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Cambodia State of Mind

By: Monica Trausch Posted: December-23-2011 in
Monica Trausch

The girl stepped out of the building, her arms heavy with the weight of the bags in her fatigued hands. She looked up into the gray sky and saw water drip down from the dark clouds. It was a soft rain at first, and then harder. In fact, it was so hard she nearly gasped; she had never seen rain like this before. The airport seemed feeble under the storm, and the little plane that plopped the girl into Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Taipei, Taiwan was already long forgotten in her mind. Her luggage was everywhere—it seemed to have tripled in volume between Los Angeles and Phnom Penh. She was alone for the first time, and the sky beat down on her efforts at expatriation.

I watch this girl. I know the way she feels, because I have felt it. I watch her and I want to tell her that she need not worry—in only four months she will be changed. She will learn and adapt and adjust. She does not know this now—how could she? I want to tell her everything I have learned in my time living in Phnom Penh. Could I tell her how her life will unfold and bloom in this country? Would she believe me? Would she believe, as she stood and looked up at more rain than she, a Los Angeles native, had ever seen at one time, that in only four months she will have moved apartments, traveled through Cambodia, taken a unexpected trip to Laos, seen a wonder of the world? Could I tell her that her heart will open in ways she wasn’t even sure it could? There is no way she will believe me, but I decide to try and convey all of this to her.

I tell the girl that although she fears change today, tomorrow she will feel stronger, more able to handle life’s hurdles. In one month, what was once an obstacle will seem merely an event, another day, her life. She will learn that the rules she had to follow in Los Angeles are irrelevant here. Break a contract? Move twice in only a month? What seemed irresponsible just months ago will become a necessity in Cambodia. The girl will shake with anxiety as she walks down to the management office. She will explain that she is moving closer to work, for a cheaper rent, to live with friends in a big house. She will pretend she is brave and tell her landlords that she will pay her utilities and move out after work this Thursday. She will not give them a choice. But she will worry about breaking the contract, a legal document with her name on the dotted line. She’s never done something like that before. But she will do it, and she will be shocked and happy at how quickly she can adjust to changes. She will be continually stunned by the world around her and how she will learn to process it. Is this the Cambodia state of mind, she will ask herself? What can I tell her, except yes?

I tell the girl about the friends she will make Phnom Penh. These friends will show her around, make her smile, tell her she can buy peanut butter at Lucky Supermarket and introduce her to beef luk luk with mash potatoes from Oh My Buddha restaurant. They will eat mango sorbet at Blue Pumpkin, watch the tourists pour into Riverside, and try and figure out on which street exactly BKK1 becomes BKK3. Her new friends will show her a whole new world, the city that becomes her world, Phnom Penh.
These friends will even take her by bus to Laos, a country she had never even considered traveling to. Laos will be anarchy, near pandemonium!, and, despite her controlling nature, the girl will embrace the irony of the chaos of a trip—planned the night before departure—to the supposedly most relaxed country on earth.

Her willingness to try new things, to get on a bus, to pack last minute, to buy a visa upon arrival; these are feats of spontaneity she never would have considered even three months ago. She will ride a bike through mud roads, without directions, a map, or a clear destination. She will spend days doing nothing and then regret the loss of those days in the insanity that she will encounter tubing in Vang Vieng.
As I watch the girl cart her luggage outside the Phnom Penh International Airport, I imagine what the expression on her face will be when she sees the “VIP double sleeper bed” that is supposed to take her from the south to the north of Laos. She will not be able to lie flat in this bed and she will realize within a few seconds that this bed is not just for her—one of those new friends she’s made will be her bunkmate, and she will be surprised at how the friend will still love her after being elbow-stabbed in the ribs for fifteen hours straight. The girl will be surprised at how much she misses Phnom Penh when she leaves it for the first time. She will be surprised to miss Khmer food. And she will be surprised again and again about the way friends and strangers alike open up to her, accept her, and invite her on their journeys.

The girl at the airport sees her friend, who an arrives an hour late—only adding to her ever increasing anxiety—in a taxi, the vehicle that will take her into Phnom Penh for the first time. Can the girl wrap her head around the fact that she is in Cambodia, and here to stay? She gets into the cab and she sees her first Wooosssshhhhes and Zoooooomsssss of this fast-paced city. Everything is tinted behind the car window, and nothing seems real to her.

Should I tell the girl what she will one day see? She cannot believe what she is observing today, and it is only the busy city from behind a car window. Would she believe what else this country has to offer her? She will wade through the grit of a city in development in the same country that she will visit an ancient wonder of the world. It will be confusingly cohesive, this country of contradictions. But I can’t tell her that now; she would not believe the way she will feel as she stares into the sun rising behind Angkor Wat. It would not seem possible to know that much beauty. To see something older than the nation she comes from. To witness a thing older than the idea of a nation; this seems to be unreal. To share a homeland with a wonder like that. She thinks she has seen wonders, she thinks she knows something of the world. How quickly she will realize what I now know—she and I, we know nothing.

The girl from the airport is scared. She is alone as she makes her way to BKK3 that first day. She could not have predicted all the sights, sounds, tastes, and (especially) smells that Cambodia offers her, all in one instant, as she descends from the plane. It is all too much and, for the first time in her short life, she knows what it is to be truly alone. This feeling, if I could only tell her!, this feeling will not last. The warmth of the expat community and of the Khmer people and culture allows no one living here to feel completely alone—the arms of this city will open to her and wrap her inside their happy, bustling, if often disorientating, embrace. And her arms will open to this place in a way the girl never thought possible. In just four months she and I see find ourselves in a Cambodia state of mind, without worry, in a constant state of wonder, happiness, and without fear of the unknown. The girl did not know it then, but she will, and soon.

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