Every week by Thursday evening, my body feels exhausted, my brain starts freezing and my shoulders become really tense. I would then stand outside my apartment to catch a breath of fresh air as I hear my soul telling me “I’m exhausted.” This is not a new feeling; it has happened before. I now remember how exhausting life can be. I had the same exact experiences as a student at Montgomery College and as a circus artist in Cambodia.
My whole life from age 8 to 25, I worked so hard, mostly physical labor, as a trash picker, a circus student, and then as a professional circus artist. As a trash picker, a large part of my daily life involved getting up early before sunrise, walking for hours, and learning to navigate safe streets in the city. In the circus, a big part of my daily routine involved spending a lot of energy, training for at least 6 hours a day. Somedays I did more when it happened to be show days. In the circus I trained to be physically strong and to excel at my skills, emotionally expressive, and mentally creative. Now my life in the U.S. it has been the opposite: I spend long hours sitting at my tiny study desk, reading textbooks and research papers, writing essays interpreting my understanding of the reading materials. Despite a Zoom learning environment during the world pandemic, I must be ready to engage, take quizzes, and exchange ideas with fellow classmates most of whom are native English speakers.
In America, instead of being physically active and mentally creative, I have trained to become efficient in the English language, to think critically on the subjects of politics, philosophy and economics. In addition, I challenge myself to argue with some of the greatest thinkers of all time such as Adam Smith, Frederick List, Karl Marx, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and Plato, just to name a few. All the names which I was not at all familiar with until I was required to read about their theories for the courses I take.
Here too, I am learning about Black Revolutions, Reproductive Justice, Women’s Suffrage, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution and the flaws of American democracy. Here as a student, I am asked to reflect about the past, analyze in depth the work of Martin Luther King Jr, Margret Sanger, Malcom X, James Baldwin, Ella Baker, Shirley Chisholm, W.E.D DuBois, Toni Morrison, and Ida B. Well, to name a few authors on my book list, all people to whom I was only introduced in the last few years.
I realize that learning is fun, acquiring new knowledge is exciting, but it is extremely challenging to apply what I’ve learned to real social issues and real-life scenarios. Here in the U.S., I have been taught to value the truth. Whatever arguments I present, I MUST use credible references. I am asked to present my ideas clearly and precisely both in writing and in speaking English, my third language after my native language, Khmer, and my first foreign language, Lao.
I admit that it has been VERY hard to succeed in my academic pursuits. There are days when I don’t want to get up, cry at my study desk, bury my face in pillows and scream at the top of my lungs. There are days when I overeat, others when I forget to eat, and nights when I cannot fall asleep. Yet I survive. I always have. I stay focused, I ask for help and I am VERY fortunate to have a mentor who is dedicated to my success. A mentor who has played a key role in my journey to greater knowledge, helping me in “my great escape” from poverty. This person would pick up my calls, respond to my texts, and read all the essays I send. I am not sure if I would have made it through college without his dedication to helping me. I also have an “American mom figure” who always checks in with me, makes sure I eat, exercise, and take the Chinese medicine she mails to me to boost my immune system. She never fails to remind me to set time aside to call my family in my homeland and to check in with my mother who is ill.
I confess that every day is a challenge. In addition to trying to be always excellent in my academic learning, so as to not lose my full scholarship, I also need to think about the future. As a foreigner, I MUST always know what is next for me. I MUST keep a copy of all the documents I submitted to the US immigration office. That is in addition to taking notes, meeting all the deadlines for the tasks that are coming up. I am sure that international students will relate to this MUST-have-organization skill.
Years ago, I dreamed “What would my life be like after the circus?” Today, I’m living that dream which has turned out to be a roller coaster. I now understand what my friend meant when he wrote me a farewell letter 5 years ago, “The road ahead may not be easy, but it is worth exploring.” My friend is right, this road that I am negotiating is worth exploring. It comes with great challenges yet offers great rewards. I embrace the times I spent going for walks, the nights at the movies, the home-cooked meals, the basement parties, the late-night dancing, my performances at the temple, and much more. I appreciate all the people I met for the past 5 years who have been part of my great escape journey.
When it comes to the internal strength needed to complete one’s duties, the great philosopher Marcus Aurelius took note of his weakness and encouraged himself to ask for help whenever he found himself unable to handle his duties on his own. I am now more than ever convinced that it is important that we acknowledge our weaknesses and know when to ask for help. This is especially true for college students like myself, and my peers, as we continue to obtain knowledge and complete our academic duties while trying at the same time to keep our sanity in a virtual learning environment. Knowing when to ask for help is a sign of strength and being able to receive the help one needs is indeed key to succeeding in completing one’s duties.
Finally, considering the recent tragic news of the sudden death of my Professor, Gary Lehring, I would like to close this post with a quote from Marcus Aurelius on rule of nature, in which he emphasizes the importance of living in the moment, trying to complete a task as best one can, and accepting the unchangeable nature of death which eventually will claim all humans. I suggest that one should seek to master oneself by cultivating one’s mind, acquiring knowledge, practicing compassion without resorting to evil, and accepting the nature of our life cycle by acknowledging one’s weaknesses and one’s strengths.
Several selective photos from 2016-2021.