In many ways, life in both our Cambodian and Lao homestays has seemed like a paradise. Everyday day after lunch we take naps with our homestay families. We spend our evenings swimming by the beach , or playing volleyball with the community. Everything in our homestays has felt so much more relaxed. Rather than rushing from one class or meeting to the next, or rather than reading work emails or studying until the early hours of the morning, people in both our homestay villages take the time to enjoy life. Everyone appears so much less stressed and anxious than my community back home. Despite having fewer material possessions, people here seem just as happy, if not happier.
Within only a few days in Thavry’s village, it became clear to me that money does not equal happiness. I learned that I can be happy with only squat toilets and bucket showers. I realized that I can have a fulfilling life in a house without running water, or in a house that has fewer light bulbs than my kitchen alone.
I do not want to argue that we do not have privilege. Rather, my time traveling along the Mekong has forced me to change my perceptions of my own privilege. Thavry’s village may seem like a paradise on the surface, but we also learned how the community has a major problem with domestic violence. When talking to the island chiefs, we learned firsthand that people should not question government authority. Additionally, we heard countless stories of young people not being able to finish high school for various reasons.
One example that particularly bothered me was when I learned about my 20-year-old host sister, Noan, and the problems she faces in the community as a trans woman. Upon arriving in our Cambodian homestay, I was confused as whether to refer to her as my brother and sister. Saying anything in Khmer was difficult enough—I could not imagine having a conversation on the nuances of gender identity in a language I just started learning. Noan had an Adam’s apple, but she dressed like a woman and wore lots of make up. I thought that she probably thinks of herself as a woman, but then I heard people throughout the community refer to her as my host brother. I naively assumed this was because Noan identified as a man—not because the community did not accept her.
About a week into the homestay, I had a conversation with Thavry about how people in Cambodia do not recognize same-sex couples. She goes on to tell me how Noan actually identifies as a woman, but people in the village still refer to her as a man. She told me that while my host family accepts her, much of the community makes fun of her behind her back. People will call her “ladyboy” or “homo”, and use other derogatory terms as well. Hearing this from Thavry made me furious. Noan had been so kind to me, and she welcomed me into both her house and her community. How could people be so mean to such a sweet person? Why do people struggle to accept those who they do not understand?
I still believe that you do not need money to be happy. I would also never deny the privileges that come from wealth, and how fortunate I am to be born in a family with financial means. However, this semester has shown me how much my privilege extends beyond monetary terms, and how many things I take for granted in my daily life. At home, I have the privilege to openly criticize the government without worrying about my safety. I have the privilege to not only finish high school, but to attend university as well. I have the privilege of loving whom I want to love without facing ridicule—the privilege of not having to choose between being myself and being accepted in my own community. My time along the Mekong has taught me to think of privilege outside of just monetary terms, and to realize how fortunate I am in so many different ways.