I lead a very small life. I get up and go about my business and to most I am an unknown. I am a nameless stranger on the streets of a city whose language I cannot read or speak.
Yet, everyday I feel welcomed. When shopping, the generosity of a smile, when I struggle to communicate, calms me down. The old ladies of the market laugh at me but I can see the kindly twinkle in their eyes as I stumble through buying my vegetables. The toddlers, standing on the footplate of their parents’ scooter even shout hello as they go past. So I may be unknown but I’m not unnoticed. As a foreigner, a barang, I stand out. I am tall, even by British standards, so here in Cambodia I feel as if I’ve come down a bean stalk. I sail around the town on a big old fashioned bike, having eschewed the ubiquitous motorbike, gathering smiles.
In my small life, these seemingly meaningless interactions are anything but. Each one contributes to a sense of happiness. Here in Cambodia people are shy but they are not wary. Having come from Europe where the single adult male is shunned as potential stranger danger it is lovely to receive happy waves and carefree waves and hear parents encouraging their children to say hello.
I will never change the world and I have no aspiration to do so. Nor will many of the people I see every day. However, a cheery hello or an open smile can change someone’s day. I know this because the good people of Battambang share their small city and their kind, friendly nature with me, making my small life a happier one.
I met a man the other day who blew away the cobwebs that had gathered in forgotten corners of my mind. Through his conversation he gently reminded me of lost passions and interests that have lain, unvoiced, in the hinterland of my consciousness. He was travelling at light speed through South East Asia. However this cosmic hare paused for breath before zipping past me, the earth-bound sluggish tortoise.
We talked of things from home mostly. A trip back to the familiar which was less memory lane than a base touch with my own culture. The politics of the left and the left out was discussed over one too many beers and the world unable to righted was dispaired over. We shifted our focus to love and relationships and discovered much in common. We both believed in the openness and flexibility of love. Seemingly polar opposites, the more we discussed the broader out common ground became.
When he left I knew that I would never see him again. I wish he were a tortoise because I could have travelled and talked with him forever. How easy life would be but I don’t fall in love with tortoises. I fall in love with hares and so I wake up with spiders rebuilding their homes in forgotten corners.
Cambodians smile a lot. It’s one of the most wonderful things about living here. There is almost no situation where a smile is not appropriate. Unfortunately the smile had dropped from this Cambodian face.
He wasn’t very happy and he seemed very anxious for me, the source of his anguish, to share in his misery. I had tendered my resignation and he thought that telling me I was a bad person and how I had acted wrongly would make me reconsider and stay. There was nothing positive evolving and in the end I left the room. I had tried to do what I perceived to be the right thing, but it wasn’t being well received.
Outside, I spoke to a kind and helpful colleague. He always smiles and is a delightful man. I was trying to rebalance the situation. Even on the Asperger Path I like to leave avenues open though I seldom return. In the course of the conversation I made a comparison with England. Like a bullet from a rifle, the angry man charged from his office to chastise me for talking to his subordinate. You’re not in England now he shouted, this is Cambodia. He was right, but this Cambodia was rough and angry and not like the land of gentle harmony I have seen so far.
I have a month’s notice period to work. It feels like it might be tough. I have a plan though. I will take a gentle path and wear a Cambodian smile. After all there is almost no situation where it’s not appropriate.
I took a moment the other day to look at the pond skaters living on the surface of the water. I should have been concentrating on the sun slowly rising over the ancient Angkorian temple but the Asperger Path often gets diverted. My Syndrome give me an ability to focus but also makes that focal point quite random.
I am, of course, digressing.
The pond skaters were there and I was pondering. I watched them whizzing about on the surface and creating magical patterns on the solemnly still waters of the pool. I was captivated and hadn’t even thought to look deeper. The fish were pointed out to me and then I saw them in the shadowy depths. Solid and sturdy, these creatures barely moved while above, their ethereal neighbours performed a showy cabaret.
Here in Cambodia I feel like a pond skater skimming the surface of a culture that is too deep for me to comprehend. Look at me I want to cry out I’m in the water! I have come to make a difference to the pond. As I skate around, making a big performance, real life carries on beneath me, oblivious and untouched by my presence. I am living on the surface. One day I will fly away from this kingdom but the fish will still be there quietly living and flourishing in the deep wonders of the Khmer culture.
The post started by asking when respect had disappeared. There has been an long exchange on the Siem Reap expats page of Facebook. An American has ranted about the noise of loudspeaker outside his room and the lack of respect in modern Khmer culture. I should have sympathy for him as not so long ago I was the victim of a Cambodian wedding’s speaker volume. However the exchange has brought much darker issues to the surface.
There is a man, a Swedish man, who is blaming the Cambodian people for the Khmer Rouge. He is coming to the defence of his American friend. Now I am not known for my pro USA leanings but I try not to blame any stray Americans who cross my path for the startling catalogue of dubious activity which that bastion of democracy has achieved. A people and their governments or regimes are not the same thing. Cambodia is not a perfect country and it has had a terrible recent history that will take years to recover from. I am lucky to be here and work as a teacher. I hope that the lives of the Cambodians I have met will continue to improve. Poverty and corruption are easy to find but so are happiness and laughter. Living abroad is a great gift and one that, when done through choice, is a gift that only the relatively privileged can afford.
Complaining about being disturbed by weddings, muttering about respect, and then randomly moving on to not wanting to be forced to get a work permit doesn’t sound like racism, that sounds like a petulant toddler who can’t have things just so. However hese two friends have shown, through their comments, that they regard themselves as intrinsically better than their hosts. Now, I don’t know what you think, but that does sound like rascism. These two men might be great people. I’ve never met them so I can this Facebook debacle is all I know of them and it has not parented them in a favourable light.
Living in a different culture is always a challenge. It brings both amazing rewards and unexpected problems. Being on the Asperger Path I know a lot about frustration and how cultural differences can put you off kilter. Dear reader, if I am ever racist or xenophobic while I write this travel blog please let me know. I hope that am respectful even in my most difficult moments.
She sat down on the bus and asked me if I had liked the town. She was Dutch and had spent a couple of nights in Battambang and was heading back to Siem Reap. She had done everything in Cambodia and was about to fly home but hoped to return to Asia next year. She politely enquired where I was headed next. I explained that I was working here for a while and would return tomorrow. She immediately asked if I felt comfortable working in a country that is so clearly not a democracy. My answer was a disappointment.
I cannot vote here and I live on a visa which needs regular renewal. I cannot claim total disinterest in the politics here but they do not really impact on me. Yes, I know there is corruption here but I teach English to children and so I spend my working life talking about teddies, dolls and lost pencil sharpeners. My new found travel companion wanted more outrage and less resignation. She was just passing through but surely I should be more aware. She had read a lot about the situation here and had come here now as there might be a war next year.
Culture and politics are not to be treated lightly especially in a country whose history is so tragic and complex . Both require an understanding and an investment of time. Saying please and thank you is a great thing to learn in a language but demonstrates nothing more than good manners. Culture and politics, like language, are nuanced and subtle and require years of study to truly understand their finer points. I realise that I understand mere fragments of the culture and language of the country I am living in. I am not submerged in Khmer culture, it happens around me more than to me. If anything, I am submerged in a culture of well read travellers who are ticking countries and cultures of a list.
By the time of the 2018 elections here in Cambodia I will be somewhere else . If there is war like my fellow traveller predicts I, like she, will be far away. I may stay more than a day or two but l have an itinerary too. I am a traveller and I am just passing through.