I turned 26 on the weekend.
Last year when I turned 25 in northwestern Cambodia, I wondered if I would celebrate my next birthday in Canada or in a foreign country. I turned 26 a few days ago, and it turns out neither was true; I wasn’t back in Canada, but after sixteen months, Cambodia doesn’t feel as foreign as it once did.
There are similarities between marking age and marking time spent overseas. At the beginning, each week and then each month counts, until eventually, it is only whole years that matter. She’s two weeks old. I’ve been here three and a half months. He’s sixteen months old. We’ve been here four years. He’s ten years old.
Just as well as parents know their children’s ages, expats in Cambodia know how long they’ve been in the country. It’s because we receive the question so often; it’s constant. How long have you been here?
It’s a question you don’t receive when you’re somewhere you clearly belong. The question takes for granted your foreignness, and is often followed by: how long will you stay? (Family and friends back home stop asking this second question when they’ve been disappointed by the answer too many times.)
“Can I share some bad news?”
I had just shared some bad news of my own, and hadn’t finished airing my grievances against the world when my friend asked me the question. I frowned. “Yes…?”
“There’s been a shooting at the War Memorial.”
We were on Skype. She was in Ottawa and I was in Bangkok. She read out the texts as they came from her boyfriend; I went to Twitter and read out the tweets from journalists on the scene.
Before I moved to Cambodia, I lived in Ottawa for six and a half years. In that time, I worked on Parliament Hill for a year, and spent another three years working for a charity half a block away from where the soldier was killed at the War Memorial. If Ottawa was my home, that area of the city was my office.
Over the past twenty-four hours, as I’ve spoken to friends who are in Ottawa and watched the updates on social media and in the news, I’ve thought a lot about the response to the attack, and also about the concept of “freedom.”
After an entire year spent in Cambodia, except for two uneventful hours spent just on the other side of Cambodian border in Thailand and a few days as a movie extra pretending to be in Thailand, I visited Canada for a month, and then Greece for a week, before returning to Phnom Penh.
It had been a year without things like hot water, doors that locked, carpets, stop signs taken as more than suggestions to yield, and pants designed for women taller than 5’2”, so I knew being in Canada would take some adjusting.
I already felt out of my element while in transit from Cambodia to Canada. I flew out of Bangkok and gawked at its magnificent light-rail system, and all the people on it after eight o’clock at night. In Battambang, you turn to stone if you are out that late on a weeknight.
Recently, going from Toronto to Athens took me 22 hours instead of the scheduled 12, an incredible accomplishment considering you can get from Canada to Cambodia in 24 hours.
Thanks to the magic and confusion of crossing time zones, these 22 hours were stretched across three different days, and each of them were mundane, tedious, dull, tiresome, monotonous, and even boring.
Let’s see the play-by-play.
Friday, August 22
8.10pm. At the Toronto Pearson airport, Alitalia, the airline I’m taking to Rome and then to Athens, has made it impossible to enter the line to check in and drop off baggage. The rope forming the queue winds around but doesn’t provide an opening to enter the line. I duck under the rope and instantly regret missing the opportunity to do the limbo.
9.15pm. The world’s only security personnel with a sense of humour works at this airport. His one-man show culminates in a plea for everyone to drink their tequila before they reach the front of the line, where he’ll have to drink it.
It’s June, and all is quiet in Battambang. Too quiet.
It’s time to shake things up.
Sarah, a former Battambanger, manages a rustic campground on a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, inhabited only by a few fishermen and some cows (we’re not sure how the cows got there).
We decide to spend a few days on the island. There are total of 12 of us committed to lounging on a beach and uncommitted to the idea of personal hygiene.
We envision a weekend that will look exactly like this, except of course we are not as fit as this group of people, nor as ethnically diverse.
Everything is always
it is blue, it is green, it is white.
It is floating open wide light
it is slim shoots spread fields
it is white clear see-through shine
It is gold-laughter ribbon hanging like chimes
it is rosy bright air before descent
it is unscrewed stars where maybe meets yes.
From sky smile sound
it is always, it is wow.
About three weeks ago, a friend returned to Australia for a job interview. The plan was: two weeks in Sydney, then back to Cambodia for a few weeks before he and his girlfriend return to Australia permanently.
We said goodbye one night at a bar following a poetry reading, where I happened to read a poem about saying goodbyes. I thought of giving him a hug, but didn’t; I would see him in a few weeks anyway.
Then two weeks became three and now it turns out he’s not returning.
I wish I’d given him that hug. Continue reading
A few days ago, a friend took me outside of Battambang. We drove along dusty roads, past rice paddies stretching to the horizon. Looking over the fields made me miss Canada, and the wide expanses and open skies of the Canadian prairies, where I was born and raised.
It’s been over a year since I’ve been out of the country, which is the longest I’ve ever been away, and while I love Cambodia, I miss Canada.
A Canadian flag in Barcelona.
Life in Cambodia isn’t always easy. Sometimes you’re waging war against rodents, sometimes friends are insulting your cooking, and sometimes power outages interfere with charging your iPad.
Fortunately, I was raised on a farm in rural Canada. The Canadian prairies have some surprising similarities to Cambodia, making me uniquely equipped for life here.
You’d be surprised how this environment prepares you for Cambodia.
Things are starting to disappear from my apartment. Small things, like a piece of banana here, some mango there.
They re-appear as mouse droppings.
Realizing they have found the home of someone lazy and complacent, the mice become bold, darting around my feet when I am cooking or sitting at my desk.
“I can see you!” I yell at them as they run out onto the deck, then withdraw back beneath the wardrobe, their home base. A smaller one pops out again and I think for a moment, ah, it’s kind of cute- NO DON’T HUMANISE IT IT IS THE ENEMY. Continue reading