DISCLAIMER: I had an amazing experience where I met a remarkable person and saw and grew and was challenged to think and act in ways I never foresaw. This blog does not come close to doing my experience and his story justice, but I would need to write a book to accomplish that. I do not know what I can give back to him by writing this blog post, if anything, but maybe I can give back to others who are also isolated and lonely through making readers pause and think about the person they are interacting with, rather than just the helpfulness they represent in bringing a meal or taking the week’s garbage away. And maybe, maybe, one day you will discover a hidden secret or even magic in an unlikely place.*****
On Koh Samet (the island I went to last weekend), I had the honor and privilege of meeting and photographing Roa (not his real name), a Cambodian who also spoke Thai and English. Remember that classy resort my friends and I snuck into to “borrow” the private beach? Roa worked at that resort. I met him by wandering through the resort looking for someone for a photography assignment for class, and there was some quality about him that drew me to him rather than the giggling women cleaning windows.
Roa is a kind man, and a lonely one. He was 37 years old, and came from Cambodia alone to work at the resort. His English was rather good, so we were able to have long conversations. As best as I can articulate, Roa’s enigmatic quality is a mixture of careworn, loneliness, heartbreak, strength and concern. The closest I can describe my connection with him at the end of our two hours together is friendship, compassion and, oddly, kinship. The English language fails to produce the proper words and phrasing to communicate my deep emotions for him.
I took a lot of things away from our time together. How privileged I am to come and go as I please into any country, how lucky I am to have wonderful friends and family that I can talk to whenever I want, not having to wait to scrape together the money to visit home, and how amazing it is that I will probably always have a decent to high-paying job, working less than Roa’s 14 hour days but earning more than his $2.50USD per day. These things I knew in principle, but Roa helped hammer the ideas home.
But most of all, I took away the power and resiliency, the beauty of the human spirit. Roa is in Thailand alone; he does not have friends on the island, and his family is all in Cambodia. He works hard during the day, goes home to a deserted bungalow, sleeps, gets up early and does it all again. He does not interact much with the resort customers besides taking drink orders because customers rarely engage him in conversation. He kept asking me at first if I was looking for something or needed anything before I could explain I just wanted to follow him for a few hours. Not creepy at all, I know.
This was a saddening and frustrating thing I experienced; here was this amazing, strong, capable, trilingual man, reduced to taking food and beverage orders from privileged foreigners for $2.50USD per day. People ignored him, treating him like he was an automaton or someone not worthy of forging a relationship with. And this is one of the few things I can try to pass on to the world; people are people. Just because someone has a job looked down on in society, a seemingly “lesser” occupation, does not mean that person is “lesser”.
Roa gave me so much. He gave me his time, his permission to share his story, and a lot of compassion and insight into his plight. He taught me to open my eyes, watching the world with glittering eyes and a wide open mind. And I did not give him anything in return. Sure, I helped him sweep the sidewalk. And yes, I showed him that someone saw him as more than a machine taking drink orders by the pool, that someone saw the person behind the uniform. But beyond that, I seemed to take much more out of the exchange. And there’s something deeply uncomfortable but also beautiful about that. I’m an American with a lot of financial privilege and social capital, but it was Roa who taught me and helped me grow.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl.
I believe in magic. Not in the Harry Potter, wand-waving sense of the word. Rather, I believe that the world has a lot of special, wonderful people and ideas and experiences. If you take the time to get to know people, not the CEOs or the highly educated privileged few, but any person from any of the millions of walks of life, you will discover heartbreak and hardship, compassion and love, longing and joy. You will discover magic.
I will forever be grateful to Roa, and can only hope to one day come to terms with my lack of giving back to him, and my failure to understand even the fundamental aspects of our relationship, including why I wrote this blog post.