Good grief

On Wednesday 12th July I went by tuk tuk to the post office in Siem Reap with a box of belongings. After a few failed attempts, a cash withdrawal and a change of box later, this parcel, laden with cards, books, a tea pot and an elephant mug, was packed off to the U.K.

“It will arrive in four or five weeks,” the post office clerk told me.

A week later, the rest of my belongings was in a suitcase and Obi and I boarded a plane to Heathrow (via Kuala Lumpur).

I touched down in Heathrow on a relatively warm July day. I was finally back in the UK. The relief of getting back with all my luggage and seeing the beautiful British countryside made me glad to have arrived. But it only took a few hours before some elements of culture shock appeared.

First, it was the ritual of paying. In Cambodia, you hold your right elbow with your left hand, while handing the money with your right. I went to do that in a McDonalds. I then realised I didn’t have to, panicked, and then started flapping my left hand about like a lunatic.

Pretty much straight after I needed the toilet. Which was fine, but I was surprised that the toilets I had used in Cambodia were often cleaner than the ones in the UK. (Restaurants, shops and malls are often ridiculously over-staffed by our standards.) However, at the end of the proceedings, I went to reach for the bidet shower. Much to my shock, there wasn’t one. Then I remembered that Asia was far more civilised when it came to bathroom hygiene arrangements.

Of course these are small things. And I quickly settled back into life in the UK. There were no tears, no outpouring of emotions and not all lot of fuss about it. But, in a way that would have been easier.

I made myself busy and I got on with things. Summer was suitably hectic, and being back in a British school is absurdly intense. But despite these distractions, there has been a quiet melancholy, a sad echo of a whisper, that has pervaded each day.

I never used to believe it when people said that they have thought of the ones they have loved and lost everyday since. But now I do. Although my grief is not as tragic, I spent a year working hard to build a life, a year falling in love with a country. And now it’s gone. And I have thought about Cambodia every day since.

Grief and sadness becomes a ritual if you let it. It becomes a part of the pattern of your life. You don’t plan for it to be that way, but it happens. Every day, when I first notice it’s past six in the evening, I think, “it’s tomorrow in Cambodia.” Rice reminds me of Cambodia. Pepsi does too. Sometimes, when I go to sleep I use my phone to put on fan noises or cricket noises. I tell myself it helps me go to sleep. Really, I just lie in my bed and imagine I’m in Cambodia.

I have been using my sadness for good, too. It’s motivated me to practise my Khmer. I’ve managed to do a little bit most days. I also cooked a Cambodian meal for friends, which made my experience seem relevant to others. Also, the sadness helps remind me of just how good it was. It was so, so good.

Today, it was seventy two days, ten and a half weeks, since I sent that parcel. And it finally arrived. My dad text me, “Big parcel from Cambodia for you”. I was excited to get back home because I knew what it was and was eager to see if the contents had survived. I wanted to see the books again and taste some of the jasmine tea and to sort through my Khmer notes. I opened the box and everything had just about made it. The box had obviously been turned a few times (two card games – UNO and Pit – had come open and were strewn through the layers of books and paraphernalia). But everything just needed sorting, a few dents and creases flattened, but it was otherwise okay. So I was thrilled.

Then, my joy suddenly turned to sadness. There was my Cambodian life in a box on our dining room floor. It seemed strangely out of place. I realised I had to find space to put it all. My Cambodian life didn’t seem to fit; it was being squeezed into the nooks and crannies of my British life. That year, those friendships and memories, the experiences and lessons, to be put on out-of-reach shelves and in dusty drawers. And my eyes grew hot and I had to take a deep breath and get busy with something.

So if I seem busy, I’m probably distracting myself. But sometimes you may find me, most likely a few minutes after six in the evening, staring and glazed. And you will know where I am. I am in the land where golden roofs soar below watercolour skies; the saffron robes chassé and sandalwood smoke swirls. Incantations slowly rise through the hot air that is as thick as palm sugar syrup. The people look as if they emerged from the soft, brown earth itself, so natural and at ease they are with their surroundings. Their warm, wide eyes and warm, wide smiles and rich peals of laughter welcome me back. And for those few moments, I feel at home.

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