So this is going to be another lengthy emo post, not simply because its title comes from
my favorite song in 6th grade that one Marilyn Manson song, but because of what I learned during a recent trip to Cambodia.
Before visiting Cambodia, all I knew was what friends had told me about the people, the food, the weather, and some basics about the genocide that followed in the wake of the Vietnam War. Honestly, this genocide was news to me (there was a reason I didn’t choose to teach history), so if you are like me and don’t know much about these shockingly recent events, here is a basic summary: During the 70’s, Cambodia suffered under the Khmer Rouge, where a leader named Pol Pet killed off 1/3 of the entire population, mostly elite and educated people. In the span of 10 years, almost 3 million men, women and children were brutally killed by fellow Cambodians, who had been recruited by Pol Pet to get rid of anyone smart or strong enough to overthrow his revolution in to turning the country in to a self-sustained, purely agricultural society.
At first, making the trip down to Phnom Phen to see these sites didn’t interest me much. I thought that I had learned, saw, and felt enough this past year. And, honestly, I was quite content with my cheap little hotel with a pool and a nearby PUB STREET and didn’t want to face the six hour bus ride down to the capital city. Eventually, out of guilt or boredom, I decided I would stop
working on my tan being lazy, follow orders from my friend Katie to ‘keep my eyes wide,’ and go make the trip. And while the bus ride was indeed one (very long, very hot) journey, hearing the stories of these people and learning about their lives under Pol Pet’s regime was a completely different one.
At the largest killing field in Cambodia, I walked through mass graves and learned about the people who had died there. Children who stood in line to be swung headfirst in to “The Killing Tree”, children from farming villages who were recruited to execute other children their age, and men and women who were forced in to labor, in to killing each other, and in to praising a leader who never received punishment for killing 3 million of his own people.
The next day I visited a high school that Pol Pet used as a prison and torture camp throughout the 70’s. Classrooms became holding cells, and the blood stained beds, torturing tools, and clothing scraps still remain in place. Most disturbing were the thousands of black and white photos of all the people who were killed at this one particular jail. Rows upon rows of faces that look like ones I’m surrounded by every day just stared back, so incomprehensibly sad and scared. It was such a contrast from the spirits of the Cambodian people nowadays (seriously, Cambodian people might be magic) that those images hit my heart the hardest.
The trip was overwhelming, to put it simply. I contemplated and questioned nonstop, and Im trying hard not to be cheesy and dramatic but I want to say that my heart felt gutted and pulverized. Afterwards, sitting there at a restaurant along the river, eating my Western food and telling the waitress about my visit, I honestly just grossed myself out. I felt so frustrated knowing that before my meal was even finished, I’d have spent way too much time creating baby names for Kim and Kanye, wondering if others at the hostel would judge me for painting my nails (they did), and planning summer-time outfits in my head. Suddenly thinking of all the small things I’ve complained about lately made my face burn and my gut turn. I just kept thinking over and over I don’t deserve any of this. The freedom to decide how and where I spend my days, the luxury of an air-conditioned room for three extra dollars, my dinner with a river view, time on my hands to just sit and read…I don’t deserve any of it. To accept these things felt like accepting what I just saw, and honestly I hated myself a little bit for that.
These were only the beginnings of the thoughts and questions inside my head. Touring the fields and looking at all those beautiful, innocent faces, I kept wondering, “How does this happen? Why does this have to happen? How can this be?” I just felt disgust and sadness for humanity in general. The whole time I was sitting there, so wrapped up in the melodrama going on inside, I didn’t see (or chose to ignore?) this man sitting on the sidewalk with his amputated limbs on full display next to a cup of change. When walking around a city where it’s completely normal to see naked babies strolling leisurely alongside traffic, barefoot children begging at restaurants, and women with their 5 children sleeping on the sidewalk, I guess it’s easy to ignore these injustices, no matter how blatant they may be.
I felt bitter all over again, for having another reason to loath myself for enjoying my time. And then, just as I started to retreat inside my head, a girl about my age approached the man confidently, sat down next to him on his tarp, and grabbed hold of his amputated arm. She put her forehead to his and just sat there with him, holding his arm and whispering prayers.
Here I was, consumed with images of past horrors, thinking of how unjust they were, and then when this suffering of a different form was literally right in front of my eyes, I danced around it, and let my own problems prevent me from fully recognizing and connecting with this man. At that moment, it occurred to me that this is how injustice goes ignored, how pain is perpetuated in people and by people themselves. By focusing solely on our own problems and viewing them as so looming and pervasive, we forget to ‘keep our eyes wide’ to the injustices and suffering going on around us. When pain is so commonplace, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to it altogether and look inside at our own suffering, instead of reaching outward for the opportunity to help another. Even when it all looks a little exhausting, we can always help lift another person up… even in the smallest of ways.
I didn’t need to give him money. I didn’t need to listen to his sad story. I didn’t need to get down on my knees and say a prayer for him. All I needed to do, and should’ve done, was smile and wish him a better day. Connect with him, acknowledge his suffering, and acknowledge him as a person. Because while everyone can’t always have fancy meal, an air-conditioned room, a cab ride on a hot day… the one thing we all deserve as people is human, and humane, connection.
You see, I love people. Preferably from a distance because often times they annoy me, but more than ever before, people simply fascinate me. Especially lately, I’ve had a lot of time (probably too much) to just sit and watch and listen. And in my pursuit of getting to know them, I forget how much I let my curiosity cross the line with judgment. I used to think I spent a lot of time observing and trying to understand people, the situations they were born in to, the skill sets and support systems from which they have to build a life. Now I think maybe I had a bad habit of viewing others solely as the sum of their problems, their deeds, and their faults, as opposed to their whole selves. So lately, I guess I’ve just been more aware of what I am actually thinking and learning while I am doing all this watching, and I’m putting more thought in to what other people can actually teach us simply from the lives they lead every day.
I’ve learned that people are people. They can be lazy, ignorant, selfish, impulsive, impatient and misguided. And yet, they are mostly good. Live with them, drive with them, dine with them, dance with them, work with them, learn with them, follow whatever direction they tell you to go, and TRUST THEM. Either do these things out of curiosity, certainty of their goodness, or simply because you are alone, confused, and have no other choice but to just trust them. I have had to depend on complete strangers while I’ve been away, and in doing so, have felt my capacity to trust and believe in goodness grow, both in myself and in others. Believe in the good people, people.
Then get your backpack searched through and your Iod stolen, or have your US sim-card somehow seized from 6 bags of trash and $900 worth of international phone calls made on your line (yup) to remember that people aren’t always as good as they should be. Or more importantly, as good as they can be.
Then meet someone, introduce yourself and answer their question “I am American.” Have spit land at your feet to realize that at times, you haven’t been all that great either, and try as you might, you just wont be viewed ‘good enough’ for certain people. And that’s alright.
Remember all of these people. The Pol Pets, the land mine victims, the prayer reciting girl. The good people, the bad things they do, the ones who spit on you. Even the parts of your own self that need a good spit-shine every once in a while. But mostly, just remember the good. Because if you don’t, everything gets really scary, and sad, and suddenly it’s not so easy to go out and wander the world and you’ll miss out on all those important stories, quiet voices, homey places, and beautiful people.
“And you know what I learned from watching all those people? Some like to eat noodles, and some like to eat sandwiches.”- Pornchai Sereemongkonpol
Ps. There truly is a meme for everything.