Cambodian culture is not only distinct, but it is distinct in a visible way. By visible, I mean that as an American it is easy to detect the differences between my way of life and a Cambodian’s way of life – the food, the language, the “dress code,” and of course, the vast economic and political differences. But by visible, I also mean something that is perhaps more obvious, and definitely more indicting of the way my life is organized in America.
Cambodians live in a visible way, meaning that their lives are not hidden from the lives of neighbors, customers, or foreign tourists. Many own little shops lining the roads or sell fruit at the local market, sitting next to their products hour after hour. Most of their homes are comprised of one large room, perhaps one bed. Cambodians do not remain hidden behind tinted windows because bicycles and motorcycles are the most common forms of transportation. Granted, this visibility may not be an active choice for many Cambodians because of their various levels of poverty and utter dependence on others. But this visibility, whatever the reason, is in fact a radical departure from the way Americans, more often than not, choose to structure their lives.
In the United States, we love eating in booths for privacy, building fences and planting shrubbery around our property, and even having multiple rooms in our homes devoted to “escaping” from other family members. We cannot deny that we create boundaries for ourselves, shielding our lives from others around us. In Cambodia, those boundaries seem almost non-existent. This tactic of shielding is rare, and frankly, it would be an insulting way to live here.
Among the new ways of life I have encountered, living out in the open has been the most challenging. I can try new foods, learn words of Khmer, dress more modestly, and work to help build a Cambodia that is more stable and self-sufficient. But a purposeful tearing down of my erected boundaries has not been an easy task, for I am realizing that I am intrinsically wired to build forms of protection around myself. I have been taught to value independence. I have been taught to strive for security. And perhaps saddest of all, I have been taught that reliance is, in fact, a weakness.
Learning how to forgo the parts of myself that are riddled with procuring security and seeking out seclusion has been difficult, but in Cambodia, I seem to have quite the support group to emulate. Although I purchased a bike and try to eat my meals with locals when I feel confident enough to stomach a new dish, I have a long way to go. And I am not wholly convinced that I will achieve this “living out in the open” before I leave Cambodia. It will indeed be something that I intentionally strive to maintain and continue when I return home.
So how do we reconcile these vastly different ways of living? Is the answer to completely abandon eating in a booth or buying plants? I don’t think so. I do, however, think the answer lies in the act of being deliberate, for which the life of Jesus can prove to be a valuable model. There was nothing secure or safe or secluded in what he preached, whom he ate with, or where he traveled. Yes, his life was filled with risk, but it was also abundant in intentionality. I believe that intentionality is the key if our lives are to become more interwoven and interconnected. We must become a people who step out from behind.
Jesus advocated for a life lived fully, and a life lived fully cannot occur from behind tinted windows or tall shrubbery. The characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail are popular proponents of shrubbery, but if I recall correctly, they failed to find the Holy Grail.