I missed Cambodia as soon as I stepped onto the polished tiles of Adelaide Airport.
When asked about my trip, I’d gush about all the exciting parts; proudly recount painting an entire barn in motor oil in the sticky heat, and how we’d performed dozens of eye screenings on villagers and were later allowed the privilege of witnessing life-changing eye surgeries. I could tell them about the rush I felt; clinging to the back of a motorbike as we flew across the Cambodian countryside, caught exquisitely between terror and elation, and the foolish grin that wouldn’t leave my face.
But I felt strange and distant. As an international development student, I’d gone to Cambodia with certain expectations, and notions of what it meant to live in a developing country. I knew the theories and terminology, all the harrowing statistics. For all the essays I’d written concerning ‘The Poor’, that abstract, faceless group of people stuck in a cycle of poverty, my heart was broken; coming face to face with a beggar who held a sleeping child in one arm and reached out with the other, whose pained supplications followed me down the street; meeting a woman who had lost her entire family the year before and was struggling to make ends meet; and experiencing firsthand the intolerable living conditions of a slum community. None of my research could ever touch upon the reality of these people’s lives.
Happily, I saw the beauty of Cambodia as well as its scars, though I was unprepared for meeting children who had once lived on a rubbish dump, rushing to welcome me like a long lost family member and dragging me into play, wrapping skinny arms around my neck and posing like pros before the camera. My ears were unaccustomed to being greeted ‘sister’ by earnest young men, nor could I believe gracious elderly women bowing their heads over clasped hands in gratitude. And I will never forget the little boy who patiently taught me to count to ten in Khmer and laughed at my stumbling pronunciation.
When I got back home, I remembered shy smiles and easy laughter, shared tears, quiet dignity and the unbelievable kindness afforded me during my stay, and I was humbled.
I thought I was extending a hand to Cambodia but instead I was pulled into an embrace.