Is this man poor?
If riches were measured in abs alone, he would be a wealthy man.
The noodle maker runs a simple guesthouse in a remote Cambodian village. He wears only a krama (scarf) as a sarong. Cows and pigs live behind his house. He gets water from a well and showers by dipping rainwater from a large clay pot (as did Chantha and I that night). He has an actual toilet, possibly one of the few in his village. A small TV flickers in his guesthouse “bunkroom” and plays Khmer music videos into the night. And every morning, he rises with the roosters (about 3am) to make rice noodles by hand with his wife and kids to sell in the nearby market. That photo series and story coming soon. He supports his family and his mother by selling homemade noodles and running a guesthouse that sees occasional visitors (like us). And I assume that, like most or all of his neighbors, he also grows rice.
I couldn’t speak with him except to say “Thank you” and offer the sampeah greeting. But I rarely saw the smile leave his (or his mother’s) face.
Cambodians (at the risk of generalizing) seem to me a very smiling people. I don’t know what to conclude from that, except that it’s oddly reassuring to walk alone through a rural village 8,000 miles from home, attracting curious stares, and to find your smile and sampeah returned, again and again. Does it mean Cambodians are actually nicer than, say, Muscovites, who will rarely return your smile in the street? (One Russian friend of mine joked, “Why are Americans going around smiling all the time? Are they insane?”)
I don’t think it means that at all. Kindness and politeness, after all, are two different things. I imagine it’s just a cultural habit—a common way to cover embarrassment or nervousness, maybe. In fact, I’ve seen a couple of documentaries in which former Khmer Rouge guards smile uncomfortably as they describe, with precision, how they murdered people.
So clearly, a smile doesn’t always mean what you think it means. It may or may not be saying, “I’m fine with you walking through my village, White Person.” But it still puts a tentative visitor at ease.
As for poverty, the question itself can seem terribly condescending, as in “Look at those picturesque dirt farmers! How I envy their simple lives.” Get real. Nobody much in America actually wants to exchange their iPhones and hour-long commutes for yearly bouts with malaria and dengue fever, or for starting work at 3am. (And not many Americans are as appropriately scaled for sarong wearing as our noodle maker is.)
I won’t presume to judge the noodle maker’s life, or to guess whether he’s happy or has everything he needs. What I did notice is that the night we stayed with him, his daughter (seemingly) knocked out her homework on the floor of the guesthouse. She may get up fantastically early to help out with the noodle making, but later in the morning, it seems, the noodle maker sends his daughter to school.
And that makes me smile.
Related post: Images from Cambodia—Young Faces