“How was Cambodia? What did you do there? What did you learn?”
I know upon returning to America I will be asked these questions incessantly. I am conflicted about how to express my answer because I worry that I won’t be able to eloquently convey the emotion and humanity that envelop my memories in a way that will impact others. As I sit here typing and simultaneously reflecting on my experiences in Cambodia, I sadly realize that trying to explain what I’ve learned here to my family and friends, who remain utterly disconnected from this country and part of the world, will be a formidable task. Will sharing my experiences produce an alternative form of knowledge that creates awareness about the atrocities and oppressive social and political conditions that exist around the world? Will this awareness spark responsibility and civic engagement in the lives of my peers and fellow Americans?
To be frank, I do not think people will genuinely want to hear what I have to say about my time in Cambodia. This is mostly because my engagement here has exposed the harsh realities that frame this country, realities that Khmer people have to live with every day. Cambodians live under a corrupt facade of a democratic government (established and legitimized through self-interested foreign governments such as France, America, China, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam) that does not care about its people and their future or well being. Illegal logging and land grabbing (at the hands of the Cambodian government, and foreign investors from Japan, China, America, Vietnam, and Korea) have displaced thousands of Cambodians and diminished Cambodia’s forest coverage from 72% (in 1973) to only 42% (2013) (Open Development). The truth is that the products we buy from H&M, The GAP, Nike, Wal-Mart, Lululemon, and many others severely exploit Cambodian garment workers by paying a starvation wage of $100 a month (Bangkok Post). Human trafficking, sexual slavery, erotic massage parlors, and brothels continue to expand the oppressive and exploitative “sex industry,” destroying the lives of Cambodian women and girls by subjecting them to pervasive and ongoing violence. Nearly 80% of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas, yet the urban cities receive the most funding for “development” and “aid,” which creates an enormous disparity in resources between those who live in the cities and those who plant rice (World Bank); 70% of Cambodians live on less than $2 a day (Global Witness). The Cambodian government only spends 2.6% of the GDP on education each year, which reinforces the immense socioeconomic disparities between the elite and poor, and deprives Cambodian children and youth of the opportunity to learn and create a better future for themselves and their country (Index Mundi).
And although I have experienced the beauty of the Cambodian landscapes and countryside, felt the welcoming embrace of the people whose lives are tied to this land, tasted the divine flavors of Khmer cuisine, and witnessed the strength and resilience of generations of families plagued by structural inequality, war, famine, and rampant poverty, I do not want to create the illusion that the Cambodian people are living comfortable lives. In fact, most of Cambodia’s population is barely surviving.
So instead of producing a generic summary of my experiences in Cambodia to provide a blissfully ignorant depiction of a country known by most North Americans only for the Khmer Rouge, Angkor Wat, or Angelina Jolie, I now find myself trying to answer the question: What do I plan on doing with the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I now possess about Cambodia and its relationship to the rest of the world? Cambodia’s contemporary realities are part of a complex international story – the difficult realities I see here every day are productions of an imperial/colonial history, abuses of foreign and domestic power, global exploitation due to mass-consumerism, illegal and unsustainable extraction of natural resources, and government corruption sanctioned and funded by foreign investors and international aid.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned while in Cambodia was not from a book, journal, guest speaker, or article (although all of those were useful in their own right). Through listening and observing Ponheary Ly, Lori Carlson, and my professor Jaskiran Dhillon, I’ve learned how crucial it is to create spaces for people; not solutions. Ponheary, Lori, and the PLF team are working every day to create safe and comfortable spaces for Cambodia’s children and youth to find solace, motivation, creativity, inspiration, education, and opportunity—many things I have taken for granted. Professor Dhillon created a space for me, as her student, to come to Cambodia and learn beyond the histories and theories taught in our New York City classroom, and offered an opportunity for me to understand what it means to be connected to people and places around the world as a civically engaged student.
What I have learned and experienced in Cambodia is a part of who I am now, and it is my responsibility as a human being and civically engaged student to resist and challenge the power relations and institutions that create and contribute to injustice and social inequalities all over the globe. Apathy and inaction are diseases that plague the society in which I live, and I refuse to be infected anymore.