So Similar, yet so Different
By Justine Seligson
Photographs by Justine Seligson
My family’s recent three-week-long trip to Southeast Asia was an adventure from start to finish. We had to take three flights just to get there, and everyday during the stay I found myself amazed at what I saw around me. Whether it was ancient temples, rather interesting options on a restaurant’s menu, or simply the lifestyles of the locals there, Vietnam and Cambodia never failed to amaze me.
This was especially the case regarding the lives of the people. Through my interactions with them, I came to realize both how very large and very small the world is.
I came to this conclusion on one of the last days of our trip. My family was hiking up a mountain to Phnom Kulen National Park in Cambodia. As we made our way up the countless steps, we soon encountered one of many fascinating aspects to this excursion - an old man who was a fortune teller.
Our guide explained that fortune tellers are a very important part of contemporary Cambodian culture. This was made clear within seconds when I saw a group of local teenage girls gather around him so that they each could be told their respective fates.
We walked ahead, but later in our trek met up again with the girls. Once I got a longer look at them, I realized that they seemed very similar to my own group of friends at home. They wore western-style clothing with lots of makeup, giggled while gossiping and took lots of selfies. I couldn’t help but see that regardless of where you are in the world, teens act in the same way, you know, other than the whole fortune teller part.
I was eager to learn more about these particular girls. Since they didn't speak English, I had our guide translate my questions to them. The things I learned only further baffled me.
I learned that they live in a small village and range from the age 17 to 21. All of them had quit school when they were around 13 or 14 in order to work and get money for their families. They know each other through their jobs at a brick factory, where they work ten hours every day of the week. Their monthly pay is the equivalent of 150 US dollars. This was their first day off in a while and they had it jam-packed with activities. After hiking this mountain with us, they planned to go to Angkor Wat and tour the temple.
Hearing all this gave me a whole new perspective. Outwardly, these girls seemed to mirror the American teenage culture I know so well. But in fact, their day-to-day lives couldn’t be more different. I’m the same age as many of them, but I finished high school and am going onto college this fall. To do otherwise in my upper middle class community, let alone drop out of school at 14, would be considered a social disgrace.
I don’t want to jump to conclusions and say that either way of life is better or worse. However, the fact that they were spending their one day off visiting the renowned cultural sites of Siem Reap shows that they are equally as curious as any aspiring college student. I just know that I have been provided with many more opportunities to pursue my dreams.
And that just doesn’t seem fair.
About Justine Seligson: Just-Teens Travel columnist
Justine Seligson, our teen columnist and photographer, is a college freshman. Justine started her Just-Teens Travel column providing teen insights, ideas and advice for students (and their parents) when she was in 7th grade.
At 14 years old, Justine won the Cynthia Mullins Award in Youth Photography at the Annual Juried Student Exhibition at Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, CT. She also won the Best Composition Award for her work in the Westport Public Library Teen Photography Competition in 2014. She has also been published on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog. See her piece here.
If you would like to suggest topics--or contribute a teen travel piece--e-mail Justine.