Living in Cambodia Part Two: More Reflections

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I’m safely back in Seattle, USA. White clouds loom over me thickly. Green trees are in every corner. The air is brisk and biting. I have to wear layers. I have to squint to see through the brightness. There is no sweat. There is noise, lots of noise, in the restaurants and bars. There is space and quiet outside. The roads are smooth. The hills are steep. The cars are many, and they are orderly. It stays light out until 9 or 9:30 at night.

It has been a difficult transition back to this town, this place I called home for three years. In many ways, I sincerely and severely miss Phnom Penh. I miss the heat, I miss the crowds, the busy streets, the regular cycles of day and night. I miss the dust. I miss the dirty streets. I miss the constant movement, the constant activity. In some ways, I miss the lack of shade and the unbearable lightness of urban sunlight. I miss the friends I knew, and the many faces I didn’t. I miss the fruit and the meat and the fish and the strange vegetables. Obviously I miss the cheap food and the cheap cost of living.

But here I am under the many conveniences of American life. I’m once again back in the landscape of the fancy, where I can get Starbucks 5 minutes from every location, where I can get in a friend’s car and just drive. There’s freedom here. But there’s so much more, so much more uncertainty.

When you first live abroad, you think, “Wow, there are all of these things I took for granted where I come from.” You’re not only surrounded by the perspectives of the majority (in my case, the Cambodians), but also the perspectives of all the other minorities–Australians, Europeans, South Americans, Canadians, other Asians–and everything comes together into a new range of perspectives, a new melting pot, that is absolutely fantastic as it is horrifying. The “island” of your homeland, of your home country, becomes one that is fantastically strange. “Oh, wow, Americans are loud, and we use credit cards to buy almost everything” are a couple statements you might make when you get into the superficial contrasts in culture.

When you return home, you start to see the deeper differences in the world around you. You start to project everything you came to value in the foreign experience onto everything that surrounds your homeland. You start to realize the gaps between the two. You start to think about what was missing from your previous life. In Cambodia, for example, collectivity and community and individual sacrifice is normal under professional, family, and personal contexts. There is a degree of “giving” that is unmatched by many people in many subcultures of America. Though there are certainly “giving” people here, and very, very kind people, that they are not the norm makes them stand out, sure, but makes them seem flanked by the majority ideology in a landscape of supreme individualism and, to be drastic, selfishness.

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Even the language of “I” (using “I statements”) was completely different over there. Among Westerners and Cambodians alike, talking in conversations was normally inverted. Statements involved commenting on others before commenting on yourself. The “you” statement (“You actually talked to him?”) versus the “I” statement (“I can’t believe you talked to him”) seems simple but is foundationally different, and of course I grew completely self-conscious of my own linguistic behavior and adjusted accordingly. And since being back I’ve constantly noticed the self-centrism in communications. It’s a good thing, because it means I can continue to make myself less self in an attempt to translate my previous comforts of community into the communities I previously known.

There is something maddening about the face of despair and disease in the USA that I don’t remember “seeing” as clearly in Cambodia. From the drunks standing in and around bars, to those pour souls screaming on the streets, to the silent, defaced individuals working at the cafes, there is a distance between individuals here that unnerves me. Some of these elements of mental health and social behavior are greater in Seattle than other areas of the country, I realize that, and it’s hard to make blanket/generalized statements, but they are visually noticeable and, in many cases, difficult to deal with. I’m sure most of my friends in Cambodia, and myself too, had extreme disparities in mental health, but there was a general concern for happiness and connectivity, even desperately, but still normal-seeming, that kept me and my crew together in an act of energy, trust, and reliance. Did that exist for me in Seattle, before? Perhaps it simply wasn’t as obvious to see, even if it did exist. Certain illuminations occur when we least expect them, make us turn over stones and reflect on previously-hidden realities of life.

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Cold in the night, it’s been a bit hard, clutching my blankets, to not think of the smiling faces of those who were in my life, both temporarily and consistently, during my time in Cambodia. Penhleak, Kakrona, Yenda, Daen, Andrea, Stephanie, Antoine, Jialing, Eitan, Kristina, Borey, Sok Lak, Vongseng, Sros, Linda, Heng, Khiang, Kara, Tana, Nary, Sokunthea, Ratana, Huy Eng, Saren, Naro, Seila, Try, Emanuel, Eric, Terry, Margaret, Kolap, Wanna, Dana, Chheangly, Chakriya, James, Phally, Soknea, Sok, and all the others, these were the people who allowed me to rediscover myself by leaving myself and entering their lives. The invitations were gradual and amazing. And unforgettable.

It’s difficult thinking about how experiences are different out here. It’s only been 48 hours and I’m not working and I’m living in a moment-to-moment space. I can’t imagine how it will be interacting with my family when I go back home, or how I will interact in working environments, but one of my major skills I’ve learned has been patience. There is so much patience required to switch from the Western to the Cambodian way of life: from tasks at work to meeting up with friends to enjoying a meal. There’s a reason lunch breaks are two hours long rather than 30 minutes. There’s a reason no one expects people to be exactly on time in any given circumstance, for a date or for a casual meeting. So many factors go into “barriers,” where barrier shouldn’t be considered a negative, but rather simply a push and pull keeping people from being so abrupt, so rigid in their daily lives. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve already faced difficulties with impatience, with promptness. I foresee them continuing.

Over the next five days I’ll be perusing Seattle and, when I can, posting new thoughts about new differences I’ve encountered. Then I’ll be in Maine, where my goal will be to write significantly about my many friendships and interactions in Cambodia. I hope to write something, a long essay, or book, that can accurately illustrate what life in Cambodia is like today, something most people probably haven’t a clue about. (I already had to deal with more than two Pol Pot references since being back, which confirms said suspicions.) After a month in Maine, I’ll be driving across the country. All of these activities are so starkly different from my life in Cambodia that I hope they don’t overshadow the past 9 months completely. And yet, Cambodia instilled a sense of humbleness, sincerity, joy, and compassion within me that I don’t imagine will be easy to shrug off anytime soon.

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