September 20, 2010

Becoming the Cambodian Adventure Lady

Everywhere you go, there you are.
Cambodian Adventure Lady in Kratie, Cambodia

It's an old adage, a cliché, and one of the most wonderful and horrible facts of life. Horrible because the only thing you can never outrun is yourself, but wonderful for exactly the same reason.

I went to Cambodia to become someone else. I was going to break out of my textbooks and apathetic college student community to do something totally different. I was going to volunteer in Cambodia. I don't really know who I wanted to become, but whoever she was didn't materialize as I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh. It was me sitting there anxiously filling out the customs form wondering why I had signed up for this and how I was going to survive.

There I was, with my suitcase and backpack in the thick of Cambodian midnight, waiting for a sea change in myself.

I waited and waited, but it was still just me. As I began to adapt to the surroundings, or perhaps just get lazier, I stopped wearing make-up. I started taking naps and wearing my hair in tight ponytails. I wanted so badly to be an ex-pat, to find my calling in a new culture. I was embarrassed to be homesick for the Great Plains and people with blond hair.

I had wanted to be the Cambodian Adventure Lady for at least a year before I left Nebraska, but once in Cambodia, I had no idea what to do. I was finally living the dream, and it was not quite what I expected. I thought it would be grass huts, hippies and hardship; not city smog and ice cream treats. This was supposed to be my chance to transform, to find myself anew. I found myself, instead, being very much my old self, just much sweatier.

I think we all find ourselves in this position--in the vice of introspection, hoping to unlock the mystery of life's purpose. Everywhere you go, there you are. That bothersome phrase again. I go all the way to Cambodia and the same stuff still bothers me. I'm still tall and awkward; in fact, now I'm a side show among petite, dark-haired people. I'm still unsure of what I want to with my life, and I still want yogurt for breakfast. Not exactly a complete rebirth.

Same old me, different visa.

This trend of my generation to travel the world, through backpacking or as English teachers, has created a new sense of loss in all of us. Who are we? Where do we belong? What are we looking for in these faraway lands?

When I got off the plane, part of me was hoping that I would become my inner Cambodian, or at least my inner fearless world traveler. I didn't.

I remained Jena--though I prefer to think of myself as the Cambodian Adventure Lady. I may not have solved any of life's mysteries in Cambodia, but I met people who showed me how wonderful life can be even if you only have the basics. I learned that education is our most valuable resource, and that free speech is never guaranteed. I found hope for a better world and the desire to help create it. No, I didn't change into someone else or meld into a new culture. I am the same person who dreamed of giving back through volunteering, and now I have the opportunity to use what I know to continue improving the world.
Everywhere you go, there you are.