Desperation in the Land of Smiles


Sometimes Cambodia is referred to as the “Land of Smiles,” a name it often shares with its northern neighbor, Thailand. While I don’t disagree with its classification as such, I think it should be prefaced with the context of the Cambodian experience before its used. The implication derived is that people are always happy; believe it or not, many times this is the case. I see people each day who have every reason to frown yet still find ways to smile.

It takes me back to my childhood when I would see my mother laughing at a situation that would’ve seemed to merit crying; I used to ask her why she was laughing and she would respond, “well, what’s the alternative, son? Should I cry instead?” I eventually understood this reaction to mean that there wasn’t time to cry; at the same time it was an admission that there were far more important things in life than how she felt at that particular moment and an implied sense that she’d previously dealt with far greater burdens.

I’ve begun to gather that the smiles these lands are filled with are those of people refusing to let emotion dictate how they will react to their circumstance and the implied sense of having overcome far worse. It’s something I notice in the shop keepers I frequent, the drivers I’ve hired when we had no car, and the girls we’re working with. In situations like these, where people smile to cover up emotion, it’s difficult to get a true sense of what someone is thinking or feeling. The smiles, in this case, are also sugar coated with lies they must tell to save face (a common Asian practice).

Reading people here has proven to be more of a task than I would’ve previously thought. I often have to wait until the person thinks I’ve stopped paying attention to possibly catch a glimpse of what they really think.

Today I was coming home from my weekly trip to the market and, as has become habit, I slowed down while passing the Buddhist statue in the city center, which people believe to be an actual God, to see the people coming to worship. Usually Lygia and I sort of smile sheepishly as we see various people trying to feed flowers to, burn incense in front of, or leave a shot of liquor for the statue to gain favor from it. It usually seems more ceremonial than anything else.

but today I was struck with something I’ve rarely seen in this Land of Smiles: emotion; desperation, even. A woman (not the one in the picture as I took the picture after) appeared to be in tears as she was rubbing the idol’s face and then rubbing her own. Usually people bring things for the statue like as an exchange but this woman had nothing. She looked as if she was hurting and desperately reaching out for some “luck.”

In the Land of Smiles, this type of desperation hides in plain sight. If you aren’t paying attention you’ll walk right by it, you’ll look right through it, and you’ll have gone by completely unaware. I’m sharing this to say that one of my biggest struggles has been adapting to cultural differences. But day by day I’m trusting that God will help me understand and empathize more and more. While I feel terrible about the woman at the statue, I rejoice in the knowledge that God set her in my path to do just that: feel.

It took my surprise, even. I usually pass by the statue with nothing more than I mildly curious indifference, hoping to spot people doing something I find funny, like taking pictures of each other feeding flowers to the statue. While I still maintained control of my fine motor skills, I was baffled. I drove forward to the next safe point to turn around but really I have no idea why I turned around. I wanted to interact with her. I wanted to talk to her. In hindsight, I have no idea how I would’ve done that but still, I turned around. By the time I got back to the statue she was gone and all I was left with was the usual quirky group of tourists/locals burning incense and feeding the statue random things. I scanned the sitting park but she was nowhere in sight.

I never pretend to fully understand the Will of God but on other hand I never hesitate to point people to Romans 12:1-2 where Paul tells us that we can know the will of God through rational thought in many cases if we have the renewal of mind that comes from knowing Jesus. However, that’s not to say that we should make ourselves void of emotion; on the contrary, I believe we cannot. God gave us emotions for a reason but He also have us reason so that we could prioritize and understand the emotions we feel. As I remember that woman’s face, I cannot help but feel sad for her sadness, but at the same time, as the day has progressed, I’ve begun to realize that God may have placed her in my path to serve as a reminder that hidden behind the many smiles I see every day, there are very likely hidden a number of other feelings.

It’s been one interesting journey so far, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

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