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Different world in Cambodia

Your Turn



It's ironic, how you don't realize what you have until it's gone.

When I was living in Colorado Springs, I complained incessantly about the inefficient traffic lights, the lack of restaurants open past 10 p.m., and, of course, the conservatives.

Now that I'm gone, though, and very far away on the other side of the planet, I find myself fantasizing about the place: runs through Monument Valley Park, Bristol's Beehive on a warm summer day, Poor Richard's pizza.

In Cambodia, running is a treacherous negotiation of potholes, cracked roads and the occasional wild dog. (Sidewalks are practically nonexistent.) The popular beer, Angkor, is unbearable at anything but the coldest of temperatures (which is to say it's good for about 3½ minutes). And the pizza is expensive and comes with weird fish on it.

Living in Cambodia makes me simultaneously more appreciative of these little things that I once took for granted, and at the same time, more aware of how trivial the "inconveniences" of my former life really are.

When you meander down a street and accidentally lock eyes with a 16-year-old Khmer who is selling herself for $10 a night (an industry unfortunately fueled by degenerate Western appetites), or pass mothers fanning their babies in their laps with one hand while they beg for loose riels with the other, or see a family spooning each other on a park bench at night out of necessity and not necessarily affection, you sort of forget why you ever thought you had a tough life in the first place back in Colorado.

Not getting enough sleep falls pretty far down the totem pole compared to not having enough food to eat.

In the United States, there is a social safety net. We complain about taxes and health care and Social Security, but at the end of the day our government works hard (albeit slowly) to ensure people aren't relegated to sleeping on street corners. (Not that we don't have our fair share of those as well.)

In Cambodia, there is no safety net. For many, especially the nearly one-third of the population who lives on less than a dollar a day, survival is a daily battle.

Cambodia is one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world (the result, in large part, of misguided United States foreign policy). Many curious kids who long ago picked up a shiny object in the provinces, just to see what it looked like, are now wheelchair-bound. With little chance of obtaining gainful employment, they are relegated to begging on the streets of Phnom Penh to eke out an existence.

This, of course, doesn't touch upon the dark underbelly of Cambodia. We could go into great detail about its notoriety as a bastion for human trafficking and sex workers. Or about its rampant corruption — on Transparency International's 2010 worldwide Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia ranked 154th out of 178 countries surveyed. Or the painful legacy of the Khmer Rouge, which systematically exterminated nearly a third of the population, approximately 1.7 million people, including a generation's worth of civil servants and educated professionals.

Indeed, there seem to be so many proverbial cards stacked against Cambodia that it's hard to envision when she will ever break from the shackles that have gripped her for so long.

And when I walk by the visible signs of these shackles on a daily basis, I am acutely aware that I am an American.

Just because I happened to be born there, in a state called California, I will automatically live a richer life, without cockroaches in my food or rats in my house, with a roof over my head and clean drinking water.

It's not fair; I did nothing to deserve it.

But it's reality, so now I should probably complain a little less about those Colorado Springs conservatives.

Kristin Lynch, a 2005 graduate of Princeton University who later moved to Colorado Springs, worked for Colorado College and wrote occasional Your Turn pieces for the Independent, is working as a journalist for the Phnom Penh Post.

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