The Village Report — From Phnom Penh to Palo Alto

By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly

My son Kush turned six, half a world away.

Working out the time zones and putting a Skype slot on our shared iCal, his dad and me and Kush linked up. But our son jutted off in a torrent, an earbud dangling, and with a hurried “I love you, too!” he exited the pixelated rectangle of our shared moment of contact. At least I got to say the words, “HappyBirthdayandILoveyou” in a whirr. Barely, though.
I never thought I’d say I live in Cambodia now. Hard to bring up in regular smalltalk here in California, where I’ll be just for four weeks. Then I’ll rejoin Akira and Kush, who are engaging with people making and doing projects in international development. Meanwhile I’m in America to design and run self-reflection workshops for exchange students from all around Asia. Our family team is building spaces, those which hold uncertainty, I realize now. Stuff that came up when we fumbled our way through five Asian countries, wondering how we’d manage to pay for it, and at the end, where we’d land. What happens when you trust the process, ask a lot of questions, and see where things might go?

Kush teaches us about uncertainty all the time, and for that I’m feeling super lucky. The ultimate lab in how to look at multiple ways to consider a problem is a tiny child learning how to use every minute thing. As Cambodia’s capital pulled us out of nomadic orbit—it had been a year on the road in India, Nepal, and other parts of Southeast Asia, we found more room to experiment with discovering what was right around us. People like Cambodian-Americans Ki Chong Tran, a young entrepreneur, and Eric Chuk, an editor at Khmerican, plus more than a dozen others both Khmer and expat, too.

With all that beginning to bloom into a collaborative something, I’m wondering how I am in Palo Alto and living in a dorm. It’s funny to be in college again after all this time and perspective. My role here for the participants from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, and Korea is to create room to trust the process and make choices even when not all parts of a picture are known. Uncertainty isn’t an easy topic for students in general, but particularly when it comes to Asia, the idea that we can experiment and test and prototype is sort of, well, new. That’s what they’re telling me, anyways. We’re able to reflect on the bigger picture things, like what one might care about most in terms of values, and how to make time in new ways to think about overall paths. Young people here want to know what you’ve done, where you’ve been, and how you’ve learned. How can I tell them that there’s no easy way to make all choices up front, before you even have a chance to try the things you don’t know yet won’t be right?

Kush seemed not to mind that I wasn’t at his birthday. Prospects of cake and presents didn’t hurt, and I saw instantly that letting go is part of the real work of parenting. Guiding them to become their best selves is what parents try to do, but it’s also what great leaders can do for their employees. So in a way, after six years of practice I’m trying the same things I learned from taking care of my little son with these exchange students I’m meeting now. They’ve progressed through all the school years my son has only just begun. His first day of school was the day after our Skype call. It’s intriguing to me to see these students and my son at different points in life, but starting new chapters to build something of their own, too.

Words come out spontaneously as participants are gathered together in a round, open space with a tree in the center.

“Imagine you’re driving a car at night, and all you have to guide you is the headlights.” It’s something someone told me about the process of writing a book.This seems to capture their attention, so I keep going. You’re driving, in a line, and all you have are the beams. There is no certainty that you will be there by morning, or by evening. All you know is that it’s a line, and the time that it will take is flexible, but you will trust in the process. Knowing everything ahead of time is impossible. All we can do is drive, focused on where we are in the present on the continuum of our lives.

Start where you are. See what’s just ahead. Notice what’s around you. Adapt, reflect on the changes, and move with those new choices, too. By the time you read the next village report, I’ll be back in Cambodia. Until then, the night is young, I’m at the wheel, and the lights are on full beam. (end)

Dipika Kohli can be reached at

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