I finally understand how busloads of Japanese tourists in the U.S. feel as they stream off their transportation smack into the middle of Washington, D.C. or outside of Mt. Rushmore and proceed to confusedly snap photos of everything.
The entire group of LanguageCorps participants arrived Sunday, and during a tour of the city we tumbled from our tuk-tuks, speaking loud English and pointing at whatever we didn’t understand, posing for pictures in front of temples and staring, unmoving, at murals depicting something involving gods, maybe.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but the imagery confused me. Coming from a country steeped in Christianity and having stepped foot in almost every Catholic church in Northern Spain, I can talk in circles about Western religious figures, but when it comes to Eastern culture I’m hopeless.
Visiting Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace made me wish my art history class had allowed for more than a few weeks studying “Asian History” — which really just meant Japanese and Chinese art forms with a little bit of India for good measure.
My art history professor lamented this as well, and as an ignorant high schooler I didn’t get it until now. There’s only so much reading Wikipedia articles and Siddartha can fill in.
And then there are the events the Western world didn’t acknowledge until relatively recently, like the actions of the Khmer Rouge. Visiting the Killing Fields was eye-opening.
If you want to read more about the experience of touring the Killing Fields or look at some high quality photos, check out this, this and this. Those bloggers sum up the experience better than I can. The descriptions of death are graphic, though, so don’t click through if you’re not willing to read into it.
There, I wasn’t so much a gawking tourist as a silent student, listening to the audio tour and processing the stories. I prefer this kind of assimilation into a country. The kind where I don’t have a voice.
I’m not here to make assumptions about the mudra of this Buddha or the meaning of the huge amount of elephant figurines at the Royal Palace. I’m here to take in the culture, learn about a foreign place, and after a while offer my skills on the job market.
There are foreigner prices on these museums and Wats. To locals, the Wats are public green spaces lending beauty and calm to a community. To tourists, they’re places to breeze through on the way to an overpriced meal. They serve two different purposes, and foreigners pay for their lesson in culture.
It’s fair. As guests in the country, we’re learning.
I haven’t taken a selfie with a Buddha, but the fact that it even crossed my mind for a second shows how much I still have to figure out. Having the opportunity to finally do so without worrying about required curriculum in a high school classroom is unparalleled.
To clarify: I’m not assuming tourists in the U.S. are as poorly versed in the country as I am in Cambodia. But the general confusion seems to compare.