The white noise of the airplane cabin distracts my thoughts. I look down and see my youngest son sleeping peacefully on my lap without a care in the world. Then the lights of the cabin dim from bright florescent to a calm indigo blue soothing passengers to sleep. One by one they close their eyes, lulled by the noise and dim lights.
I can never sleep on an airplane and with a 20+hour journey to the U.S. from Cambodia, I always arrive weary mentally and physically. While I am always excited to see family and friends back in the States, I always dread the long journey to the U.S. and then back to Cambodia. But this time is different. This time it’s a one-way trip…
Three years ago I moved to Cambodia two weeks after my father’s funeral. Three years ago today, I published my first blog post titled “In Remembrance”, as a way to honor his memory and his love for the country. For three years I documented my journey and in doing so, I felt a stronger connection to him by discovering the things he loved about this country.
A DIFFERENT STORY
Many people have asked me why I wanted to start the blog. I wanted to tell a different story of Cambodia from a different perspective. The stories I mostly focused on were; the next generation of leaders, the modernization of Cambodia, rediscovering my cultural heritage, tracing my family's story, and the nuances of living in Cambodia as a returnee. In exploring these stories, I learned much about Cambodia and about myself. Together, these formed good and bad experiences. I also wanted to encourage those in the diaspora, especially the younger generation to visit the country. That Cambodia is not as “scary” as the news makes it out to be nor is it the volatile place their parents remember before, during and after the war. That if they overcome the fear, it will be an unforgettable experience, perhaps even life changing.
Much of what I wrote about also focused on learning and experiencing Khmer culture in such a way I never did in growing up in the States. Being fully immersed socially, culturally, historically and linguistically was both a deeply gratifying experience, but also at times very frustrating. I had to rewire myself to think differently, to change my expectations, to push myself to learn and get out of my comfort zone, and to accept certain social norms.
While I tried to focus on the positive, there were certain times when I just wanted to write about the negative; the stark inequality that stared at me every single day. It was difficult seeing half naked children pick food out of the trash, the luxury cars next to the worn out tuk tuk, a young mother sitting on a moto holding her baby in one arm and a wooden I.V drip pole on another while her baby receives treatment in traffic, the young skinny construction worker in his torn jeans and flip flops working in the 39 degree heat slamming concrete with a sledgehammer while a naked child plays nearby, the smashed parts of a moto (and sometimes human flesh) on the road after a fatal, but all too common traffic accident. All of these visuals were in my daily line of sight. So many times I wanted to look away. So many times I wondered will this ever change? So many times I wondered what I was doing here?
Then I remembered the other side of the experience and why I fell in love with this country when I first stepped foot 12 years ago. It was the wide-eyed friendly smiles of the people and a certain connection I felt the instant I spoke to someone in Khmer. It felt wonderful and innately familiar to hear a stranger call me “bong” or "aun" even though we weren't related. There was a great sense of pride seeing our ornate cultural icons dashed around the city from the spires of the Royal Palace to the distinct architecture of Mr. Vann Molyvann from a bygone era. There was an immense sense of hope meeting young people who had a vision of a better Cambodia and are working to make that happen in their own unique way from fashion and music to economic development and technology. Because we had a shared history, language, culture, and heritage, there was a distinct sense of community and kinship that I had never felt living in the States for 30 years. It was the unique sense of commonality, camaraderie, familiarity and kinship I felt everyday that cannot be experienced and replicated living outside of the country. Living there for three years I finally understood why my father missed Cambodia so much.
A NEW JOURNEY
It’s hard to believe I am already back in the States. Weeks have gone by and the monotony of daily routines, reverse culture shock, and adjusting to a new way of life are slowly fading the little details of the life we lived for 36 months. I will no longer be woken up by a rooster at 5:45AM when the sunrises, nor will I expect to see the sunset at 5:45PM everyday. I will no longer see the beautiful emerald green rice paddies of the countryside during the rainy season, nor experience the suffocating heat of the hot season, which I'm sure I'll miss during the long winters in the east coast. I will no longer hear the buzzing of tuks-tuks and motos on the city streets, or see the coconut vendors hauling their carts with fresh green coconuts. I will no longer pass by the Royal Palace and see the King’s face on an ornate stand. I will no longer see my name in Khmer script written across various stores and hotels across the city. I will no longer be called "bong" from a complete stranger. What I’ll miss most are the friendly smiles, the way in which we talked to each other in Khmer as if we were brothers and sisters because it is the foundation of our language, the many great people I met along the way, the sense of community, and everyday being a new day of discovery and adventures, big and small, fun and sometimes frustrating.
In Cambodia the path and purpose was clear, to learn, embrace, and reconnect. Three years was not enough time to learn it all, to embrace enough, and to reconnect deeply. But it was a big step forward in walking towards that path of discovery. Now my journey will continue in a different way, on a different path, but it will always lead me back to Cambodia. For now, this part of my journey is to be continued.