Two mass shootings in America over the span of our five weeks in Cambodia. Violence, hunger, disease, social deprivation, environmental degradation, poverty, and enormous economic inequality are ever present across the planet. As an outsider looking in from the heavens, the situation looks rather bleak.
Yet, what I have witnessed here in Cambodia with my students is a tangibly different story. If I were to think about Lang in Cambodia as a strictly pedagogical strategy, there are a series of logical questions I could ask myself: Did this type of deep and material immersion in local context allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the anthropology of development than traditional classroom based instruction? Have the analytic lenses through which my students question and interpret the world been shifted, enhanced? Do they see themselves as part of a larger political project, as members of an interconnected global community? Have we created partnerships with community organizations in Siem Reap that are based on reciprocity and mutual exchange? At this point I feel as though I could utter a relatively confident “yes” to all of these queries given my observations and the various pieces of empirical data I have gathered over the last five weeks.
These questions, however, fall short in capturing the immediate and visceral transformation that has occurred for each of us on a very personal and intimate level – I have watched these students put themselves (intellectually, physically, and emotionally) in the center of extremely difficult social and political realities, question their own complicity (in both direct and indirect ways) in the very conditions they are attempting to address under the auspices of “development”, interrogate the role of the United States in the history of a country very distant from their own day-to-day existence (of which most of them had no prior knowledge), be present with Khmer people in their everyday life –in their struggles, laughter, hopes, frustrations, dreams, failures—approach our academic seminars with a sense of inclusivity by inviting a range of people into our space of learning as a way to increase symbiosis with local, place-based knowledge, and, ultimately, open their minds to the possibility of a politicized cross-cultural understanding of the world. This is not easy to do.
All of my students are still reaching for ways to make meaning of this immersion –they will continue to think deeply about how to build on this set of critical experiences as they move themselves forward through the remainder of their undergraduate education at Eugene Lang College and beyond. It remains to be seen what path they will take, what forms of social action lie ahead, what long-term transformation may occur. As their professor, however, I feel honoured to have been able to walk beside them through a portion of this journey. It takes the notion of active and collaborative learning to a whole new level.
In our final seminar on August 10th, I read the following passage that I had scribbled in one of my journals to my students and our community partners. Given the repeated references to the idea of “worlds colliding” that floated to the surface in our academic discussions, Khmer language classes, and field-based projects, it seemed a fitting way to transition. And so with this, I close.
I know that you can move from centre to periphery, from rural to urban, from concrete to forest, from plains to mountains, from river to desert, from light to dark—all of this travel to wake up and realize that despite the different location, you are still in the same place. And I know you can write 10,000 beautiful words infused with the emotions of a lived life yet your voice can still fill the room with distance when you speak.
One of the things I have come to believe is that all of us (such the complicated creatures that we are) long to be intimately understood. To believe that someone can extend his or her reach through the thick and layered casings that come to be the public image we hold onto so tightly and stand next to us as we make meaning of the world and attempt to awaken the latent potential that lies within. We unconsciously coax ourselves into thinking we possess some protective cloak that will keep us safe from colliding with others so we can remain on a stable trajectory that is created, in part, by the familiarity and control of thinking that we know who we are. But we don’t. We collide with people and things that disrupt this trajectory all the time, even in solitude and the privacy of our imaginations, even in the writing of words that are meant for no one. Life is full of collisions, some quiet and others vociferous, and the best we can do is try to see the possibilities that emerge when we find ourselves face to face with the unexpected crash, to enter a reverie about the new, and, ultimately, to make sense of ourselves better than we did before. And, we can try to act with courage, grace, and critical awareness as we move ourselves through the messiness that goes alongside collision, knowing that we will make mistakes, that we will need to be forgiven and we will need to forgive, and that lives will be irrevocably altered but, in the end, humanity will prevail. Only then will we be able to see that collision is also a series of openings, full of lengths of light waiting to come into being, waiting to be understood.
Ready for collision. In solidarity.