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A Local Encounter that Changed my Perspective - "The American War"

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 18 April 2013 | Views [149] | Scholarship Entry

I didn't know what date or time it was. On my journey, these things ceased to matter.
I listened to a fierce monsoon beat upon the rooftop of the open-air bar, and made the most of my sight before the power went down again. Outages were unpredictably frequent, and there was an audible cheer each time the lights flared back to life.
My days left in Siem Reap were numbered, and I felt more complete from the experiences I'd gained, though weeks before I could scarcely have located the city on a map.
I had asked to be brought here, to a local haunt, where it turns out those of my coloring are hardly seen. Instead of craving the familiarity of the throngs of English speakers on Pub Street, I felt at home, at ease. I had to remind myself not to dwell upon my impending departure. As a traveler, you learn not to be saddened by such realities. Moving onward is inevitable.
I'd forged a deep bond with the people seated around me, many of whom spoke no English. We created our own language based on warm hospitality and the endless cycle of giving and receiving. This was a joy to us all; gratitude was the reward. We hardly needed words at this point.
That night, as they described in a broken dialect the carnage inadvertently brought down upon them by my country's meddling in Vietnam, I pushed my shame aside to revel in their beautiful acceptance of me. The images of fiery explosions and charred, blackened bodies were as fresh in their minds as the day of their witnessing. The slaughter of the American War, a title which I'd never heard, had spilled over the border into Cambodia. In history books, it seems the suffering of others is often omitted by the those who caused it.
Yet the Khmer people bore no grudge against me or mine. They found no lack of reason to smile, assist, or guide me with kindness and grace. There was no hesitation when it came to inviting me into their homes, sharing what little they had, or allowing me to participate in their customs and celebrations. They thought they were teaching me rituals, but in fact, they were teaching me something much more meaningful.
I had expected to pay, through spite or derision, for the crimes of my nation. Instead, they told me they were lucky to have me as a friend. They treated me as if I had arrived with Buddha himself, bearing unimaginable gifts. I had not anticipated this. Their souls were illustrious, unmarred by their encounters with tragedy and pain.
Could my countrymen claim the same magnanimity?

Tags: Travel Writing Scholarship 2013

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