Not too long ago, something changed for me, linguistically-speaking. Previously, when someone asked how long I had been in Cambodia, I’d say “more than a year.” Recently, however, my wording evolved. When people ask me now, I reply with the barely distinguishable, “a year and a half” (or, more often than not, the Khmer equivalent for that).
Although this tiny shift may seem insignificant to many, it got me thinking. You see, “a year and a half” is also my reply when people ask me how long I spent in Latin America, meaning that the time I’ve been nervously awaiting has finally arrived. In the upcoming weeks and months, the scale is going to tip and I will have been in Cambodia longer than I was in Latin America.
The tipping of the scale is something I’ve feared since arriving. I can remember riding my bike through the rice paddies in training, speaking to myself out loud in Spanish in a desperate attempt to reserve territory in my brain for the language, even as Khmer started to conquer more and more brain space. I remember clinging to mental images, smells, songs – anything to remind me of my time in Latin America. Spanish was the first language I studied. My first solo trip abroad was to Latin America. I did so much learning and growing in the region. Latin America had a special place in mi corazón. And when I arrived in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to it.
It played out in my head like a bad romantic comedy, where I had to choose between my high school sweetheart and the new guy who showed up, inevitably driving a motorcycle (or is it a moped in this case?). Would my love for Latin America grow as I realized that Cambodia’s novelty was enough to grab my attention – but not to hold it? Or would Cambodia win, leaving me to realize how silly I was to ever like Latin America in the first place? Was our history enough to keep us together? Would I even remember my Spanish at the end of all this? Quién sabía?
Well, it might be too early to say for sure, but I think I might have overreacted. (Shocking, isn’t it?) Yes, I love Latin America. It invigorates and inspires me in a way that no other region has. But I also love Cambodia now. It balances and grounds me. Yes, I speak Khmer every day, but I can also speak Spanish (although, admittedly, I do have to stop and think more than I’d like). There are things about each place that I find beautiful, amazing and unique. In my book, the two are equals.
The scenes from Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina have certainly faded with time. Living in this reality can make it hard to imagine any other – including my previous life in Latin America, but also the life I had in the States for 23 years. And, truth be told, my year and a half here has been spent consecutively and in a single country; whereas my time in Latin America was strewn between three countries and across four years. It makes sense that Cambodia is at the center of my thoughts. It makes sense that I have moments each and every day where I give thanks for being here above anywhere else in the world. It makes sense that Latin America has been put on the back burner for now.
Latin America will always be there waiting for me with los brazos abiertos, but until then my heart is here. ខ្ញុំស្រលាញ់កម្ពុជា!