History Lessons

31 12 2009

New Year’s Eve at the Bangkok airport is an exciting place. A ten year old just moon-walked by, and “Humpty Dance is Your Chance” is playing over the loudspeaker. We were given New Year gifts of sleeping masks with the cartoon character Lilo on the front. Talk about a party.

We’re in hour four of what will end up being twenty-six hours of travel to go from Cambodia to Bangkok to Dubai to Istanbul. Because we’re flying west, our New Year’s Day will be twenty-nine hours long, which I think is a great way to start the year. We’re very ready for kebabs and hummus. Whether or not we have any clothing to prepare us for winter and snow is another story.

After our week in Vietnam, we hightailed it to Thailand beaches to celebrate Christmas. As a Christmas gift to each other, we stayed at a fancy hotel and ate wonderful foods, such as turkey, stuffing and gourmet cheeses. The beaches were gorgeous, and the trip was pure decadence. In fact, we loved it so much, we decided to take some bacterias with us on the road to Cambodia as a souvenir.

Before we left, I told Sunny that at some point, we’d probably get sick. He didn’t like my negative thinking and was determined to prove me wrong. In a way, he did, because our discomfort was mild compared to any other bug I’ve acquired abroad. Either way, we’re on the mend, and we should enter the New Year bacteria and parasite-free.

Our last two weeks, from Vietnam to Thailand to Cambodia, have been a mixture of relaxation and history. The history portion, both in Vietnam and Cambodia, was difficult. We’ve never seen anything like it, and it shook us. Memorials and museums here are raw and uncensored. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have shooting ranges next to their memorials, for reasons I cannot begin to understand. I guess it appeals to enough tourists and locals to keep them open, which frankly makes me question and lose a little hope for humanity.

In Vietnam, we were horrified by the graphic images and stories that implicated the United States. We were equally horrified by the exhibits that celebrated the defeat, capture and destruction of American soldiers. I still don’t know how to organize my feelings about it. Sunny did some writing on it as well, and his thoughts will be posted soon.

In Cambodia, the memorials felt different. On one hand, the historical explanations and exhibits felt more historically accurate because they shared multiple perspectives of the genocide. The museums in Vietnam proclaim many of their “historical truths” exhibits as one-sided; they seem to champion the idea that they own the rights to telling the story of what happened with the Americans and the French.

Exhibits in Cambodia, in my opinion, analyzed the history more critically. They begin to address issues of justice and the difficulties of reconciliation. They examine the complexity of the young soldiers’ role in the genocide, acknowledging that they could be both victims and perpetrators. They tell personal stories and accounts from many viewpoints, and for me, the exhibits made the viewer acknowledge the humanity of almost everyone involved in the genocide.

However, it doesn’t mean that visiting the former prison of the Khmer Rouge was easy. Both Sunny and I were moved to silence for hours. The prison was a former high school, and it still feels like a school, in the stairwells and the playground and the classrooms. I don’t know if it’s because I live in schools for at least eight hours a day, but seeing a school turned into a tool of genocide was one of the most difficult things I have ever experienced. It hit painfully close to home, in a way I wasn’t expecting. Again, I am still trying to process it.

Surprisingly, the rest of Cambodia was an overwhelming happy place. Maybe the happiest we’ve been to in Asia. Besides the occasional sign reminding us not to bring our dog, camera or grenade into a building, there was little feeling of the genocide that ravaged their country.

On the contrary, there is a peace in Cambodia. Smiles abound. The gentleness is palpable. The people we met seemed intent to get to know us, which was renewing for me. For me, being around people who are insistent on knowing and being known by each other is one of the most hopeful places to be.

So, we end the year more overwhelmed by the past, but equally encouraged by the present. Here’s to even better days ahead.



2 responses

31 12 2009

Your writings are brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing. I am so impressed that you are learning in ways you had not imagined. Although I guess that should not impress me. What should impress me is how open you both are to being moved, stretched and challenged. I hope this kind of impressiveness catches on in 2010. Enjoy Istanbul. Scope out some cool places for Blair and I for July!

11 01 2010
Katy Foster

We are saving for a southeast Asian trip summer 2011. Can’t wait to hear more about where we should go. I am ready!


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