“Oh…you went to the real [insert place name here]”

Last week, I made my way to southern Cambodia. Kampot, to be specific. I had been told about the pepper farms and caves nearby. I also has heard about the crab market in the nearby town of Kep and the surrounding parks. I wanted to get out and see all of the things, so I rented a motorbike for the day.

After an exciting day eating and riding through the Kampot and Kep provinces, I made my way back to the guesthouse. During happy hour, various people were talking about their day’s events. The conversation turned to me. I talked about seeing the sites and eating delicious food. Someone remarked, “oh, you saw the real Cambodia today”. I’ve heard similar remarks several times before. While living in rural in rural eSwatini, some said that I was living in the real eSwatini. Wandering around Salvador Bahia and beyond inspired comments about seeing the real Brazil. But during the happy hour conversation, something clicked.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is just as Cambodian as rural communities in the Kampot and Kep provinces. Even with its high rise buildings and KFC, it’s real Cambodia. Rio de Janeiro is as much Brazil as other Brazilian cities, towns, and villages without a picturesque Copacabana Beach. Furthermore, Copacabana Beach is as much of real Brazil as the favelas around the city. Manzini, the most populous city in eSwatini, is just as authentically Swazi with its busyness and amenities as Lushikishini (the rural community where I served).

It’s rural Cambodia. But it’s giving me memories of rural eSwatini.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the U.S. with similar language and sentiment. If someone visits Manhattan in New York and doesn’t leave Midtown, they have visited the real America. If someone visits Manhattan in Kansas and doesn’t leave the Kansas State University campus, they have also visited the real America. America, and by extension – Americans, is allowed to be more than one thing. At the same time. America can be simultaneously rich and poor, urban and rural, animal loving carnivores and animal loving vegetarians. All of this is the real America. This has been normalized. But Cambodia can’t be the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh and the rural fishing village of Chamcar Bei? Why can’t both Manzini and Lushikishini be viewed as real eSwatini?

I believe that the fuel behind this idea is the same one that fuels ideas of white supremacist racism and sexist chauvinism. It’s the idea that says if you’re non white, you can only be one thing. The same idea suggests that if you’re non (cis) male, again you can only be one thing. You want to be a Black man pursuing a PhD, and freestyle rap over beats you produce? Nah. Pick one. You want to be a woman who’s career focused and sexual liberated, or a woman who’s strong and nurturing? No can do. In a similar vein, you want to be a developing country with fanciful urban areas and abundant agricultural lands? Nope. It’s a single story, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us-it’s dangerous.

The motorbike was full of petrol, and this guy was ready to explore.

The truth is, we are much more alike than we like to admit. Sure, our cities, suburbs, and rural communities may look different. We may cook things in different ways, but we tend to cook similar things. We may speak different languages, but we’re all simply seeking to communicate and be heard. Regardless of what stage of development a country is in, that country is allowed to be multiple things. At the same time. Just like its residents.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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3 thoughts on ““Oh…you went to the real [insert place name here]”

  1. I actually hear “real America” quite a bit, especially when folks hear I live in DC. “Oh, you have to get out of DC to see the real America.” Or, “You came here to see…” And I frequently hear foreign visitors told not to stop at the coasts, east or west, but to get farther inland, “to the real America.”

    Liked by 1 person

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