I am an American… observing our Independence Day in a country and region of the world that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American intervention and violence. I am expected to celebrate my American freedom while in Cambodia, a country still struggling to gain its independence and autonomy from the dependency caused by foreign aid in the name of “development.” I recognize the irony in America’s Independence Day as a nation that is extremely dependent on exploiting certain countries to sustain itself.
I am an American consumer… wearing a shirt made by Cambodian garment workers who are exploited and abused with physical violence, working 12-14 work shifts in extreme heat with minimal food and water, and compensated with negligible poverty wages. I have been working in Cambodia, albeit for a short while, in ways that I hope will positively impact the lives of people. Yet, I am also an American consumer that has ignorantly supported companies that directly created the circumstances of deprivation in which so many Cambodian garment workers exist.
I am an American student… at The New School, whose previous university president is Bob Kerrey—a former Navy Seal Lieutenant during the Vietnam War who publicly acknowledged his involvement in the slaughtering of more than fifteen innocent Vietnamese men, women, and children. My annual $30,000 tuition contributes to the approximate $500,000 payout that Kerrey still receives annually as an emeritus president. I walk by Kerrey Hall on my way to classes in the new University Center, which serves as an ominous reminder of my conflicting ties that support Bob Kerrey’s involvement in my institutionalized education. I spent the previous semester learning how Cambodia became caught in the web of international politics and suffered at the hands of the corruption and secrets of the American government and military during the war in Vietnam. I am currently living, learning, and working in Cambodia on behalf of The New School in a critical international civic engagement program that challenges the framework and origins of “development” in this country. Yet, I am also an American student who is expected to blindly and quietly accommodate the inflated salary and reputation of someone who represents the American atrocities in Southeast Asia that directly contributed to the conditions of economic dependency and instability in Cambodia.
I am an American tourist… visiting museums in Cambodia and Vietnam that tell a different story about war, bombings, and corruption, so I can understand the other side of the story that my American history classes never taught me. I visit the Cambodian countryside to touch one of the 2.7 million bombs that the American government and military secretly dropped onto the villages full of innocent Cambodian civilians in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I am an American… who loves her country and is thankful for freedom, but I constantly struggle with acknowledging that my American freedom and privilege has come with extremely painful consequences for other people. I have realized that as an American, I am deeply connected to Cambodia in ways that go beyond my studies and work.
What makes me qualified to work here? What makes my observations justified? Is it because I am an American? Is it because of my experience and expertise in certain fields? Is it because I am from a western, industrialized, “developed,” and “first world” country?
No. Although those reasons provide false validity and justification to a plethora of people that have come to Cambodia to work, “help,” and “develop,” I refuse to allow those labels to define the reasons why I am here.
I am in Cambodia because I have spent the past six months intensely studying the complicated history of this country in Southeast Asia. I have immersed myself in trying to unpack and resurrect the politics that surround the deep international aid and involvement of the United Nations in this nation. I am currently attempting to deconstruct the ideas and practices that accompany the various kinds of development that are enacted through the numerous NGOs from countries all around the world that I visit while participating in this program. I spend every single day in a state of self-awareness about the role that I play in all of this, and the space that I occupy while I am here in Cambodia and when I leave. I am constantly engaging in reflexive conversations to understand the impact of my presence. I am here because I choose to accept and acknowledge the complications I carry with me as an American in Cambodia, and I am determined to find a way to move beyond what has come before me.