Staying Upright (6/24/2013)
I’ve decided that working in Cambodia is like learning to ride a bike- in Cambodia. My California mind (working at least 9 miles over the speed limit at all times) attempts to maintain balance while carefully navigating concern and optimism, frustration and fulfillment without much regard to stop signs and red lights. As our NGO prepares for routine inspection and work sometimes dwindles, I breathe deep and try to quell the restlessness that fills my head, my arms and legs. This is not a boredom combatable with WIFI or a good book. (Just finished Gone Girl, a thriller about the murderous daughter of two psychologists….) It is a restlessness generated by seeing people wrestle with the great challenges of poverty, corruption, and inequality combined with an understanding that my comfortable life back home is inextricably bound to theirs. We are connected by a world of international economics and business- evident in Cambodia’s KFCs, Dairy Queens, and the imported technologies which few Cambodian can hope to afford. A world of politics, privilege, and presumptions, in which Cambodian children must learn English in order to read their own textbooks. A world in which an American college student can expect to be of help in a country where she does not speak the language, and in a world where everyone asks about Obama while few people back home can name the Cambodian Prime Minister of over two decades. A world, which I’m sorry Mr. Friedman, is far from flat. I feel restless as I desire to harness that connection for something productive and kind- a task much easier said than done.
So, in order to maintain balance, I find myself recalling the dozens of little things (and big things disguised as little things) that I saw or encountered or just appreciated that struck me as special or just made me smile outside of the office. These things are obviously not a part of the work I set out to do, but keep me upright and happy, and guide my understanding of Cambodia in unexpected ways. The list below is far from complete, but helps describe why in Cambodia, amidst the many challenges, life can remain so beautiful.
Things I am amazed by or grateful for or grateful to have seen:
Older brothers and sisters caring for their siblings
Not getting hit by a moto
Friendships forged over coffee shop conversations
Smiling girls picking flowers by the roadside
Not hitting the cow that crossed the road
The incredible generosity of my neighbors and host family
The courage- or simply lack of fear- of Cambodian construction workers (seriously, we need from institutional protection here)
The hundreds of “hello!”s I receive in passing
Watching the volleyball games played in empty lots
Cambodian cooking (not easy)
Mothers making their children laugh
Husbands making their wives laugh
Feeling the wind on the back of a motto
Opertunity to pet an elephant
Students so excited to be attending a university
People eager to contribute to a brighter future for their country
These little moments, and infinite others, make my day and help me keep my balance. I am so appreciative of the people here, truly some of the warmest individuals I have ever met. This is Cambodia, a nation of people and not just a nation of poverty, which definitely continues to teach me. Every day.
On a final note: this weekend I crossed something exciting of my bucket list… We visited Olympic Stadium (where the Olympics have never been held) and stopped by the pool where I JUMPED OFF THE HIGH DIVE!! This may sound petty, but this 40 foot jump marks the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It was excellent. I climbed the four stories of rusty, thin steps to the top level where a dozen of Cambodian boys looked at me with complete shock. Gapped mouths and open eyes. “Really?” one remarked, as he told me to keep my arms to the sides or straight up in the air “Or else it will hurt…”. In my fifteen minutes of fame, I was the brave white girl cheered from the stands and even filmed on several cameras. And when once my flailing, airborne body completed the 6 hours of free fall (condensed into less than 60 seconds of actual time), I landed somewhat smoothly and could not stop smiling. Even though I felt a little less brave when the 7 year old jumped after me, I could not be happier. Thank you once more Cambodia!