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.