We didn’t come to Phnom Penh with any particular agenda as consumers. I figured out the airlines’ baggage allowance, and drew up a list of the essential clothes and first aid, pots and toys that would get us through half a year in reasonable shape. And keeping in mind that I would be responsible for lugging the stuff around until we found an apartment, I considered it’s always easier to buy something locally than overstuff the bags. But since we’ve come here, I’ve become aware of a curious change taking place in our home. Well, what I’ve been seeing is what isn’t happening. We aren’t accumulating anymore. No incoming packages, no placating impulse buys from Target, no goodie bags, no plastic miscellanea. Food is coming in each week in our cloth bags from the supermarket, and a bag of mango pits, eggshells and wrappers is going out. Shoes are thoroughly destroyed, and then they are replaced. The same pile of Lincoln Logs is constructed and deconstructed over and over and over again.
I don’t consider myself a dogmatic consumer—mostly I treat shopping like a necessary burden—but this transition has opened my eyes to two phenomena that we took for granted before. First, we have been living waist-high in shit. As Americans, we’ve developed sophisticated systems to rapidly and hygienically remove the shit from all around us, but at the same time, we’ve built up a colossal appetite to be dissatisfied, to find occasion, to constantly, nervously, neurotically consume more shit. The suburban home is a tightly organized warehouse that cleanly disguises this lifelong accumulation while constantly requiring more. It holds its owner by the ankles, Don’t go! You can’t leave me!! By comparison, poor countries can’t get away from their shit, and so it is chucked in trash piles along the sides of streets, it is picked over by children, it literally plops out of the behinds of human beings and animals alike and dots the walkways, reminding us at each step, See? Your shit is everywhere!
The second phenomenon is finding that when kids aren’t presented with new stuff, they play with old stuff, and that when they’re not presented with anything, they play with each other. This sounds terribly self-evident, but it never seemed to happen that way back home. New things arrived whether we needed them or not, and accelerated the obsolescence of what had seemed yesterday to be enough. The steady stream of stuff kept up the adrenalin rush to get one’s fair share, and to stake out whose was whose. Nobody puts up a battle for old toys. They are homely and dependable and always available.
Away from the watchful eyes of Arlington uber-moms, I’m also testing the limits of what kids can do to each other when their play is not intervened. And as the solo parent 24/7, it’s a relief to pour a glass of wine, put up my feet, and watch the sparks fly. On Sunday at the pool, Tika grabbed Yoshi by the shoulders and pushed him down for so long that he flailed and rose up crying that he couldn’t breathe. Earlier in the day, Yoshi pushed Puck’s head into a doorframe, then pulled his sister’s feet out from under her. Don’t even ask what happens when they’re given a large dessert to share. Ernest calls it ‘Lord of the Flies time’. But when they’re lying in bed with the lights off, I can hear Ernest consoling Yoshi about friendships and classmates. TIika strokes her little brother’s head, and Pucks sings lullabies long after his sister has fallen asleep.
In a small apartment with very little to pick up and put away, I sip my wine and watch some BBC. Then, blotting off sweat and smelling like garlic, I climb into bed with my little ones—a bear with her cubs.