Phnom Penh: The Two Sides of Cambodia (Day 11)

I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the nature of Cambodia’s people, and I’m still somewhat at a loss. Everything about their recent history points to a justifiably unhappy present, yet I’ve continued to witness small moments of happiness, especially from children. As a foreigner, I feel that I am only exposed to two sides of Cambodia. First, there is the side that perceives me as nothing more than a tourist and treats me as such: this is where I encounter Cambodians who are very reserved, quiet and serious at best, and dismissive or shamelessly trying to rip me off at worst.

Then there is another side where I am recognized as a foreigner who is here to help their people, and actually has thoughts and feelings. It is on this side that I meet Cambodians who smile at me, engage in conversation (albeit in broken English), and offer me a glimpse into their culture and day-to-day life. Somewhere in between these two sides lies a truth that I may not be able to fully comprehend, at least not on this trip. I don’t expect to spend two weeks in this country and walk away with sound knowledge of who its people are – I think they themselves are still trying to figure it out. Even so, I long to understand how this country is healing less than 40 years after a horrifying holocaust.

I’ve been so frequently surrounded by happy children that I may not have been as diligent as I should have at noticing the suffering that is constantly happening around me. I was reminded of this yesterday when I visited a North Korean restaurant (yes, you read that right). Before going, I learned that since Cambodia and North Korea have very positive relations, there are numerous North Korean establishments in the country. The workers are all “imported” North Koreans who are only allowed to leave the confines of the strictly guarded, windowless restaurant to go food shopping once a month. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were greeted by a fleet of equally dressed waitresses without a trace of a smile on their faces. It didn’t take long to decipher the suppression and misery that must accompany being trapped in an establishment day in and day out, stripped of liberty and forced to spend all day serving people who still have theirs.

Dinner was accompanied by a complementary show, which consisted of the very talented waitresses singing, dancing, and playing instruments. When they stepped onto the stage, the previously miserable-looking women plastered huge, fake smiles on their face that instantly evaporated upon the completion of their performance. I wondered how many spectators noticed the sadness and emptiness that haunted their eyes. So many people around us suffer, and we don’t see it because they put on a smile and grit through it. It’s even more disturbing how easily we accept that there is nothing wrong with them. Think about how many times you may have put on a façade yourself. Sometimes, hiding behind that mask may be the only way that we can summon the strength to survive a bad situation.

I cannot imagine how many times Cambodians have had to put on this mask and find ways to hold on to the good that exists in their country. A visit to the National Museum yesterday taught me that Cambodia was once a huge empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431 AD. The Khmer Hindu-Buddhist empire has such an incredibly rich history that Cambodians take pride in, including the majestic Angkor Wat temple complex (which was voted #1 place to visit in the world by Lonely Planet this year and I will be visiting this weekend), and it is too often trumped by the residual trauma of the recent Khmer Rouge.

Although it is rapidly growing and recovering, Cambodia today is just a shell of what it once used to be. Visitors come and ogle at its external beauty, and despite the blatant poverty, I’m unconvinced that most walk away with an understanding the depth of what its people have gone through. The Cambodians that we outsiders encounter during our visit will not reveal their struggles and worries to us – and why should they? We see what we want to see anyway, and Cambodia is such a beautiful performance that it’s easy to look away once its actors walk off stage and return to their realities.

Today I was reminded that I, too, am sometimes guilty of this deliberate ignorance. I’ve raved about how happy and upbeat the children are, perhaps partially to convince myself that this is their temperament all the time. I was snapped back to reality when my first student cried today. After a lesson on activities, I asked each student to tell me what their favorite hobby was. One of them froze when it was her turn – at first I thought she did not understand, so I asked again. When I saw her tearing up, I finally understood how deeply humiliated she was for not knowing how to answer me. I skipped over her, but the damage was done. She remained silent and refused to make eye contact for the rest of class, and when I approached her at the end, she burst into tears. As I held her and wordlessly tried to comfort her (I didn’t know what to say, and she would not have understood), I scolded myself for my negligence: however happy these kids may be, I temporarily forgot that they also feel pain. Just because it has not been exposed to me, it does not mean it doesn’t exist.

I don’t think I will reach an understanding of whether Cambodians are happy or unhappy, and frankly, the question itself is moot. What I have repeatedly seen in my time here, both with the children and with the people I’ve met, is that happiness is achieved by living in the moment. Considering how barren this country is of opportunity and prosperity, thinking too much about one’s future is a sure formula for hopelessness and despair. Cambodians take life by the day, figuring out how to make the best of the moment they’re in. From my conversations with locals, I’ve learned that family, community, and taking care of one another plays a pivotal role in their everyday lives.

It’s fascinating to think about how different this mentality is from Westerners’. We spend so much time thinking about the future, perhaps because we can afford to. My time in Cambodia has reminded me of how many of the mindsets we take for granted are actually a luxury: not having a religion to hold on to for faith, being affectionate to our children and caring for them, even little things like being vegetarian or eating healthily. There is so much we don’t realize we are allowed to do just because we have a little bit more than most of the world. We find happiness in the prospects of a future, while less fortunate communities seek it in the reality of their present day. Which is better? It’s hard to say. But I’ll admit, I’d rather find happiness in my reality than in a future that does not yet exist.

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