortex, call it a moment of environmental uncoupling or a man near the edge of self-destruction — either way I was in a ‘no good state.’
Tim at the time was living in Vietnam and he kindly gave me directions to a local place where I could sit above the city for a much-needed break and after a bit of coaxing, he came along. We began to speak more in-depth about my life; my struggles through childhood; my parents’ addiction; being gay, the toll of poverty, and the six+ years of psychical abuse I suffered from my Mother’s boyfriend as I drained copious amounts of Johnnie Walker Red and some odd elixir that seemed to make me never shut-up. He asked me ‘what was next’ and I said ‘Angkor Wat, duh’. Which made his lips curl with delight exposing his rather charming southern smile. He made me promise that when I got to Siem Reap I would visit the Best Way for Children Organization, an orphanage his NGO, Feed Starving People sponsored. I obliged and we exchanged contact information departed and went our separate ways.
Post visiting the Vietnam War Museum I wasn’t feeling so great about being an American, more specifically the tenants of what our society are supposedly built on; life, liberty, pursuit of happiness subscript capitalism and how everything seems to gravitate towards self worth being quantified in material possessions. More important then the thoughts coalescing in my head regarding my national/sub-sub-cultural identity; which happens to be further complicated by my cultural identity of being Black, I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like the person whom I become.
When I arrived to Cambodia I was in utter shock, nothing had prepared me for the dust barren earth that greeted me as we drove down the back roads while heading to my plushy three-star retreat.
I’ve ultimately come to appreciate the gesture from my driver to make sure I saw the real Siem Reap and not the tourist-direct rose tinted view most visitors receive. The shear number of roads left unpaved, or sort of paved but definitely left in disrepair, the eerie feeling of a place left to its own defenses and these words from my driver. “You see many kid on street because lot of parent die of AIDS.” As we approached town you could clearly see where the line had been drawn for the tourist with plenty as appose to the locals with far less. Our streets were paved, and roofs made of terracotta, there were pools and spools of people at our beck and mercy. My heart became heavy with sorrow — for they want only a little of the privileges I enjoy — and I have so many with an unsustainable thirst for more. I understand the argument; tourism is great, it helps the local people by giving them jobs and a stream of wealth they’d never have access to before, but damn its all mighty grim when the needs of the local people seem to take a subservient role to the whims and fancy of their foreign patrons.
The people there were beyond what I had until that time considered impoverished; yet they were just as beautiful as any person from the west polished and pristine, their smiles even more magnetic and their happiness palpable.
These enigmatic observations swirled in my head as I sat in this boat drifting in the lake of Tonie Sap thinking: what the heck have I been doing. Who cares about the latest I-phone, wearing the most expensive fashions, having the largest home, nicest car or my absurd obsession with fame or fortune? I was in the midst of a complete expurgation, left only with a hollowed sense of myself; my existence, and left questioning the hell out of the meaning of life.
On my way back to my resort as the sun was setting in the Cambodian sky; just off the horizon a group of boys were playing soccer, I told my driver to take me to them. When I got to the field they welcomed me as if I were one of their own encouraging me through chants of “America, America, America” A few of the boys whom had no shoes asked me for a dollar. What thought has never left me about this moment as I reached into my pockets and came out with nothing: A dark man came from America whom had nothing to give, he took and took plenty just as the light man once did to his.
The day I was leaving Cambodia I went to visit the Best Way for Children Organization. I was a shell of the man I once was and most definitely far older then when I had begun my trek through these foreign lands. It was a modest dwelling with two rooms.
Panly, a charitable man with a family of his own a wife and three kids, opened the facility to meet the needs of all the children in the neighbor hood whose parents passed from the seedy world of the sex trade in Cambodia. His lofty goals far exceeding his meager means and yet this fact could not deter him from feeding these 20 something young mouths.
The children, taking a break from their game of soccer, ran to greet me with joy and excitement; as if I were an ancestor from afar coming home to mystify them with tales of strange lands and knowledge obtained and ready to disseminate. They told me their names and ages in english, eager to learn as much as they could from this man from a land they’d never see on their own.
With my last $120.00 dollars here is what I did.
I purchased 25 loafs of bread at a cost of $4.50, 2 cases of orange juice, 5kg of pork for $17.5, 5kg of ice and 1 bottle of something I know not for $12.5, 2 50kg bags of rice at a cost of $70.00, 1 bag of garlic, 1 bottle of soy and fish sauce, a bag of dry soup mix and a bag of salt for $5.00, 2kg of dandelion for $1.5, 1 bag of sugar for $1.5, .5kg of onions $.38, 2kg $1.25 and 5$ of fuel for their tuk-tuk. This small donation would feed these kids for a month.
As I traveled back to the States and reflected upon my time in South East Asia I realized my purpose on this planet. I am to be the protector of those whom have no voice; to stand up for what is just, what is right and equitable. I am to be the light I see in the eyes of the children of the world.