Letters from an Orphanage

As I watch you play in orange fields,
Blown open by landmines,
I marvel

How you will never have a huge birthday cake
with candles and whistles and a piñata and

friends from daycare,
to celebrate your

fifth birthday;
Your folks inviting friends you don’t like or your

best friend for today

and a new pal tomorrow.
Together, destroying Barbie Dolls, hairbands and plastic guitars,
yelling at Mommy that you would prefer

French fries and not green peas,


Spoonfuls of old rice,
raggedy dresses some other girl didn’t want;
every toy passed down is such a gift,
because nothing has ever


to you.

I think of how you would never see Disneyland,
that you would never have Mommy or Daddy
tell you a

bedtime story, sing you a


take you to the

library, or fret about your


college fund.

Smiles with so much joy
spilling over, even when your teeth hurt from
cavities, or when ankles are covered
with mosquito scabs, fresh and old that

never heal,
because you have no one to

dab lotion over the bites;
no one to tell you to

stop scratching.

How you clamor for attention–
anyone you could call Mama;
(Remember when another kid shoved you into the dirt,
I heard your cry and came running out the door)

When I found you, you buried your head

deep into my chest,
trying to find a refuge from this

sick war-torn grief-stricken world.

(Remember how you wandered the grounds all day smelling of pee;
Because you didn’t have any more clothes to change out of;)

Until I finally grabbed you and gave you a good bath.
Shampoo and conditioner, liquid soap,
And I draped a clean t-shirt over your head.

(How tightly you clung to me as I washed your clothes)
We watched a movie in Khmer as you fell asleep in my arms,




Maybe dreaming of a place where

parents never leave,
and where no one ever gets


for a bottle of beer.

© Alicia Khoo

Prey Veng, Cambodia

July 2010



10 thoughts on “Letters from an Orphanage

  1. I love this piece. What strikes me about your work is the universalism, whether you are talking about astronomy or human injustice, I feel your compassion and your care for the wider things in life. It makes me wish I could be one of your causes, just to know how that might feel…

    • Thanks Wuji, I was at this orphanage for three months. The heat, the lice, conditions in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, so unbearable but the kids had a smile on their face counting their blessings. I almost lost it when I gave this girl a small bar of chocolate (rare treat for them) and she broke it in two, thanked me, and passed me the much bigger piece.

      • Omg that is tear worthy. I’d love to see more of Asia. I lived in South India for many years, in a very poor region of Tamil Nadu.

        It’s crazy how generous the poor are and how selfish hoarding the rich are. What does it say of human nature?

      • I have a poem coming right up about India! Did you move there with your family or school/work, etc? 🙂
        Yep that’s what pisses me off about industrialized nations going into agrarian/subsistence nations saying they want to “help.” After all the concrete pouring and indoctrinating them in the system of currency and steel and vaccinations with reused needles, they make a huge mess and afterwards say, “Look how unhappy they are! Let’s go help them some more!!”

      • Kinda, I lived in an eco-village there called Auroville, my mother was a teacher and volunteer there and we ended up staying. It does a lot of humanitarian work with the surrounding villages.

        It’s a utopic community experimenting with everything from alternative energy, to alternative currencies and spiritual living.

        I’m very anxious for Asia to rise and the west to fall.

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