As our program has come to its inevitable end, I have been thinking deeply about the kinds of things I will be taking away from this experience. I came to Cambodia with a very strong sense of a certain set of academic goals for myself, and feel confident in having achieved many of these goals. But what kind of strides have I made as a person? What are the things that I will take back home to New York with me, that will change the ways I think, act, and live? It has taken me until now, just hours before my departure from Siem Reap, to realize that these types of reflections generate evidence that is not always as physical or material as the evidence of academic achievement. These reflections are firmly rooted in the everyday experiences of being here, in Cambodia, and I will carry them with me in the ways in which I will remember…
I will remember stepping off the airplane for the first time into the thick and humid Cambodian air. I will remember being met at the airport by Rany and his tuk tuk, and how I attempted to take in every sight, smell, and sound of Siem Reap on that very first ride to the Seven Candles Guesthouse. I will remember the kindness and bright smiles of the Ly family, as they welcomed us not only into their guesthouse, but their home. I will remember listening to the stories of Lori and Ponheary for the first time, and how I felt inspired, in awe, and, at the same time, so small in my role here, compared to the strides and successes of these remarkable women. I will remember my first time experiencing the striking beauty of a landscape made up of seemingly endless rice fields and tall, scattered palm trees piercing the vibrant blue sky.
I will remember the first student in Knar Village that we interviewed, and how I was immediately met with the agonizing contradictions that lay between myself as a privileged researcher, and the reality that this student was facing in her daily struggles for access to education. I will remember how this contradiction followed me throughout the remainder of our time here, and how this realization pushed me to think critically regarding the implications of my presence within the space I was consistently stepping into while conducting these interviews.
I will remember the unmatched beauty of looking out from the very front of the boat on the Tonle Sap, turning to Jas and saying, “Just when I think this country can’t possibly be any more incredible…days like today happen.” I will remember our spontaneous group swim beneath the waterfall at Kulen Mountain. I will remember the feeling of the monsoon coming down on me with all its force, how the rain was warm, and how the sun came out immediately after the downpour, leaving the wet leaves of the palm trees glistening in the light.
I will remember the painted faces of the young children at that one orphanage in Siem Reap, and how the children, some as young as 5 or 6, are forced to put on a dance performance for tourists every single night, as part of an agenda of marketing them as “vulnerable” for the purpose of accumulating donations. I will remember the group of students at the dorm in Srayang, and how they have worked together to create a space for themselves that is inclusive and safe. I will remember the names, faces, and stories of each and every student that I had the pleasure of interviewing in Knar Village.
I will remember watching my fellow students deeply engage in their own projects, becoming more excited and invested in their work each and every day. I will remember our adventure in Ratankiri, and the solidarity that existed between ourselves and the four other groups of Cambodians in our efforts to push all of our vans through the thick of the jungle, when they all became stuck in the mud after a heavy downpour.
I will remember the strength and the resilience that I have seen within each and every young Cambodian I have met here, and I will remember the hope that exists for this country in the hands of people like our Khmer teacher Yeum, of Kaliyann, the sole female reporter in Siem Reap, the girls at the City Dorm, the students in Srayang, the media students at Tchey School, and the grade 10 students in Knar Village.
I will remember the Karl Marx quote that Jas shared with Yeum at the end of our final Khmer class: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will,” and how it applies so perfectly to everything we have seen and experienced here in Cambodia.
I will remember. And I will never be the same.