Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

The Only Words I Can Muster…

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It has been a month since my return from Cambodia. I remember that initial week of reassimilation, that profound appreciation for the stability of Taiwan’s minimal lunacy. I felt my ship had returned to harbor. I was a bubbly, bumbling mess of observations and experiences, ideas and unanswered riddles. Physically and emotionally weakened, the toll of travel had never been so high. And now, I suppose, months later, I am still speechless.

I find that, even now, I am uncomfortable paraphrasing and measuring my words to describe the experience that is Cambodia. Someone once told me while I was travelling through Laos, that “Laos is not a place; it is a state of mind.” Cambodia is not that. There is no mind in Cambodia, no logic, no order.

There is one common thread that resurfaced in which I feel my thoughts hold some merit. Months and months ago, a friend posed the question to me: “How do you reconcile being a cog in the machine of globalization that you seem to vehemently oppose?” I am, after all, an English teacher. I thrive off of the fact that I was born speaking the lingua franca. I am here embuing the youth with this notion that to be able to speak (American) English is a very positive asset in one’s future.

The US still represents the shining city on the hill, the beacon of hope in the future here; even while many of our youth grow less and less enamoured with a system of meaningless representation and a status-quo where the politicians become increasingly secretive and we citizens surrender more and more privacy. (I recommend watching the presidential debate scene in Robin William’s “Man of the Year” movie).

I suppose I reconcile this by trying to venture beyond the point of reason, to the depths of my own unexplored personal experience. I am searching for that which I never knew existed, whether it be a feeling, a place, a person, etc. Here, in this imagined destination, there is purity and hope and reason; it resuscitates my communal interest in survival. I too share a passion for constantly rediscovering meaning in my life, as my good friend Bianj mentioned in his previous post.

Often, I lose sight. I lose sight of myself. I was born with bad vision, and it extrapolates; it blurs even the boundaries of my physical form until I feel suffocated by events and emotions that I feel are foreign to my self-perception. Thus, I reach for sanctuary in someplace where I must clearly define myself in contrast to what I can perceive around me. Thus, Cambodia. Or at least parts.

When my friend and I touched down in Phnom Penh, we decided to cut corners and take one of the daily charter flights to Siem Reap, the town/city whose borders are home to the phenomenal ancient temples of Angkor. At this point, I have been on foreign soil for 14 months. I am technically an expatriate. Oddly enough, I have not felt as close to the US/West as I felt in Siem Reap. The streets were awash with white faces. Those distrubingly cliche khaki shorts and matching shirts on old Sean Connery wannabes. Lonely Planets in the hands of mohawked, tattoed, drugged-out beachbums fresh off the bus from the Thai border. Tourists, backpackers, Westerners, everywhere. And here we were, juxtaposed, feeling like neither a Western tourist or a hardcore backpacker, like we knew something everyone else did not. After all, it was Chinese New Year.

Over the next two weeks my interpretation and disgust of economies built on tourism reached new heights. The symptoms of this disease are all the same: 1) increased role and reliance on alcohol, 2) rampant pollution, 3) an exacerbation of the rich-poor gap, 4) chaotic urbanization leading to suburban slums, 5) filthy rich foreign developers and contractors who manipulate and coerce the wealth of entire nations, 6) prostitution, 7) HIV and AIDS, 8 ) corrupt and ineffective government, and 9) poor education and little hope.

There was too much trash. Too many little kids selling necklaces who should be in school. Too many young girls out too late at the bars. Too many Lexuses and Land Rovers pulling out of non-profit NGO offices. Too many five-star hotels built opposite walls of shanty slums. It just wears on me.

And what should I say to my friend? Do I intend to stop travelling? Of course not. Do I hate all tourists? Certainly not, I am almost always happy to see people have some interest in the world beyond the end of the street. But what can be done to reverse the trickle-down economies of these nations so dependent on maintaining an image of the happy (rural) local? How can countries nationalize their assests, returning the rights to their own property and not be blacklisted as some radical (socialist) nation threatening American interests (whatup Hugo Chavez?)? How do these countries devote money to education when the political infrastructure is so pervertedly twisted toward the interests of the tourism industry? A new school in a small town or a new paved road to the five-star hotel?

Where is the guilt? Where is the moral compass and world community? How much bullshit can people really feed themselves? How is it that my country is perceived as the dream to be realized???

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Written by Miles

March 28, 2007 at 4:10 pm

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