Lately I’d become so caught up in a whirlwind of activity that I didn’t let myself experience the emotional weight of what was happening, until yesterday.
I rode my bike back to my host home in Puok for a final visit to say goodbye to my host family. The moment I walked in the door, reality hit me. I don’t live there anymore.
My stuff is gone. My room is empty. My host mother even had to get out the guest sheets and pillow for me to sleep on. I felt like a visitor.
As I quietly looked over my empty room, the past two years flooded my mind.
The weddings, the deaths, the births, 1,500 bowls of rice together, 700 sunrises and 700 sunsets over coconut trees seen from my back porch, crocodiles, floods, playing cards, family holiday celebrations, cultural misunderstandings, lessons in bridging those misunderstandings, learning the Khmer language through daily conversations with my very patient host mother, barking dogs, neighbor friends, beers with co-teachers, duck’s blood salad, pig tongue, pig brain, impressive students who’ve overcome more than I can imagine, sweating out my frustrations daily, diarrhea, cold bucket showers, hearing first-hand accounts of genocide that I’ll never fully understand, mosquitoes, biking through Buddhist pagodas, monks chanting, bright orange robes, pink lotus flowers, praying to the spirits in our living room, missing important moments in America, anger, joy, relief, stress, success, failure, laughing, crying, putting one foot in front of the other.
I really lived in this house. And, I don’t take lightly the fact that I experienced privilege in the highest degree—the privilege of being accepted into someone’s family.
They took me to every family event. They took me to every holiday celebration. They took me to funerals. They asked me to be a groomsman in a wedding. They fed me twice daily. They shared their fears, their troubles, their joys, their hobbies, their work. They introduced me to their friends with pride. They made me feel like I was one of them everyday for two years. We grew and changed together in that house.
Living in a developing country, it’s pretty normal to think about the state of the world and how to make it better. It’s a difficult dilemma. And, most days, it seems nearly impossible to make a difference because there are so many mind-boggling challenges to healthy development.
Then again, my host family made creating a better world seem so easy with the way they treated me. They embraced me unconditionally, even without fully understanding me, and they did so by crossing the divides between us: culture, religion, language, geographic borders, economics, living standards, and stereotypes. If we could all follow their lead and embrace people on the other side of so many divides, the universe would be headed for better days.
I’m a lucky man.