Cambodia! What is one to make of such a word, let alone such a place. One can think of it as second cousin to the native names that dot Canada's landscape, I suppose, a fraternal twin to Ottawa and Saskatchewan, Kanata and Winnepeg. Yes, I suppose that the name 'Cambodia' would not seem entirely odd or unsual on a map of North America; its inclusion would cause barely a ripple on our consciousness, I suspect, were it to be suddenly added to the dreary atlases designed for the daylight boredom of our western schoolchildren. For how many youths could suspect, let alone verify, that 'Cambodia' does not, in fact, designate a particular Canadian locale but is, instead, a place and a state of mind in Southeast Asia? Upon hearing his novel The Apprentice of Duddy Kravitz slagged, in person, by a group of prep school snots, Mordecai Richler drolly declared at the podium: "It's always been a dream to mine to be criticized by the children of privilege." Ha! What would these very same 'children of privilege' make of such a place, this 'Cambodia', this refugee name that belongs not on a map of the west but on another, eastern globe, one that is hotter and dirtier, more weathered and despairing. What would we all make of such a name, I wonder.
But it exists. I am here to say that it is real, that the name exists, the place exists, nestled between Vietnam and Thailand and Laos, a bastard stepchild unloved and unwanted by the children of privilege that surround it. Privilege is a loaded word, conjuring up images of Mercedes Benzes and gold-flaked watches, but all of that is here, rest assured -- those cars, those watches. From where does this wealth descend? From the aid agencies that dot the landscape like a benevolent form of measles, for what is the use of millions of dollars designed for the poor if they could not also grease the sweaty, swarthy palms of the rich? It is my job as a westerner to point out the money that is lost and swindled and carried away in the equivalent of Santa Claus sacks deep into the night, my job to sit back, critical and satisfied, pointing out who does what to whom, and why it is bad, worse than bad, the equivalent of a bargain with the devil, only with the guarantee that the devil will not come collecting for a good many years, if at all. It is my job to decry those corrupt officials who seek to elevate their families, those officials who lived through death and despair the same way that I lived through an epsiode of a sitcom already watched two, three times -- with a numbing, automatic rigidity. My job to sit back and point and sigh. To point out its existence. To be inert.
Cambodia! Such are the thoughts that can arise should one stay too long. This is not a place to live in. This is a place to catch four, five minutes of while scanning PBS between afternoon commercials. It is a black-and-white newsreel place. It is over there, and yet I am here, and so a logical disconnect takes place. One's conception of the world simultaneously diminishes and expands upon residing in such a country. To enter a country knowing nothing of its people or history or culture is the work of an ignoramus, a fool, or both, so say I, and so I am. One can read as many books as possible on 'the tragedy' and the 'the people' and 'the language', and yet the result is the same. The door opens, the street beckons, and one is pelted in the face head on by a water balloon passed by a laughing teen on a speeding bike. Oh, the water festival. Yes, yes, I remember that mentioned, in a footnote, from that book, the one you lent me. Yes, yes. The real world collides with whatever perceptions of it that one preconceives. Reality laughs in the face. Repeatedly. The book is shut and the sun is out, and still, that disconnect.
Life prepares us for many things, but can it prepare us for Cambodia? This I know not. It is here, and it is a place, but I suspect that Cambodians are not prepared for Cambodia. A truism of my own invention, true, and suspect because of it, but still, it has a certain ring that pleases my aesthetic soul. I can live in a country like this and still worry about something as mundane and futile as a well-wrought phrase. I can sit in a Phnom Penh apartment and not contend with what a lack of fresh drinking water entails, from the dirt and the colour, to the intestines and the vomit. It is a mere bus ride away, true, but the day is long, the chair comfy, the water cool and slick across my brow, an Evian smeared across my forehead, heaven's definition, some would say. Even so, from my vantage point equidistant between comfort and nihilism, I stand by my statement. Cambodians are not prepared for Cambodia; Canadians are not equipped for Canada. This is the adjunct. A Belgian cannot possibly encompass Belgium. It is too much. I sense a logic at work here that is either ridiculous or profound. One cannot possibly assess one's own land, because the very act of assessing will render the viewed-upon object subjectively, thus destroying the entire experiment. It becomes null and void, instantaneously. This may or may not be true, but being an exile, by choice, is an experiment in a similar folly. One can look at the landscape and the people and, with the aid of a few well-chosen, well-regarded tomes, attain the level of expert, or at least that of a competent grad student who has studied the area for two semesters (including Spring Break). We rarely seek to understand our own lands, but give me a Cambodia, and I will let 'er rip. Such are the hazards of travel: the confidence of fools.
Cambodia! Would that I watch her ways. To see is different than to watch. I have seen much, but watched not enough. To get closer is to akin to the child reaching out for the red-hot stove. The light is tempting but fierce, the heat soothing but containing within it the very kernel of its own eventual destruction. Touching the flame is tantamount to entrace.
At some point in time this flame, this name, Cambodia, will return to its rightful place on a map, and I, too, will open the atlas, spin the globe, looking for its location, waiting for the orb to rest in place, while I trace my finger across the bumpity bumps of all those other upsized lands that surround and exlcude it, searching in vain for that distant place that was once just a name.