Saturday, November 06, 2004


A few weeks ago I was on the back of a moto coming back from work, and I noticed a young tourist bopping around with the typical tourist attire -- white t-shirt, black shades, copy of LONELY PLANET CAMBODIA gripped tightly in his fist, walking in that slow, slightly hesitant gait that all travellers from time immemorial have somehow patented and passed on.

The only difference?

The dude had only one arm.

A few minutes later I saw a Cambodian walking across the street, and he only had one arm, but it took me a few seconds for that to register.

The thing is, in Cambodia, there's a lot of amputees -- I mean, a lot. Arms, legs, hands, feet -- you name it, a lot of them, tragically, are missing it, due to the millions of unexploded mines left by the Khmer Rouge, not to mention unexploded bombs that Nixon and Kissinger dropped oh so many moons ago. (Thanks, guys.)

So why didn't I notice the Cambodian guy? Because I'm used to it. Because I see it everyday. Because the more you see something, the more it becomes routine, every-day, unextraordin-
ary. A white guy walking around missing his right arm? I don't see that every day. It's novel. It's patently unique.

Living abroad forces you to notice. At home, where you're from, you're lulled into a safe slumber of innocence. This is the way the world works, and this is the way that traffic lights work, and this the way that they count their change for you at the convenience store when you buy your six pack of MOUNTAIN DEW. It's all so routine that you don't even realize it's routine. You're in a bubble, a universe of your own, without even knowing it.

And then I went to Japan, and my universe exploded, and I realized that no, no, things are done differently here. You can spend years examining, exploring and trying to figure out those differences. (I know. I did.)

The thing is, after a few years in a foreign land, the very things that first freaked you out or amazed you or simply caused you to shake your head in stupefied bewilderment gradually become as ordinary as the linoleum on the kitchen floor in the house that you grew up in. (Do you remember what that looked like? Maybe. But you may have to think about it for a second or two. It being so ordinary and all...)

Even Cambodia -- fascinating, godforsaken country that it is -- can become routine.

The trick is, you have to look for the things that will transport you out of yourself and into that wonderful state of being which is so transcendent but so elusive, too, that realm known simply and irrevocably as: curiosity. Curiosity as a state of mind. Curiosity as a philosophy. Curiosity as a means of satisfying some unknown intrigue inside of you that is desperate to find out more, more, more about the people and places around you. Too many people are only curious about what is next on t.v. tonight. The limit of their curiosity is the edge of the remote control.

So, my unasked for advice: Be curious. Look around. Look twice at things you look once at every day. Examine them closer. See what makes them tick. Take nothing for granted.

You may find something you didn't expect. You may be elevated out of the routine and end up someplace foreign and true.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

this nov. 04 post came up as a "recent post" so i read it...i love it, the curiosity factor is key. i think people who aren't curious, who accept things as they see them and don't look any deeper, are boring. and it's not just about looking for a deeper meaning, it's about looking at it a different way, as you said, taking yourself out of yourself. it's about thinking a different way and applying your imagination to something concrete, tangible or even mundane. even your walks around in a cambodian city remind me of mine in new york city. how different could two places be?