The Gray Zone

May 27th, 2016

Dear Readers,

     As you all know, Mercer on Mission focuses on crossing cultures and changing lives.  When I first heard this slogan, I thought it meant exclusively that we, as students, would be crossing the cultural lines to change Cambodian lives.  However, after only one day of experiencing the Khmer ways, I’ve learned that our slogan is meant to be applied both ways.

     Today, we experienced a slice of Phnom Penh.  Starting out bright and early with a trip to the Royal Palace, we learned that Cambodia’s gargoyles imitate dragons to represent the royal family, that the new king is elected from the previous king’s children by nine members from the government and Buddhist monks, and that the Silver Pagoda is named after its exported and reimported silver tile floors.  We also learned that Justis Ward can play anything (as you will all be enjoying soon)!

     From there, we visited the National Museum, where I was amazed by the age of the Khmer history, which far outdates our own. The statues where fantastically preserved, and they portrayed a combination of culture and religion unlike anything we were expecting.  Some of them even combined the two ancient Cambodian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, to create statues that were blends of each religion’s key deities and heroes.  This taught me that culture, like the religion in these statues, is more than just a black and white experience.  It has gray regions that I think we all would benefit from adventuring in.

     We then took a more serious trip to the Killing Fields during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. By retracing the final steps of their victims, our American senses were brutally called to face the horrors these people has had to face in the far-too-recent history.  This awakening was completed when we wandered through the S-21 Concentration Camp.  Here we interacted with one of the two living survivors of the camp (7 survivors in total), saw the victims’ mug-shots upon entry to the camp, and got an uncomfortably close look at the gruesome and torturous murders that occurred there.

     The day could not have been more eye opening.  The Khmer are such welcoming people, sharing their attention, customs, and opinions with equal ease; after understanding the hardship their culture is coming from, I couldn’t help but be humbled by such genuine hospitality.  These experiences, much like the ancient Cambodian Hindus and Buddhists, form the blurred lines between our culture and the Cambodian culture. It has granted me the humility to be thankful for my blessings, and the inspiration to do what I can to bring them to others, I couldn’t be more thankful for the gray zone.

Sydney Koenig, Undergraduate Student

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