Mind Matters — Reflections on a Southeast Asian Journey

There is a world out there vastly different than the horsey hills of Chester County or the upscale shopping malls of Delaware County. Having just returned from a trip to Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I am decompressing from that difference.

April in southeast Asia is one of the hottest months there, and residents report that climate change has perhaps made it even hotter. While the heat and humidity could be oppressive, the Cambodian and Vietnamese people were generally warm and welcoming.

Foreign travelers are relatively safe in all the places we visited—perhaps particularly in Singapore where ubiquitous cameras might catch even the minor infraction of publicly chewing gum. Singapore is a city-state sharing its boundary with Malaysia and set in a tropical jungle. The government keeps a patronizing and moralistic grip on its inhabitants. Beautiful and clean, and good food everywhere, it is also a very monolithic micro-universe. Subway signs remind travelers to offer seats to fellow commuters. The message is to “be kind, you’ll feel better for it.” This is the upside of the world of rules and convention. The downside is a need for conformity. In Singapore, while there is a diversity of people: “races” and religions, there is hardly a diversity of behaviors. Edgy tee-shirts, or tattoos and piercings are not seen. Meanwhile, newspaper reports about various petty crimes sound like tales from Aesop’s Fables—always with a moral at the end regarding “should” and “oughts.” Singapore is pretty, safe and clean and its inhabitants seem content, but my inner critic is loud enough not to need its reinforcements.

Vietnam and Cambodia, communist though they are, seem far more open to challenging convention. Like Singapore, but even more so, people live outside. In our suburban landscape, we take to the AC and when we do emerge al fresco, we sit on our large decks away from the world. In cities like Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) or Hanoi, sidewalks teem with activity: playing, eating, selling. In the country, open air humble houses and “cafes” with hammocks meet the road. Activity is the constant on the streets as well—what looks to the Westerner to be chaos is really a smooth swarm of scooters in a rhythm with buses, rickshaws, and cars. A kinetic pattern emerges: this is not disorder but a flowing mass of energy—people on the move making life happen.

What was most impressive to me were the people. The Vietnamese now celebrate the reunification of their country, north and south, as they still suffer the toxic effects of American bombs and agent orange on both the population and the soil and plant life. However, Americans are welcome here; and beyond the museums that mark the national memory, the Vietnamese want to go forward and celebrate life: to fish, to farm, to weave, to enjoy family and community.

Likewise in Cambodia, where a quarter of the population was killed by the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, traumatic memory meets new life. Practically every family had been affected one way or another by the Pol Pot regime. The evil has not been forgotten. The lives lost in the killing fields are memorialized. These mass graves are not easy to visit but one can hope that by remembering those who suffered we honor them and bring to consciousness how “easy” it is for a demagogue to distort his message of freedom and liberty into mob mayhem. Remember that Pol Pot wanted his nation to go back to the land—he made the city of Phnom Penh a ghost town. Fearful of educated intellectuals, academics, and professionals, he forced all to work the rice fields and many were tortured and killed. He converted a beautiful high school built in the 1960’s to become his torture chamber (Security Prison S-21) only a decade later. No one denies the horror and it seems that Cambodians, like the Vietnamese, rely on their Buddhist ethics to move to a place of forgiveness, not forgetfulness. The story of one of our Cambodian guides attests to his wanting to live a compassionate life despite the facts of his traumatic boyhood history. He witnessed his grandmother’s murder, and he was taken away from his family to be “schooled” without them. Children were to inform against their families and pledge allegiance only to their government. Resilient, yes, yet he still carries his traumatic memories.

Nevertheless, Cambodians are a peaceful and warm people who like the Vietnamese work hard to make a living. In addition to the traditions of fishing and farming and weaving, there are garment workers in the multi-national factories. One night we saw many coming home in the pouring rain, cram-jammed onto the open beds of trucks, serving as buses. These trucks were a more economical means of transportation to their tiny stilt homes. All were smiling—perhaps just glad the factory work part of the day was over. Or perhaps the smiles were simply joy at being alive, celebrating the moment. I don’t know.

What I do know is that when I pick up a shirt of pair of pants in a big box store and it says, “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Cambodia,” I will wonder about the person who made it and hope that her/his life is still a celebration, and perhaps one of a little more ease and comfort. May the Cambodians and Vietnamese continue to smile. After much suffering, may their peace remain.