Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Dear Elizabeth,

Can you picture a more quintessentially American scene than this?  It’s the day before Father’s Day, and we’re at a picnic on the border between Virginia and West Virginia, and there’s a playground and red wagons and potato salad and two-liter bottles of soda and picnic tables covered with checked plastic tablecloths and small sticky children stained with red Jell-o and their harried parents chasing after them.  And the only thing that distinguishes it from thousands of identical scenes all around the nation is that this happens to be a gathering of Twinsanity!, a club for the mothers of twins, and every child, all of them under four, has a small mirror image orbiting and colliding with itself.

We went to West Virginia to visit good friends of Jason, who have two cherubic one-year-old twin boys, and as often happens with babies, I found myself spending a lot of time staring at them.  What must it be like, I wondered, to have one’s own DNA out there in the world, a part of you yet always separate?  Liam and Calum, the twins, seem much like other babies I have known, except that there is this other half to them.  Though they don’t lavish much focused attention on each other, they always seem somehow aware of the other’s presence.  If someone bumps into them, they look up, but if they bump into each other, they seem oblivious, as if contact between them is a foregone conclusion, the same as a non-twin bringing her own hands together.  Emily, their mother, says that they recognize each other’s names but they don’t call each other anything yet; then again, “me” is a hard concept for any toddler to understand, too, and maybe even more complicated when you’re a twin.

You have explained to me, better than anyone I have ever known, what it feels like to be a twin and what it feels like when your twin is no longer with you.  I’ve been thinking of those conversations a lot lately, not only because of Liam and Calum, but because it’s been a very strange month back here in the U.S.  It has been wonderful, of course, to see my family and friends again and to eat abundant amounts of cheese, and also to remember parts of my personality and habits that I forgot about while I was in Cambodia.  (I am friendlier, here, I think, but also more impatient—I have theories about why, but they’re not particularly interesting.)  But there is a mirror image of this feeling, too, when a sudden panicky awareness rushes over me that I left someone behind in Cambodia, someone like me but more independent, tougher, clearer-headed.  And it makes me wonder if traveling, and particularly living in a different culture, means dividing yourself, twinning yourself.

In my most content moods, this seems like a grand phenomenon, a way of being more flexible, more versatile, than I thought I could be.  It is reassuring, somehow, to think that we are all capable of slipping into other skins, chameleon-like, just by changing our whereabouts.  But in my darker moods, it seems like a burden, a state of always feeling that I am forever missing a part of myself and yearning for it.  Culture shock, I guess is what most people call it, but that doesn’t seem an adequate description, because it sounds like a malady, like something that can be cured.  I’m not sure if there is ever a good way to merge lives led on two different continents.  And what about when I leave Cambodia for good?  Does it mean reconciling different parts of one’s personality, or, like you have had to do, reconciling oneself to a world where you cannot have your other half?

I have two more weeks here, in this nation of our birth, a world of movie theatres and paved roads and Twinsanity picnics, and there is a familiar version of myself that loves being here.  But it won’t be long until I am back, until I can curl up in the back of your shop and reacquaint myself with the shadow self that I left in Siem Reap.  I miss you, and I miss her, too.

With love,