When we left the Cambodian island village of Koh K’Sach Tonlea that we spent two weeks in, I started to think about what unconditional love means, and what it looks like in a culture starkly different than my own.
When I think of unconditional love, I think of my host family. I entered their home speaking the Khmer of a three-year-old, and them, no English, with the exception of my eldest sister Sim Sim. I only saw her for two weekends because she studies at university in Phnom Penh, but the last night I saw her, she started to cry and hugged me. She said, “I’m going to miss you so much. I love you”.
I came into my host family’s home a stranger, and in many ways left as a stranger too. We were never able to ask each other even one meaningful question about each other’s lives. Our conversations only consisted of me saying “chinyang” after a meal, and laughter when we could not communicate. But when I said goodbye to my host mother, tears started to roll down her cheeks. She said something to me that I could not understand. I thought to myself, “Does she really see me as a daughter?”, and then I realized no, I’m sure she does not. The reason why she and Sim Sim were crying tears of grief at my departure is that they grew up in a community that feels wholehearted love for each other, and unconditional love for the stranger. This is a community that the first few days I arrived, I couldn’t tell who were my host brothers and sisters because so many different children congregated around and in the house where I stayed. All of them received hugs and kisses from my host parents, and Sim Sim even told me that some small children call them Mommy and Daddy.
In multiple ways, those observations I made were mixed with feelings of culture shock and admiration. I felt culture shock, because although my family’s circle is close-knit, I notice that most Western people maintain a certain distance of emotional personal space with each other. It is strange to pick up someone’s child and kiss them, even if you have been family-friends with them for years. There is always a time limit for how long you can stay at someone’s home for dinner, an expiration date of enjoying someone’s company. I felt admiration, because I believe that the intimate vulnerability, unconditional love, and generosity of time that this village exhibits for each other and for those that are different than them transcend conflict, socioeconomic status, and tyranny. They are roots that I want to ground myself in when I raise my own family one day, in my own community.