Activation. Books, articles, films, and work-in-progress discussions: Cambodia through the concave lens of a high-rise classroom in New York City. The semester commences with a sequence of class meetings to map the social histories of human beings on the other side of our planet. Frames for meaning-making are provided from above. They render representations of socio-political conditions, experiences of grave suffering, possibilities for change in the context of land seizure and dynamics of power, and intimations of complicity. Authorized, credentialed voices are granted legitimacy in this educative space.
This is a traditional, distant encounter; an isolated curatorial platform led by professor and students.
Collision. Airplane wheels glide to a full stop on the runway to mark arrival in the (once again) Kingdom. A new visceral and relational encounter informed by sight, smell, sound, feeling, touch, and taste begins in the land of frangipani flowers. Disorientation and disbelief abound on the red earth roads. Narratives of development clash with open eyes. This can’t be real, can it?
A swarm of actors now occupy our myriad spaces of learning—the curatorial platform has lost its fixed edges, the boundaries are blurred. We are engulfed by movement, the courtyard of an ancient temple and a makeshift shelter for Khmer women and children fleeing from everyday violence showcase different realities of daily life. Stories from above meet stories from below. We are witnesses to the contrast between “the truth that is told and the truth that is sold.” Our entanglement is mediation between present and past, historical and lived. It is part of a chaotic bricolage of classification systems and forms of knowledge that cumulatively bring the “developing nation” of Cambodia into being.
This is a 360-degree experience that aims to make visible the transnational webs we weave.
Purpose. Awareness of interconnection lends itself to asking more critical questions. Now begins the hard work of blending a politics of encounter with a sustained politics of transformation. As preparations for returning to the United States begin, my students reflect on a range of ways they will carry forward. Danielle Balbi eloquently remarks, “I have become so accustomed to telling someone else’s story, I had forgotten that sometimes it’s more important for them to tell their own.” Veija Kusama-Morris boldly claims, “at some point we have to step solely out of the shadows of opposition, and plant ourselves firmly on the ground. Amidst a world shrouded in darkness, strive to find the light. To stand for it, to stand with it, and most importantly to let it stand on its own.” Florencia Gennaro alerts us to our own complicity in consumption practices and pushes us to “consume differently and consume consciously.” Deepening the importance we place on daily interactions, Elisabeth See-Toh explains how “we are pushed to engage in the world as individuals and to ‘be our own person,’ but in doing so we sometimes fail to recognize that the process of learning about ourselves involves the crucial participation of the people around us.” And, Brenna Smith poignantly captures what happens when learning adjusts the aperture through which we see ourselves as agents of change. She courageously states: “what I have learned and experienced in Cambodia is 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 contribute to injustice and social inequality all over the globe.”
These emergent words of solidarity, I believe, are a beginning.
My sincere gratitude to the Ly family and the staff of PLF for making Lang in Cambodia 2014 possible, and to my students, Mila Shopova, and Marcel Petit for walking beside me these past six weeks.