It is Saturday afternoon in Kampot, a coastal province several hours south of Phnom Penh, where a slow, slate blue river carves a languid arc through the bucolic expanse of rice fields and bristling palms. The clinging air is damp and sweet with incense, and the melodic intonations of a Buddhist blessing at a nearby wat join the laughter of picnicking families in a vivid auditory collage. I am here this weekend to retreat momentarily from the frenetic pace of Cambodia’s capital city, but as I take the occasion to reflect on my first six months as a Luce Scholar, I am struck by a bittersweet pang of longing for the intense, complicated, and profoundly energizing metropolis I currently call home.
I have been given so many causes for deeply tender gratitude since moving here. It brings to mind a wise remark, attributed to Rumi, that “when we fall in love, we are ashamed of our words.” Similarly, I find it challenging to capture my recent lived experience in Phnom Penh with the unwieldy tools of written language, given my intense desire to do justice the extraordinary beauty I have encountered without romanticizing the tremendous political, economic, and environmental suffering I have witnessed.
Being in Cambodia, I have met some of the most kind and generous people I have ever had the privilege to know. I have learned (and continue to learn) Khmer, a musical, expressive language that never fails to provide new opportunities for warmth and connection as it grows ever more comfortable on my lips. I have eaten foods delicious and dubious, driven a moto through six inches of muddy rain water and thunderous rush hour traffic, walked breathless with reverence through the looming corridors of Angkor Wat, and devoted whole mornings to wandering in crowded markets (always snacking).
Perhaps most importantly, I work with brilliant, determined people who have committed their lives to safeguarding the health and dignity of their communities. In fact, the last time I was in Kampot, it was to attend a partner meeting between Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (my placement), the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Rainbow Community Kampuchea (an LGBTQI advocacy organization). As we sat together on a riverside dock at sunset, discussing how to improve access to healthcare for transgender Cambodians, I looked around at the powerful, undeterred people I was blessed to be learning from and working in solidarity with, and I felt ineffably moved. Heartened. Hopeful.
But of course, living in Cambodia also means regular confrontation with the collateral damage of globalized capitalism, including dire poverty and dramatic environmental degradation, not to mention the reverberating wounds of historical violence and trauma inextricable from the bloody legacy wrought by U.S. foreign policy and military destruction. Living in Cambodia means examining one’s place in these relationships of power and often reaching uncomfortable conclusions.
I wish I could summon words of wisdom to resolve the tension of these last six months, but it is probably a fruitless search. There is no resolution. There is just all of it: amazement, doubt, sorrow, joy, fear, love, lost-ness, found-ness. All of it.