The night air in Siem Reap allows all of us to breathe easier; welcome respite after long days (often beginning at 5:30am) of confronting grand ideas and social constructions in seminar, stumbling through new sounds in Khmer language class (although we have a wonderful teacher), and figuring out the “what, why, and how” of our many field based projects that come dangerously close to resembling the case studies we critique in class (coupled with: “how does all of this fit together, again?” and “Jas, do you really have to assign so many readings?”). The intense heat and humidity of the rainy season can add an additional layer of heaviness to what may, at times, feel like an ever growing set of learning opportunities disguised as concrete tasks. Toeu phea sa Khmer tha: mech? What is this in the Khmer language? has become one of the many phrases we have adopted to make our way through the messiness of learning about “development” here in Cambodia and to push us to continue to be reflective about our presence in this country. And that is only the beginning. The questions we are asking here are big ones, difficult ones – but that does not mean they are not worth asking. Perhaps the goal is not to find a set of finite answers to these questions, but rather to ask a different set of questions altogether and/or to reach a critical understanding that we did not have prior to this set of experiences. Perhaps the goal is to expand and adjust the aperture through which we read the world. I suppose only time will tell.
And, I am thankful that all of us have the opportunity to see the tremendous beauty and grace that exists here alongside the devastating legacy of war, violence, and poverty that we come up against in our daily interactions with people and places. Meandering through the ancient temples which tell a different story of this land, bicycling on dirt roads across the magical landscape of the rural countryside, with all of its striking colour, and buying sumptuous fruit in the open air, lively street markets offer a glimpse into something other than what we read about in our scholarly texts. If you open your eyes, you can see beauty in a million places. “Rebuilding,” we are discovering, takes many forms.
Finding a way to make meaning of this broad range of encounters is a tall order for all of us – the path to get there seems winding and unclear, faintly visible in the best of times. Given the energy and openness with which I have seen my students engage over their first week here, though, I’d say we are up for the challenge.
–Jaskiran Dhillon, Faculty Director