August 19, 2006

Getting Orient-ed, Part II

So the temples of Angkor were thoroughly memorable. They lived up to all my expectations, and then some. After 3 days, however, we felt we'd had enough (though there was days and days' worth more to see). A quick flight put us in the Khmer capital of Phnom Penh, which is clearly an up-and-coming metropolis, though not on a scale with its neighbors in Thailand or Vietnam. Colorful, to be sure.

Sights seen in Phnom Penh included the royal palace, which was one of those things that was certainly spectacular in its grandeur, though I definitely left there feeling like it was sort of an obligatory tourist attraction you can't not have visited. The Tuol Sleng prison had far more of an impact on me. How could it have been otherwise? A high school-turned-prison by the Khmer Rouge during its brutal regime, where thousands of Khmer people were tortured and killed, tends to leave an impression. It's been left more or less how it was at the end of the Khmer Rouge's "rule" in 1979, which is erie. The "classroom" doors stand open, revealing mattress-less iron beds with shackles still attached; the fact that you can stand in the very spot where innocent blood was spilt reminds me how sterile my experiences of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and the war museum in Hiroshima were by comparison. The wounds in Cambodia are still fresh, which was driven home when I realized that Khmer people barely older than me can remember something of Pol Pot's horrible reign.

Other classrooms housed portraits of each and every prisoner to pass through Tuol Sleng - men, women and children alike, along with graphic renderings of the various methods of torture inflicted upon them. To think that I myself (along with all those I've come to call my friends in the last year) would have surely been captured and killed if I were Khmer between 1975 and 1979, for the crime of being a teacher and therefore the epitome of all things intellectual, was enough to give me chills. As if the skulls of such victims lined up behind a panel of glass weren't enough.

The contrast between sight-seeing my way through palaces and temples and sight-feeling the impact of places like Tuol Sleng makes me question what my responsibility to society is, having had that experience. In fact, I think that's the difference between being a tourist and a world citizen - the compulsion to integrate what you know firsthand of the world into your own worldview and, ambition and means being sufficient, acting on it. I have by no means accomplished this myself, but I sure have deep thoughts on the subject, don't I?

Interestingly enough, my mom and I had the good fortune to meet someone who has accomplished this "compassion in action" way of life. Fred Lipp, along with his wife Kitty, has started an NGO that works to raise the money to keep Khmer children (girls in particular) in school, and even send some of them to university. Fred writes in his blog, "I think the difference from being a tourist, and one actively witnessing is between KNOWING ABOUT or GETTING INVOLVED WITH EDUCATED COMPASSION," which is basically the conclusion I came to above. The thing is, it's overwhelming to attempt to be this socially responsible global citizen when you lack the means and the maturity to effect change on your own! This is why I have so much respect for what Mr. Lipp is doing, and on a shoestring at that. I suppose one just has to do what inspires them, on whatever scale it may be, whether it's personally or globally, because I'm certain that some people would do as well at something like the Peace Corps (which I consider to be a prime example of social responsibility in action) as I would do as a mathematician (not well), and that does no one any good.

Mr. Lipp also writes, "The paradox of finding the importance of less when we come to assist those requiring more is a haunting reality." And how. As I sit here writing this, my bags packed to return to my homeland, I can't help but think about how a lot of the children who have benefitted from the Lipps' efforts likely own less "stuff" than I've got crammed into my 2 suitcases, and here I am complaining that not all of my "stuff" even fits - some of it will have to be shipped to America later. Even so, I could throw all of it away today and survive just fine. Better than fine. I'm a highly-educated individual, and the fact is that I can survive quite well on that alone, without the "stuff," which is why the work the Lipps do is so important. See for yourself:

The truth of the matter, however, is that I won't throw away my "stuff." I haven't yet decided what to do with it (or myself), but at 23, a mere fledgeling adult, I'm going to go ahead and allow myself some time to think about it. In the meantime, the perfect quote, also found on Fred Lipp's blog:

"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." -- E.B.WHITE

P.S. We went to Vietnam, too.