Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Leaving Oatmeal for Mudfish

I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous for this trip to my parents' homeland--Cambodia. The months leading up to my departure have filled my parents with worry. How could this 22-year-old American girl live in our old third world country? They worry that I will not be able to adjust to the living conditions in Cambodia. Will there be running water everywhere I go? Will my tongue adjust to the tastes of lemongrass, tamarind, and coconut? Of prahoc (mudfish) and krapeek (ground up shrimp)? Will the sun brown my skin to the same color as that of Cambodians in Cambodia? Or will my skin become discolored with sunspots, reacting badly to the Cambodian heat and air? My mother foresees that the latter will occur. You are an American she tells me.

The truth is: I don't know. I don't know if I will like the food, or if the linens will be as clean as I am used to finding here in America. I don't know if I will enjoy Cambodian food every single day. At home, I have Cambodian cuisine once or twice a week. Cathew Phnom Penh (a traditional noodle-dish with clear broth topped with mixed veggies and meat) or oxtail soup. But most days, my diet consists of oatmeal, hummus, turkey, whole grains and eggs--foods I surely won't find on a Cambodian menu. I take a strange comfort in this sense of bewilderment before I depart, in not knowing what physical and emotional reactions my trip will draw from me. In Michael Chabon's memoir Manhood For Amateurs, he writes that he, as a man, is an expert at pretending to know that which he hasn't a clue about. I don't want to pretend that I know I will be fine in Cambodia and everything will go according to plan. Actually, I don't even know what the "plan" really is. Perhaps, unlike men, women are more comfortable admitting that we don't know everything and we never will. Maybe women are a tad-bit less prideful...

Speaking of things not going according to plan, my father got an unexpected call last night as we were having our farewell dinner. It was Uncle Thoeun, my father's younger brother. My father answered the phone between bites of skewered kobe beef. Yes, the name is K-A-N-I-T-H-A H-E-N-G. Right, Flight 861 from Taipei, China Airlines. My father ended the call, and said to me, "He must be really excited to see you. He's so nervous he keeps checking your flight information. He's scared he won't be able to find you or something." I turned the kobe beef over the grille on the center of the table. It might be the only beef I would be eating for awhile since I'd heard that cows were considered sacred in Cambodia. My dad's phone rang again. My father answered and began laughing, deep down from his belly--a loud and lovely laugh. The waitress raised her eyebrows at him, wondering what this man could possibly find so funny, as did my brother, mother and I. Apparently, Uncle Thoeun was at the airport, thinking that I had already arrived in Phnom Penh. It was Uncle Thoeun, his wife, their five children, my father's cousins Som Bath and Som Nang, their kids, the newborn baby--all of whom were waiting eagerly to meet this relative from America bearing many, many gifts. Oh my god. I was still in America.

As I write now in the Denver Airport staring at the Rockies and clear skies and snow-glazed runways, I take a picture in my memory and miss it already. There's something about Colorado I will always love. Everyone has a special place that is forever kept in one's memory. It is the place we think of when we are in a not-so-great place. It is the place we always want to return to at one point or another, the place we never want to forget. Colorado is this place for me, and I will miss it and think of it. But I will be back, and until then, there are so many incredible places to see and experience--Cambodia being one of them.

I foresee that the next four months will challenge me in many ways--in my ability to adapt to a new geographic land, to immerse in a non-Western culture, to meet family I've never known I've had, to be a teacher and a mentor, to set foot on the land my parents fled and grandparents are buried. These experiences won't be easy. I know this. And they shouldn't. I've found that I learn and grow from that which doesn't come easy, from the experiences that make me question who I am: my values, what I'm doing, and who I want to be. I think of Oscar Wilde's words: "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist." I will be 8,000 miles away from home in 20 some hours, living.

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