Right now, I’m in a Phnom Penh hotel, waiting for my boyfriend to return from a business outing. As he was leaving, I opened up a book I had just purchased, and he said, “I’ve never seen you read before.” There’s a lot of things that you stop doing when you get to Cambodia (exercising, vegetarianism, reporting crime), but I never thought I’d stop reading.
The book I picked up is called Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land By Joel Brinkley. Within the first 10 pages, I rummaged around my bag for my never-been-used pen and started highlighting passages. The sentence that inspired this new-found academic ambition was from an interview from a man who was able to flee the country before the Khmer Rouge took over:
To be Cambodian is to be a warrior, the creator and builder of Angkor Wat…More accurately, to be Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any ancient nations. [Now though], people are passive. The one who survives is the one who is skillful at being deaf and blind.”
A thousand light bulbs turned on in my head. I made connections to every single person and event that made me disenchanted with this country that I had been so excited to live in — and write about. But I had quit writing when I quit reading.
I quickly realized that lazing around all day with zero intellectual stimulation has been the most debilitating thing I’ve done to myself since I went one-for-one on tequila with a US Navy master diver — a story that doesn’t need re-telling.
When I first started this blog, I was determined to record every nuance of Cambodia culture that found. I was going to overload my brain with books and research papers on social enterprise, poverty, and everyday life in Sihanoukville. Then, rather indignantly, I’d write about them so the world could be in awe of my noble life and how living in the developing world has expanded my worldview, enhanced my empathy, and given me hands-on experience in third world poverty. You know, all of that bull crap employers like to read in cover letters.
In the harsh reality that is Cambodia, if you don’t have a daily reminder — like, let’s say, a book and a pen — about why you’re here, then you lose that inspired and ambitious part of yourself to cynicism and depression. You will tirelessly ask this country WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?! and if you don’t seek out the answers, then you’ll be immobilized by intimidation and, ultimately, passivity.