“Ready? One… Two… Three!”
And with that, I swung Liam forward with all of my strength. His laughter rang through the air while his legs pumped enthusiastically at thin air. Then my strength failed and he thudded heavily back unto the ground. I was afraid that I had hurt him but before I could catch my breath, he was back up, tugging on my hand pleading, “Again! Again!” Laughing, I caught his little hand in mine and mustered up all of my strength before I swung him up again, and again, and again, until my arms could no longer lift him from the ground. Then breathless, Liam and I would flop unto the ground and stare at the sky for a little while.
We did this every day.
I met Liam just over a month ago. He is eight and about a hundred centimetres. He has a gap between his two front teeth and it makes for the sweetest smile. He is affectionate and is always on hand with a hug. He plods along with a smattering of common English phrases and I do my best to meet him halfway with the few basic lines of Khmer I can remember (which most of the time no one could understand). Yet we get along amazingly. Liam was also Liam because his teacher had such a difficult time remembering the children’s names that she had given them all English names which they had all proudly adopted.
Everyday, Liam would come to me when the sun was at its highest. He would form my second shadow, only to disappear when the sun did too. And I would say to him then, “See you tomorrow, Liam!”
See you tomorrow.
All the children were familiar with this line. The volunteers would say this to them without fail every day once classes were over. Except on Fridays when it would be ‘See you on Monday!’ instead.
I turned my head to look at Liam who was already up and leaning over a puddle, his hand poised and ready to strike at what was most likely to be a frog.
How was I to explain to Liam in a smattering of Cambodian that today, it would not be ‘See you tomorrow’? It would not even be ‘See you on Monday’.
I thought about what one of the volunteers had told me the night before: “Don’t agonise over it. The kids are used to the coming and goings of the volunteers. Most of the volunteers usually leave after a week or two.”
It dawned on me then. I was not just teaching these children English. I was also teaching them that people would always leave. This month alone we had seen a turnover of 25 volunteers. Many of the volunteers had come a long way from home and this was one of the many stops they were to make on their trip in Southeast Asia – they did not have much time to spend here.
But we all came to this village because we wanted to help. We wanted to help these children improve their lives. In Cambodia, knowing English meant you stood a chance of getting a decent job. We had come with our bags filled with provisions for the children and we had dedicated our time to teaching the children. I felt like scoffing at that moment because my six weeks, which had seemed like so long before, now felt like a joke. What did I really hope to achieve in just six weeks? In that moment, I was no longer sure if I was doing more good or harm in being there.
Liam came back to me then, his hands cupped carefully together and urging me to take a peek. He had a frog sitting on his palm, no bigger than a fingernail. We stared at each other for a full second before it leapt right up and disappeared into the grass.
I told Liam then, to the best that I could with the little Khmer I knew and the little English that he did. I told him that I was leaving.
I wanted to tell him that I would be back, I wanted to tell him that it wouldn’t be See you tomorrow or See you on Monday, that it wouldn’t be goodbye. It would be See you next year! But I couldn’t bring myself to make a promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. So I swallowed the words and I watched as the smile in his eyes faded away as he comprehended what I was saying.
He was quiet for a while before he gestured at me, “Ying bye bye? Go Malaysia?”
I nodded slowly and he looked me right in the eye. I saw then not what the other volunteer had said I would, that he would have expected this. In his eyes, I saw that he hadn’t and that this had come as a shock. And with that, he turned around and took off.
I waited, but he didn’t come back.