A few years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the capital city of one of the world’s poorest nations. Over three weeks, I saw the best that Cambodia has to offer: the smiling faces, the genuine kindness shown to absolute strangers and a national spirit that has persevered through wars, genocide, famine, corruption and abject poverty.
Don’t get me wrong; I know that Cambodia has its problems, and there are some very cruel people there. But I was lucky during my trip, because I never once felt unsafe or unwelcome on the streets and in the alleyways of Phnom Penh. Not a single person threatened me or tried to take advantage of me, even in rural and remote areas. Instead, I discovered people who were proud despite the suffering.
I find myself thinking about this because there are times when I feel unsafe on the streets of my own neighborhood, in the capital city of the world’s richest and most powerful nation.
The truth is that mine is a neighborhood where a kind “Excuse me” to someone on a Metro escalator can be met with a response of “Fuck you” or something even more threatening and hate-filled. Yet, when that happened this morning, for a brief moment, I blamed myself. Maybe I’m to rigid in my belief that you stand on the right of an escalator so that people can walk on the left? Or maybe it’s too much to expect that simple gestures of courtesy should be met with the same?
How is it I would feel safe on the streets and backroads of Cambodia, yet an equally out-of-place Cambodian in my neighborhood would likely get cussed out or have his money stolen from him by someone taking advantage of his naïveté?
Maybe I’m just naïve in my own country, in my own neighborhood. I’m at a loss to understand.