On December 23rd, 2014 I went out to the market near my house in Phnom Penh to look for a few last minute Christmas items. It was the early morning hours, right after I had dropped the children off at school. Traffic was rather light and I was lucky to find a parking spot, which in Phnom Penh meant jumping the curb and parking your car on any available sidewalk. I was searching the market for some flowers I could use for a Christmas Eve dinner I would host the next day.
I quickly weaved in and out each narrow path canvasing the market for flowers. As I walked towards the section where vendors were selling an assortment of shoes. I came across a young monk dressed in a vibrant saffron robe, about to give a blessing to a woman who was three times his age. She stood there, bowed her head down, and clasped her hands to her forehead. He started to chant in a monotonous tone, flickering his eyes for a moment to recite the words he worked so hard to remember at the pagoda. When he finished, she raised her palms to sa’thouk, the little monk, (a gesture of respect after receiving of the blessing) and gave him some money to put in his collection.
The entire episode was no more than 2 minutes but for a few moments, time stood still. The ambient noise of the market was drowned by the quite calm of his voice. I stood there for a minute contemplating the beauty of it all and the crossroads of my world of being a Cambodian-American. My mission earlier that morning was to find material things to celebrate a Western/Christian holiday with my friends. And in the middle of that journey, I came across one of the most fundamental anchors of Khmer culture and identity, a common Khmer Buddhist ritual in practice before my very eyes.
Finding Inspiration Again
It’s everyday moments like the monk at the market, riding in a Tuk-Tuk, getting a fresh coconut from the street vendor, and simply having the chance to speak Khmer everyday to people that I miss the most. They were unique moments that became common. These moments were colorful and lively, sometimes frustrating and fulfilling at the same time. Towards the end of my time there, I felt I was ready to leave, needing a break from the heat, humidity, seemingly daily challenges and lack of patience once experiences from being in a place for too long without a break. Thinking the grass was greener on the other side.
It’s been almost 7 months since I’ve left, and while the air is cooler, fresher, and there IS actually green grass in Virginia things are less colorful, less inspiring, somewhat less motivating for my will to discover, in the same way that it was in Cambodia. Perhaps it's because I grew up here and thus less things to discover. For human nature, the familiar becomes boring. I knew my time was limited in Cambodia, and tried to pack in as much as I could. I was only gone three years, a blip on the radar, compared to being gone from Cambodia for over 35 years. There was a lot of time to make up for.
I seemed to find inspiration on almost every corner of Cambodia. I was on a mission to dispel some of the negative perceptions that plagued the country for years and through my writing, hopefully inspire those in the diaspora, especially the young generation, to rediscover their roots. This gave me a sense of purpose and direction while I was there.
The dust has settled in the chaos of our overseas move, and I’m learning to adjust again to a new but familiar way of life. There are sometimes moments of reverse culture shock that makes me nostalgic for my time in Cambodia or certain memories that suddenly pop into my mind for no reason. When those feelings of nostalgia come, I turn to the photos of my time there and look back fondly of the memories I made. While it’s been difficult to find inspiration here, at least the same kind I felt while I was living in Cambodia, the photos still serve as a constant reminder to keep telling my story, my journey. Though, I'm still trying to figure out how to best do that when my body is in one place, but my heart in another.
Looking back at that memory of the young monk I can still see him clearly in his vibrant orange robe and the innocence of his face. I can still hear the soothing chants of his blessing to the woman. It is a blessing that I carry that memory with me, and the thousands more I made when I was there.
photo GALLERY: my favorite things
A few of my favorite things I miss seeing or experiencing everyday in Cambodia. All photos ©Banyanblog. Please seek permission before using photos. Thank you!