The Corner Bar

A few months ago, I applied to speak at a major national conference. And while I wasn’t selected as a speaker this year, I thought I’d still share a story that I wrote for that application. It’s a story that I think about often – and a lesson I hope I’ll remember forever. 

I was 23 when I went on my first solo international trip. I borrowed a bag and flew to the backpacking haven of southeast Asia, trekking through Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam with two dudes who were similarly longing to see the world. I was a graduate student in an international program – far more globally conscious and well-traveled than the average American, even then. But I was young and naïve and, perhaps most importantly, afraid. Not of traveling, per se, but of seeing. Of knowing. Of letting the stories in.

I sat in dusty little corner bars and watched white men chat up painfully young Cambodian girls and I knew. Of course I knew.

But still I sat. I turned. I ignored.

I didn’t know how to let my heart break in response to the world and then do the hard work of piecing it back together in a new shape.

I didn’t know how to let the stories around me redirect my own.

I was, like so many of my fellow millennials, on a path to success. I was working toward my goals and achieving milestone after milestone. And I was afraid to do anything that might derail my plans.

And so I returned home from southeast Asia with a few more pins in my map and a Facebook album full of sunrise shots at Angkor Wat. I had had the experience and loved it, but I couldn’t help but feeling like I had missed something. Like I had let my fear and control over my own narrative close me off to the hidden value of the trip.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about those girls.

It’s been years since then, and I still remember that corner bar, watching hand holding that made my stomach turn. I think about the stories of those girls – women now – whose lives I ignored out of fear for what knowing their stories would do to my own.

Every time I go to a new place or meet a new person, I think of those girls and I remember. I remind myself to lean into my fear. To let go of my current identity in favor of one that is fuller, more nuanced, more complete. I keep my eyes open, even when it’s uncomfortable or awkward or horrible. I listen, even when all I want to do is plug my ears and scream.

I was afraid to let the hard, broken, painful reality of the world in because I knew that doing so would change my life forever.

And it has.

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