The Price of Minty Breath

Every year, I take my adopted daughters back to their villages in Cambodia to visit their birth families. Before our most recent trip, my youngest asked me, “Do I have to sit on my grandmother’s lap this time?”

“Not if you don’t want to. I know it’s boring for you sitting while the adults talk. Let’s buy some sports equipment for the kids and you can play soccer with your cousins.”

“It’s not that.” She crunched up her nose. “My grandmother has smelly breath.”

“Oh. She probably can’t afford a toothbrush. Some villagers clean their teeth with twigs.”


“Yeah, twigs. They’re very poor.”

After spending a few nights in a Phnom Penh hotel, we climbed into our rental van for the four-hour journey to my daughter’s birth village. She carried her backpack, which I assumed she’d filled with books and toys to entertain her during the long drive.

Hours later, as I sat cross-legged on the bamboo floor of her grandparents’ open hut, my daughter whispered in my ear, “I left my backpack in the car.”

I pointed to some children outside playing badminton with the racquets we had bought. “Why don’t you go over there? Play with the other kids.”

“But I need my backpack.”

“Okay, then go and get it. The car’s unlocked.”

She returned from the van, backpack slung over her shoulder like a Santa sack. She sat inside the hut, put the backpack on the floor, unzipped it, reached inside and started handing out toothbrushes to her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and anybody else in arm’s reach. It was like Christmas.

Then out came soaps bars, small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion, all with our hotel logo blazoned across the packaging. She’d raided the hotel amenities cart!

I wanted to tell her that Santa Claus was watching, that he doesn’t look favourably on little girls who steal, but I saw the big picture. Surely Santa would reward her for compassion and generosity (even if it was at the expense of the hotel).

On second thought, perhaps this act of compassion was not as selfless as it appeared. By handing out packets of toothbrushes and toothpaste, she was ensuring her grandmother has minty, fresh breath next time we visit.


Whether or not my daughter’s gift giving was driven by compassion or calculated craftiness, I think it was pure ingenuity. It’s easier than accepting the other obvious alternative; that she learned her light-fingered antics from me. I have been known to pluck the odd toothbrush out of an unattended hotel amenities trolley.

The upside is that I uphold my daughter’s dental hygiene standards; I do have minty breath.

Any Comments?