In college environments, students are often stripped of their independence. The group mentality that I encountered at my small liberal arts college only enabled my reliance on others. There was an unspoken stigmatization surrounding solitude at Union: it was seen as taboo to succumb to eating a meal alone in the dining hall.
I have just about settled into my Siem Reap apartment, nestled quaintly above The Happy Buffalo, an exotic pet shop that sells everything from puppies and bunnies to roosters and pigeons. In the 5 days that I’ve been here, I have regained some of independence that I felt I lost at Union. There are no pressures to conform to any norms, and no sense of external judgement from the community. With this new sense of independence also comes a certain simplicity…
A second-hand bicycle has become my primary mode of transportation. The streets are filled mainly with motos and bicycles, with just a few cars passing every now and again. We move slowly (it’s hot), never in a hurry: we’ll get there when we get there… The only time I noticed the locals express any regard for urgency was when an impending monsoon was minutes away, right smack in the middle of rush hour.
Hot water is also a luxury I said goodbye to when I boarded my flight last Monday. At home, I’m guilty of “leisure showering”- thinking, singing, relaxing in the steam until my feet turn bright red, my fingers and toes turn to prunes, and my skin dries. In doing so, I would seldom think about the consequences of my wildly unsustainable actions, not to mention the harm I was bringing upon my body. Showers here are cold and purposeful, a one minute ordeal (sorry Mom- I’ve only washed my hair once).
I have no regard for my appearance. I don’t think I’ve looked in a mirror more than twice, and I’m wearing the same outfit for the third day in a row now. Don’t get me wrong, back home I am certainly the type of person to try on 10 different outfits before deciding on one, just to go out with friends. It just seems much less important here, a warm smile goes so much farther than the perfect outfit.
The language spoken in Cambodia is called Khmer. Many people speak English here as well due to the high concentration of tourism in Siem Reap, however, a majority of the people that I encounter daily do not. My elderly landlord, and the owner of the exotic pet store downstairs greets me every morning with a big smile. We giggle together when her two pomeranians jump into my arms as I descend down my stairs. Though she does not understand, I always say “good morning”, and she replies with something that I cannot begin to dissect. But we are always on the same page- we are always happy to see one another. I read somewhere once that compassion is the universal language, and I am beginning to understand why. I have learned two words in Khmer so far, and they are the only two I need: “Ah kun” (thank you) and “Lia Hai” (bye bye).
People kept telling me that I would “find myself” over these next nine months, and each time I would disregard them. I don’t know what it means to “find yourself,” I challenge you to find someone who does. But what I do know is that it is nearly impossible to discover your true self under the shackles of complexity, materialism, and social pressures that I’ve experienced back home.
More to come soon…