The essay I wrote for July seminar. Undeniably patronising...though not intentional (does this make it even worse?)
Hunger is something that is unheard of in Japan nowadays, unless it is the self-inflicted kind. We only hear about people who were driven to eat dogs and bugs in times of extreme need, in stories passed down from grandparents' generation. (Insects may well be deemed delicacies in some rural areas, however. I have seen a man argue that bug cuisine is a veritable culture of Nagano and lament its gradual demise on TV once.)
It was an eye-opening experience for me, therefore, to visit Cambodia and meet its “hungry” people. “Hungry,” transcribed into katakana, means “aggressively acquisitive, driven, or determined to succeed.” The Cambodians I met during my short stay were hungry in both senses.
Cambodia has achieved an incredible recovery in a short period of time, although many parts of the country still lie in devastation the civil war left the country in. We flew into a magnificent modern airport, then I saw people still living in what appeared to be traditional hovels made of wood and straw, on the way into town from the airport. There may be a great chasm between those in power and the indigent in this country, but what I saw of the people subsequently on the trip was enough to make me believe that they would not stay there for long, what with their diligence and their indomitable aspirations.
Landmine victims play beautiful traditional music on the grounds of temples and shrines, with a sign that says that they do not want charity but we can leave something there if we appreciate their music. Young boys and girls dance at hotels at night, to tourists who enjoy traditional Cambodian food and “traditional” Cambodian dance. It was quite obvious that the boys were new to this dance, but I’m sure they’ll be quite professional in a year or so. At a breakfast table, one of the waiters came up to us and smiled broadly, and started talking to us. This friendly waiter stayed there after taking our orders, practising his English with us, while I became increasingly worried if we’d be served in time for the ferry. And our English guide told us that he was hoping to take classes in Japanese one day, so that he’d earn a lot more as a Japanese guide. Better English, or a “better language” directly translates to a lot more money in this country; a lot more money means a much better life, or at least no more hunger.
It was our good fortune to meet this guide, Mr. Pang, an intelligent young man, as casual chats with him gave us some insight into what life must have been like for him, growing up in Cambodia's troubled past. I had noticed that there was hardly any dog or cat meandering on the streets, so I became rather excited when I finally spotted a dog and I foolishly called out “Dog!” so there would be no mistake it was a dog. Mr. Pang instantly offered he knew a good restaurant if I liked dogs. In the following awkward moment, we both realised our mistakes. Another time, I mistook a statue for a live monkey, and that led him to tell us how they used to catch monkeys and eat them, but their hands. Their hands looked too human.
Cambodian people I came across on this short trip were both hungry and ハングリー. I thought I saw the reason behind the progress (if it indeed were progress) from the hovels to the airport at the end of the stay. I hope that one day, Mr. Pang will earn as big an income as any guide could, taking Japanese tourists around the country. And I’m sure he will not feel empty when his hunger is sated. That’ll be left to the next generation.