Another blag post, another su s’dai. If you’re reading this, I’m thinking of you and more than likely missing you, too.
The faithful among you readers will remember that last week we celebrated Visa Extension Day. And a celebration it was – I must have taught three classes that evening! What a crazy night. As my memories of such legendary festivities gradually returned to me, I began to muse over one chain of thought in particular:
Even as I anticipate my next two and a half months (See how quickly the time dwindles! Joel, I still can’t and doubt I ever will handle the passage of time.) here in Cambodia and at FLO, my mind has started to wander . . . toward what will I direct my energy when I return to the US? Rents, you’ll be glad to hear I’m already applying for jobs, as a good deal of my motivation for returning at all is financial. (Attn Student Loans: I hate you.) And would anyone believe that as I flipped through my mental rolodex (So what if I still have a rolodex? It’s functional!) for future opportunities, I actually thought-sighed, “Back to reality.”
Oh, I’m sorry Ann Marie; did you just imply that you’ll be returning to reality? As though from somewhere else? Where exactly do you think you’ve been for the past month?
Yesterday I went to a class in Phnom Penh to add some finesse or pizzazz (I’m honestly not sure which) to my efforts volunteering with the handicraft shop at FLO. Several artisans produce traditionally crafted silk products there, and the proceeds they generate help to support the children at FLO as well as the handicraft project itself. All I’m doing in conjunction with them, besides saying good morning every day, is editing and updating the promotional material. Anyway we all sat down for lunch together, and I happened to be sharing a table with three NGO organizers who know Phaly (the director of FLO) and asked after her, asked what I was doing in Cambodia and where I was from, the usual third degree. As I began to ask likewise, they told me about different provinces in Cambodia and one of the gentlemen offered, “All of the people you are talking to are former refugees. This is how we know Phaly.”
How, I ask in sincere seriousness and not at all rhetorically, does one respond? It’s not so unusual, I know, to converse with a person and be unsure of what they’ll be comfortable talking about. The extreme degree to which this (I would say, quite appropriate) uncomfortable awareness exists in Cambodia talking to anyone over 40 is something I’ve never experienced. If you ask where someone is from, you should certainly be aware that the entire urban population of the nation was displaced thirty-five years ago. It’s impossible to fathom; as I write I’ve lifted both my hands to my head several times in futile effort to comprehend. It verges on the unreal. I can’t tell if my mind is just doing a very poor job of relating or if the situation is so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced that I don’t even know how to imagine myself in that place; I’m leaning toward the latter.
As I corresponded with a friend familiar with FLO recently, she very astutely observed, “So many people at FLO and in Cambodia in general have gone through so much tragedy that it becomes banal and is rarely spoken of.” Everyday I’m surrounded by ten-year-olds who have seen more hardship than I will in a lifetime. Furthermore, these kids are (for the most part) incredibly candid when it comes to telling their stories – one wonders whether it’s due to such an intimate familiarity with pain or relishing any invitation to accept individual attention, and I’m sure both contribute – actually I’m sure there are still more contributing factors that I’m unaware of and leaving out.
What is still more staggering is that the children living here are the lucky ones. Every evening over a hundred children from the village come into FLO for English classes; just over a third of my evening classes are village kids. I was walking back to FLO from the primary state school the other morning, and I saw one of the young ladies in my beginning English class outside her home. She offered me a ride (driving someone or riding on the back of a bicycle is seriously the best way to get around FLO) and while we biked I asked if she had school in the afternoon (most of the kids at FLO have class at the state school either in the morning or afternoon, full time maybe once or twice a week). She said no, and I asked what she was going to do that day, and she told me she would go to work, but she wanted to go to school. This isn’t atypical: two village kids have left my evening classes (in the month and a half I’ve been working) because their parents take them out of school to go to work in factories.
And the village kids who aren’t in school still have a distinct advantage (just given their proximity to educational opportunities) over kids in rural areas – when you say ‘rural’ in Cambodia, you’re serious.
All of this is to say that in the course of my time here at FLO I’ve only continued to explore and consider my own understanding and experience of life, and what I can grasp of reality. Sure, I can come out here for a few months and involuntarily tear up when I talk and dream about my students and new friends, but what is the end of my efforts? (In an effort to understand that much more about Cambodia I’ve been doing a bit of reading on Buddhism, and that last statement just got my mental wheels turning concerning what end to efforts there is at all. There’s a lot about Buddhist philosophy that I’m critical of, even at its root, though there are plenty of valuable thoughts wrapped up in there as well. Right now my thoughts are regarding the joy I obtain from making efforts and feeling even a little bit satisfied, though more than likely inspired, by my attempts to fulfill them.) When I return to my own usual experience of reality, will I have accomplished anything lasting and worthwhile? Not just for me, although my own growth is valuable, sure, fine, but really: will I have contributed something? It seems almost impossible that I will have. But I still hope so. So wish me luck, kittens. (Sometimes I call my students ‘kittens’ in class. They’re confused and amused by it.)
I want to sign out by saying that the I lunched with the same group of people today, and the same man who told me that they were all former refugees challenged me to tell a joke – I naturally opted for my favorite joke, the one with the he(a)rd of cows, and I think it went over pretty well – and then countered my joke with one set in the Pol Pot Era, which I feel begs the question, do I just wear my diplomatic sensitivity that conspicuously on my sleeve and he is just totally effing with me?
Actually I think that more significantly displays the inherent positive nature that I’ve come to really adore about Cambodian people. A few of you are already familiar with my fondness for the biblical encouragement, “Be joyful always,” but I think there may only be one person to whom I’ve ever expressly stated why I consider it an important and valid piece of advice. We talk about and seek out and run after happiness all the time, but ‘joy’ seems seldom to be a goal, or even something we’re aware we’re capable of attaining. In my understanding, what makes joy special and worthy of pursuit is that it is happiness rooted in something more significant than immediate pleasure or some vague good feeling, maybe the absence of any present bad feeling. Joy gains its authority from faith (today I read of faith that “the decisive efficacy of faith is not that it stimulates its objects to act supernaturally but that it transforms the subject” – Mom & others reading or who have read tBK, put that in your treasure chest containing your impressions of Alyosha and bury it) that there are ideals worth striving for. Of course there's more to it than that, but there's always more to it than that.
Annnnd that’s enough out of me for one day! Thanks for reading, whoever’s out there.