The stunning landscapes seen on the drive to the temples look like paintings being projected onto the insides of the van windows. The remarkable scenes and striking colors feel surreal – I still cannot believe I am in Cambodia. While walking through the ancient temples of Angkor, I am humbled and overwhelmed – not only by the enormity of their magnificent structures and histories, but also by my presence here in Cambodia. Though I know the temples are prominent tourist destinations, the buses teeming with sightseers that unload and displace the tranquility and pollute the stillness inside the centuries-old stone walls feel like they don’t belong. As I climb through narrow doorways and over moss-covered stones that once stood as walls, I think that I must be perceived in the same way. Not a Khmer woman, I am immediately identifiable as foreign to this space. I, too, am an intruder here.
As I reflect on the introductory workshops I helped to facilitate at the Bamboo Shoot City Dorm, I question what it is exactly that I am doing here. During our lesson on nutrition, it became apparent that most, if not all, of the girls were already clear on the information we were repeating. Perhaps the only people learning something new that night were myself and my peers from The New School, when the girls gave us an introduction to traditional Khmer dancing. In our preparation for these workshops, there is no way for us to know what information the girls at City Dorm have or have not been exposed to – an element of this that we are quickly learning to work with. After spending my mornings in seminar, looking critically at development and the many discourses around it, I wrestle with my own presence here and where my work in the evenings at the dorm fits into that.
While sitting on a ledge at Pre Rup, looking up at the marble sky, these same questions filled my mind. It is a great privilege to be able to travel across the world and watch the sun set over a country that, after several months of study, I am still only beginning to learn about. It is a great privilege to be able to sit in a room with the girls at City Dorm and share their space and enthusiasm. It is a great privilege to be able to stay at Seven Candles Guest House and be welcomed by Lori, Ponheary, and the rest of the Ly family and PLF staff. I guess I am here to ask all of these questions. When applying to be part of this program, I knew that any potential knowledge I would share would be far-outweighed by the knowledge being shared with me. Being on the ground here has only emphasized this, and has further allowed for thoughts and conversations around these questions that could not happen in a classroom discussion on development. In a week and a half, I have already gained a new set of knowledge around work here on the ground in Siem Reap. Questions around discourse, intent, position and presence are difficult to address, but crucial to understanding my place as an American student in Cambodia. I anticipate that my own understandings of why I’m here in Cambodia and what I’m doing will become appropriately more complicated as the program continues.