Monday, November 28, 2011
As a result of the hysteria generated by the western press, and perhaps a bit of racism as well, today I was accused of being a pedophile, for absolutely no other reason than being a white male in the company of brown children – my son and daughter.
First, just a bit about us. I’m 50+ years old, white, a businessman and have lived in Cambodia for more than 18 years. I’m married to an Asian woman. We’ve been together more than 10 years and have two beautiful children - a 9 year old girl and 7 year old boy. We are the natural parents of both. They are wonderful children, the loves of my life. They are well-behaved, excellent students and speak perfectly accented American English as well as 2-3 other languages. And though it sickens me that the situation requires me to make note of their racial features… though they are not distinctly Asian, they are darker than me and not 100% European in appearance, to anybody with an eye, clearly ‘kon kut’ (mixed race.)
I work a lot, perhaps too much, but always reserve Sundays for my family and children. It’s become a Sunday afternoon tradition in our family to give Mom a break, some time for herself. The kids and I always go somewhere together on Sunday afternoons - the Museum, the park, the Palace, the Russian Market, or quite often the riverfront for snacks and CD shopping, as we did today.
We took a tuk-tuk to the riverfront, got out at K-West (Sisowath Quay and Street 154) and started walking up the riverfront road. My children were dressed in their Sunday best, happy and smiling. We strolled hand in hand, my daughter anxious to buy the newest installment of Harry Potter at the CD shop, my son looking forward to strawberry and passion fruit ice cream at K-West.
We hadn’t got but 40 meters when I noticed a woman – white, 50ish, seemingly a tourist - walking toward us taking photos in our direction. A man, presumably the husband, stood next to her. As we got closer I thought she might be trying to get a riverfront shot, perhaps of something behind me, so I stepped slightly to the side to get out of the way. But she tracked us with her camera. As we got closer and she kept shooting I furrowed my brow in a ‘what are you doing?’ sort of way, but didn’t actually say anything.
She held up her camera, pointed at it and said, “Internet!” I wasn’t sure I got the meaning so I said “what?” She pointed at her camera again and said with a smirk, “Internet,” pointed at me and said, “you pedo!” Hearing clearly but not wanting to make a mistake I stepped closer to her and asked again. She repeated, “Photo you, internet, you pedo…for police,” in a distinctly Italian accent. I said something like “These are my children.” She just shook her head and started to raise her camera again. I said, “You want police? You want to call the police?” She nodded. I said, “I’ll call police.” She nodded again and we stepped to the side of the pavement together. My children backed off a few steps, frightened by the obvious tension in our voices. I pulled out my phone, called my staff and asked them to call the police and I called the police myself as well. I told them where I was and asked them to come quickly.
We stood there uncomfortably for a moment. I considered grabbing the camera, but didn’t want to start a fight, especially with my children there. I motioned my children to us and told my daughter to explain who she was. I figured my daughter’s thick American accent alone should be enough. My daughter started to tell her name, age and such when the Italian woman cut her off. “No English. No English,” she barked. Startled, my children moved behind me.
We stood there another uncomfortable minute, waiting. The woman started to get nervous. She said “I go,” and tried to push past me. I said “No, we wait for police.” She repeated that she was going. I told her to either wait for the police or delete the photos. She said, “No, you pedo,” and tried to push past me again. I stood firm and told her we were going to wait for the police. She pushed me back but I stayed in front of her like a blocker. I didn’t touch her myself because she was a woman, but she pushed me back repeatedly. It became a jostling and yelling match, her pushing, me blocking, staggering down the riverfront back toward K-West. Khmers and tourists stood and stared at the commotion. I just kept repeating, “wait for the police or delete the photos,” as did she, “no, no…go, go.”
Through all this her husband did nothing to help her. I kept expecting him to jump in. Rather hoping he would actually. But he just looked uncomfortable, slowly, silently, wimpishly following behind his wife.
In front of K-West they jumped in a tuk-tuk. I thought about getting in too. Or perhaps grabbing a motodup. I saw my children standing about 15 meters away, wide-eyed. I didn’t want to involve them in a chase. This was already too much. I pulled out my phone and aimed it at the woman to take a photo. She screamed, “No photo! No photo!” and covered her face. It took a few seconds for my camera to work allowing her time to cover. I took several photos, all of her with face covered.
After they left, I called the police back and told them she was gone and to not bother coming.
My kids and I went into K-West, got some tea and sodas and we talked about what had happened. I tried to explain, leaving out the bit about pedophilia and replacing it with ‘she thought I was trying to steal you.’ “Why?” they asked. I could only say because I’m white and they look Asian. “But we’re a family,” they said. They know that their Mom is Asian and I’m a barang, but they haven’t yet learned that this is an important distinction in the minds of some.
I know there is more to it than that, but how do I explain that to a 7 and 9 year old?
In moments of silence, as they tried to comprehend what this woman had done, I tweeted about it. The whole thing left me rattled. Bitching about it on internet seemed to help relieve the tension a bit.
My daughter made an astute observation in the aftermath. Thirty minutes later, as we walked to the CD shop she said, “She knows nothing about Cambodia. Doesn’t she know that Asians and Americans can have children? She doesn’t know anything.”
I think my daughter is right about that, or perhaps even understated it a bit. The woman doesn’t know anything about Cambodia. She, in fact, probably only imagines she knows something because of what she has read in the western press, which is something less than nothing in many cases.
If this Italian woman isn’t simply a racist, her mind has probably been twisted by the constant stream of sensational, repetitive and often wildly-overstated stories of western pedophiles and abused children in Cambodia. And not only by the western press but by NGOs that profit from it and feed the beast with exaggerated stats and a constant stream of rehashed horrors stories that keep the funds flowing and the presses humming.
Back in the US a few months ago I saw MSNBC playing their 8 year old ‘Children for Sale’ video yet again, about a brothel village that hasn’t existed in more than half a decade. Some NGOs are still pawning off the ’33,000 child prostitutes in Cambodia’ stat when there aren’t 33,000 prostitutes of any age in Cambodia (link). Some Christian NGOs tell their people that there are women chained to beds and being raped in hostess bars in the center of the tourist district on the Phnom Penh riverfront. Every westerner busted for pedophilia in Cambodia is repeated in the international press for weeks while the fact that they make up a tiny fraction of the pedos in Cambodia goes unmentioned. Nicholas Kristof parachutes into Cambodia to do a sensational live-tweet of a brothel raid, painting himself the cowboy hero riding to the rescue of women and children in the Wild West (link1 link 2). Some NGOs in Cambodia parade their rescued victims (link) of trafficking in front of an insatiable press and voyeuristic tourists to repeat their stories of victimhood again and again - donations accepted. Sex in Cambodia sells.
Don’t get me wrong. Human trafficking and trafficking in children for sex is a real and present problem in Cambodia, and the rest of the world. There are pedophiles, especially amongst the Khmer and Asians, and certainly westerners too. It all needs to be addressed, there is no doubt about that. But the western press’s manic fixation on abusive sex in Cambodia has made the country name synonymous with pedophilia, unfairly and inaccurately so.
From her exposure to the press, tourists like this Italian woman think that pedophiles are as common as cockroaches, that any white man with an Asian looking child must be a pedo who can simply waltz through tourist areas in broad daylight with a prepubescent child on each hand. (And I can’t help but believe that if my children had been white, she wouldn’t have made this judgment about us.) Kristof’s sensationalism has 3-day tourists believing they too can play super-hero, identifying pedos at a glance, swooping to the rescue and saving a child in between their afternoon visit to the Royal Palace and authentic Cambodian Curry dinner on the riverfront.
Ultimately, as good as their intentions might be, as important as the problem is, the press, some NGOs and these misguided tourists are doing the country, the victims of trafficking, and yes, even little people like me a terrible disservice, while enriching and glorifying themselves in the process. This needs to stop. This isn’t a game or an action hero movie or an opportunity for tourists to feel righteous pity. The problems need to be addressed realistically and not in the context of sensationalism, mania, big-money, and dare I say, racism.
If, unlike this Italian woman, you have a reasonable, rational belief that you have seen a child in a risk situation, by all means, call the ChildSafe helpline, if possible keep the child in sight and wait until the ChildSafe team arrives to sort things out.
Anyway, I figure that when my photo turns up on some Italian website as another pedophile operating openly and with impunity in Cambodia, it will also include a story of my powerful police connections that were on their way to protect me and how she had to flee for her life. A narrow escape by our heroine, just like in the movies. Cambodia is a very dangerous place, you know. And her harrowing tale might even generate a few donations for some Cambodian anti-trafficking NGO.