We sat with our feet dangling in the Kampot River, he a Khmer man who studied martial arts under Buddhist monks and myself an American girl who was staying in Cambodia to help a local business build their website. He explained to me how we’re all just people. “I’m just a Cambodian boy,” he says.
His family, and many others, are hoping for justice in the recent trial against Khmer Rouge leaders. Before ever visiting a museum, I learned these stories firsthand from Cambodians. I realized I had acclimated to Cambodia when I stopped trying to find logic behind the Khmer Rouge and started to understand that, although I may have different experiences than my new friends, our emotions are not dissimilar.
Oftentimes, it is not culture that creates people but people who create culture. We are all products of our environment, and our differences lie in how we handle our surroundings. He tells me, “We’re all people. I never believed that but now I do. We’re all human.”
Far from the comfort of my Denver apartment, I found myself changing based on my new surroundings. I learned to sleep under a mosquito net and only drink bottled water. Somewhere along the way, I’d started to smile when I saw geckos in my shower, ask for extra rice with my curry, grip the motorcycle tightly as I sat sideways in a skirt, and acknowledge that the green rice fields could also seem blue.
Cambodia taught me to eat chile sauce without grimacing from the spice, to dance more with my hands than my body, and to even ask strangers whether they were healthy and happy. This little country is comparable in size to the state of Colorado, but has a heart larger than life. I’ve met fishermen, taxi drivers, guesthouse owners, bartenders, seamstresses, chefs… and they all have in common a passion for life. They live in the here and now, rarely thinking about the worries of ’tomorrow’, and they hold pride in being Cambodian.
I adjusted to Cambodia’s lack of adequate medical services, the food being doused in MSG, the sticky humid weather, and the ultra-conservative attire. I learned to think creatively to find solutions to everyday problems such as a flash flood during a bike ride, and I learned to communicate with a combination of broken Khmer and hand signals. I made a new place in my heart for a group of people who eat on the floor, hang their clothes to dry on the front patio, wear face masks while riding motorbikes, and call everyone around them “Brother” or “Sister.”
As my friend said to me, “We’re all people. I’m just a Cambodian boy.” Cambodian, American… the only difference is the surroundings that have shaped us. Surroundings can shift, and often so does perspective.