A Cambodian Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving 1998, Phnom Penh

I spent Thanksgiving 1998 with garbage sweepers and pickers at the Stung Meanchey dump in Phnom Penh. I was working on a story about pollution for The Cambodia Daily. By the following year, I had returned to Oregon and I wrote a Thanksgiving commentary about the workers I had met the year before, particularly a widow named Ya. The commentary ran in the San Jose Mercury News, while my pollution story eventually grew and transformed into a chapter of my book.

Below is the original commentary. Readers have asked me: Is Stung Meanchey still that bad? Did I ever find Ya again? I never did find her, but I’ve met many others like her. And the dump has grown even worse.  

But there is one critical difference between then and now, between writing that commentary in 1999 and preparing to visit Cambodia again this week: I left the country bitter, angry and sad in 1999. But I have hope now. Things change slowly. Stung Meanchey is no better, and I could rattle on forever about what remains wrong with Cambodia. But the Cambodian people give me hope. Our friendships have only grown deeper. The people inspire me, and one day they will change their world. This year, I give thanks for that hope.


Ya and her co-workers, Thanksgiving 1998

Thanksgiving does not exist in Cambodia
Originally published Nov. 21, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News  

Thanksgiving 1998 passed like any other for Ya. She swept up rotten pineapples, human hair, soiled menstrual pads and used syringes. She worked with bare hands, in rain and sultry sun, with flip-flops on her feet.

She earned — she probably still is earning — 89 cents a day, shoveling Phnom Penh’s garbage into a dump truck. I was an editor at the Cambodia Daily, earning a salary that amounted to about $38 a day, and on that particular day I was paid to watch Ya work.

Now, a year later, I have a new life and a new home on Oregon’s Umpqua River. It was that easy for me: I moved, life changed. And I’m looking back, remembering Ya and my life last year in Cambodia.

Ya was 40 last year. She had three kids, a dead husband and a job she treasured. As she was telling me this, I was pitying her. I griped frequently about my job then, and I remember feeling shame when she told me: “I like this work. Why? Why? Because I have to make money.”

My Cambodian salary was a paltry sum by American standards. “Volunteer wages,” was what my philanthropist publisher called it; it was supposedly an honorable deed, working there, for a salary that allows Western journalists to hobnob at hip foreign hangouts where one-legged beggars paw patrons’ pant legs as they enter.

In exchange for this paltry pay, I imagine, I expected to feel fulfilled, finding people like Ya and writing what I discovered.


Stung Meanchey garbage picker, 1998

Well, I discovered this much: I would never be in Ya’s flip-flops. I was born American; she was born Cambodian, and that one compelling difference formed the ceiling — or floor — to our lives and, I discovered to my surprise, it put a limit on my empathy: I would never be Ya and so I could never truly understand her life. I could write about her, as reporters are paid to do, but I would then leave the story, the memories, even my tears, in my clips.

Ya, meanwhile, kept working.

She swept and tossed, swept and tossed load after load into the truck’s maw. Cockroaches scuttled between her cracked, sandaled toes. My husband and I rode the dump truck that day, just one day. It was life — it most likely will always be life — for Ya.

My husband, Jerry, is a news photographer. We were covering pollution in Phnom Penh. In Cambodia, garbage is the epitome of pollution. And so we tagged along as the garbage crew plied Phnom Penh’s streets, up at 5 a.m., an hour I abhor, even for one day.

That year a United Nations Population Fund report estimated that Phnom Penh’s 1 million people generated from 400 to 700 tons of garbage a day. PSBK is the firm that tackles Cambodia’s garbage business. On the morning I accompanied the garbage detail, the firm employed Ya, 691 other workers and 40 trucks to move the mess to an open landfill at Stung Meanchey, a place that burgeons with decay, spilling it into the surrounding villages. One PSBK report I read noted the widespread Cambodian tendency to “anarchically throw garbage.” I loved this phrase for its redundancy. Everything in Cambodia was anarchic, it seemed to me.

And hierarchical. Garbage is, typically, a class-defined Cambodian business.

As Ya worked, I noted three of her colleagues, men about her age: Ret, who wore an imitation Izod shirt; Ny, in a wildly patterned silk shirt; and Mo Vanna, who spent most of the morning veiled in a krama, the traditional checkered Cambodian scarf.

Theirs was a daunting, unhealthy duty, and they saw it simply as work. I smelled the stench, felt the rain, watched their lives for a day and lodged it into a pocket of my mind where, today, I have kept my Cambodia life as I try sorting it out.

I’m thinking of Lan, for example. He was a 40-year-old man who had driven a garbage truck for 13 years. Mostly, he listened to the radio. His job was a step above ground work, and it paid about $1.92 a day.

I can see Lan, crumpling an empty cigarette pack and tossing it out the window, oblivious to the irony. He saw me watching him and hopped out, looked at me, looked at the ground, picked up the rumpled pack and pitched it into the truck. Silently, I was scolding him.

Now I wonder: If, like Lan, I were a few rungs up from hell on the ladder of Cambodian life, wouldn’t I, too, listen to the radio, smoke cigarettes and toss the package out the window?

I remember noticing my Saucony running shoes (a costly design made for pronating feet) and my Gap jeans and thinking of the hot shower that would soon dissolve the grimy film that had settled over all of me.

I reverted quickly from silent critic to reporter and began scribbling furiously about the scene, trying to get it all down. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t reach the best parts, inside their heads.

Ya was working swiftly. Her kids, 10 to 17 years old, studied at the Stung Meanchey school, a foreign-funded hut abutting the landfill. I had visited it. It had a mucky walkway and health care posters dangling from the walls.

While Ya was sweeping up penicillin bottles and clamshells, a well dressed kid ran past en route to school. He had a black plastic bag, which Ny told him to throw in the truck. The kid threw it at Ny’s feet and ran, mocking the crew.

The workers found a 10,000 Vietnamese dong note, worth about 71 cents. Ret pocketed it, nearly doubling his daily wage.

At the next stop, they found a broken pot — the sort used for boiling herbal syphilis remedies — a dirty syringe, a fish spine, a Vietnamese newspaper wrapped around excrement.

At another stop, up the road: More dirty needles. Ya said, pointing to her index finger, “Twice I pricked myself a few months ago.”

The mist turned to drops. “We work in the rain,” she explained. The rain stank. She shoveled until the truck was full and headed to Stung Meanchey, that sprawling tableau of life amid filth.

I followed. For some — about 200 families who are entrepreneurs of a sort, scavengers at the very bottom rung of Cambodian society — there are riches in the refuse. They keep the best of what they find. What they found while I watched was the worst of human waste: entrails, excrement, meat trays, egg trays.

All this — the dump, the stagnant lotus ponds, the thousands of buzzing insects — is within sight of the hulking Inter-Continental, a four-star hotel that sells Cokes for $3 and housed my American publisher when he came to town from Japan. He held staff meetings in his 14th-floor room where I sat, nibbled a croissant and gazed out over Stung Meanchey, unable to see the people.

Phnom Penh wouldn’t see their faces either. While my paper’s weekend edition devoted an entire issue to pollution, the Stung Meanchey dump denizens were not included. Ya and the garbage truck, yes. The dump, no. Colleagues told me it had been “done to death.”

Done to death, the ultimate kibosh on any journalistic endeavor. This was the most wretched, mind-boggling, gut-churning display of filth and human penury I could have ever imagined.

Done to death, although I asked around, searched back issues and found just one 700-word story on the subject in the previous three years.

Done to death, although I still can see a girl sorting through bags of old bread, keeping some, tossing others. And another, hands deep in slop, adding spinach and rice to her “keeper” pail.

I had been to the dump once before for an exploratory walk. I had met a women named Mai, 30, in her home, which was a ragged, torn tarp. She hardly flinched at the pestering flies. The floor was a garbage heap. She had two kids and a husband; all worked — freelance — scavenging at the dump. Little black spots flecked Mai’s skin. My clean inner voice worried, “Will I catch something from her?”

On the southern hillside, a woman wrapped in a purple krama was selling ice slushes from plastic baskets. I followed a switchback trail carved into a 20-foot mound. Swallows chirped and dive-bombed the hills of garbage. Flies swarmed dense green pools of excrement. Burning garbage stifled the air with smoke. A wrinkled woman passed by carrying firewood on her head. An ice cream man, ringing his bell, wove through the garbage, barefoot, straining to pull his cart over lumps and ruts while flies clung to his ice cream sticks. A black dog with sagging nipples rolled on the hillside, then shook flies from her matted, muddy fur. Two schoolgirls in clean blue-and-white uniforms took a short cut through the dump.

The trail diverged. Straight ahead were two boys, one naked, emerging from the weeds. Boils, scars and lesions covered the naked boy’s skin. He picked at the ground with his toes, and orange flowers grew just beyond. Beyond that: homes.

Meanwhile, bulldozers had been raising the muck, clearing paths, trembling the earth. Children climbed atop a garbage truck, giggling as the rear door swung them to the top. And the trucks just kept coming, each new load drawing flocks of human scavengers who pounced with pokers in their hands.


Stung Meanchey drink seller, 1998

One scavenger, Kut Vundy, 17, wasn’t working much on the day of my Thanksgiving assignment. He wore a clean white windbreaker. He had worked at the dump for two years and he studied at a nearby school. His parents? “They don’t work. They are old,” he said. “I work here because I earn money…. I don’t like it. It smells. I get sick, I get headaches and stomachaches, bad health.

“I want to be a teacher,” he told me.

“Good luck,” I thought sincerely. Chances are, Kut Vundy is still there and will stay right there, turning to petty crime or worse when his optimism fades. And I, after a year in Cambodia, had barely a murmur of hope left in me.

Today, at home in my new life in Oregon, I am still waiting for hope. In Cambodia, Jerry and I were robbed — three times, outside our gated home. I can still feel the jab of a gun in my gut. I can still see a thief grabbing Jerry’s wedding ring, his gun pointed at my husband’s head.

I relive the September 1998 riots — “democracy protests,” people there called them, although to me they seemed more games of cat and mouse between soldiers and the unruly — or bored. I can still hear the Kalashnikov rounds, feel the guns firing 10 feet from me. I can taste the sweat of monks who fell on top of me as truncheons were bashing other protesters’ heads to the ground.

Two weeks later, Jerry took photos of bodies unearthed in the countryside, faces and hands blown to bits. I still wonder who they were.

I’d like to hope, but no, I don’t have much hope for Cambodia. Or Kut Vundy. Or Stung Meanchey.

This week, trying to relish my riches, I am thinking of Ya. And her co workers. And the dirty needles they dodged. The sickening stench on their feet. I am thinking about how I want more in my own life: career certainty, decent health insurance, a bathtub and a healthy stock portfolio. Stuff people at Stung Meanchey could never understand.

I’m thinking of the naked kid with boils. Of the rice paddies that sucked up the dump waters. I am wondering, while salmon spawn in the river outside my home and coastal deer scuttle across the lawn, about the random luck of being born an American who can leave Phnom Penh.


3 thoughts on “A Cambodian Thanksgiving

  1. What a beautiful, powerful piece. I’ve rarely read anything that moved me so much.

    And your narrative reminds us of something it’s all too easy to forget to do amid the stresses of the day: to truly give thanks for all the comforts, the privileges, and the wealth of choices we are lucky enough to have.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Melissa. It’s so good to know that the piece still has an effect after all these years. That’s my greatest hope when writing stories like these.

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