It isn’t exactly a couch.
It’s a thin twin-sized mattress under a pink mosquito net on the second floor of a little house in central Cambodia. The bottom floor is an open aired common room on dirt surrounded by a few pillars holding up the second floor I sleep on. I turn on the overhead fan and pray to the Nordic Gods that I might have the cold while stripping down to my underwear and crawling under the pink net that I never bothered to put up. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and I was going to take an afternoon nap with everybody else in this town.
Mr. Sokhon drove unnecessarily fast to get here. He about took out a little boy on the narrow dirt path off the main road that winds around to the front of the school. He’s angry with me. I strolled in this morning rather than last night from Phnom Penh because of how late we arrived into the city from Ream Beach and our isolated bungalow. I stand by that fact that I’m fully responsible for my inability to connect with my host family, this town, this country, and this experience fully. A spoiled American. No, more like a self-centered American. I’m two weeks and six days out, and I think every day how easy it would be to walk away. I’d cram into a six passenger van holding twelve adults and three children with my backpackers’ backpack strapped to the roof with the burlap rice sacks.
Today, “grandpa” of the household spent some time with me. When I finally strolled in this morning, he made some gestures and muttered a “telephone”. I headed upstairs and when I decended again, he had pulled put an English study book. Here I am in this man’s country, but he pulls out this book to study. I fetl embarrassed for all my flaws of character. He came out of his hammock to show me the book. It was actually, I discovered, a Peace Corps Cambodia language guide. We go over words together both in English and Khmer. “Dialogue A). What is your nationality? My nationality is Cambodian. My nationality is American.” He covers his ears. Loud. Writes “1967” on the page. He remembers US bombs exploding over Cambodia. One of his daughters married that Peace Corps volunteer in a Catholic wedding ceremony in Louisiana. He wasn’t there. Got some pictures as a keep sake. The parents pull them out a lot to show me, as if this is some genuine cultural connection we can make. Dad gets them out and gestures that he is sad and stares at the open picture for several seconds. Later that afternoon I come down the stairs and see him studying the book again on the sitting table in the corner. He walks away from it as he spots me coming down.
Now, back to that nap. Slowly but surely drifting off into the unknown I’d think:
What’s the point?
This is about the experience of a person staying with strangers, being a part of how they live, and considering that impact. In Cambodia, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world, I began to really question what the point of it really was. You know, sleeping in unconventional places. This was, after all, the experience I was having for myself, so I could feel like I was doing something meaningful with my life, and blah blah blah. Then there comes that moment I completely miss, when a man tries to communicate with me about his life experiences.
“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!”
I’ll leave the film buffs to argue exactly what the infamous Norma meant when she spoke this famous line in Sunset Boulevard. In popular culture, it has come to symbolize narcissism. That the entire world (and, yes, even the worlds’ most famous film director) is happening for you. I’d spend five months in three countries in Southeast Asia, and it would take at least half of that time to realize that this whole journey was not about me.
Any journey you go on cannot solely be about you, or else, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a journey. I showed up in that town- that country- completely self-centered and I have a feeling that is not the point when you have the opportunity to share a space with complete strangers.
That’s right- opportunity.
And here begins a blog about all those opportunities. Maybe in the process we can discover some important insights into the art of living as some sort of life design seekers.