Once, when I was a child, I set the garden hose to the sprinkler function and sat under a huge umbrella protecting me from the spray of water, just listening to its sound. It was all very romantic and strange. And it involved a huge amount of wasted water.
The past two weeks, I spent time in many villages in China and Cambodia. The peak of my beauty, I must say, occurred while I was in the countryside of China for four days, unable to shower the entire time. I applied bug spray daily, and it began to build up on my skin without regular exfoliation. During our stay, our hosts would bring us a small bowl of water every night to wash our faces and brush our teeth. And to be honest, it was that small bowl of water that I looked forward to every evening. I knew it was a lot more difficult for them to gather this water than it was for me to turn on a shower. To me that bowl of water was precious.
The more I spent time in impoverished areas of China and Cambodia, I realized how much of a blessed and excess-filled life I live in America.
On our last day in Cambodia, we decided to visit the slums of Phnom Penh. The slums are referred to by natives as the “Garbage Dump,” and true to its name, it serves as the garbage disposal site for many nearby factories. I’ve seen sites like this on TV multiple times, but it was only when I heard the sounds, smelled the stenches and felt the mud on my toes and the flies on my skin that the reality of the situation truly hit me.
Garbage floated in black puddles of water, stuck out of the mud and feces and was gathered in piles that were set on fire. Children played barefoot next to these fires. Houses were precariously built with wooden boards and metal sheets. The tarps that served as doors and walls were rotten. This was a village literally set up in the garbage dump of the city.
As I walked through the narrow mud lanes that separated these shacks, I passed by a metal table covered with strangely colored mold. I looked closer and saw that it was hard, stale rice that was so old and rotten it was turning pink. Flies were everywhere, burrowing in and out of the rice. Our translator told us that the villagers ate this.
My entire group remained silent, trying to put on smiles as we greeted the residents and played with their children. But one thought ran through all of our minds: “How can these people live like this?” They make People’s Park residents look like kings.
As I write this, I’m leaning against the King-sized bed in my two-story house, knowing I just ate a dinner worth more than a day’s wages to these people. I couldn’t finish my food the other day because I ordered too much, and I threw it away because I didn’t want to take it home. Every day, I live with such excess. Every day, my greed dictates that I buy more than I need, cook more than I can eat. I throw away perfectly good things because I desire newer things.
I’ve seen my share of World Vision commercials asking for money and support; I’ve heard theoretical lectures that have covered economic disparity and the causes and effects of it. But when I walked through the slums, listened to their stories and saw their tired faces, I understood what disparity really meant. And I was almost ashamed to have been unaware of it.
How many times have people joked when I didn’t finish the food on my plate that it was unfair to the children in Africa? And how many times did I brush it off saying even if I didn’t finish my food I couldn’t ship it to Africa? And yet, holding the hands of the young boys and girls in the “Garbage Dump,” I realized that it really is not fair to those who aren’t as blessed.
From food to water to money, the excess that we have in our lives is almost a given in our societies. In telling you about what I’ve seen, I am not condemning your excess. And yet, keep these stories in mind because they affect the way you treat your blessings. As we concluded our trip, my pastor said, “You have seen these things; now don’t forget them. You are responsible for acting upon them.” So I dedicate my last column to this very purpose.
Elie Wiesel, in his speech “The Perils of Indifference,” admits that indifference is seductive. It is troublesome and uncomfortable to be a part of another person’s despair. It interrupts our lives and makes it hard to eat a fine meal when we know our neighbor is suffering. It’s always the easier way out.
To anyone who reads this, never be indifferent. We are of one society and one world. We cannot fix everything, and yet indifference is an end, never a solution. Know these stories, and live out your own. Know your blessings, and actively bless others. Demand change where you see need and desire justice. Indifference is giving up — never give up.