It’s hard to believe, but the first time I visited Cambodia was nearly 10 years ago. I was going to wait until September to write this post, but something happened yesterday that prompted me to write today. The kid in the photograph below is Sopheak’s little brother, Sarat. I met him in September or October of 2006 at his home in Khmeng Wat. The rain started to fall and he went outside to celebrate. I happened to be there with a camera. It’s the first photograph of him ever taken.
Yesterday I attended his engagement party. I like to tease him, but I’m very proud of Sarat. When he moved to Sihanoukville with us, he attended high school. He was behind the others, but stuck with it long enough to learn how to write the Khmer language. He quickly learned English from me and after he finished school, went out looking for work. He had a series of bad jobs, but stuck with it and found a niche for himself in the hospitality industry.
After his engagement party, I reflected on the past 10 years. We’ve lived in the house I built in 2007, but aside from that, nothing has stayed the same. In the intervening years, I’ve been a part of five births and many family dramas. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been bolstered by the smiles on the children’s faces and inspired by the way Cambodians adapt to change.
Coming from the West, I had some fixed ideas about how life should work, but gradually realised that I could indulge those fixed ideas because of my culture. We Westerners tend to believe in a road-map to success in life. It revolves around the accumulation of wealth. My generation grew up believing you took a series of steps and success would automatically come to you. It worked kind of like this:
- Go to school
- Learn a trade or
- Go on to college and
- Work in a profession
- Get married
- Buy a house
- Work for 30 odd years
Moving to Cambodia has taught me that none of those apply to a large portion of humanity. Sopheak and her brothers and sisters didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. There was no road-map for them because nothing was fixed. Her generation had to improvise in order to get by in life. They didn’t even have the comfort of village life because the Cambodian economy was changing. As is happening all over the world, capitalism has come into the equation and villagers often have to move to the city to earn money. Some go because they want things like mobile phones. Others go to make money to send to their families.
Cambodians, like the rest of us, can be good, bad or a little of each. If I have noticed one general trend, though, it’s that most Cambodians include their families and extended families in the decisions they make. Selfishness as we practice it in the West is less prevalent here. We have the luxury of leaving our family and creating our own little worlds. They don’t have such a luxury because their parents don’t get pensions. If a Cambodian abandons their parents, their parents suffer. Often, their village will give them food, but a village can’t afford to pay a doctor or build a house.
I’ve been lucky enough to live with a large Cambodian family. I pay the lion’s share of the expenses, but don’t feel ripped off. The family pays me back in other ways. I’ve certainly had my dramas and have even been ripped off by a couple of family members, but when they were caught, they paid for it. I write about some of the major dramas in my book, but hopefully a more important message comes across. Whatever living here has cost me in money, I feel like I’ve been given much more.
I’m in a state of possible transition right now. Time will tell what happens, but so far, everyone involved has gone out of their way to ensure the transition benefits everyone, myself included. The last transition was nothing like this one and included bitter arguments and selfishness on both sides. If I am destined to move on, one thing I know for certain is that I’ll never regret a day of my 10 years in Cambodia. These have been some of the most enriching (in the real sense of the word) years of my life.