I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. It all started when I visited Bangkok in April. One day while sitting on the outdoor staircase of a luxurious shopping mall, I became fully absorbed in watching people pass me by. I was energized by the vast number of people on the street and, in particular, their diversity. I felt instantly as though I could disappear into the masses, not to be noticed sitting among the Thai business men and women, the university students, the international bankers, the tourists, the “lady boys,” the street vendors. There was nothing noticeable about me, nothing remarkable. I hadn’t experienced that feeling since I left the States a year and half earlier. It was such a relief.
Living in a small Cambodian town, I am a spectacle, always on display. I tower over the Cambodian women, my short brown hair adding to my visibility. My skin is whiter than my Khmer friends’ and my nose more defined, and they are sure to tell me so every day. Physically, it’s impossible to blend in. Socially, too. Despite having solid language skills, there are still loads of miscommunications, awkward situations, and times when I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on. These things make me stand out, and although I am generally embraced by the community, sometimes I just want to disappear into the background. Unfortunately, that’s not an option since I’m the only foreigner in town (excluding Tim, of course). The anonymity in Bangkok felt like an escape from my life in a metaphorical fishbowl.
Bangkok also made me realize how limited my life in rural Cambodia is. I’ve fallen head over heels for this country, but it remains true that my existence here is very narrow when compared to life in the US. Living in such a traditional setting means that in order to be effective in my work, or be accepted socially, I need to adhere to as many of the local customs as possible. For instance, in the past two years I have never left my house with my shoulders or knees showing. In fact, I wear a collared shirt out whenever my laundry pile will allow because that’s what women my age generally wear. I’m also restricted in who I can spend my time with, as it is not customary for men and women to spend leisure time together in public, let alone by themselves. I have been advised to avoid alcohol, some say even coffee, because good women do not drink these things. Furthermore, my social role is seen primarily – if not exclusively – as being a wife and a future mother, and much judgment comes from the fact that I do not do the daily cooking and that we do not yet have kids.
These limitations regarding the way I look, spend my time, and am viewed by the community are only part of the story. Operating in a foreign language each and every day is probably the biggest limitation. I rarely feel like I can express myself fully, due to both the intercultural element and the language barrier. It’s very difficult to maintain even the basic threads of identity, like humor or intellect, in a foreign language, which can result in feeling isolated.
Sitting in Bangkok though, observing what seemed to be a large middle class walking through the streets, I realized that some of the restrictions I feel also stem from the economic situation of Cambodia. In the US, I’d spend my weekends going to a baseball game, catching an art flick at the local movie theater, dining out at the newest restaurant, baking a favorite cake recipe. These, in small part, were things that defined me. It’s difficult to have leisure activities like these in a country where so many live below the poverty line. It’s difficult to act on my individual preferences and tastes when the market stalls all sell the same variations of factory-produced clothing gone awry or when the nearest concert venue is 250 kilometers away. If I am defined, at all, by what I do in my free time, rural Cambodia leaves me the same as everyone else, taking naps in a hammock and watching the same soaps on TV.
The pressure from these restrictions, somewhat self imposed as they may be, built up slowly. Before going to Bangkok, I would not have even been able to articulate their existence. But in Bangkok, I felt more me than I had in a long time. It was a relief, a release. We spend our lives figuring out who we are, what we enjoy, where we fit into our world. To then be transplanted to a new world where we are unable to maintain the same sense of identity we worked so hard to create, is exhausting.
Coming back to my small Cambodian town after Bangkok was easy. I wasn’t so sure it would be. I effortlessly slipped back into the routine of shapeless dress shirts, half-understood conversations, and lunchtime naps. Truth is, realizations about my somewhat stifled identity were not enough to overshadow the things I’ve come to love about living here. They do color my experience though and, until now, had been missing from my stories. Living in Cambodia has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, but I did have to give up a part of myself to make room for Cambodia to come in.