(I wrote this piece about two weeks ago while in Cambodia but hadn’t gotten around to posting yet….)
Today I was in a taxi with seven Cambodian men. Usually a taxi sells out at eight people: four in the back, two in the front passenger seat, and one more paying customer sharing the seat with the driver. Fortunately, today our driver was seat-mate-less, so I could be less worried about us crashing.
I could have paid just a few more dollars and gotten the whole front seat or even a whole car, as I had the day before when heading to another town. It’s easy to do that – and easy to justify it in the name of comfort, productivity, or minimal cost. But this was a ride to work that our team would take regularly, and I often had internal struggles about this: just because I could “easily” take a less packed car and make the choice to spend more of my own money to do that when others might not be able to/choose to, did it make it “right” when I did? I could justify it to myself either way. I would sometimes pay more and take a more comfortable option – and then feel guilty – or try to make up my own rules for myself as to when choosing “comfort”, when it might look to others like I was wasting money, was ok. It’s hard to police yourself within your own ethics and goals sometimes.
So there I was, the only female in the car. They gave me a little more space in the back, though of course all of the eyes were on me and the questions: How old are you? Are you married? Where are you from? How long have you lived in Cambodia? Why did you ever leave America to come to Cambodia?
I could feel my brain starting to hurt and my wall starting to go up. Rather than smiling, I started to stare out the window as I answered, hoping the repetitive questions, which I had gotten so accustomed to when living here, would subside.
One of the passengers also wanted to practice his English (which he learned on a course in Siem Reap in 1996, he proudly told me). It was a good chance for him to practice, and I was a captive audience, so on he went. His daughter is in 7th grade. She goes to school in Kralanh, the main town in the area where PEPY works. But since PEPY doesn’t work in Kralanh and only in the countryside, he wishes his daughter could go to the countryside to learn (ironic). Would I teach her?
I had to explain that a) I am not a teacher and that all our teaching staff are Khmer, so his hopes of the American accent he wanted his daughter to have were probably not going to come from PEPY and b) that I don’t actually live here anymore anyway. When I told them all I was now living in the UK, they all nodded and concurred that that seemed more reasonable of a choice. I tried to explain that it is cold and rainy there and that if we were measuring on a scale of reasonableness, it would seem bloody unreasonable that anyone would choose to set up a nation or home in such a chilly & wet place in a world where Cambodia or other warm locations was an option. But that didn’t seem to sink in – and I didn’t feel like getting into a discussion around the pros and cons of what they deemed “development”. Plus, one of them had just sent his sister off the month before to Canada on one of those “buy a bride” type schemes. She didn’t know the man, but he was Khmer-Canadian and had come over and picked her out as his wife. She was lucky, he told me. She gets to move to Canada, he said, looking both proud and jealous.
I went back to starting out the window and picturing this young Khmer girl off in hopes of a wonderful life. I hope she IS lucky, I thought, and that her husband is nice and treats her well and that she doesn’t get frostbite and that life isn’t harder for her there than it is here. I decided to let the dream of these wonderful foreign countries live this time and not share my thoughts about how family structures have eroded in these so called “developed” countries they dream of sending their kids to, or how we could learn a lot from rural Cambodian society where spending even a few dollars on a bigger seat seemed wasteful, and instead I looked back out the window. I am sure Montreal is treating her well. And she is indeed learning French as she had dreamed. And that her brother sitting next to me would get to visit some day. And that in doing so, when he returned, he’d also see the beauty in his own country with new eyes.