Prior to my first visit to Cambodia, my knowledge of the country consisted of stories that I heard from my mom, the adults’ conversations at house parties, weddings, Wat (padoga), in the berry fields, and other people’s accounts of their vacations in Cambodia. Of course, being a child of Cambodian parents, I was very aware of the current government’s 30 year ruling and who the Khmer Rouge were. My knowledge of Cambodian culture was imparted to me through Khmer food, Khmer music, watching countless Thai and Chinese movies dubbed in Khmer, the discipline I received as to what a Khmer girl is allowed and not allowed to do, attending Wat for various ceremonies and the New Year celebration, watching my mom work hard to send money to her relatives in Cambodia, and observing social interactions whenever my family was among the Cambodian community. I knew I was Cambodian, but I never felt a direct tie to the country even though I had relatives who live there. To me, Cambodia was almost this imaginary land that only existed in history books, and in the memories of others, until I actually set my two feet on its soil.
My decision to visit Cambodia didn’t come to me as a desire to vacation in Cambodia. To be honest, looking back now I think the universe conspired to make me take that trip. At the time, I was recently laid off from my job, and enduring a break up from my first adult relationship. I was at a loss of what to do when a friend invited me to assist her with her research project in Cambodia. With no solid plan for the near future, and a strong desire to escape the pain of a broken heart and to find myself, I thought, “Why the hell not?” So two months later, I was on a plane to the motherland.
Hearing about the corruption that greets you at the airport, I already knew what to expect when I landed in Phnom Penh. As I handed my passport to the custom officer with a ten dollar bill neatly tucked inside it, I was surprised by my own voice as I exchanged pleasantry with the officer in Khmer. I’m not sure why I was surprised since I commonly spoke Khmer with my parents. Maybe it was because I knew I was now in a country where English was not the native language. I was now in a country where speaking a native language wasn’t just a necessity for survival but rather speaking it was me identifying myself as a koun Khmer (Khmer child). It was more than welcomed by the locals especially from a foreigner like me.
In total I spent four months living in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh to be specific. The first month was a blur of meeting my relatives, traveling to the beach in Kampong Som and admiring Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. It wasn’t until my family from the States left after the first month did I really get to live and experience Cambodia. Through helping my friend with her research project, I got the chance to meet the locals in a way I wouldn’t have been able to if I was just there simply living in Phnom Penh. I interviewed artists, students, a tuk-tuk driver, working professionals, etc. Their answers gave me personal insights to the Cambodian history as told to them, and as they experience it; their desires and hopes for Cambodian society; their sorrows and pleasures; and their love for Cambodia. This was one of the things I treasured the most. At times, it was hard for me to sit through an interview because I wished so badly that I could do something to help. Also, I felt a sense of guilt that I had this privilege to be the interviewer where I could have easily been the interviewee if luck had not been on my side. Because that is what my relatives never fail to remind me – that I was lucky to live in America.
Being constantly reminded that I was Cambodian American didn’t hinder me from fully embracing being Cambodian while living in Cambodia. I gleefully accepted invitations to eat beef skewers, pickled salad, and duck eggs at a food stall outside of Oreusey market, a local market in the city centre, on most nights. I was more than happy to bargain in Khmer with the ladies at the market when they mistook me for being Filipina and gave me the foreigner’s price. I welcomed the memories that flooded back to me whenever I bit into a fruit I had not eaten since my time in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp. I allowed myself to take in the beauty of the countryside of Battambang as my uncle took me on a moto ride retracing the path of where he and my mom had escaped from the Khmer Rouge. I was even invited to a wedding of a woman who worked at a well-known coffee shop in Phnon Penh. I was able to blend in and make real connections when I was there. I am proud to say connections that now tie me directly back to Cambodia.
Living in Cambodia for four months was an opportunity of a lifetime. I learned a lot about my family and heritage. My eyes saw the past, the present, and hopes for the future in all the hustle and bustle of daily lives. I am happy to say that I was able to exist there as part of the people not simply as a tourist. The cultural knowledge my parents imparted on me was the perfect primer to help me navigate my first visit in Cambodia.