We owe big parts of ourselves to the places we were in.
That’s mostly why I have tried to keep Sihanoulk Ville out of my thoughts and travel list for the past few years. It’s the place where I was the most innocent, curious and calm. A newly-moved eight-year-old girl who had nothing much to amuse herself but a big yard full of trees and rocks, and a beach ten minutes away from her house.
Most of the fondest memories I have happened with Sihanoulk Ville’s notorious rain as the background sound: peacefully reading on top of a K’Khob tree, pretending I was surveying my kingdom, walking to school and never forgetting to spot any Sompeas plants on the way and collecting bomb fruits to impress my classmates, spending hours honing my Ckers Sat skills against an invisible opponent, and feeling a sense of absolute belonging, among the sunburnt faces of my neighbours and classmates.
In fact, after a few years of moving to Phnom Penh, I made a small, silent promise to myself that I’d move back to the town of magical peace once I graduate university.
And right when I graduated two years ago? The Chinese moved in, big time. Price of land shot up over the roof, casinos sprouted like rashes on an allergic skin and my tiny, silent dream? It got ignored, swept away under the rug, with me pretending it was never a serious dream to begin with anyway.
However, in these last two years, I made sure to never step foot into the town if I could help it. It’s as if the clash with the harsh reality would shatter my precious memories of what it was, and of who I was.
In my times of trouble and identity crisis(es) in Phnom Penh, I always go back to visit the scrawny Sihanoulk Ville kid who would split her allowance with the poor students in class, who would reread the same two books she had with equal enjoyment each time around. It’s funny as I grew up older, I yearned more and more to reach back to that age, to that self, to that stage of life.
But when a friend offered an interpretation opportunity to the ville, I had to jump in. There’s something safe about being the in-between, an interpreter of reality. Like whatever you find shouldn’t really be taken personally. You’re just a mouthpiece after all, a passing tube that should never contain the information for too long.
With that in mind, I embarked on the seven-hour bus ride to the south of the country. Two hours before we even arrived, I was already floored by tears. The random downpours, chilly cold air and mountains as far as you could see, were a signifier of home. I felt an affinity in my heart that I was again right where I belonged, where I could be the best version of myself. Affinity is a strong word, and I’ve only used it twice in my life. If what I felt for the town is not to be called affinity, I honestly don’t know what is.
As we got closer to the town though, changes began to be more visible. Trucks lining up as far as the eyes could see, traffic jams in places usually barren, and of course, Chinese signs and shops erected everywhere.
I went through my old neighborhood, one that I could not recognize from afar any longer. One that used to have 60% barren land and undergrowth, now literally full to the brim with towering buildings and construction sites.
The sidewalks full of bomb fruits I was so fond of, now is filled with rubbish and mud. My primary school, one in which the journey from one end to another used to make me think I was a lone forest ranger, is now covered with nothing but cemented courts and a few extra buildings.
Ironically, the one and only thing that hasn’t changed that much was my Gang Hua Chinese School, as if preserved through time all these fifteen years. I could still see that one broken basketball court where we used to pretend we knew how to play basketball. The well-kept Bodhi tree, rumored to house aloof spirits, but provided excellent hiding spots. The two gardens extended from the entrance to the flag poles, a place where I and my brother used to sit daily for what felt like hours, repeating the school song, picking up small leaves, as we waited for our mother to pick us up.
Even through all these heart-crunching changes, what I realized as I was on my way back to Phnom Penh was that… I was actually not altogether absolutely defeated body and spirit by the visit. Sihanoulk Ville has changed, and so have I.
Is it possible to go back to the perfect past? I doubt it. Even without the Chinese settling in, Kampongsom would have changed. The arrow of time cannot not travel backward, but it also cannot pierce my well-kept memories of what this town used to feel like, and what I used to be like.
Through the interviews, I learned that the Chinese are here because of the future of the town, but its past cannot be erased from the memories of people like me. No matter how much people believe it to be the new Shen Zhen, it’s still going to be old Sihanoulk Ville in my mind.
I take solace in the thought that even if I hadn’t moved, I could not stay that perfectly curious kid forever, and no matter what I and many believe me to be now, and in the future, I still have that sweet eight-year-old salty-skinned kid by my side for the rest of my life.
side note, if you haven’t followed me with your email, what are you even doing with your life? don’t miss out on my ramblies. Subscribe to this site, and go check out my more rational writings on self development and all things good on Wapatoa.com!
Self care is not only romantic music playing in the background, while you’re having an exotic massage in a faraway land of holiday. It’s not only a whole ass chocolate cake with two seasons of binge-watching for the night. It’s not only pretty, aesthetic pictures of your newly-dyed hair and made-over closet.
Self care is ugly. It’s crying while doing a spreadsheet of your expenses, and figuring out just how to pay off all your mounting debts. It’s groggy 5AMs, and restless 10PMs.
Self care is smelly. It’s burning off indulgent calories at the gym, even when your whole body aches for a morning in, an excuse-filled day of rest.
Self care is messy. It’s falling off the curve, taking up smoking again after 2 weeks of progress. It’s panic attack late at nights and smiles in the morning. It is constant recoveries and relapses, tormenting memories and hopeful promises.
Self care is embarrassing. It’s chalking up the courage to introduce yourself to people when your tongue burns with shame. It’s stuttering in your speech and showing up at the gym with chicken biceps.
Self care is learning how to parent yourself with nothing but a messed-up childhood as your guide. It’s hungrily devouring books and blogs on anything that might get you out of this vomiting mess of a life. It’s trying out meditating for this month, and cycling the next. It’s the long waiting game, patiently growing out seeds of love from a mud-filled pond.
So you see. Don’t buy into that consumerism bullshit that tries to make you spend to run away from the real problems of life. Truly care for yourself, create a life that needs no running away from.
Well, this is awkward… as we haven’t talked for so long. You may have swept me under the rug, or never even noticed that Mschengcorner was inactive for the last two years. It’s all fine, friends. We have our lives to live, and my life took such a turning point that my self-engrossed tendency to write for this blog has faded to almost nothingness.
But of course, like any true love, it is always burning at the back of my heart, waiting for the right moment to be rekindled. I guess the moment is right now! I’m more stable in my other website, kinda learned the ropes of things, do not have a party-life going on any longer, and have a click-bait worthy title of getting a smart-phone back! This moment certainly is a magically perfect one to make a come back!
As many of you may have heard, I’ve been absent from Mschengcorner, but not from blogging entirely. For the past year, I’ve been writing almost one article per week for the great echoing chamber that is the internet on Wapatoa.com, my life and blood, my baby boy (or girl or them if the website chooses to identify as that later on).
For the big part of 2017 and 2018, apart from tangling my brain with partnership appointments, coming up with catchy titles for blogs, choosing what emojis to use for captions and getting mju into the office without getting caught, I was also struggling to see how I could write for both Wapatoa and Mschengcorner without getting everything mixed up. They are both my children of blood and finger sweats, but I must distinguish them somehow…
From Visual Music(k)al
This objective took me a whole year, but I’ve found it! Before this change, Mschengcorner was a place where both sides of myself was laid out: A. The methodical, scientific side that reads research and books and share the knowledge and B. The goofy, petty side that spurs out lame jokes and gets very intimate at 1AM.
Naturally, Wapatoa.com is a more public, and specific website aimed to helping people become better. It’s not about Cheng (I mean, there’s no Cheng in the title). Wapatoa.com is for the people, so I’ll devote the “A” side of myself to it: the rational, information but still a bit goofy friend who just wants to help you get better.
The petty, jealous, extremely personal “B” side of life? I’ll leave it all to here! So get ready, bitches, Cheng is back!
On a sidenote, Wapatoa.com is very cautious with the pictures we use on our articles, but well, here at Mscheng I just choose whatever Tumblr image that fits the mood! This will continue to be so, if you don’t like that, sue me! (That was just a farce. Please don’t sue me, I’m poor.) But I’m serious, Mschengcorner is for my personal enjoyment, so I’ll continue to use pictures that are easy to find and fit the mood! Maybe I’ll take up smartphone photography and supply my own pics, eh? We’ll see how this goes!
Therefore, please head on to Wapatoa.com for wholesome, self-improvement and artistic gimmicks and do not forget to head back here for some intimate, self-deprecating jokes! For once, you can have the best of both world!
Now to the real meat of the article, the return of the forbidden phone. For better or for worse, I’ve parted with my dear old Nokia phone after 3.5 years (or was it 4 years?) of relationship. Why so? Many things have happened, the biggest of all, loneliness.
Yes, yes. I’m lonely.
Life as a graduated adult is not all partying glamor and rolling on money as it seemed. When I was in school, surrounded by 20+ friends all the time, it was easy to cut off social media and chatting apps altogether. I could just wait the night to tell them the next day. It was like highschool, but with drinking permits.
From Go Flores Go
But everything changed when we graduated.
Now, everyone is busy with their work (as they rightfully are so). I am also busy with running Wapatoa as a startup. When we don’t frequently keep in touch online, it’s easy to go on a whole week without having any fun social interactions except for work and meetings and more work.
I must admit, I was miserable for the past few months and didn’t even know what the cause was, until I went to Thailand with a borrowed phone from my sister to keep me from getting lost till I die of some horribly funny mishaps.
For that one week, I got access to my friends back in Phnom Penh, access to google maps (a literal life savior) and most importantly, to meme hashtags on Tumblr and Reddit. My life was bright again, fun seemed to ooze out of the phone and my pores, the wifi-connection brought me again human connection.
So YUP! I decided to get a smart-phone when I headed back, and here I am, with a solid Iphone on my left even as I am writing this now! It’s been a wild few weeks, to say at least since I got the old monster back. The ancient habit of over-checking phones has resurfaced, but I think I’m better at catching it (with the help of Screen Time, of course, lol).
Still no regrets though. I voluntarily came back to smart phone with needs long unfulfilled. For the past three years, I felt most acutely the pains of not being connected: loss of distant/busy friendships, loss of convenient apps like Plumvillage meditation app, google maps and photos taking, and not to mention, a source of meme harvesting and distribution.
I’d like very much to be that cool hipster who lives alone in the woods with no internet, who drinks hot tea and reads and writes all day, who has friends over for the weekends and go on crazy, undocumented adventures. And maybe one day I will be, but not now. Not when I live in the city and get lost so often, when all my friends and the whole society are online, when I read and write blogs for a living… an iPhone is definitely a source of joy.
Featured image from Phonethings
(cuz i can’t take a picture of my phone with my phone. You feel me?)
In the last part of the Vanity Wipe series, we’ve gone through some reasons why vanity should be wiped out, or at least smudged to the best of our ability. Not only might it stand between you and mastery, caring excessively of others’ opinions (whether consciously or unconsciously) might lead to you waking up wide-eyed at 5AM twenty years from now, breaking a cold sweat because you have no idea who the person in the mirror is. (Read it more in-depth here).
So now you’re ready! You have the sponge in your left hand and gel in the right, ready to wipe this beast of a pest out of your life. I’m grateful for your enthusiasm, but maybe hang that sponge up and put your shower gel down for a moment. Bring out a comfortable hammock, and some mju because we might have to sit down and think… for quite some time. Because you see, in order to wipe out vanity, you need to figure out what will inherit its place first.
Like I said in the previous article, vanity is here because it benefits us. It gives us a sense of self-worth, albeit from other people. So before you think of going off life-support from applause, think first of what nectar your life will be absorbing next. The best answer, as anyone who has had some casual brushes with self-help books know, is to get that love from the well of our own hearts.
And as anyone who has tried could testify, getting approval from your own damn self is capital-h-a-r-d-HARD! However, before you kick off the sponge and shower gel to the corner, and storm off the bathroom accompanied by ugly sobbing, let me just say, it’s hard, but not impossible. It might take quite a long time (and I’m saying years and years of exploring, analyzing and making heaps mistakes), but it’s indeed achievable.
When Descartes realized his education was built upon false hand-me-down knowledge, he dedicated years of his life to examine all of his beliefs and put them back in (or out) one by one. That’s dedication for ya.
Start now. Begin observing your own actions. Ask yourself what you think about certain controversial issues.
“Do I agree with the current political discussion?”
“Is white skin the ideal beauty standard for me?”
“Do I find fit people more attractive?”
“Should pineapples be allowed to be put on pizzas?” (they should definitely not, just FYI)
Examine your beliefs and likings from topics as big as world politics to something as small as liking thin paper as opposed to rough paper, and anything in between. Then ask yourself, why? Why do I find people with six-pack abs better than a whole belly? Why did I spend 200 bucks on a plain white T-shirt with a five words on it? Why does thin paper feel so much better than rough paper?
Also ask yourself, would I still like people with six-packs if I could not show them off to my friends? Would I have bought that expensive T-shirt if no one could know about the brand or price? Would I still like thin paper if everyone around me hated it? Asking yourself thus can hopefully make things done for the sake of vanity visible. After seeing it for what it is- a mere trick to get the world’s attention- you should ask yourself further, of other reasons you might want to continue doing it. If the only main reason is applause, I’m sorry, buddy, but it’s time to put on the brake. It’s better to make space for what you genuinely enjoy than crowding your hours and headspace with mere attention-seeking actions.
Let me give you an obvious heads up, it’s going to be very unsettling, to say at least. I mean, when you question an activity that is central to your identity, it’s a discomforting experience, for sure. I used to think of myself as a visual art hobbyist, occasionally producing a sketch of a white nose here, a watercolor of waterfall there. During the questioning period, I suspected I was producing sketches, not because I enjoyed the ordeal, but instead because I wanted to get the attention of my perceived social media “followers”. Nothing to distinguish yourself among the rest like showing you’re a sensitive artist wanna-be, you know?
So I took a break from drawing/painting to really ascertain if I liked the craft for the sake of the craft, or for vanity. More than a year later, the dawn finally broke. I came to conclude that drawing added another dimension (pun-intended) to my existence, and it’s worth doing even without the “likes”. So I grabbed my old 2B pencils and began sketching squiggly faces again! The paintings probably have not changed much, but the painter is newly-colored with self confidence and a tad of detachment from public opinion. Whatever people may say of my craft, I know for certain now that I enjoy the brow-scrunching concentration needed to draw a straight line, the soul relief from heaping bold colors on top of one another, and the mind-blowing capacity (or more realistically, the hair-pulling frustration) to realize what’s in my head.
Now, it’s time for you to embark on your own journey. Again, the journey will probably take a lot of time and energy, but believe me, it’s worth it. This will be the foundation of how you’ll judge EVERYTHING from now on.
Would you rather be a dandelion swept left and right by the winds of public opinion, a swaying body devoid of soul, going where the current tells you, or would you rather be a willow seed, toiling for nourishment under the soil for a period of time, but end up growing on your own trunk, with healthy roots and ability to withstand the blowing storms?
This is also where the world outside, including and especially the fictional world comes in handy. When you know of a story- whether a piece of gossip from a celebrity magazine, the backstory of the much celebrated batman, or a piece of philosophical thought from some major thinker whose name you can’t pronounce- ask yourself, what do I think of this issue? Try to draw the parallels and contrasts between your life and the lives you know of. If your memory is not to be trusted, as most youths’ are, try out journaling. It’s an excellent means to maybe learn to express yourself better, and also make sense of what you are and what you want to be!
Now, the solution above might work for people who have little clue of what they like doing, but how about those for some reason, (most of the time embarrassment) dare not do what they would like? Well, here are some things that have helped me (and believe me, I’ve done some pretty embarrassing stuff):
“Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.”
The trick here is to choose whose approval you want. I am fortunate to befriend some people of the same values and so have benefited from their strong trunks through the storms of public opinion when mines are too feeble to withstand the rushing torrents. Seek out people with the same values, befriend them, and validate yourself with them when you’re unsure.
If you want to top it a notch, go all the way to the silky road where we will all end up in: death. I’ve written once about the benefits of visualizing death (read it here), but here’s the gist. Nothing is worse than death. It’s the end of your life, most likely forever as we know it. The riches, fame, or knowledge you have earned will be worth nothing in the face of death. The true but often neglected fact is, you will die one day. So why not do this one thing you have always wanted? Will the opinions of irrelevant people matter when you’re gasping your last breadth? I suspect not.
So there you go. Now, pick up that sponge, squeeze some gel and scrub, scrub, scrub away!
“Be your beautiful unicorn self!”
“I don’t care what people think! I am who I am.”
How many times have you said, posted, and shouted this into the void of your heart yet still find yourself affected by people’s comments at the end of the day? As much as we want to embody the cool-hippy-I-don’t-give-a-flying-frick attitude, we often find ourselves hurt by other’s indifference or hostility towards us; or feel elated when people agree or even admire us. A good example of that would be an edgy youth posting “I don’t need others’ approval.” online just to get the rush feeling of acceptance when others like this status.
To put it more simply, we, more or less, crave the acceptance from others around us.
To crave acceptance or even admiration from other people is called vanity (as opposed to pride). In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen made a very clear distinction between the two.
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others thing of us.” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Well, you’d say, that’s good and all because if the peer pressure is for the good of the society, then it’s not a bad thing. For example, rich people might be pressured into charity which means well, more money for the poor. Some Berk Sloy kids might even be pressured to finally spend 10 minutes a day in a rational manner and realize they are Berk Sloy for no good reasons.
That’s good… isn’t it?
Well, not really… because:
Take, Vincent Van Gogh, for example. Though his work is celebrated all around the world today, he was a nobody, well, a broke nobody during his life time. His paintings were seldom recognized, and his family was pretty much opposed to his decision in being an artist. If he had succumbed to vanity and social pressure, he might have been able to provide for himself comfortably as a commercial artist (the modern equivalent of a graphic designer perhaps) or an art dealer. However, he had a better vision, a vision of colors that he lived and died for. The extent of love and beauty he found in his craft (even when the world was indifferent to it) is truly shocking in this collection of letters to his brother.
“[…] and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?” ~ Vincent Van Gogh, Ever Yours: The Essential Letters.
Might I emphasize the fact that he was living on a shoestring budget that was mostly sponsored by his brother (an act which plagued and made Vincent guilty his whole life). Again, he could have abandoned his particular style of art, and embraced the commercially-prosperous popular style (which was more realistic) at the moment because he could pretty much draw this at the age of nine. NINE!
Had he embraced the public opinion’s of what constituted a good painting, he would have had Vincent the realistic and well-off painter rather than Vincent Freaking Van Gogh, the master of impressionist colors.
“Even when what [beliefs] has been handed down is true, it is not your truth. To merely accept anything without questioning it is to be someone else’s puppet, a second-hand person. Beliefs can be handed down. Knowledge can be handed down. The goal of philosophy is wisdom. […] Wisdom requires questioning what is questionable. Since everything is questionable, wisdom requires questioning everything. That is what philosophy is- the art of questioning everything.” ~ Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin, The Experince of Philosophy
“The cool white people are doing it; therefore, I must also do it.” That’s as bad as “My parents have done it; therefore, I must also do it.”
If you were born as a peasant 1,000 years ago in Cambodia, you would be deemed successful if your fields were fertile, you married well, and your children survived. If you are born as a peasant now, what would be called success? Some would say if you could care for your fields, you would be successful. Others would say, ditch your fields, become a business-person and make a million dollars. Some would tell you to become a scholar and write poems about how much you miss the green fields. The problem lies not in any of these choices, but in your justification for the choice. If you mostly depend your choice upon what others praise, then it’s problematic.
To illustrate this, let’s say this happened during the golden 60’s when being teacher was the most honorable thing a Khmer citizen could be. They said being a teacher, you could inspire the next generations of kids, you could serve your country and culture. These seemed reasonable enough and so you decided to ditch your fields, and made for Phnom Penh to become a teacher. All was well and good until you time-travelled and arrived in 2017 when teaching has become a minor thing and a successful entrepreneur is what everybody is told to aspire to be.
You decide to continue teaching, but something is missing now. Teaching becomes less of an enjoyment, and more of a chore. You see? We fall into this trap very easily because if you look hard enough, there are always good reasons to do one thing or another. Teaching has its pros; so does being an entrepreneur or an artist, or a hermit. When you choose something (because it’s popular) and justify your decision by listing all the good things you’ve heard others said, you’re falling into the tricky trap of disguised vanity and status. You’re making yourself vulnerable to the changing tide of public opinion as to who deserves what level of “status” in this society. This makes you more prone to want to be in the “loop” as to what’s popular at the moment, and more and more anxious to stay relevant.
You start posting selfies with long motivational captions. You record yourself doing ridiculous stuff for fame and a few likes from your friends or a thousand from your fans. You slave yourself away everyday to work on something you have no real passion in for the sake of being called “inspiring”.
See? Falling trap to vanity leads you status anxiety which in turns leads to a lack of life satisfaction, and many many embarrassing photos online and maybe even years of toiling in the wrong field.
So what then? If vanity is so bad, then why can’t we seem to get out of it? You are vain, I am vain, we are all vain. That’s because we are social animals. We’re literally wired to feel good when we fit in and bad when we’re isolated (because that would mean dying out of the pack). Does that mean we can never escape it? Maybe, but I believe we can always become aware of it and consequently decrease vanity’s influences on us. How? Read part II of the series here!
Today, I got so lost that I drove myself right out of the city without knowing.
And it was not even the first time something like this happened.
If you’re close with me, there is no reason why you don’t know I’m practically dumb when it comes to navigation.
I met up with some friends in Toul Sleng, and we decided to get to a place near the Monument of Independence. I was the only one on a bike, and confident with my new knowledge of this city’s streets, I proudly devised a plan to get there, without getting lost.
News flash, I got lost, so so bad.
I decided to go right on a street I did not know much of, and found myself near Sonsom Kosol Pagoda. It was so unexpected that I felt exactly like Alice in Wonderland, popping into unexpected places, except I was not 12 and Phnom Penh was no wonderland. But I was not completely hopeless. I had a hunch that if I kept on going, I would land on Kbal Thnol Bridge and would only be a short distance from the Monument of Independence. So far still pretty okay until for God knows why, I decided to turn right at the bridge which meant this gal was heading to Chak Angre area.
Silly me still thought I was on my way back into the heart of the city. I drove and drove under the 2 o’clock sun. My dread kept on increasing exponentially out of habit. You know, once your lover has criticized you very unkindly of how dumb you are at navigation, it just stuck. As a counterpoint maybe, my mind kept playing Phil Kaye’s and Sarah Kay’s poem, “When Love Arrives”, the bit where he said, “Love knows where she’s going. It just might take her two hours longer than she planned.”
Though it was sweet, I knew my friends would not appreciate me being late. The anxiety of finding the right route kept on mounting and mounting until I saw a billboard saying it was the way to Kandal Province. Apparently, I had been travelling to a city in the last 15 minutes, just not to the city I wanted to be in.
I took a U-turn and thought of the literally hundred of others of times I got lost in this small city I’d been in for the last 10 years. And it struck me, no matter how lost I got, I have always managed to find my way at the end.
And thinking back put a smile on my face.
Lesson of the day: don’t take right at Kbal Thnol Bridge if you wish to stay in Phnom Penh.
Another lesson of the day: It does not matter if you’ve lost your way. You’ll get there as long as you keep finding your way back.