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Independence Day Abroad

In Mark Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a 19th century man is transported back to the 6th century into Camelot (never mind how). With his advantage of thirteen centuries of foreknowledge, he attempts to overthrow feudal control and superstitious thinking. He introduces true democracy, along with a few modern conveniences, like soap, telephones, and TNT.

There are times when I feel like a Connecticut Yankee in The Kingdom of Wonder’s Court. I was sent here (never mind how) equipped with years of education and technical training to a civilization that is ages older than the couple of hundred years my country has been in business. When you see water buffalo plowing rice fields and Brahman bulls pulling wooden carts along the road, you get an up-to-the-minute glimpse into the 6th century. Yet, for all its ancient ways of doing things, in modern Cambodia there are volumes of invoices and sign-here-and-initial-there receipts required for the simplest transactions—like parking your bike at the market. (You’ll want a receipt for that.) Somehow, business transacts and people move along.

Today, July 4th, we celebrate Independence Day in America. Living in Cambodia makes me an expatriate, but not an ex-patriot. Actually, compatriot is a closer definition of what I feel today, along with a tinge of nostalgia for sparklers and potato salad. Compatriot, as in neighbor. My politics are localized loyalty, wherever I am.

In Mark Twain’s superb tale he discusses politics and loyalty. To wit:

“ You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or office-holders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are it mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags—that is the loyalty of unreason, it is pure animal; it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it. I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares ‘that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient.”

Twain is talking about government “by the people and for the people.” It’s a participatory sport. I come from communities, both in California and Colorado, who are always up for a good debate, who enjoy digging into political agendas and reporting back. When I lived in Boulder, prior to elections my friends and family would have a Political Potluck Party to discuss ballot issues and the school board. Our leanings were decidedly liberal, but our friend Jim was always invited, to bring, as he would remind us, “A much needed conservative point of view.” This gathering of compatriots made me proud to be part of the democratic process in the land that I love—which is both a right and a responsibility.

After casting their ballots in Cambodia, the voter’s right index finger is dipped in indelible ink, a practice intended to curb voter fraud. It’s the Cambodian version of the “I Voted” sticker, a mark that lasts for days. I asked my host sister if she voted. She proudly showed her inked finger and said, “Yes, of course, we always vote. If not, people in the community would think we are not a good family.” Folks in my village are much less vocal about their political views than my friends back home, but no less proud to participate in their democracy. This is something we share.

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