A baby macaque leaped onto a man's orange-robed shoulder and twittered to him animatedly. As I watched both monkey and monk, pink daylight illuminated five iconic towers. After years of wishing, I was standing within the 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat.
The murals on its massive walls featured intricately carved scenes from ancient Indian epics. Hundreds of columns, positioned with stunning mathematical precision, stretched in all directions. Each way I turned, I saw elegant sculpted friezes and faces and thresholds. Between our visits to temples, we hiked riverside, slurped palm tree fruits, and wandered markets bursting with Southeast Asian colors and flavors.
Photo by Giuliano Gabella on Unsplash
However, when I returned home in January and tried to write about the impressions and conversations and questions I'd gathered, I couldn't. Instead, those memories remained stuck in amber, preserved but inaccessible. Whenever I tried to dig in, my brain seemed to skid away.
At first, I attributed my avoidance to our discomposure during the trip, as we heard more and more about the strange new form of coronavirus radiating toward Southeast Asia from China. Perhaps it was the remembered anxiety of seeing an entire population masked, watching temperature sensor guns pointed at all of us, and quickly adjusting our itinerary to return home earlier.
But that wasn't it. As I continued to conjure up that trip, laptop at the ready, I finally understood what was troubling me.
Believe it or not, it was laughter.
Behind the Laughter
The laughter came from Jimm (not his real name), our Cambodian guide. During our time together, he seemed to cackle continuously, but his laughter did not evoke happiness or lightness in me. Rather, it set my teeth on edge, sent a shiver down my spine and through my body.
It wasn’t overly loud, but it had a rat-tat-tat quality, like the firing of a weapon, and it, too, seemed to leave dents in its wake. Whenever I heard it, I thought of the thick walls of Angkor Wat, scarred with bullet holes from the Vietnam War.
Repeatedly, even mid-sentence, Jimm called out to his friends and fellow tour guides along our route, I love you, I love you, I love you to the moon and back. Suddenly, he would leave us to grasp acquaintances (and possibly some strangers, too, judging by their confused looks) firmly by the arms, repeating those words over and over until he elicited a reaction — sometimes a smile, sometimes a conversation.
Over the course of five days, the cackling laughter, the continual interruptions, and the incessant repetition of I love you, I love you, love you to the moon and back bothered me profoundly. But looking back, I don't think it was mere irritation on my part.
Something just behind the phrase and the laughter, something grisly and disturbing suspended in goo, seeped through those seeming expressions of cheer. Whatever it was, it invaded my travel memories and followed me home.
A Grim Milestone
I first learned from my sister-in-law's Facebook post that her former colleague Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency room physician at New York-Presbyterian Allen hospital, had committed suicide. According to Dr. Breen's father during a New York Times interview, treating COVID-19 at the pandemic epicenter had devastated her.
In America, we've crossed a grim milestone: 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. Because my brain can't process this number in a meaningful way — and because it's vital to do so — I tried to read through the Sunday, May 24th New York Times list of 1,000 deceased persons, a tiny percentage of the death toll. Afterward, I felt swollen from the names, from this collective tragedy, unable to move or think.
Though Dr. Breen actually contracted COVID-19 in the course of treating so many others, she did not die from it. Nevertheless, witnessing unceasing waves of illness and death drove her to despair so profound, she could no longer stand to exist.
Just as I tried to comprehend the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people by reading a small percentage of their names, I tried to comprehend Dr. Breen's despair by visualizing one moment from her life during this health crisis. According to her father, she described scenes of patients dying before the ambulances could even unload them.
I could hardly bear a few seconds of this remote visualization. Yet she bore hours, days, months of what no human being should bear, and what so many health care workers are still bearing now.
Even in those few seconds, so far removed from the front lines of health care, and without direct experience of grief, I felt overcome by her pain.
Reminders of the Past
Over the last decade, Siem Reap, the town adjacent to Angkor Wat, has transformed due to tourism. Its roads are smooth, lined with coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and some of the most glamorous shops I've ever seen.
This overall feeling of order provided a jarring contrast to the information Jimm related about the horrific, overlapping events of recent Cambodian history — the Vietnam War, a civil war, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the genocide of an estimated two million people. Though Jimm mentioned he had been a soldier, he was reluctant (understandably) to discuss those experiences. Instead, he told us about his time as a teacher and more recently, as a tour guide.
He recommended a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum, a harrowing reminder of the ravages wrought by landmines, which are still being found in Cambodian backyards and farm fields. The museum's co-founder, Aki Ra, like many males born during the time of these conflicts, was forced to become a child soldier at age five and to fight for various armies. He now runs a de-mining NGO.
On a mounted museum placard, Aki Ra related a story about his time as a soldier. While shooting as directed, he suddenly recognized his own uncle shooting back at him. Not wishing to harm a family member, Aki Ra aimed over his uncle's head. Many years later, he related these unsettling events to his uncle. They laughed.
In my own mind, Aki Ra's experiences somehow seemed to merge with Jimm's experiences and the terrifying, haunting experiences of all Cambodians, now smoothed over by new paving.
As we drove away, Jimm laughed.
I See You
During that trip, I looked intently at temples and statues and walls, trying to take in each and every detail. But I missed something else that was right in front of me.
If I'd pushed past my irritation, I would have seen a person in pain. If I'd paused and considered what he'd witnessed, I would have seen a man doing his best to cope constructively — by looking his compatriots in the eye, holding them close, reassuring them. Perhaps his I love you was actually I see you. Yes, we have this history, but now we can move forward together.
Obviously, there was no way for me to comprehend Jimm's experience, but I should have attempted to see through his eyes, even for a few moments.
I certainly believe in the equality and dignity of all people. But during these months of protest following George Floyd's murder, I am thinking hard about my own biases, and far, far more self-examination is in order.
During my daily interactions, do I truly see that each person is the product of experiences I may not share, the recipient of pain and anguish I cannot know? How swiftly do I judge without considering a person's history and complexity? Why do I choose to empathize with some, like Dr. Breen, and not with others, like Jimm? When do my quick-to-ignite irritability and my quick-to-criticize tendencies get in the way?
As my memories of my Cambodia trip finally reawaken, the memory of Jimm is merging and integrating with them. I think of him laughing in the temple complex, amid tourists and vendors and friends. I think of him making a herculean effort to release the past and help his fellow countrymen move forward, and for that determination, that open-heartedness, I love him. I love him to the moon and back.