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: 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.