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Majestic Living and Discrimination


Back in 2011, during my year abroad in Malaysia, I took a trip to Cambodian city of Siem Reap. The area well known for the massive temple Angkor Wat and many other majestic temples. All are remnants of an era of the Khmer empire and most were built more than a millennia ago. You should go these this part of the world. Its incredible. But this piece is not about temples.

Perhaps the most memorable part of my trip was a long bike ride into the countryside in search of a floating village. Having done some research in advance and asking our concierge about it, we had the basic idea that a group of people lived on huts built on stilts on a giant lake not too far away. We ventured out from our hotel through the city, which eventually gave way to a rural state highway and then keep our eyes on the lookout for a dirt road turnoff, which we would follow to a marina, where we could board a boat.

And so the journey went. There were more than a few points on the ride that brought on some anxiety, there were few signs to begin with and we went further along, any English translations on them when away, becoming strictly Khmer, which appears similar to Thai:

Were we getting closer? Had we passed it? We eventually the turnoff, which took us even further back in time. A dirt road and small villages along a small tributary, feeding into our destination, the lake Tonlé Sap. When we arrived, we paid to board a boat and began the voyage.

We must have traveled for more than 25 minutes at a pretty brisk pace before arriving. It was as remarkable as we imagined. There people were, living out on the water. We had lunch, went on small rafts through a mangrove, taking it all in. There are few moments in my entire year abroad that I felt further from home than that day. It was invigorating.

But a couple weeks ago, roughly 6.5 years since that trip, my Sunday newspaper arrived containing a special report with unexpected news. Context about the floating villages of Cambodia. Our romance with the idea of a people living on the water had stopped us from asking, "Do you think these people chose to live out here? Is it a good life on the water?" As the piece revealed, the answer to both questions is "no". People living on the water are largely people of Vietnamese descent, although many have been in the country for generations and ultimately took refuge on the water because on land they were not safe from government policies nor its security apparatus. Things are already not good and the government, backed by nationalist rhetoric and support, is aiming to make things worse. Many people are threatened with the possibility of being deported to Vietnam. What makes this even more ridiculous is most people living in these villages were not born in Vietnam. They have been in the country for generations. This would be like my ancestors, sixty-plus years after migrating to the US, being sent back to France, a country the two newest generations would likely never have seen. Can you really "go home" to a place you have never seen?

This piece ultimately did two things for me. First, it reminded me to always stay curious about what is in front of me. Not necessarily in search of malice or wrongdoing but just to better understand a situation. Second, it helped me even better see the pain my own country's rhetoric and policy towards more recent immigrants is having.

In closing, I felt this quote in particular from the piece was powerful, "Nationalism is always in search of an enemy. In Cambodia, the search has a neat circular logic: the Vietnamese are enemies because they are foreign. They are foreign because they are enemies. Their existence here betrays a contradiction between the myth of a pure Khmer empire and the country's lived history of migration and movement along the Mekong."

Go Forth Boldly


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