22 August 2011

G'bye Khmer

(that rhymes)

After 8 months, I'm off to Beijing tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the embassy seemed to ignore the details on my application, including an official government invitation letter requesting a category 'F' business visa, and they issued me an 'L' tourist visa instead.

There's no way to remedy this right now. But I hope there's some possibility of correcting it in China. I have 30 days to get a re-issue or extension or something. If I have to leave the country to re-apply, that might prove a serious obstacle.

Some reflections on my time in Phnom Penh.

I knew very little about Cambodia before coming here. I had seen the film The Killing Fields sometime in my teens, which formed the bulk of my impression about its people and culture. I think it took about 3 months before I began to develop a sense of things that went beneath the surface. Ironically, given my own initial ignorance of Cambodian history, one thing that struck me was the profound lack of historical and global awareness among Khmer.

Oddly enough, hardly anyone living or working in Phnom Penh grew up here. Most Khmer I've met are from the "countryside," as they say. On holidays and frequent weekends, the city nearly empties out, as folk travel back to their "homelands" in scattered poor farming villages throughout the various provinces.  Even among upper-class college-educated Khmer with decent English-speaking skills --their picture of the world still seems mighty provincial. When asked about history beyond the horror of the Rouge, there's a general acknowledgment that once there was a glorious Angkor period in Cambodia, and that's about it.  Upshot: not knowing much more than it takes to get your next meal makes for a strange sensibility that's hard to describe.

The center of much present-day Khmer culture seems to revolve around intimate (not to say necessarily emotionally healthy or supportive) family ties, and a popular "Buddhism" focused on ancestor worship and highly superstitious ritual to ward off bad luck.

I'm afraid all this sounds somewhat vague and negative. While there's some aesthetic appeal to the chaotic grit and grime, I'm really no fan of the "undeveloped" world.  And on the whole, Cambodian food is pretty bad (a real surprise as I enjoy both Vietnamese and Thai food). Nevertheless, it's been a positive experience learning about the city, also visiting Siem Reap / Angkor Wat and Sihanoukville (even visiting Bangkok, Thailand during Songkran, a comedy of errors), and I truly enjoyed getting to know some eager students, friendly neighbors, bar/cafe/restaurant & guesthouse staff... and even tuk-tuk and moto drivers.  Moreover, tropical weather is wonderful.

I suspect I'll miss the small town feel of Phnom Penh. But mostly I'll miss those colleagues who became close friends. Living and working here can be exhausting, and the companionship of kindred minds keeps you going. I'm grateful to have met a few people who were open-minded, mature, and kind enough to have genuinely befriended me.


A word on church. As far as I know, there's no confessional Presbyterian or Reformed church in Cambodia. But there is a PCA/MTW mission team working with a local congregation here that I attended. The team has an enormous job of reformation ahead.