Children. The Bible tells us they are a “heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127: 3-5). They are whimsical, carefree, and downright adorable. They are innocent, trusting, and unblemished by the tough lessons that we learn as we grow older. In short, children are precious. During my six weeks here in Cambodia, I have marveled at the children who live joyously despite conditions that make my Western, sanitized heart rattle. The more I see this country, the more I fall in love with the shy smiles and wide eyes of its children.
I have noticed, though, that the children here are more reserved than in the United States and in Guatemala, where I have done previous mission and humanitarian work. In Guatemala, children ran to me with open arms, flocked around me, tugging at my blond hair and giggling at my broken Spanish. But not here; Cambodian children will watch me, their large dark eyes illuminated by curiosity, but they do not come near. There is a consciousness that strangers may be entertaining, but only from afar.
In the United States, I have been a babysitter and part-time nanny. I have cared for twin boys (2 different sets, no less!), precious infant girls, and an assortment of elementary aged tikes. They are silly, generally happy, and willing to throw their love on any responsive stranger that comes their way (with a few shy exceptions). But not in Cambodia. Even after a morning of interviews and warm chatter with their mothers, children here are still shy. They are reserved and skeptical; hardened little observers who will watch you and even reward you with a smile, but rarely ever a hug or a handshake.
This is a striking contrast to Guatemala, where I was flooded by little Mayan babies. They loved to play, to dance, to take us by the hand and show us around. There was no bottom to the wellspring of enthusiasm that the Mayan children expressed for life. But in Cambodia, there is something that tempers this kind of reckless joy. It’s not that children are not joyous—they certainly are—but that they choose to reign in that abandonment when an outsider is around.
I am reading Samantha Power’s award winning exposé, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which is an expertly researched and engagingly written examination of America’s response to genocide in the 20th century. My boss lent me the book because it has a section on the Khmer Rouge and the “extermination” of the intellectual class in the late 1970s. Fascinating and heart-breaking, the book gives an account of the systematic destruction that wiped out over 20% of the Cambodian population, including children. In the wake of such a reign of terror, the hesitancy of families to be warm with strangers isn’t so out of place. But why the children?
Children are resilient. They can survive trauma better than we adults give them credit for. They can imagine a world free of the shackles of the one in which they live. They dream. But, they also can pick up on and be influenced by the nuances in our adult actions and reactions. As I encounter and attempt to engage (i.e. snuggle and love) these precious children, I wonder if the trappings of fear and mistrust that are deeply woven into the lives of their parents and grandparents are played out in their reserved response to strangers. And if that is the case, how unfortunate to live with that haunting sense of mistrust bred by an all-too-real and horrible past.
Each child that breathes is a child of the Most High God. Each child is a precious gift, a blessing. No matter what country, what religion, what race, what gender, what language, each child is a light and a hope. In the eyes of Cambodian children, wide and silent, I see that small flicker of hope.