A couple of weeks ago an almost-12 year old Weetbix came over to hang out. We were both tired. We spent some time picking mulberries, playing with the neighbour’s chooks and dog, watching cartoons and catching up on life. When it came time to head to the gym together for a class, Weetbix assumed he had use of my previous housemate’s black racing bike. She had moved out a few weeks earlier, taking her bike with her. Pete had since moved in with his white, step-through, wide-seated, basket-at-the-handlebars girls’ bike. It didn’t occur to me that this would be unacceptable to a cherubic fashion victim.
One of my first lessons about Weetbix came when he first moved in here at the age of six, obsessed with Ben Ten. He needed a sunhat for school and I was delighted to find a Ben Ten hat going cheap at Target. My delight soon plummeted at home when he told me in no uncertain terms that no way would he wear a hat like that anywhere. I remember thinking “but you’re six?!”. We lived together for two years and his fashionista attitude became very familiar to me such that we rarely had any issues over such things again.
Years later with faded memory, I naively commented while wheeling the bike out of the shed “isn’t it funny how my female housemate had a boy’s bike and my male housemate has a girls’ bike?”. Blissfully unaware of the reaction taking place before me, I dismissed suggestions that we call Weetbix’s carer and have them bring his bike over. “There’s no time, come on let’s go”. Jumping on my equally girlie bike, I headed out of the driveway and cycled towards the gym.
Halfway down my street I looked back to the sight of a downcast Weetbix slowly wheeling his bike along the footpath. Surely he would try to catch up when I disappeared from sight? I nipped around the corner and stopped under a tree. Nothing. Back at the corner I found him moping and realised there was no way we were going to make it in time for our fitness class. I cycled home, highly annoyed. Weetbix appeared behind me and handed the bike to me before opening the gate to the neighbours’, at which I sternly said he had not been invited to go next door. When I came out of the shed he had disappeared. After about half an hour I went looking and found him playing in the riverbed nearby. He saw me and turned his back on me. I rang his carer and they came to collect him without us having anything more to do with each other. A couple of days later I wrote him this letter:
I’m very sorry that I did not understand why you would not ride Pete’s bike on Saturday. I have thought about it and I do understand now, why it was a problem for you.
On Saturday I did not understand you, and you did not understand me. It would be silly to stay angry instead of trying to understand each other.
You asked me why I’m going back to Cambodia and our fight about the bike is kind of connected to why. The people there are really poor and their lives are difficult. In Australia we think that the way to be happy is to have lots of money and buy lots of stuff for ourselves. In Cambodia I learned that we are wrong about this, and that the best way to be happy, is to help other people. Poor people are always helping each other, and that’s why even though they are poor, they smile all the time.
This one little boy called Dara, is one of the Cambodians that I help. He only has one leg and his family are super poor. When I met him, he was so cute and funny, he reminded me heaps of a little . That is why I wanted to help him, so it’s kind of because of you that I got to know and help his family.
His family don’t have enough food to eat. When he needs to go to hospital he can’t always go because they have no money to pay the doctors. He goes to school but only for half a day because they don’t have enough money to pay the teachers for all day. He does not have any toys or books. His parents work as builders. It is really dangerous work because they don’t have any money for safety rules like we do in Australia. They have to live away from their family, so his grandparents look after the kids.
The only way his family can go anywhere, is to walk or go on an old bicycle. When I met them, their bicycle was broken and they couldn’t afford to get it fixed. Dara had to walk a long way to school and so a lot of days he stayed home. His grandmother had to walk to the market if she needed to buy rice, and carry it home on her head, which is really hard work for an old lady. I paid $10 to get their bike fixed and they were so happy even though it’s an old, rusty, ugly bike.
Anyway, hopefully you can now understand why it didn’t make any sense to me, when you refused to ride Pete’s bike. But we are in Australia and kids here, because they have so much, can be fussy about what they want. We are SO lucky, and because we have so many choices we can worry about things like what our bicycle looks like! I need to remember that for Australia this is normal and be happy for you, that you do have everything you need.
By the way, I also realised how clever you were, trying to find a solution about the bike, by asking to get your bike from the house. You are a very clever young man and I am often very proud of you.
Peace and a big huge bear hug
I added some photographs from Cambodia, of Dara and others, including a family of five getting around on a single old bicycle.
This has made me reflect a lot about what matters in life, about the way we manage conflict, about the priorities we teach to our children and about the pitfalls of our own privilege. I’ll blog some more about these issues sometime soon.