Today I walked to the market – nothing unusual there, except I was conscious that though it was one more such walk, it was one less. With just 26 days until we depart Cambodia, every activity now has a poignancy about it. Embarking on even the mundane here, I seek to engage all my senses deeply , intentionally building into the bank of memories of belonging in Cambodia. I shall miss it all soon.
Its a ten minute walk to market. There are no footpaths and I must trust that all cars, trucks, cycles ridden by school children, motos – even those driven by boys or girls who look no more than 13, give me the margin I need to survive. The road is uneven and I trip at times. The smell of coffee shops that now proliferate along the road, masks the smell of rubbish rotting in plastic bags. I divert to a quieter street and laughter ripples as grandparents play with small children at their front doors. I turn a corner and the market is in sight. Displays of colourful fruit atop mats at the road’s edge, catch my eye. The sellers urge me to stop, but I walk directly to “my” seller.
Dear smiling lady. I don’t know your name, but for two years now, your face has lit up whenever I came in view. You have patiently listened to my halting Khmer. You have asked about my grandchildren and delighted to see photos on my smart phone. Then in my hearing you relayed my stories to nearby sellers who now also smile as I step near and alert “my” seller to my coming.
You know my standard order it seems – always reaching for the pineapples and lettuce as you see me approach. You reach for my cloth bag, knowing I aver plastic bags. I choose to believe my action makes a difference though there are an average of ten million plastic bags a day used in Phnom Penh!
Last week when I took my young Khmer English student along to buy some provisions, you told her to tell me not to go home to Australia because you will miss me. I don’t even know your name, yet I have received a most precious gift of relationship. One sustaining life-giving relationship in a city of 2.2 million people.
Entering a new country and new culture two years ago, I craved this sense of belonging. Now my remaining days loom full of “once more, once less moments.” The community in which I found a new belonging stretches far and wide beyond the market place. I have engaged with Khmer and expat circles in my volunteer workplaces, in my place of worship, in my leisure and learning activities.
I am not oblivious to the social and human rights issues in this land. My empathy quotient has expanded here. Last night my head could barely manage the juxtaposition from visiting two Phnom Penh homes.
First was the home of a 13 year old girl who most days pulls a cart along my street collecting recyclables for her family’s income. Unforgettably, my senses on full alert, I saw dignity there amidst the refuse in which she and seven other families live. In my belonging here a relationship of trust has been built with this girl and now with her family. It is like gold to me.
Then I returned to a child’s birthday in my “rich” street. I sat with my neighbours who have helped me with language here, whose cheery waves have indicated my belonging. Their home is full of prized Cambodian timber furniture and decorations. Their guests were well-dressed professionals. I was welcomed and engaged – a rich memory stored, yet my head and heart ached with the contrast – very different realities in the same city.
These are sensual memories to store. Final words too, have great weight and potency. Accordingly, I have been anticipating final words where I shall speak affirmations – life-giving conclusions to present relationships. I have already received some spontaneously given to me.
When teaching my final conversational English lesson to one young man, I asked the familiar language learning question, “What did you do last weekend?” As it happened, the preceding weekend he had been among the thousands of mourners on the streets of Phnom Penh for the slain Cambodian Political analyst Kem Ley. In our office we had seen staff members weep at this loss in the immediately ensuing days.
When my student commented “good person always die from bad people.” (sic), then “I am so sad about government why they don’t think about the country.” (sic), I could not refrain from sharing a personal reflection that has endured for my two years in this land.
Cambodia is ranked 150/168 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index while Australia is ranked 13/168 so I feel assured about my home country’s stance on preventing corruption. Cambodia’s human rights abuses have been widely known and yet all the while I have been here I have felt ashamed at Australia’s current recognised human rights abuses.
I talked about the asylum seeker detention centres Australia maintains in breech of human rights, believing that I could say about this issue the same two statements made by my student reported above. He listened respectfully to my explanations and finally responded gently, “Thank you for telling me about your country.” I sensed his general belief that developed countries are somehow better in all respects had been damaged.
Now I stand at the threshold of returning to my homeland and community, to where I belong by passport, language and culture.
I know there will be challenges ahead in this reentry phase. I have assisted others through the same phase over the years. I have read much of the literature.
One challenge will be to reengage with my home culture and community while allowing all my senses to remain familiar with the Cambodia learning experience. To enter into all the “once again” experiences of life that lie ahead.
“Will you come back?”I hear again and again. Final words which include “Yes, I hope to return for a visit some time.” are a comfort to those with whom I have shared a belonging in Cambodia.