I'm not saying that teaching English in Cambodia and being abducted by aliens are completely compatible experiences, but, if forced, I would argue before a court of existential law that these two diverse encounters with the unknown share a similar sense of fear, awe, wonder, and, occasionally, harmony.
I think who we are and where we are at particular points in life and time augment what we are reading. I've always loved stories of alien abductions, both fictional and 'true', and have often been intrigued by the tales of those who claim to have been visited by, or kidnapped by, and rectally probed by, alien invaders.
(You'd be amazed at how common descriptions of rectal probes are in the vast span of abduction literature. Forced masturbation also, uh, pops up more often than would expect. Which is odd, because I never needed any coercion, but I suppose that's another post...)
Soon after graduating from university, I attended a book signing given by horror novelist Whitely Streiber at a New Age bookshop in the trendy part of Toronto. (Yes, I was, and am probably still am, the kind of guy who would go to a book signing by the author of Communion. We are what we are.) And it was there that I got a first-hand look at people who not only believe in alien abductions, but have also experienced them for themselves. Streiber seemingly started the aliens-visited-me boom with his own memoir, Communion, and those attending his lecture were filled to burstin' with stories of ships and probes and spacecrafts resting patiently at the bottom of Lake Ontario, waiting for that pristine, perfect moment to ascend. Each piece of information from the featured writer and the surrounding minions was received with a solemn nod of the head from the other participants, like brethern nodding in time to the beats of a sermon from their pastor that they've heard many times before.
I walked out of that little talk and that little store still not convinced that alien abductions were, but I was convinced that some people were convinced.
And now, after having read John E.Mack's 1994 bestseller Abudction: Human Encounters With Aliens, I've found insights and outlooks that are unexpected and illuminating. (And just plain fucking weird, too, but that's to be expected in these kinds of tales.)
Essentially, the book is a series of descriptions of psychiatric sessions conducted between Mack and patients that have been referred to him, all of who have had alien encounters in some way, shape form. (Excluding Neil Diamond fans, because it has yet to be confirmed that he is an alien, but I have my suspicions.) What makes the book so fascinating (and controversial) revolves around the approach Mack decides to adopt -- namely, treating his patients not as victims of a mental disorder but as people who have been traumatized by an experience every bit as unsettling as an assault or a rape. A skeptic turned believer, Mack allows us as readers to view the abduction phenomenon from a personal perspective. Listening to their stories, you will not necessarily become a believer, but you will start to recognize common human needs and longings that are either brought forth from the aliens, given by the aliens, or else emanating directly from a universal human desire for togetherness and hope all that lies within us all.
Oh, and I'll be honest -- there's a lot of anal probing going on, which leads me to suspect that the aliens aren't getting enough loving at home. I know, I know, they say it's for 'experimental purposes', but still. (God, I can picture Dr.Phil seated before a handful of silvery-skinned aliens with tear-drop shaped heads gazing blankly at him with milky dark eyes as he berates them for our amusement: "You do realize, don't you, that there are some issues in your own bedroom in your own galaxy that need to be addressed before you start deciding to invite little Becky over here in Kansas into your kinda twisted reindeer games. Am I getting through to ya? And don't tell me that because you're an alien you can't hear the whistle I'm blowin', 'cause let me tell ya, I've see Close Encounters, I know you hear the horn I'm playin', so that particular dog won't hunt.")
Once you get past the icky-gooey aspect of these testimonies, complete with cosmic dissections and incisions and strange glowing fluids from questionable sources, you discover that so many of the abductees' see their experiences, diverse as they are, as a common means of discovering more about themselves and the universe they (and we) inhabit. Some see the aliens as trying to teach humans more about unlimited compassion and love, while others see them as warning us as to what our selfish, indulgent, destructive ways will eventually lead to. In all cases, however, Mack sees these alien intrusions as a challenge to our normal, historical, dualistic scientific understanding of space and time, human and other, Bert and Ernie, individual consciousness and collective evolution. Either aliens are trying to eradicate the boundaries between these tradionally dualistic concepts, Mack is implying, or the subconscious desires of a hell of a lot of people demand that we do so. (Mack is not exactly objective, either; he believes these people and their encounters, and suggests we need to reevaluate what we consider 'reality'.)
Standing in front of a classroom in Cambodia, attempting to explain to my ESL students my own thoughts pertaining to the Prime Minister's latest crackdown on anyone who dares to criticize him or his totalitarian policies, I suddely felt a sudden emotional alignment with these abductees. For what has my adventure been, both in Japan and Cambodia, if not an encounter with the unknown, an unconscious attempt to link myself with something larger and grander and denser than my own puny mind?
The tangents of life inevitably end up being the teachers of life. One need not see a streaking saucer light up the ink-black sky, symbiotically bond with female extraterrestrials or discover that oneself is actually the spawn of little green men to benefit from what a certain sense of displacement can offer. Relizing that I was giving my students my own, admittedly naive, opinion regarding Cambodian domestic politics vis-a-vis South East Asian political machinations, I realized, too, that I had, in my own, specifically human way, had a cosmic and spiritual evolution that challenged my notions of day-to-day reality, of what is right and wrong, mundane and far-fetched. My Japanese experience certainly bore little relation to my Canadian upbringing, and my time in Cambodia has done much to expand a small-town consciousness that knew little of life that had not been gleamed from the multiplex-glow of the silver screen or the pages of a comic book.
So, yes. I will keep scanning the skies, dreading and hoping that one day, some day, I might spot a definitive glowing sign that we are not alone in the cosmos. But I will also keep scanning the eyes of my students, trying to keep in mind that what is alien and foreign is subjective and personal, and that transcendance need not coincide with a spaceship's door drawing open. After all, for the moment, the door to my classroom is near enough.