Prior to February of this year, it had never, ever, not even remotely ever, even slightly, never – at all – occurred to me, at any point over the course of my entire life, from birth up until some fateful and arbitrary moment early in that month, that I might someday travel to Cambodia.
Not for a visit nor a vacation. Not for Angkor Wat nor Anchor drafts. Certainly not to indulge in tragedy tourism, standing in line reluctantly with the other dutifully depressed tourists, making somber and solemn pilgrimages to the Historical Haunted Houses left behind by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. No way.
I’m just not a big fan of turning places like Auschwitz into tourist attractions. One man’s memorial is another man’s historical theme park. They may as well put actors in period dress and have them improv with each other all day like at a Renaissance Fair or some Pioneer Village. They’ve already got a totally realistic (i.e. real) backdrop already in place, so costumes are a no-brainer. The enormity of certain crimes should never be hidden, forgotten, or minimized, but that doesn’t mean we need to open a souvenir stand at the site of every noteworthy massacre and then charge admission, either.
I kind of figured that was all there really was to do in Cambodia: Contemplate genocide while buried in a haze of sweltering heat, senses dulled on the outside, feelings deadened on the inside. The tourism ministry was wise to have hired the fellow who came up with Kingdom of Wonder, if I’d gotten the job there would probably have been more vertical traffic off the Japanese Friendship Bridge than the traditional, horizontal, cross-river kind.
My brother had spent all of January in Cambodia and Laos, on his once yearly vacation: a month spent checking out whatever international destination that happened to strike his interest. As for myself, well, I just needed to go anywhere abroad. Anywhere at all. Paraguay? Sounds okay! Uzbekistan? You got it, man! Somalia? Uh … I don’t have a rhyme for that, but I bet they have a museum housing the remnants of those Black Hawk helicopters. You can probably get your picture taken sitting in the pilot’s seat, while being menaced by locals carrying Kalashnikovs. They don’t actually work there, but pointing assault rifles at white people cheers them up when their pirate gigs aren’t panning out.
I wasn’t going to be picky about it. Any suitably foreign destination where I’d be welcomed with open borders, if not open arms, would suit me. Any dream would do. I was (and still am) about halfway through an MA-ESL, but I thought that my résumé might look pretty goddamned strange had I gone ahead and obtained that degree without ever having held a paid teaching position at any point prior to graduation. It just seemed like it’d have some kind of vaguely unwholesome connotations for potential employers, and I raise enough eyebrows already just by being myself on an average day. I get exhausted by all the explanations.
Dropping everything and getting the hell out of America was already on the agenda, at least as an abstraction. Living and working anywhere else on Earth sounded better to me than standing idle day after day, mired in the wretched familiarity of “Home, Sweet Home.” Escape from America had become, at the very least, an aspirational goal. A goal that I would likely have very slowly “aspired” to over a period of several more years, prolonging the planning, biding my time … And, sooner or later, something would have happened to slam shut the few wide open doors that I had remaining. Best case scenario, I’d have ended up getting some unfortunate woman pregnant, one whose conscience was too rigorously masochistic to permit an easy escape for any of us; man, woman, or woeful child. Best case, mind you.
I’ve no idea if TEFL certificates have an expiration date, but I’d say 18 years without use or application of one should curdle it quite thoroughly. I needed to leave. I intended to leave. I wanted to leave. I thought I would leave? Unfortunately, I find that I often like the idea of a given thing so much that I don’t ever even bother with the actual doing of said thing. So, how did I manage to get off my ass and get on the plane, in the end?
Well, as luck would have it, my father dropped dead right in front of me. I very much doubt that he arranged it just to teach me a lesson or impart some kind of cross-generational wisdom, it wasn’t his style. Wherever it was that I got my flair for the dramatic, it sure as hell wasn’t from him. All the same, he did manage to squeeze in one last bit of crucial parenting in those final moments, despite having lost consciousness, because that’s just the kind of pro he was with all of that Dad business, from his first day on the job to his last day on the Earth.
Our final father-son talk was silent but for his ragged breath: brevity being urgent, now that he was due to depart. Words wouldn’t work when what I wanted was a way of understanding the moment. What I got out of his sudden stillness was this:
“Ned. Wake the f*ck up. I’m dead, or near enough to it. We don’t need some assholes in uniforms to make it official. I am now dead. You are still alive. Act like it. Go live.”
Go live … in Cambodia?
Part 2: ‘The Shock of the Culture Shock’ comes next week