She Sat On a Tiny Stool

She sat on a tiny stool, not a foot high, just outside a stall that sold woven baskets. A baseball cap, adorned with spangles and English letters she could not possibly understand, was pulled down low over her forehead, hiding most of her face as she bent over her handwork. She pushed a needle, trailing a long, thin strip of plastic tarp through the larger piece; she was sewing two tarps together to make a bag that would be wider than she was tall. The air was still in the aisle of the outdoor market; the afternoon’s approaching thunderstorm had yet to spawn the breeze that would cool the air below 100F. Sweat glistened on the back of her hands and forearms as she bent to her task. It was late April, 2013, and we were on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, in the Thai town called Poipet, a few hundred yards from a crossing point between the two countries, inside the smuggler’s zone.
Maybe it was the whiteness of my legs, showing below my knee-length shorts, or maybe it was just the fear of someone approaching too close: she raised her head, tilted slightly so that just one eye could peek out from under the bill of her cap. Her gaze traveled quickly up to focus on my eyes, and then just as quickly she lowered her head and focused even harder on making her stitches. In that one moment when our eyes met, I knew this for sure: I could not possibly know what her world was like, nor she mine. To be 14, female, and born on the border was a life fundamentally different from anything I experience. To be 58, white male, and born in America was a life she could only imagine through the warped lenses of her culture’s stories about foreigners. Yet we have something in common: human. I moved a few dozen meters further along the aisle, paused to wonder over the origins of a small wooden totem, and after a few minutes found myself drifting back towards where she sat on her plastic stool. Now a friend squatted close by her, and the two talked quietly together. She smiled at something her friend uttered, and then her head jerked to the left and an older woman, walking as if her left hip were fused and unable to bend, came out from behind the baskets that hung across the front of the stall and into the aisle. The woman began to berate the child, and her friend scampered away, ducking as she passed by the old woman as if dodging an expected blow, and disappearing among the crowd of people moving along the aisle. The girl on the stool cringed, as if she could fuse with the ground and thus not be hit, though the only blows raining down on her head were verbal. This time. I wondered; slave, kin, employee? I will never know the answer. But you might buy the purse that will be shipped in that bag that she was sewing, some day. And you’ll only buy it if it is cheap enough. This vignette is a peek into one aspect of how they are so cheap, these things we buy.

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