This month I turned 40. Saying that number out loud sounded worse with the sound of my voice, than in my head. When I was in my 20s, 40 seemed so distant. It was the age of my parents. Being 40 at that time meant being old and responsible. They seemed to be too busy working to enjoy life. I didn’t know what I would be like when I reached 40, but I knew the life I would lead would be vastly different than theirs. At that time, it was too far off in the distance, an intangible age that was difficult to imagine where I would be and what I would be doing.
Then one day, it crept up like a blink of an eye. I woke up and I was 40. In Cambodia of all places. It’s not only the significance of a new decade that has left me reflecting on my personal journey, but also my country and how in many ways we paralleled each other.
I was born in 1975, the year the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. According to the regime, I was born in the year zero; the year in which Cambodia started over, no culture, no religion, no education, no money, nothing. The country’s history and traces of our past and identity was erased like a chalkboard, as if it never existed. We were to be reborn again as a country, pure and clean like a baby. Yet this new world was anything but. It was dangerous and deadly and we were frightened of the road ahead.
Life for me, and the new Cambodia, was as fragile as a twig blowing in the breeze. A sudden gust of wind could snap that twig in half, like the whim of a Khmer Rouge soldier who decides you are his enemy that day. The new Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, was like a frail infant struggling to breathe, struggling to survive.
Miraculously we endured and went our separate ways; for me building a new life in a new land. For my country, being reborn meant rebuilding from scratch. Crippled by the lost years, we fell further behind than many of our peers and had to learn how to walk after years of struggling to crawl. Our parents were traumatized but they were determined to help us move on as best as they could.
In the 80s we adapted and rebuilt ourselves bit by bit. We grew stronger and regained our sense of identity and strength, but the path ahead was still uncertain. Then our tumultuous teen years came in the 90s, and we experienced a turning point. We had to choose to continue in isolation or integrate with others to find acceptance with the rest of the world.
In our world of chaos and uncertainty, we found a semblance of peace and stability through outsiders. Though it also came with a price; losing parts of our identity and sense of ownership for the greater good of self-improvement. We made mistakes along the way that still haunt us today. We adapted and moved on, as we’ve always had to.
Then a new millennium came and ushered us into a period of adulthood in our 20s and 30s. We transitioned out of the age of adolescence and began taking more responsibility for our path and began to see the fruits of our labor. As an individual, I built a family, a career; meanwhile oceans away the country made gains in economic development, poverty reduction, and reduced mortality rates. Much more remains to be done. We are very far from perfect, and far from where we should be, but we are working towards a path of progress.
As we enter a new decade I can’t help but think how far we’ve come; as an individual, and as a country. Research has shown that the 30s and 40s are the most productive period in one’s life. As my 30s become a distant memory, my hope it is that my 40s will be a stronger period of personal growth. For my country, I hope it will be a new renaissance period of enlightenment, progress, and equality. It is my hope that the 40s will be a decade in which we build a solid foundation for our children’s future. That we work hard to correct the mistakes of our past, and the inequity that remains staring at us. I hope in our 40s we will have more courage to tackle challenges with confidence, more assured of ourselves and our abilities.
It’s hard to believe that in 20 years I’ll be 60. I'm sure it will happen just as quickly as my 40th birthday. Where I will be I do not know. How far Cambodia will come in 20 years, I can only imagine the possibilities. But I remain hopeful that we will improve, because we can't go back. That hopefully with age and wisdom, we will both get better.