This guest blog post is brought to you by Christina Fletcher, a student of the University of North Florida, who recently joined Ayana Journeys on an educational tour focused on social innovation.
After almost a month in Southeast Asia, coming back to Florida was challenging. The constant humidity that I once thought of as unbearable is now nothing more than a little heat, the lack of rice in my home now seems preposterous, and the abundance of toilet paper now seems a little over the top. However, not only are these simple, cultural differences frustrating me, but my shocking awareness of how much STUFF is in my house is even more ridiculous. Compared to the few items that my homestay family in Banteay Chhmar had, my lifestyle suddenly felt out of place and irresponsible. Not only this, but the shortage of a wifi signal encouraged conversation and resulted in my group becoming closer than many of our relationships back home. In short, when I arrived in Cambodia on the last day of April I experienced little to no culture shock because I was prepared to experience the unknown, but on my arrival in Florida 22 days later, it was then that the culture shock set in.
My time under the influence of culture shock lasted for about a week; in that week I was made aware of something that we (Americans) are not ignorant to, but we certainly push to the side – the plethora of goods that we are consuming. For instance, on my first day back in the states the first thing that I did was get rid of a box of miscellaneous, useless items and a garbage bag full of clothes; yet I still felt as though I had rid myself of nothing. I was spending my money on things that had no purpose, brought me no happiness, and cluttered my life.
Now, in Cambodia I saw neither a supermarket nor a mall; I saw people buy only what they need for the day in street markets. Furthermore, in their homes I saw there were no couches, no recliners, and no tables; they ate outside in hammocks or squatting down. This simple and yet effective lifestyle led me to gain an eagerness to minimalize my life and not take what I have for granted.
Minimalism is the main lesson that I learned from my short amount of time in Cambodia. I had heard about minimalism and brought aspects of it into my life, but seeing the benefits of it in real time in a place that already employs minimalism as part of their culture – that was completely different. By having less, our lives can be made easier – even if you have the struggle to put food on the table (which most Cambodians don’t have).
Nevertheless, minimalism is not the only thing that I brought back with me from Cambodia, but also a steep decrease in my use of technology. Many Cambodians have little access to the internet or technology of any kind. As a result of this, they are left with no other choice but to actually talk to each other. Shocking, isn’t it? Their communities are stronger because they get to know each other through face-to-face interaction. Furthermore, people are happier because of these strong relationships, which can also do wonders for reducing stress.
Therefore, because of the nonexistent wifi signal my group and I actually talked to one another and because of that our relationships with one another grew strong rapidly (not to mention we were with each other 24/7). We discussed topics that actually meant something to us and, for many of us, those discussions have challenged and even changed our views on controversial issues. Now don’t forget, this is coming from a place where a wide variety of food is not always easily available, there is little air conditioning, and people might wear the same pair of pants three days in a row (I know I did).
So, is it possible that this impoverished and corrupt country actually has a better quality of life than the rich, free American? Is it possible that even though the average life span is sixty rather than eighty, the average Cambodian actually lives a fuller and more meaningful life than the average person from the U.S.? So, maybe we need to stop trying to connect with people over text messaging and social media, but instead, turn off the notifications and call someone when you want to talk to them.
Since I have been back, I have been asked one question over and over: what do you miss the most? And my answer is always the same; the people I met, because each one made an impact on me that I am unable to forget. After all, it is the people that make up the country and it is the people that define it. Cambodia was introduced into my life and I couldn’t imagine leaving it behind, so I brought it back with me to America.
So, I put my phone down more, talk more, buy less, and dedicate each day to being optimistic about what the future holds. What do I miss the most? Even though I miss tuktuks and the bum gun and taking my shoes off at the door, what I really miss are the people who taught me everything I brought back from Southeast Asia.