Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Between the Vines

I stumbled upon a phenomena today. I think this experience is one that is relatively universal but today it was nonetheless pungent when it occurred. Waiting for the cashier to return from lunch, I decided to take a stroll around the grounds of the private school where I substitute teach. It was a lovely day, a soft breeze tossed the tops of the palms and the sunshine was warm and buttery. Walking along the path I decided to take a detour into the school's kitchen garden; I have been admiring it from afar for a while now. A couple of Cambodian workers in wide brimmed hats were bowed over the plants, tending to the greens as carefully as if they were teaching the children playing a few yards away. I walked along the rows of bok choy, lettuce and eggplant, savoring the respite of the greenery after dweling in Phnom Penh's concrete for so long. Then a breeze slid gently my way and the scent of the whole garden braided itself around me. It came upon me in the middle of the garden and was an exact echo of my grandparent's garden back home. During frequent visits to my grandparents house, I grew up examining gnarled heirloom tomatoes and eating blackberries off the prickly vine on the narrow dirt alleys between towering corn stalks. The garden was as defining as our family tree, it held the family together over the dinner table and we watched it grow together. But alas that garden is gone. Pa died two years ago, Memaw moved to a nursing home and we sold the house. Until now I hadn't thought about that path of earth. How vacant it must be now. For so many years it birthed abundance, showered its bounty upon our whole family under Pa's watchful eye. Without Pa standing sentential, clad in a plaid shirt with his sling shot in one hand and trowel in the other, willing the vines to curl around each other and lower down glorious green beans, surely nothing will ever grow there again.

It's funny how smells do that- take you to a different world. Only the elated squeals of the children and the hum of the nearby highway anchored me to Asia. Every other fiber of my body had left and gone to Marietta, Georgia. The exact smell defies description; it is such a layering of things. First there is richness of wet soil, then the scent of fresh green things, growing things. And the honey of flowers woven though it is accompanied by the promising waft of fruits already ripe and round. It smells like a garden, for sure. But it has the sweetness of promise and the grit of growth in it. These things have smells, too, and they are unforgettable.

But after a moment, the breeze was gone. It's stillness left nothing in my nose but much in my memory.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

It's Time.

Watch this and don't cry. I dare you. It is time. Long past time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Bits and Bobs

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving! It is without doubt one of my hands down favorite holidays- and not just because my Sister and I get away with drinking White Russians and making pies together before noon. That is certainly a perk though. I just get so on board with the whole gratitude thing. It's just so refreshing, espeically after seeing such extreme dichotomies in socioeconomic statuses and how rarely that correlates with thankfulness. Also, the food is awesome. There is so much fuss made over Christmas that it's nice to have a more low-key option to see friends and family on a festive occasion. At any rate, below are a few T-Give items I thought I'd share.

First a really quick but totally worthwhile article called Gratitude as a Business Strategy. The content is pretty self explanatory based on the title but the author hits on some really excellent and well taken points about gratitude's place in life in general, not to mention the world of 9-5. Read it!

Below is our super sweet Thanksgiving set up. I was convinced it would be a bunch of dirty 20-something expats sitting around in cigarette ash and talking politics, which is how things went in college. Instead it was at a very classy venue with wine pouring servers, 2 catered turkeys and all the trimmings, even though no one is quite sure which black market the cranberry sauce emerged off of. That stuff was in no store to be found across the whole city. It was a lovely evening of making new friends as we chatted about The Great Gatsby and the Kardashians, enjoyed a rainbow of pot luck sides and savored the balm of the night air for many hours. I truly felt thankful that wherever I may end up, there is always room for me at someones warm and welcoming Thanksgiving table. That thought plucks me with courage and humbles me with thanks. Sorry the pics are a little fuzzy! Wish you were here!
The whole group! There were 22 of us from about 8 countries.
My little table up close

A little pie...A little vino...
Me! Post-feast chubby cheeks and emerging from good eats.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tokens of Thanks

It's Thanksgiving! Yayyy! Or at least I think it will be soon in some corners of the world. I hope you all have lovely plans. I plan to chill out by the pool during the day then make dulce de leche served with spiced apples and accompanied by (store bought!) chiffon cake. I know it's not the most Thanksgiving-y of offerings to my lovely friends hosting a 20+ person bonanza tomorrow night. But there's no available oven, all the veggies are spoken for and we're catering the turkey. So it will be my homage to America's ethnic cultures otherwise unrepresented on Turkey Day. That sounds like a good excuse, right?

Apropos of the holiday I've been thinking about the idea of giving thanks. It's been a stretch, as the weather is beautifully warm and I wager there's not a crisp leaf within miles of this city. However, doing a little meditation on the topic isn't as difficult as it would seem, even without the seasonal reminders. Cambodians are so wonderful about saying thank you that it's hard to ignore.

When I taught twice a week at A New Day Cambodia students went nowhere when class was over if they didn't give thanks first. At the first sound of my bare feet padding into the classroom they'd all stand att attention and clasp their hands in front of them. I'd walk to the front of the class and they'd harmonize a good morning greeting. I'd smile and tell them to sit down. And at the end of the lesson they'd once again pull themselves to their little feet then give a chorus of thanks for the class. It felt kind of like having Happy Birthday sung at you. I just stood there, flattered and pleased, with a goofy grin. Even though their words were a drone and it was more mechanized than human, it was a sweet gesture and a good lesson for children. One that American schools might do well to replicate.

Living at Harpswell I receive thanks in a different form. The girls delight in presenting me with little gifts from time to time. Most typically it's a piece of fruit timidly cupped in outstretched hands and paired with a shy smile. Once I woke up from a nap to find a warm baguette steaming on my desk. Though their gestures are sweet I don't know if I'll ever get use to it. These girls come from extraordinarily impoverished families, often with many members subsisting on one miniscule income. They get very little allowance and the fact that they wish to use their disposable pittance on me is a little overwhelming though very flattering. Although it does get a little sticky when a student proudly offers to split her fried frogs with me. But now I know that fried frogs are not that bad! Although I've had to say no to further frog sharing. I do wonder though if my efforts here equal the volume of their collective and consistent gratitude. I hope so.

Life here been been a humbling reminder to say 'thank you' more often. Not just in the context of a family gathering or a decadent feast, but in small ways every day. I always prided myself, a good Southern girl, on my prolific thank yous and great gratitude. But after my Cambodian encounters I am thankful to have such sweet reminders to give thanks more often.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paved With Goood Intentions

 There has been a very interesting campaign from an organization called ChildSafe here in Cambodia. They launched a series of posters in an effort to educate people about the detriments of orphanage volunteering and the above photo is their campaign 's main image. I find it rather disturbing and thought-provoking. In the print version it reads 'Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.' And while dabbling in some orphanage volunteering with a friend was a tentative plan of mine earlier, I am singing quite a different song now.

It really does seem like a good idea, doesn't it? Expose children who have very few options to new ideas, fun activities and diverse people. Do your part to help out in a developing country when you've otherwise come to chill, party and enjoy the quasi-criminal exchange rate. Peer into how the other half lives and take some darling photos. Sounds good to me!

However, this parachuting into the developing world does have a rather dark underbelly. I already feel horrible about leaving my girls at Harpswell. We talked recently about the fact that I am leaving in January and some of them got very visibly distraught. In working with them I feel like I'm only beginning to be helpful. And as for understanding Cambodian culture and really figuring out how to be the most effective mentor I can be, that has barely even started. Even though two years was quite a lengthy tenure to live in Mongolia, I have come to believe that anything less is just silly. You need to really build relationships and earn trust. You can't do that in 5 months, much less 1 week.

Children are also extremely impressionable. One of the first questions the kids at A New Day and the young women at Harpswell asked me is 'when are you leaving?' They needed to know how long this contractual little friendship would last and after years of being loved and left by others they've wised up. I think the youngsters I work with are relatively well-adjusted which is great. But the manager constantly has to turn down offers from well-meaning Westerners who want to pop round  for a few days to play with the kids. It's just not emotionally healthy for them. I'm worried that even my short tenure here might make them confused.

My views on all this is that if you want to help out in the developing world then do something like work at a food pantry or lend a hand on a Habitat build. Find something that does not toy with the dependency issues that children in orphanages already have. Also, choose something that does not encourage parents to give their kids away for money or orphanage owners to grow fat on foreign aid. These places often have no accountability and sadly the kids rarely see the gifts showered upon their housing project by backpackers as they are often absorbed into the pockets of the director. And you wouldn't walk into an orphanage or foster home in America. Why assume that it is any more ok here? Just because our money goes farther? Because we can behave with anonymity and act outside of the norm in a foreign place? Whatever the reason it seems awfully exploitative even though it's not meant to be. Tragically kind hearts can turn cruel even though they are filled with so much love.

I hope I'm not soap-boxing. These are just all very new thoughts for me and I thought I'd share them. Moreover, in light of this, I feel so lucky to have found reputable, safe places to work. My time here has certainly showed me how complex helping can be and how messy it can get when so many good intentions tangle themselves up in each other. Very good lessons to learn.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hello, Bangkok!

Against my better judgement I went to Bangkok last weekend. I was in dire need of a break and the weekend away was a tonic for my stress-addled soul. The floods made my decision to go a little complicated. I was torn. Not going meant that would there would be more resources for the people there who truly need them (not to mention flood-borne illness and crocodiles allegedly on the loose). But then again if I went it would support the local economy the tiniest bit and my friends had an awesome and free crash pad. So I womaned up, made a choice and 5 hours before the flight I found myself booking a ticket while frantically packing my bag. And it turned out that despite the presence of sandbags in every threshold, central Bangkok was totally fine. I was a little disappointed there weren't any crocodiles to wrestle but there was a healthy amount of pad thai eating, silk browsing and poolside chilling (that did feel a little soulless). Below are a few pics I snagged of our little holiday.
And- what would you have done? Would you have gone to a flooded city or stayed home? I still don't know if going was the right thing.
Flying high!
En route.
My first Thai street food adventure.
A street bar.
The city by night on our first day.
Getting my banana crepe on.
Meat on a stick! It's everywhere.
Cityscape twilight.
Drinks over the Mekong.
Bright lights, big city.
Lots of drinking water at the alter.
At an art museum!
Very telling...
We saw a mime show!
A cool street we found.
Good eats.
Good moooorning, Bangkok.
In the truly plush apartment we stayed at.
Floods from the sky.
Chalk panda says come back soon. Yes please!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nice Quote

I haven't forgotten about you! Things have been rather hectic around these parts which I know is no excuse 'cause all God's children are busy but that's all I got. I've also been rather pensive of late. This transition between the inexplicable solitude of Mongolia and the living situation that I now find myself in (one in which the only time I am alone waking or sleeping is in the coffee shop bathroom) has begun to jar as the months grow longer. I suppose the grass is always greener but in recognition of that here is a lovely little quote I lifted from my brilliant cousin's blog about the lonely side of life:

Creativity is one way people free themselves from the limitations of conditioned responses. It is a means by which people free themselves also, of ordinary choices. It enlarges the universe by discovering new dimensions. It also enriches people by enabling them to experience these dimensions inwardly…There are some conditions or attitudes under which creative endeavor thrives. One of them is, surprisingly, aloneness, or being able to be alone without being lonely. Other circumstances that seem to promote the creative process are inactivity and daydreaming… In order to be creative, we must put what we have discovered into action.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Being Helped

Having just read Kathryn Sockett's hit novel The Help, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship that exists between the helpers and the helped. The world in the novel is one all but gone with the wind. Ideas of racism and classism are no doubt still alive but in very different ways and much diminished in their present state compared to the openness with which they were celebrated in the past. Admittedly, I was raised with the aid of a single black nanny with children of her own. When I told my Australian friend this her eyes sprang wide with surprise. She had only heard of this actually happening in books or movies. But Dean was a big part of our family, my sister and I loved her like a second mother, we see her on visits home and my parents are still very vested in her well being. However, living abroad is almost like taking a trip into the past. Here there are many distinct echos of the master-servant relationship borne of years of Colonialism that recall much of The Help.

Here in Cambodia you never see a foreigner in a service position and almost always 'foreigner' is synonymous with 'white person'. Rather it is the local staff who bend over backwards to ensure our comfort, even when we don't want it. There is a hyper sensitive sense of service and hierarchy here in Cambodia and I'd venture to say in Asia in general. Conversely, many Westerners, including myself, aren't that comfortable having strangers anticipate our needs and pander to us so obsequiously. For example, the girls at the dorm will jump to serve me rice when I want to eat with them though I'd much much rather use my own legs. When I went shopping this weekend the attendants would snap to attention the minute I walked in the door like marionettes jerked on a string. Without exception they subsequently trailed me around the store, watching my every move; one was so close that I accidentally hit her with my purse as I turned around. To a lesser degree this happened in Mongolia also. Before this made me feel like a teenager in Tiffany's, thinking that the attendants were narrowing their eyes at me assuming that I would steal something. But I think rather it is their version of customer service. At either possibility I am rendered uncomfortable.

On a more personal level I have a man, Somnang, who drives me around in his tuk tuk. I am happy to support the local businessmen and know that he has a young baby. I buy him coffee every day when we stop for my morning fix and we have a genial relationship. When I tried on a dress and was unsure about it, I looked to him waiting outside the store; he gave me a huge, goofy grin and two big thumbs up. But recently he has been very late. It's frustrating because I don't want to play the bossy pants card. I don't want to be a disciplinarian for an unruly employee, pointing out the fact that I pay him handsomely every week and touting our socio-economic differences. But what choice do I have? Be late to everything? I wish it didn't have to be like this. And I wonder what he thinks of me, this young blonde girl slumped luxuriously across the back of his tuk tuk while he, an older family man, carts me hither and yond.

There are, of course, those who take advantage of the foreigner-local relationship. 'Sexpats,' old Western men sharking for young Cambodian women, line the Riverside on Friday nights. Every newspaper includes a story about Westerners who have been caught in compromising sexual situations with local children. In Hong Kong I listened horrified as a friend of my host told me about 'guino power.' His eyes lit up as he described what it was, the power of 'guinos',, or foreigners, to dismiss and override anything that the local people tell them. He even thought it appropriate to wave away a bar tab on the basis that he is white, ignoring the distressed protests of the local staff.

Though I know it is in my grasp, I don't want to abuse my power as a Westerner. It's wrong, pure and simple. But still it is something that must be dealt with, this dance that is the dynamic between the helper and the helped, and I can't chose but pick a side. Perhaps pick isn't the right word, I was born into my half of this relationship. Maybe in a few years time someone will write a novel about Cambodian tuk tuk drivers and maids working for Westerners in their own country. I hope so. It would certainly be another interesting read.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cambodia in Pictures

Happy Halloween! A bit belated but I hope everyone had a very safe and festive holiday. Here in Cambodia I threw a little party for my students which was great fun. They carved jack-o-lanterns, bobbed for apples, made masks and took endless amounts of photos. For young women who hadn't ever heard of Halloween before I think it was a darn good time. But now that the glitter has been swept up and the apple barrels washed out, it's time to focus on November. I have high hopes that this new month will bring better, more prolific blogging. To start out, I'm posting some photos of the two months I've spent in Cambodia thus far. Hope you enjoy this little tour in pictures and that it helps you nurse your Halloween hangover blues away!
Sunrise from my dorm.

Some of my kids at A New Day.
A torture chamber at the S-21 prison.

The Phnom Penh riverside from a Spanish cafe.
The Royal Palace at twilight.

Some of my amazing new friends!
At a pagoda with a few of my university girls.
The Cambodian countryside.

Lunchtime at the Russian Market.
The kiddies outside my dorm.

Nighttime bustle in Phnom Penh.

Real phở near my dorm.

My Sunday morning corner of the world.

A child chilling on my street.

My little buddy who lives across the street.

Sunset from a downtown rooftop.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Choice to Choose

Last night the girls had a party. They spent days preparing, hours cooking and forever anticipating the event. There was a huge spread of fragrant curry, sticky noodles and crispy baguette slices to be topped off by mounds of garnishes like Thai basil and beansprouts. They somehow procured speakers and hooked them up to a laptop from whence they blasted the songs of youtube videos far into the night. Many dormitory alumni came back for the affair and all the girls made little speeches about who they are and what they dream to become. The sweetest thing about the evening is that everyone was in such a tizzy applying make-up and outfitting themselves in their smartest dresses. Eye shadow was passed around and necklaces were shared in every room. No one really went anywhere and the only people there were the girls but they all wanted to look their very best for the occasion. Armed with a plate of curry I plopped down next to one of them and told her how cute she looked. She grinned, very pleased with her efforts. Then she said “but we can't wear this outside, it is dangerous. I look too sexy, don't I?” Not quite sure what to say I chirped something noncommittal about her outfit of longish yellow shorts and a big oxford shirt. Our conversation was then cut short by the thumping of the bass and calls to dance. As the music alternated between Khmer favorites and Western pop hits, the moon rose a high and white sliver overhead. The hot jungle air was filled with exhilaration as the girls flailed themselves, occasionally in rhythm, to the beat. Everyone was grinning and no one was sitting down. Their love of dance was palpable and they laughed as they held hands and grooved. I asked one of the girls “do you like to dance?” And obvious assent was followed by a saddening clause. “Yes, but we cannot dance outside.” This is something I already knew but the night's joy made me even sadder than when I considered this fact previously.

In Cambodia there are Good Girls and Bad Girls. There is no in between. The Good Girls study hard, go to sleep early and remain chaste. The Bad Girls wear short skirts, go to night clubs and flirt with hoary, pot-bellied Western men. All the girls in the dorm are keenly aware of this and have chosen the life path of Good Girl. While I think that is awesome, I find it tragic that this means that they'll never know what it is to dance like no one is watching outside their circle of sisters. I'm not saying that going to clubs is important. It's not. I could do with fewer nightclubs frankly. But it's the option that matters. The fact that the public sphere belongs to men with their tendencies to grope, hassle and worse is truly tragic. It is wonderful that these girls have a safe space in which to express themselves but utterly sad that it must exist because outside of it is a dangerous domain where dancing in a short skirt is a clear invitation to rape. In further evidence of this culturalized sexism, the accepted view here is that women wait until marriage to have sex. Men cannot possibly be expected to do this so they openly and freely sleep with hookers in flea-addled guest houses. I wish my girls had the options to decide if they want to be sexually active or not. I wish they did not have to be considered whores if they make the decision to experiment with someone they love. Being able to make mistakes and come back from them is hugely character building but unfortunately mistakes are not something these girls are permitted.

But again we get to the fact that this is their culture and I still struggle as to whether I want to “fix” it or not. Undoubtedly being a Western woman comes with it's own complications; if living this way means that these girls don't have to deal with pregnancy scares or alcohol poisoning then how could I say who is the more liberated? But coming from a culture where we adore pregnant Beyonce singing about being the female version of a hustler, it's hard to not compare when the two worlds are so very different. Last night was wonderful but it was hard to see the beauty of their nighttime joy without considering the harsh light of the choices they will never be allowed to make.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Living and Learning

Living this weird and unique life split between being a young expat and a den mother is not always easy. Sometimes it does get frustrating to share a room with more people than I did in college or be so far away from the expat action. On the weekends I propel myself into the city on a quest to make friends and blow off steam that builds up over a week of living at my job. This weekend was no exception. I shared a lovely, three-course French dinner with friends on Friday, hit the gym on Saturday, went out Saturday night and took in a little rugby after doing some shopping today. It often happens that I'm more exhausted ending my weekend than beginning it but it makes me very happy.

Coming back to the dorm after seeing my friends today I felt a familiar jolt that could no other be but culture shock. The problems that exist for the girls who live within these walls are completely different from those of my Western peers. The pace of life is different in the dorm, as are the social expectations and communication styles. As my tuk tuk nears my residence and the smiling security guard swings open the iron gate, I have to change the way I relate to everyone around me. I don't mind. It's fun to be two different people. But the amount that life here varies from life that young Westerners live along the riverside in their air-conditioned apartments is vast.

As this weekends schedule was no exception, neither was my reentry today back into dorm life. I sighed as I hauled myself out of the tuk tuk but as soon as I saw my girls chatting and snacking I was filled with delight. They are such wonderful people. Any time I feel a tinge of envy that all my friends can go to trivia on Wednesday nights and enjoy the all-you-can-consume wine and cheese on Thursdays at the Intercontinental Hotel, all it takes is a sweet smile or silly joke from one of my students for me to be singing a different song, one in which the lyrics are about how lucky I am to have this job.

To get home today I squeezed myself out of a local sports bar bursting at the seams with disgustingly beautiful French men and enthusiastic Kiwis with painted faces. It was a drastic change in scenery when I turned away from the teaming masses of Europeans to face teddy bears and Korean pop music. I was not the happiest of campers to be barreling towards another workweek but the girls all welcomed me back warmly and were buzzing about their weekends. After chatting for a bit, one of the girls pulled me aside into her room, telling me that she needed help. She explained that she had heard about a scholarship to study abroad and wanted to apply. Unfortunately, she needs to take the TOEFL which costs $40, a whopping fee for someone from such a poor family. The US Embassy will give her the money but only if she earns it by writing an essay. We talked about the best way to appeal for the funds then at the end she looked at me with a heavy heart. She said “well, if the American Embassy doesn't give me the money then I'll just ask my parents.” We had talked before about her extraordinarily stretched financial situation. Her parents are rice farmers and her father is gravely ill. All of the meager funds her family manages to glean goes to revive him, a wonderful and loving role-model for his children. I knew they'd never have the money. So carefully I told her that if the Embassy doesn't give her the money then I will. She looked confused. “But, that is your money” she protested. I told her that it was indeed my money and I wanted to use it to help her. I explained that I'm happy to have some money and that I want to share my happiness. All of a sudden her eyes welled up with tears. Her voice wavered thinly as she tried bravely to thank me. I gave her a hug and told her firmly that we are in this together. Then I left to let her get cracking on the appeal letter.

I honestly did not expect her outpouring of emotion upon hearing my offer to fund her test. I suppose I am still naive in that $40 seems like a small chunk of change for me and I assumed that it would be for other people, as well. Who knew that $40 could bring a confident, motivated young woman to her knees in such a way? It is such a negligible amount for me; my friends and I spent close to that on Fridays fabulous French feast. But to her that money means the world and is quite literally her gateway to it. It was a good exercise in perspective. If she gets this scholarship or not is immaterial. The important things are the fact that she knows she can at least try and the way I fell in love with my job all over again.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

...And I Will Try To Fix You

Confession time. I love Glee. Yep, that's the badger. I am owning my Glee nerd-dom. But I figure I crawl out of the lame hole just a little on the basis of the fact that Western escapism is a bit more allowable when in such a rough place and I was a theater major, after all. So when face-rockingly uncomfortable food poisoning hit on Sunday naturally the only thing to do was to assume the fetal position and plug my nose into the last two episodes of Glee that Sam so kindly taught me how to download. The final song of this season's third episode was one that I've had a love affair with before, "Fix You" by Coldplay. Yes, yes, it's a little emo I know. But still. It's beautiful. And this whole idea of 'fixing' people is one that I feel expands far beyond Mathew Morrison's falsetto and spills into the realm of important development topics.

Working in different countries and with different organizations in this business I wonder, is that what development work is all about? Fixing other people. And before you get all self righteous about respecting the beliefs of others consider something like gender equality. It is an accepted pillar in  international development now that women's disenfranchisement costs the worlds billions of dollars every year. The intellectual property loss alone is a fortune many times over. If the problem of female empowerment were 'fixed' so too would many socio-economic issues that much of the world faces today. But in fixing these things we would have to address social and cultural issues that people would rather not decry. This means that someone would have to thrust themselves deep into a foreign culture and tell the people who prescribe to it that they are horribly wrong.

The most striking instance in which I came head-to-head with someone on this matter was a student in Mongolia. I think I have written about this incident before. It happened during an infamous class period in which I discovered my students were shamelessly racist against the Chinese. I got pretty upset about it. What slowed the hot blooded conversation that followed between my precious little racists and I was one girl, arguably the smartest but also the most prejudice, raising her little chin, looking me square in the face and said "Teacher, you can't change us!". Well, that gave me pause. I guess I was trying to change them, to fix them in a way. I wanted to mend up holes in their character I deemed unsightly. Was this wrong of me? Perhaps. I suppose if someone set about to change me in ways I didn't appreciate that would feel pretty wack, too. Then again how can you leave racism unchecked and unchallenged? Conversely, if you were to take the fierce nationalistic pride out of Mongolians then they would be left as such a shell; devoid of proud motherland chest thumping much of what makes Mongolia and her people so special would deflate. Their pride is such a wellspring for so much that they do. Dare I even want to 'fix' them?

This whole idea of fixing comes with it's own ugly implication that someone else knows better. This is an uncomfortable topic to broach at best, especially in the context of other people. Really though my thoughts stop here. The real rub is the idea of fixing, not supremacy or the Western Man's Burden. Though it makes for a truly beautiful song and a sweet, sweet desire, I am still rather confused about the idea of fixing you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Only the Cat Saw

Sorry for the silence; I've been feeling a little funky lately. I had food poisoning and an overly stuffed weekend trying to catch up on everything I missed out on getting done previously. For some inexplicable reason, Phnom Penh does not move me to write like Mongolia did. Maybe it's because I feel much more ordinary. Maybe the tropical humidity has clogged my creative juices. Whatever it is, I hope it passes.

Despite my inability to write, I am really happy here in Cambodia. One thing that has marked my time here over and over again is people. Living in a city, especially compared to rural Mongolia, I am bowled over by how many people are here. They squeeze into every possible living space and spill out onto the pavement, plying their wears and eying their toddlers squatting close to oncoming traffic. I have also been lucky enough to make many amazing friendships here. No Friday night is unfilled or joke responded to. But still I am a little different. I am different from the people who belong here and live cheek-by-jowl in their stilted wooden houses. I am different from my friends who live in nice apartments and enjoy regular hours at their Embassy or UN jobs. Living with 34 Khmer girls and working odd hours, I belong somewhere in between.

Since my week riding solo during the Phcum Ben holiday I have been thinking a lot about a book I read as a child. Working with kids who have Western literature gifted to them from their American and Australian sponsors, I am lucky that many of the books that filled my childhood now rest on a large shelf next to me. This morning I read an age-old favorite One Morning in Maine to a little girl. I hadn't picked it up since I was a child myself. One book that was particularly stunning albeit enigmatic for me years ago was called Only the Cat Saw, about the nighttime wonders that a family's tabby observed when everyone else was sleeping. It ended with a beautiful illustration of a brilliant butterfly at sunrise, something only the little girl, Amy, saw. Balancing my life here I feel strangely not unlike the cat.

Last night I went to a birthday dinner at a North (yes, North) Korean restaurant. Alas, I had to leave just as my friends were ordering since my teaching schedule begins at 8pm. Walking away from the warmth of laughing people and out into the street, I mounted a motorbike and headed home. The streets were abuzz with busy venders, hungry diners, skipping street children and couples strolling arm-in-arm. Single light bulbs hung over food carts and makeshift tables cluttered the sidewalks. The short commute back to the head of the class was lovely and alive. But I had no one to share it with. The people I knew were either finishing up dinner and homework at the dorm or chatting over kimchi and Tiger beers. Only I saw the brilliance of Phnom Phen on that particular night. And that was okay.

In college and life previously I found it difficult when there was no one to share things with. My sister or parents were never far. And my Mom was very diligent about pointing out 'sitters' and 'lifters' at construction sights and on the road to me at a very young age. She would gesture excitedly out the windshield and we would share in the sight. I realize I now do this pointing-out-of-things-I-think-are-cool with friends and dates. I hope it's endearing. At any rate, I am finding it easier to point out the sitters to myself now and simply enjoy whatever spectacle is outside the windshield whether anyone else is around or not. Those moments are special, but in a different way. And I have grown to love them because really there is so much in life that only the cat saw.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Shout Out to my Homegirl!

Sorry my posts have been short and sweet for the most part this month. I've got some great ideas tucked away but sadly I don't get a weekend to sit down and really write. Today I taught the kids at A New Day (the organization for kids who used to live in the local trash dump) and tomorrow I have to do some things for Harpswell Foundation classes. Yanaa! I'll do my best for more meatier stuff soon. I promise!

At any rate, I want to give a shout out to my Goucher homegirl, Angie. We went to school together and bonded over how absurd our International Scholars Program classes were. Angie ended up in Moscow doing some awesome work and speaking fluent Russian, which is pretty impressive. Check out her blog here:  http://everythingisgeektome.tumblr.com. It's super cool and very smart!

Also, I have a follow-up on the most recent video post regarding the 'employment organizations' that send Cambodian women as maids to Malaysia. There was a big article on this issue on the front page of the local independent newspaper last week. Apparently there was a major bust on this organization or one just like it in which around 22 women, many underage, were discovered to be held by force for long periods of time. This problem is a definite reality that many people deal with here and a very hot topic right now.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

One More Video- But It's a Good One

This new chapter of my blog/life seems to be rather video heavy. I hope you like that! Here is yet another online video I found which is rather enlightening. It's about the links in the chain of slavery  that runs through Cambodian life, especially for women. I think it's interesting here how a woman is in charge of the 'employment' organization, thus profiting from breaching the liberty of other women. It's a classic case of women violating the rights of their own. Also, this is a harrowing reminder of the fate that my students might have had if the organizations I work with weren't around to educate and help them. I'm so grateful that my kids are just a handful of people who will never have to go through an ordeal like this. Give it a watch. It's interesting stuff.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Sounds of Others

Pressed with the need for suitable clothes to wear to a substitute teaching job next week I went shopping yesterday. I scooted on down to what is known as the Russian Market, a maze of stalls crammed together and ringed by nice little stores selling outfits that were spat out of factories and deemed unfit to export. The tiny errors in stitching or sizing are hardly noticeable so as far as I'm concerned these goods are fair game. Browsing some colorful Forever 21 frocks on the second floor of a shop, my spine stiffened at a noise. A young girl had been crying earlier but now her wails had become desperate. What I heard between her shrieks was an endless barrage of slaps, hard. I tried to ignore it, continue my browsing, but somehow the sound was everywhere, deafening. The smacking against her bare skin crept into every space, bounced out of every corner and reverberated from between the folds. It was a sickening symphony of noises coupled with the verbal silence of her mother who apparently was unable to comprehend why lighting into her toddler with such gusto was not making the child quiet. Though it felt like the beating was going on forever, the girl, exhausted and defeated, gave into the violence and silenced herself after a good long fight. The first time I saw the pair was walking down the stairs heading out of the store. It felt strange not knowing what either mother or daughter looked like. Seeing their faces felt wrong and though I was not asked to be a voyeur during the display of abuse against the window, I was. I was embarrassed by the intimacy with which I felt I knew them before I even saw them. I had heard everything.

This little event made me think about the sounds privy to people in places like Cambodia and Mongolia but excluded from those in the West. Violence against children is illegal in America but make no mistake- it happens. However, aside from minor violations, normally such disciplinary actions are reserved for the home. There are other shreds of evidence, a bruise or perhaps an unduly hostile attitude, but rarely do the streets of suburbia ring with the sounds of slapping.

Here, however, and in Mongolia, life is lived much more publicly. In Cambodia, people prop up camp beds and snooze in the street, cooking is done in the open and soccer games bounce about the roads. It's simply too hot to live inside but temperate enough for many to find that there is only need for a roof to ward off the rain. Mongolia is similar in attitude if not in climate. Property is communal and sometimes decorum is as sparse as the landscape. Once on a busy city sidewalk in a ritzy area I had to walk around a woman who had her foot propped up on a railing at a 90 degree angle as she cut her toenails letting the clippings fly into traffic. Apparently she was undisturbed by the throngs of people around her. Mongolia is also particularly complex in this sense. Many people live in gers and though the round walls warm and protect those within them, they are made of felt through which sound permeates very easily. I had many friends who were awkwardly privy to the sounds of unsavory business done by their host families even though they were sitting in a different ger on the other side of the yard.

Though there are unpleasant occasions like the one yesterday, often the noises of Cambodia are comforting and lively. Every night the moans of cats, laughter of children and buzzing of dinner parties filters into our rooms. I find it a tonic. It makes the world seem more alive and life less lonely. It's nice, even comforting, to be reminded of the various dramas that play out daily in other people's lives. The sounds are lightening,  making my life seem less significant and situations less dire as every day. It's also hard to take much seriously if your workplace is relentlessly filled by the clucking of street chickens. It is usually a joy to live in places with such open cultures, though on some occasions painfully difficult to share in tragedies of strangers.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Oh, Adele

Adele has finally released the video for her song 'Someone Like You' and the only real words to describe it are 'soul-crushingly beautiful.' Filmed in black and white, she is just walking along the streets of Paris. It is a simple concept but I think well conceived to showcase the poignancy of the song. In anticipation of my December trip to Paris and the Champagne District I've been voraciously devouring books about France- everything from The Paris Wife, about Hadley Hemingway's life in the Jazz Age to Dancing to the Precipice, a biography encompassing the monarchy and the Revolution. Next on my list is Julia Child's My Life in France. So this video is perfect for a budding Francophile such as myself, to say nothing of the breath-taking song that it underlines so beautifully. Give it a watch. It is one of the best (I'd say the best) singers of my generation in a timeless city.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happy Pchum Ben!

Today is Pchum Ben, the big Cambodian holiday. On this day it is believed that the gates to Heaven and Hell are opened and ancestral spirits walk the earth. In reverence for the dead and in a symbolic gesture of care, everyone goes to their local pagoda (Buddhist temple) and offers vast quantities of food to the monks in an attempt to feed the spirits. Fun fact: apparently sticky rice is favored because people believe that it will stick to the mouths of the ghosts better than anything else. The monks diligently perform various ceremonial duties throughout the day.

I went to two different pagodas here in Phnom Penh to check out the fuss and try to capture the very festive feel of the holiday for ya'll. I must admit I am pretty disappointed with the video. The relationship between my camera and I is getting more and more strained as it continues to take craptastic photos (probably also to do with the person behind the lens but then again it's always easier to blame the technology). However, it is definitely worth the watch; the audio gives a great taste of the frenetic music that, with the incense smoke, wafted through town all day long.