Thursday, February 11, 2010

Leaving Harpswell

I am lying on my bed listening for the night noise that I once despised so much, but there is none. The old man next door is not coughing, or washing, or pissing. The dogs are not at each other’s throats and yelping. Nat, whose bunk is above mine, is sleeping soundly, having remembered for once to turn her radio off. Channa is not up late, hovering under her desk lamp reviewing for a test. Menghoun is passed out, legs sprawled with a book collapsed on her chest. Children are not being spanked. Akon is not blaring. It is quiet tonight, which is rare.

Having complained so long about sleepless nights due to Phnom Penh’s restlessness, I should not complain that tonight’s silence is also keeping me from sleeping. The absence of these sounds, however, reminds me of the many other things that I will miss when I leave the Harpswell dormitory tomorrow. The things that I once found foreign, strange, and at times, uncomfortable.

I’ve gotten very close to the Harpswell girls within the course of the past three months. I remember the first day I introduced myself to them. They insisted that I speak Khmer. I could barely get ten words out. Overtime, my Khmer rapidly improved as the girls conversed with me at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or gossiped during the day. They drew out in me a language that I’d forgotten in my childhood, but it had never really left me. The words were still there. My voice still retained Khmer intonations. Something that I’d thought I’d forgotten, re-emerged. It seems that we so often think we’ve forgotten something, or someone, but it’s only because we haven’t tried to salvage the language, the practice, the knowledge, the memory, the relationship.

I don’t want to forget these girls who are not only incredibly intelligent, but have the kindest hearts and warmest smiles. They care for each other as if they are family. They care for each other in ways that I know I fail to do in certain moments for my own family and friends. What I’ve found here is a selflessness that I hope I can embody one day. A few days ago, my friend bought a silver necklace that she loved. She looked at me later that day, at my silver bangles and rings and earrings. “Silver looks beautiful on you,” she said, taking off the necklace and clasping it around my neck. I tried to refuse, but I also knew it made her happy to give the necklace to me. I’ve never been around so many people whose source of happiness is making others happy.

While I taught the girls English and writing skills, they taught me life ones, and for that, I will always be grateful to them. The things I once rejected about Cambodian culture—the traditional rules of behavior, the modest dress, the need for silence in certain moments—are things that I understand better now and respect.

I’ve learned a lot about respect, respect for one’s parents especially and oneself. It’s always been easy for me to lash out at my parents, for they are the ones closest to me. I never quite minded my manners. After all they would never stop loving me. But here, children do not dare utter a word against their parents. This in part may be out of fear, but moreso, it is out of reverence for the people who gave them life, and for that, they will always show thanks. As my parents get older, I want to make sure I respect them, and I want to start by learning to be silent in certain moments and holding my tongue. As a fully-grown twenty-two year old, when I go home, I want to do my parents’ laundry, wash their dishes, give them a home-cooked meal. These are things that they’ve done since I was born, and have gotten so used to that I still expect it. In Cambodia, children grow up doing all these things to help their parents, so as to make things easier for them, not harder. I want to begin doing this.

Respecting myself is something else I want to work on. In Cambodia, it is looked down upon if a person has had two, maybe three or more boyfriends or girlfriends. These people are said to be sa-vah, fickle when it comes to relationships. Well, I suppose by Cambodian standards I am super sa-vah. Relationships here aren’t all about the moment, the thrill, the sex. It’s about finding someone you care for deeply, and who cares for you. Most Cambodians have one boyfriend or girlfriend, and this is the person they eventually marry. I don’t necessarily agree with the one partner per lifetime rule, but I value the thinking behind it. The physical part of a relationship doesn’t come into play until much later, oftentimes not until marriage. American hook-up culture doesn’t exist. One-night stands are unheard of. Kissing is not just kissing. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to come back to America with a chastity belt strapped on, but I’ve begun to re-evaluate what I want out of my interactions with people. I hope that every guy who reads this doesn’t think I’m going to try to reel him into a relationship then marriage if I show some faint interest in him, though.

I guess the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far is to maintain and foster relationships with whomever it may be, a parent, grandparent, sibling, old friend, new friend. It would be easy for me to leave Cambodia and go back to America and tell these girls that I will always be their friend, that I will never forget them. But being a friend isn’t a passive activity. It’s often easy to forget those who are far away from you, try 8,000 miles. Even if you feel close to them at the moment, it is the remembering part that takes effort. These girls have taught me about friendship, and that is what I want to give them.

To see photos of the Harpswell girls, click here.

1 comment:

  1. A real friendship is too hard to find and once we have found it. It will be hard to forget and more hard to keep it alive!! I like your blog..I hope to some piece and real love in my life soon!!