Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What I Look Like Here

Dear Mignon,

Even after twenty hours on a plane, flying away from you, there are few people I can imagine in more vivid detail. In high school, I thought it was because we looked so completely different—your tall glossy goldenness apparent even when we were awkward adolescents. As a teenager, it was both a torment and a comfort to be the inconspicuous one, to take shelter behind you and know that watching eyes were directed elsewhere. Ever since, I have had a gift for vanishing, for flattening myself against the backdrop. In Cambodia, it is different.

I have become suddenly, glaringly visible. I am aware of things I never thought about in New York: my height, my weight, my clothes. There, I could have worn a Halloween costume and marched through the park playing an accordion and would have attracted only a passing interest. You know this as well as I do—it is a city in which you have to work to be noticed.

But on my first full day in Phnom Penh, I stepped around the corner to the market and into a cultural pothole. There are rules to how one dresses to buy dragonfruit. How could I have known that Kate, in her spangled leggings and movie star sunglasses, was within the boundaries of decorum, but I, in a plain tank top and shorts with my pale knees exposed, was not? I’m not sure why I didn’t ask her before I left the house instead of after, when I could see all over her face that no, it was not okay. “Everyone was looking at you,” Jason said, and I am such an oaf that I didn’t even notice.

He is my partner here, more clearly my other half than ever, out of both love and necessity. But together we are otherness squared, the combination of us drawing infinitely more eyes. Two days ago, at a waterfall outside of Sihanoukville, a group of giggling little boys stuffed wads of pink toilet paper up their noses and made faces at us, posing spontaneously and eagerly when we pulled out a camera. But as they continued to trail us, watching with rapt attention as we walked, as we waded into the stream, as we clumsily put on our lace-up shoes, there was no ambivalence about who was the object, about who really belonged in front of the lens.

Even when we are separated, Jason tells me more about what I look like than the mirror does. On the other side of a window at a roadside bus station in rural Thailand, he seemed the center of a complex diorama—the only non-native, all pale skin and hiking boots, staring dumbfounded at the steaming pots of unidentifiable food. Slumped in the bus seat, an undetected observer, I reflexively thought, “God help us.”

Don’t misunderstand. I am not some poor little white girl; I chose to come here knowing that I would be a foreigner, an outsider. This is their country, not mine, and they have every right to notice the strangers among them. I certainly notice the smattering of other white people and find myself disliking them—for their loudness, for their rotundity, for their ugly socks and tourists’ t-shirts. Given this, I find it remarkable that no one here seems to shower me with the same disdain that I feel for the other foreigners; it is rare that a Khmer person looks at me with anything besides a mixture of kindness and curiosity.

Even so, that curiosity is new to me. I find myself staring at the ground sometimes as I walk, a version of peek-a-boo in which I convince myself that if I’m not looking at anything, no one is looking at me. But we learn as infants that we don’t disappear when we close our eyes. These anonymous watchers, what are they seeing? What are they thinking? And how have you managed to live your whole life under everyone else’s gaze?

The last time you visited me in New York, the waitress at the pancake house asked us if we were sisters and insisted that we looked so much alike, which we found strange and laughable. Here, they would probably say the same thing, our similarities much more salient in these surroundings than our differences. But maybe there is more to it than that. What could the waitress see, as we sat there sipping our coffee? Maybe it is a little like spotting two people in love, the way it is visible in their faces, on their bodies. Maybe that waitress could tell how we grew up together, how infrequently we get to see each other now, how dear you are to me, and somehow all of that translated in her brain to one fact—that we looked just the same.

And if that is true, I wonder what it means for the way I look at Cambodia and for the way it looks back. Maybe there will come a moment when this place and I will develop enough fondness for each other that we’ll take a long hard look at each other and find nothing strange there at all.

With much love,