I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark
Cambodia feels like an open wound. Still raw from a scrape with death, still aching from its painful roots. Reminders of the genocide are everywhere: in the eerie absence of the elderly; in the mountains of garbage that clutter the roads and define the landscape; in the pleading tone of the desperate tuk tuk driver, hoping for a day of work; and in the perfectly rehearsed sales pitches of the children peddling baskets of discount Lonely Planet guidebooks on every street corner.
For the second time in five months, I am walking the half-mile stretch to cross the border at Poipet—the gateway into Cambodia and the portal to its poverty. It’s hotter this time. It’s now summer, and the tropical sun rules the land in a brutal tyranny. After eight months of traveling, I’ve grown accustomed to the musty stench of my soiled clothes and the taxing load of my backpack that contains everything I own, but never to the heat. As I walk under the stone archway inviting me into the Kingdom of Cambodia, the black dots of dehydration appear in my periphery like passing planets to a sun-bound astronaut who’s drifted off course. My head is forever trapped in a fogged-up fishbowl.
Poipet is not a coastal town, yet everywhere there is evidence of a shipwreck. Scraps of plastic, cardboard, styrofoam, metal, and human flotsam appear to have washed ashore. The people I see seem like the only survivors, still recovering from this thalassic catastrophe. Families huddle together under facades of crumbling concrete, the remnants of homes. Everyone walks slowly, staring at nothing, myself among them. I can feel crow’s feet forming in the corners of my eyes from all the squinting. One thought raps relentlessly on the front door of my frontal lobe: I need water.
I search in vain for someone who looks like they might be sitting on a cooler, a makeshift minimart that often flanks the streets. But for the first time in Southeast Asia, I can’t find anyone to sell me anything. People are preoccupied, squatting low, on their haunches, with their faces covered and averted from the sun, trying to avoid the heat.
I am jolted from my feverish quest by a tug on my pinky finger. Two deep, dark eyes stare up at me, their depths like the abyss of a cave. A girl who looks to be about three years old stands obstinately before me like an avant-garde performance art piece. The canvass of skin covering her bones appears painted in haste, with sloppy brushstrokes, muddy streaks. She clamps her entire hand around my littlest finger with a firm grip and without the slightest indication of letting go.
“Excuse me, lady, one dollar. I need a dollar, lady. Please, lady, give me a dollar,” she chants.
I have a dollar. In fact, I have 300 of them stuffed neatly at the bottom of my pack. I had stashed them away for this very trip to Cambodia. As my semester teaching in Thailand neared its end, I carefully regulated every saved penny from my salary to fund a final trip around Southeast Asia before returning home to Atlanta.
Never giving money to panhandling children; it perpetuates their livelihood as beggars, I repeat in my head, the way I used to prepare for lessons and study for tests.
I had spent weeks reading and researching everything from personal blogs to the BBC. And every source answered my question of whether to give money to child beggars with a firm and stern don’t do it. They each echoed the same warning: “By feeling pity, giving money and food, child labor—a growing business—is supported and the children are sustained on the streets.”On paper, it made sense. And my response seemed easy.
But standing face-to-face with a three-year-old in Cambodia, my heart sinks and I panic. As a teacher and a student, I have never been as unsure of my answers. I can’t stop myself from thinking: What if they are wrong?
Reluctant to pull my finger from hers, we walk pinky-in-hand for several more steps before I finally untangle myself from her taut grip. I look at her and she expects me to speak, but instead of answering her question or acknowledging her presence, I look away. Our locked eyes make me feel a thousand times heavier than the fifty pounds I am carrying. A weight that recurs continually here, always with the threat to bury me in a quicksand of indecision. Eventually I tell her “No, I’m sorry,” but she follows me, tries to walk in my path, demanding me to notice her. She repeats her haunting mantra as if in a trance, “Just a dollar, lady.”
Ten months prior, I was in Atlanta, sitting on my bed, thumbing the glossy pages of a National Geographic, and fantasizing about the day I would soon be in Cambodia. It was a picture of Ta Prohm that had summoned me. The twelfth-century, tree-entwined Buddhist monastery was the stage for Lara Croft’s adventures in Tomb Raider and is one of hundreds of ancient temples that stand alongside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. On two full pages, creeping strangler figs and slinking lichens devoured the once indestructible ruins. It was a perfect crystallization of nature’s dominance over mankind. A reminder that nature can undermine even the apotheosis of human creations. I ripped out the pages and kept them in my purse for weeks. I wanted to be here, to feel small, and to stay inside this photograph forever.
When the day came for me to shrink my life into a backpack, I was staying at a friend’s house. Scattered across her floor were the remainders of my purged possessions and the things I would take with me. There were stacks of clothes separated into two piles—one for teaching and one for adventuring. There were labeled Ziploc bags, a diary of Anaïs Nin, a Canon Rebel. An empty journal and a manila folder stuffed full of goodbye cards addressed “Dear Miss Josalin.”
There were fifty of them, actually. One from every kid at SoulShine, the liberal afterschool program I worked at as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta.I picked up a card signed “Love, Emilia,” depicting an underwater scene: blue, squiggly lines for waves, spider-like crabs, swaying palm trees, and a mermaid replica, exactly the way I would have drawn it. For months at Soulshine, there was a mermaid craze, and it all began with Emilia.
Everyday after school, she would rush inside, throw her backpack to the floor, scarf down a hasty snack, and climb onto my lap. I loved the way her crimson curls bounced, giving off warmth and complementing her fiery spirit. I would twirl them in my fingers and she would, without fail, ask “Miss Josalin, today can we draw mermaids?”
I am not an artist, and my drawings were, at best, mediocre. But to Emilia, they were masterpieces. She praised me for them, begging me to teach her every step of my drawing process, eventually surpassing my talent and producing them en masse. The kids at SoulShine started to take notice, and soon every girl and even some boys were bombarding me with requests for drawing lessons. For hours after school, I would show them how two pencil strokes could make a ponytail and how a mix of blues, greens, and gold glitter create an iridescent fin. How a “3” and a capital “E” formed the outlines of a seashell chemise and how long eyelashes make the mermaid feminine.
Flipping through my cards, I saw dozens of mermaids. I closed the manila folder and wedged it alongside the few other carefully chosen items in my pack.
In Poipet, I surrender my quest for water and opt for a beer instead. It’s ten in the morning, but I feel like I’ve been in this city for centuries, and the cold, foamy taste in my mouth provides a refreshing relief. I try to focus, envisioning Ta Prohm, and examining the bus schedule to Siem Reap. Waiting for the bus, a young girl races me to the trashcan to salvage my beer can. She wears a ponytail and shuffles by with shaky, knobby knees, hunched over like an old woman. Her shiny, thick hair whips like the tail of a black stallion, with features both bold and refined, in utter defiance to her demeanor. She holds her t-shirt stretched out like a basket in which she carries her collection of tourists’ trash—her treasures.
I watch her attempt to add my can to the pile and fail. Her shirt collapses, revealing her scrawny frame, and bottles and cans topple in every direction toward the ground. She looks around, eyes racing with the trajectory of launched pinballs. Gathering the bottles, she drops them two more times before scurrying away. In a few seconds, she vanishes from my sight, but her presence lingers in my mind. Sitting and waiting, I wonder: Would these children be forced to sell and beg and scrounge and steal for their lives if their families hadn’t been butchered and uprooted in a ruthless genocide?
From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s government systematically massacred three million of its own people. Promoting a radical agenda of nationwide ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot and his obedient Khmer Rouge regime rivaled the Nazis in organized cruelty. With horrifying gusto, their motive was to purge and reform the population in place of a pure, agrarian Communist society. The entire country suffered, but the Khmer Rouge singled out certain people as the enemy. Among those targeted were intellectuals, city folks, minorities, teachers, writers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they captured Phnom Penh, the capital, and evacuated the entire city in three days. Once bustling, thriving cities became wastelands and torture camps. The displaced people met their fate in an orderly fashion: They were herded to labor camps, then torture prisons, and, ultimately, to their death in the killing fields.
My bus pulls out of the station and leaves the forgotten shipwreck survivors to fend for themselves. Poipet disappears behind me in a dusty dirt cloud like the phantasmagoria of strange dreams. I gaze out the window at vast, barren fields and conical tops of straw hats and wonder what the people beneath them had seen and felt and suffered when Pol Pot reigned supreme.
To save cash and prevent scams, I rent a bike from my hostel in Siem Reap at dawn the next morning. Ten kilometers of dirt roads and dodging tuk tuks, and I am finally amid the ancient ruins of the Angkor Empire. It is low season, so there are not many tourists, most of them choosing to avoid the oppressive heat. Normally this would be a good thing, but in Cambodia it means I am an easy target.
I arrive at Ta Prohm temple with high expectations, burning thighs, and half the vigor of Lara Croft. As at many of the popular Angkor temples, the atmosphere is frenzied. Tourists strike stupid poses, snap photos in rapid succession, and discover hidden crevices by way of their own routes. Local merchants cast their well-practiced lines into a sea of unsuspecting tourists and wait to see who falls for the bait. Their merchandise is often handmade: wood-carved finger flutes, jangly jewelry, charcoal sketches of Angkor Wat, and hand-painted clothing. All for one dollar.
Through the chaos and crowded amalgam of flashy new Apple products and sweaty bodies, I see my enchantress. The divine tree fatally intertwined with the ruins from the two-page photograph. Like a comfortable houseguest she sprawls out and makes herself at home in a sacred room of the ancient monastery. I situate myself in just the right place and take the very same photograph, though not as high-res and with an amateur’s eye. I take hundreds more as I explore Ta Prohm. It provides me with endless inspiration, and the ruins invoke my creative spirit. But what captivates me is a pair of young merchants. A brother and sister no older than nine with bright red baskets and stockbrokers’ enthusiasm. Squatting on a mound of rocks that have been squeezed out of place by thick, gnarled roots reclaiming the jungle, they scope out the torrent of tourists entering their domain. They wait like watchdogs, sniffing me out immediately.
“Lady, I have very nice jewelry for you. Come here, lady. I have many, many things for one dollar,” the girl says, arms draped with bracelets from her wrists to her armpits.
I’ve prepared something to say this time. Silence, I convince myself, reveals weakness. I try to appear honest and confident, hoping my answers will suffice them.
“I can’t today. I will be back though. I will come and buy some tomorrow.”
She glares hard at me. Her brother stands behind her with one hand on his hip, the other cradling his basket like a baby. I shrug my shoulders and reveal my empty hands.
“Not tomorrow!” she says, now indignant and miffed by me. “You buy now, lady. Tomorrow, I do not see you.” Wiping the palm of her hand down her face, “All farangs [foreigners] look the same.”
And indeed she does not see me. She sees what she wants to see: a rich, white tourist crippled by guilt who might dish out pity in the form of American dollars. And I try hard, but I do not see her either. I want to see a nine-year-old who runs through the ruins playing hide-and-seek with her brother, laughing and skipping, and free to just be. I want her to hold my hand and ask me about my funny clothes or my pale skin or if she can braid my hair. I want to see a child with the innocence that reminds me not to take life too seriously.
Just then, the wind kicks a slight breeze. A delicate dandelion flower floats by, hovering in the air briefly. The two siblings fall silent and still, their eyes fixed on this evanescent wisp of beauty until it drifts out of sight. And in this moment, they abandon their roles as pushy street merchants and again become children. I snap a photo of their sudden transformation and steal this moment for myself. When the dandelion vanishes, so too does their laughter and wonder. In Cambodia, this phenomenon of children behaving like children surfaces only in glimpses. I take a few more unimportant shots of big trees and crumbling rocks and exit the temple.
To my surprise, my bike—secured with a flimsy, shoestring-sized cable lock—is right where I left it. I try to drone out the cacophony of auctioneers offering me water and make a beeline for my two-wheeled getaway. But I am promptly intercepted and detained by a thin, young boy and eager guide. His hands are callused, and I feel tender when they touch me, grabbing my arm and dragging me along quickly. He seems like he has something to show me, but I soon realize it is me that he is showing.
He presents me to a group of kids of staggering heights and ages. They are his cohorts and his siblings, and it is clear who calls the shots. He points to the youngest, gives her the cue, and she yokes me with her eyes and begins rattling off her ABC’s.
“She can say her ABCs for one dollar,” my kidnapper says proudly.
I look around for an adult, but I see no one. And I remember reading that parents often get their children to do their begging for them. Smaller, cuter, and livelier, they have been proven more successful on the streets.
When he sees me turning to walk away, he runs after me, trailed closely behind by his well-trained posse. They crowd around me, hurling English phrases and fragments, convinced of their ability to sway me.
“Look, I can count to ten! One, two, three, four….How about ten bracelets for one dollar or a bottle of water? You are very thirsty, lady.”
I had seen this business savvy before. The same precocity, but with different motives.
A master of the ocean realm, Emilia soon advanced to drawing castle-dwelling beauties. She was diligent and her hobby easily gained momentum within her circle of friends. She started a drawing club composed of six core members and a handful of transient contributors who came and went depending on the day. After snack, Emilia would dump out every box of crayons into a massive pile in the middle of them, and the others would elbow each other to get a spot at the big picnic table. First attempts at mermaids, princesses, dragons, and castles littered the floor daily. Somehow crayon nubs covered entire pages with fantastic scenes and not an inch of wasted paper.
They drew constantly. And in a seamless transition from schoolgirl to sales executive, Emilia started a business.
“Miss Josalin, look at the mermaid I drew, just like you!” Emilia boasted. “Will you buy a picture?”
“Oh yeah? How much?” I asked, amused.
“You can get one for fifty cents or four for one dollar!”
Of course I bought them. I bought them all, with whatever change I had lying at the bottom of my purse. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I gave a dollar to some children. But these were children who had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. Children who got back rubs for bad dreams, and Band-Aids for boo-boos, and kisses just because. They didn’t need my money. The quarters I gave them would gather dust at the bottom of their piggybanks.
In Cambodia, my dollar holds power. And I’m unsure of how to wield it. Sometimes, I think I came here expecting to watch a performance, like an audience member snug and relaxed in her seat. Instead, with the swift crossing of the border, I am dragged on stage and thrust into the scene. How am I supposed act? What am I supposed to say? The plot is complex, and no one gave me a script. Uncomfortable and blinded by the spotlight, I improvise. I hold my breath, believing that a botched line or a missed cue could sabotage the entire show.
I am constantly torn, thoughts bisected between not knowing how to help and how not to hurt. I struggle to reconcile my heart with my head, my guilt with my gut, constantly. I am suspended in a state of hopelessness and inner conflict, always. Here, I am forced to confront life’s injustices and contradictions. Here, I learn that there is not an answer for everything. The aftermath of genocide is not easily reversed, and the people will go on suffering, creating, destroying, enduring.
JOSALIN SAFFER lays her roots in Atlanta, Georgia, where she received her B.A. in Journalism. She spent the last year living, writing, and working as an English teacher in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia. This fall, she will continue her journey as a writer and teacher in the Czech Republic. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Weekly, The Matador Network, and South East Asia Backpacker magazine. To read more of her published work, visit www.josalinsaffer.com.