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Echoing Colin's words from a few years ago, the first time I visited the Watt I was pretty nervous driving up the driveway. This feeling didn't subside the second or third times either. It's not that I was ever made to feel nervous or uncomfortable by the people I met there, it was simply that I felt like I was intruding on the space of a community where I didn't belong. While I'm not surprised by the any of behaviors I see at the Watt now, and in many cases, I have an understanding of their origins and meaning, there is so much context that I miss out on.
Much of it has to do with how culturally situated the Watt is. It's attempting to replicate a community in a country that I've never been to. The almost total language barrier doesn't help either. In many instances during ceremonies like Visakha Puja, I realize that what I'm seeing is designed for the consumption of other people. I'm unsure whether second generation Cambodian Americans have similar feelings to me. Given how few young people regularly come to the Watt, I'm not sure how or if it's trying to be a meaningful for people who haven't had the experience of living in Cambodia. However, if May Ebihara's theory is correct, then it's normal for Buddhists to become more observant as the age in Cambodia as well.
The focus on construction at the Watt was another thing that surprised me. Buddhism is usually thought of as being inward centered in the US. With this in mind, it seemed strange to me that almost every senior community member I talked to only mentioned construction when asked about their goals for the future. Again, I think this might be an instance where something is lost in translation. I know from Vicheth Chum that a large part of his work involves dealing with the emotional health of the community. While this might be a significant part of most member's connections to the Watt, it seems pretty reasonable that this wouldn't be the kind of thing people would talk about to just anybody.
Even though in many cases I was the white, non-community member in a space, I was never confronted or asked to leave. Instead, I was usually often offered free food. This struck me as a really meaningful gesture, that wouldn't necessarily be extended to me in other spaces. However, even if they were willing to feed me and talk to me about Buddhism, I found it was much more difficult to get community members to speak about their own experiences. In many cases, I was directed a different person, who would give a more "standard" tour of the temple. With more time I might have been able to get through to some people, but going from cold calling to finishing this site in ten weeks didn't allow the time for that. Were I to have an opportunity to redo this project, I would have liked to go deeper into the lives of the temple goers. And again, for this site, it's doubly hard given many members of the community don't visit regularly.
At first I was confused by much of the devotion I saw at the Watt. I didn't understand how the same person could believe in meditation and merit (another instance of American stereotypes about Buddhism). While doing some reading about the traditional practice of Cambodian Buddhism has helped me understand this a little better, I think I'm still missing a personal prospective. I would have loved to talk to people about the meaning of their experiences at the Watt as well, but this was also a hard ask most of the time.
Almost, more out of personal curiosity, and perhaps as a follow up to Wendy Cadge, I'd have liked to hear more about how members of the community view white converts. Vicheth Chum at one point in our interview noted that "American's are all interested in meditation," but I wasn't able to get him to clarify this comment. I do think varying ideas about what constitutes good Buddhist practice would be a good area for more research.
All and all, I'm glad I picked the site that I picked, and not just for the superior visual effect. I got a small peek at a community that I otherwise would have had no access. I've gained a lot of practical information about Cambodia and Theravada Buddhism. I'm probably slightly more qualified to speak about contemporary religious and cultural issues and I also got to eat some good food.
-Jonah Hudson-Erdman, 2016