July 7, 2014

Joy & Pain: This is Life. ~ Paula Shames

Cambodian Market

I recently went on a journey abroad to a world very foreign and different than life as I know it. 

It was eye opening, confronting, beautiful and perspective changing. I traveled to India, Cambodia and Thailand and amongst the numerous amazing experiences, I also saw poverty in a way that I had never seen it before. And it hurt.

It hurt to see people struggling. It hurt to see people working so hard to get their basic needs met. I felt guilty that I have a life in which my daily problems never include if I was going to have enough money for food, if my drinking water was going to make me sick, if my loved ones would ever have it better than me. But as I am back home and resettled into my world and reclaiming my own struggles, I wonder if I suffer more than they do.

On a basic level, the answer is an affirmative no and it feels a little obnoxious to imply my first world problems are anything in comparison to the daily hardships of the third world. Yet, suffering is something different. Life can be hard, conditions may be intense, but suffering doesn’t have to occur, regardless of the harshness of the outer world.

One of the things I love the most about traveling is interacting with the natives. I like to know how the locals think and feel and how they view the world. I don’t want to be a “tourist,” someone who comes to these foreign and exotic places without really getting a taste for what these places are truly like.

One of the many experiences that has burned into my soul is a conversation I had with a young Cambodian woman who works in one of the many tourist bazaars. We started to engage in bargaining banter about buying colorful harem pants. I asked for her name. Her response surprised me. “Why do you want to know my name?”, she asked, accusingly. “Because you are a person and I want to get to know you as a person.”

She tells me her name is Chantrea and we go on to secure that I was buying five pairs of pants for a ridiculously low price and she now gets that I am there to have a conversation with her as a person and we can stop the superficial banter.

Chantrea is 26 years old, works this booth, which her mother owns, 14 hours a day. Just from the fact that her mother owns this booth, she is well off in Cambodian terms: meaning it’s possible that someone in her family actually owns a moped, or if things are really good, a car.

She stared to open up about her life. She lives at home with her mother and her four siblings. One of her sisters is married and has children, who all also live in their house. She said she wishes it was quieter at home. She also tells me that she was in love and wanted to marry, but her family forbid it because their horoscopes didn’t match them as a good pair. Her eyes got a little soft but she responded, “This is life,” with a gentle smile on her face.

As time progressed and I felt more at ease with my new friend, I decided to ask about more personal issues regarding life in Cambodia. In my journeys and conversations with other locals, I learned that Cambodian men will sometimes kill their wives if they cheat on them. Kill their wives and serve no prison time, no penalty. I was horrified.

When I asked her about it, she said, “That happens mainly in the country. Not so much here in the city.” My jaw dropped. Her response, once again, was, “This is life.”

As I thought about our conversation, I was both sad and inspired. Sad because it felt so wrong that these injustices occurred and there was no real protection or solution. The poverty and the corruption runs ramped. Yet, I was truly inspired by her attitude. She accepted her world as it was and she did it with ease. Life in Cambodia is hard. Her life in Cambodia is hard. Yet those three words said so much.

No one promises us that life won’t be a struggle. No one suggests that our worlds are going to be fair. Yet this beauty in Cambodia, working 14 hours a day, making less than $100/month, not only understood this, but accepted it in a way far beyond my comprehension. “This is life.” With its highs and lows, with its grace and disgust, with its beauty and disappointments, “This is life.”

In the comfort of my life in the United States, with good food on my table, ample free time and space, I have not come to that resolve, “This is life.” I’m often looking for something else. I am continually trying to understand why there are days that I wake up with an empty feeling in my heart. I think that somehow it’s not meant to be this way.

So I suffer. So I look for that next thing and it never truly satisfies me. So, I stir things up, change jobs, change hairstyles, change friends…often ending up in the same place: unfulfilled. I wonder, is life so good, do we have so many options, so much security and freedom that its causes us to suffer? Or is it that we just have to come to the place of acceptance that life is not meant to always be easy. That although life can be incredible, beautiful, joyous, it also can be sticky, messy and painful at times, and not only is this okay, it is life. This is life.

Thank you, my sweet, young Cambodian friend with the beautiful smile and the strength and wisdom beyond your years. You taught me so much.



Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!


Editor: Travis May

Photos: Pixoto/Vincent Foo

Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Paula Shames