On our way to the floating markets, we were joined in our Tuk Tuk by one of our Cambodian hotel receptionists. He had had the day off and wanted to join us. We happily accepted Leap into the small, bumpy enclosure of our cabby. We conversed the entire way, Summer and I asking our desperately biting unanswered questions about Cambodia we had been ruminating over for some time. He explained that he was taking morning classes while at university, working to live in the city while his whole family lived in the countryside. He spoke to us about politics, corruption, relationships, and mostly his dreams for himself and a new Cambodia. He was intelligent and fascinating, emanating a new side to Cambodia we hadn’t seen before; a spirit and drive that the Khmer Rouge failed to eradicate.
Leap spoke of many things familiar and recognizable in his impeccable English, however the content of what he spoke could not have been further from what I expected after the collapse of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. He spoke much of politics, of the corrupt and crumbling society of Cambodia and its need for reform. Although since the collapse, Cambodians live a Democratic and free life, Leap explained that it is far from the growing, evolving country that many envision after its release from such repression. Cambodia is still extremely impoverished, being ruled by the same leader for over 30 years. Most of the citizens are rural farmers who have upwards of 10 children because contraception is not widely spread or understood, let alone used in the countryside. He related to us that in many families, only the first and second child would be able to attend school, Leap being fortunate enough to be the eldest, and therefore literate and educated. In fact, he was one of the most determined people I have ever met, telling us facts about news and politics from all over the world and relating his dream of traveling and studying abroad. Hearing him speak brightened my mood, seeing the desire and aptitude for change in the youth of a broken and shattered country.
The relationships he spoke of to his family and to others of the opposite sex shocked me. He spoke of his “girlfriend,” how he had met and seen her only a handful of times, how they promised to be married since they have common interests such as food and music. The family, whom he only saw once a year though they lived only two hours away, approved and so she would wait for a man whom she barely knew to make money so she could fulfill her domestic role to her husband. I remember the only thing he really said about her vividly. I asked Leap if she was pretty and he replied, “Eh, she’s fatter than me,” which really wasn’t hard to be, since he was a lean Cambodian bean pole. This made us all laugh through the dust drug up by the wheels of the Tuk Tuk. The way he spoke of the sexist and role-oriented relationship did not surprise me for an underdeveloped nation, though hearing it from a young man so new age and modern with grandiose ideas and goals for the future, is what made me realize how truly unprogressive the country still is. I shuttered to think of the night before when Summer and I had gone out on Pub Street, because respectable girls “do not go out to the bars at all, only the men.” I can only hope that the alcohol was not seeping from my pores and into his strong, keen Cambodian nostrils.