Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The "O" Show and Christmas

Some people go to mass on Christmas. If I were a good Catholic girl, perhaps, I would have gone too. Some of my Jewish friends pay a visit to Joe’s Shanghai in Queens for some delicious soup dumplings. Often, Christmas evenings are filled with stuffing one’s face with an absurd amount of turkey, Beef Wellington, lobster dipped in hot butter, eggnog crème brulee, apple pie and the awful brown brick we call fruit cake. I was not gluttonous this Christmas, but perhaps, I was unholy (but only by association).

My favorite Tuk-Tuk driver, Rinda, shuttled me, two girl friends, and Tuckerman at about 10 p.m. to Rock, a club on Monivong (the main road I live off of). This is past the hour of decency for women to venture into the dark, but I’ve come to terms with my supposed indecency.

A girl who is fourteen going on twenty-four wears red knee-high socks, chunky platforms, a midriff top, and Santa hat. She straddles her boyfriend who thrusts his pelvis in the air, perhaps trying to outline imaginary clouds in the sky with his mini-erection. He sticks his tongue out like a lizard, air caressing the girl’s thighs and more. Thank you, Jesus, for her Elf underwear. The two are one of the five couples who joined a competition on stage, in which each couple must produce the big “O” sound, and afterwards, have a sexy dance on stage. I don’t know what was more irksome—the noises or the dancing. The girls were shy when it came to making the “O,” but when it came to the dancing part of the competition, they had no problem getting down. Literally.

This Christmas, I’d hoped for a little dancing to some Jay-Z. Maybe some Akon. Instead, I found myself staring down at my Jack and Coke, watching the brown liquid disappear all too quickly through my straw. Jack could not drown out the noises or take my mind off the sexy-time dancing by the teenagers on stage (many of which are the spoiled kids of politicians and uppity city folk).

Or, maybe I should’ve just stayed at home with the girls. Earlier that evening, I had a holiday party at the dormitory. Originally, my plan was to cook spaghetti and bake a cake and cookies. As Christmas approached and I was still planning the party, the idea of cooking for sixty some people became less and less appealing. My cooking skills are somewhat limited to omelets and fruit salad. For fear of disappointing sixty hungry people, I had the party catered. Yes, I took the easy way out, but maybe this was for the better.

The girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves, finishing what Chakrya, friend and manager of the dormitory, described as a “mountain of spaghetti.” Truly, it was. The girls indulged in Khmer dancing, and also taught me the dances. There are different ones that correspond to certain kinds of music. For example, there’s the Madison, which is a faster, electric-slide-esq dance, and then there’s Roum Voung, which is full of delicate hand gestures and slow stepping. Although I usually lack grace and coordination, my bellydancing years at Colgate proved quite useful (Thank you, Ursula Embers).

The girls not only love dancing (Khmer dancing, not sexy-time dancing), but they also love singing. Limheang fearlessly belts out both Khmer and English songs. At the party, she led the group in singing Old MacDonald and the chicken-dance song, among other ones. These girls are full of vitality and vigor, and it’s contagious. It is impossible not to smile around them. They often say to me, “Older Sister, you smile too much. Doing so will give you wrinkles.” I tell them that it’s okay, and I’d rather have wrinkles later and be happy now. They laugh in their light voices. The sense of humor here is interesting. It’s kind of like a spoken stichomythia, in which one person has to outwit the other.

The girls call me thevada, angel, because I eat so much fruit and so little rice (Rice is a staple. No matter how much you eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you’re still starving if you haven’t eaten rice yet). On Christmas, each of the girls fed me a bite of cake, trying to fatten me up. Here, being plump is a sign that you are healthy and well fed. Being thin is a sign of being underfed, perhaps, because you are the daughter of a farmer. By the end of the party, I felt like I had eaten an entire sheet of cake. As full as I was, I didn’t want to be rude and refuse a bite from any of the girls because giving me a bite of their food was their way of giving me a blessing. Never refuse blessings. Naturally, I did not feel like a thevada afterwards, but rather like what I imagine Santa might feel like after eating millions of cookies on Christmas Eve. A correction to what I said earlier: Never refuse blessings or cookies. Also, second correction: I guess I was gluttonous on Christmas.

So, Christmas in Cambodia was full of surprises—some good, others unexpected. The girls told me that this was their first Christmas celebration at the dormitory. For once, I didn’t feel guilty for asking for some extravagant gift on Christmas, followed by momentary happiness. These girls reminded me of the true spirit of Christmas. My little extravaganza at Rock reminded me that there are other girls who aren’t complete saints in this city of Phnom Penh. Maybe fate brought me to Rock, and Buddha, God, baby Jesus, whomever was sending me a message saying, “It’s okay, Kanitha. Chill out and enjoy yourself.”

Friday, December 25, 2009

I Believe in Saying I Love You...

All too often, it seems that we are afraid to say the three words: “I love you.” Perhaps, fear is only attached to the romantic usage of the phrase, but it seems that we are also stingy with these words in non-romantic usages as well.

I don’t think that using these words de-values the words, nor the depth behind them. There are words and phrases we use far too often that are crass and vulgar. Why not use words that are empowering and stir up good feelings in others and in you? What is the harm in overusing these words?

In Milan Kundera’s must-read novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” I have come to the realization that I have a great fear of kitsch, and abstract words describing emotions, such as the word love, often can be kitsch. Kitsch is inherently tied to sentimentality, which perhaps is a writer's greatest fear.

While it is one thing to be wary of being sentimental in writing, why do I fear being sentimental in every day life? This is a question I’ve long asked myself and been asked. Why don’t I like the words date or sweetheart or cuddle? Why don’t I indulge in some hand holding or god-forbid a public kiss? For fear of being kitsch.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the girls at Harpswell always say, “I love you.” Whether it is through an email or during breakfast or just in passing. And you know what? It feels really good.

So, for this Christmas, I want to say I love you. I love you Mom, Dad, and brother. I love you girlfriends and boyfriends. I love you to all the girls I’ve met here. I love you America. I love you to the land I’ve come to know here in Cambodia. I love you watermelon, kiwi, and rambuttan. I love you cold Colorado air. I love you ex-boyfriend, and ex-ex boyfriend. I love you boots. I love you rain. I love you puppies, really cute adorable puppies. I love you kitsch (maybe).



Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gargle. Gargle. Spit.

I awake to a deep hacking sound. Another hack follows—a big mucousy one. I open my eyes and see the dark begin to disappear. My body tells me it’s not quite six o’clock. Time here is measured not by my watch or clock, but my body in sync with that around me. The vendors who clang pots and pans advertising bowls of steamy cathew. The sounds of dogs barking at motos whizzing by. An old Khmer song playing on someone’s radio. My neighbors running water, washing themselves, all twelve of them. A rooster crowing. The hacking old man whose room is separated from mine by a mere alleyway, perhaps an arms distance away.

A few nights ago, I closed my eyes attempting to fall asleep. I was physically and mentally exhausted having taught for several hours and worked at the literary journal as well. A boy next door began to gag himself. Perhaps he had the flu, or was drunk, or had eaten rotten food. This gagging sound is one of those sounds that invoke the same instinct in you. It’s kind of like when someone yawns, and you yawn. I hoped that the boy would finally throw up so that he would stop gagging. Who knew such an awful sound could lull you to sleep?

There is no such thing as privacy here. Your most private moments—bathing, talking, urinating, sleeping, crying, lovemaking—become public. They are always shared, just as I’ve learned to share everything I have here with the girls. If I have a bundle of jeak pong moun, finger-sized bananas, which I absolutely love, I take one, and give the rest to the girls. I’ve learned to live in a shared place where nothing is my own. What I believed to be areas of close proximity in America, for example homes in the booming suburbs of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, is luxurious in comparison to here. Here, you breathe the same air your neighbors breathe, you smell their dinner, you hear them spanking their crying child. Here, you know the comings and goings of your neighbors who are strangers only by face, but their secrets are yours though you’ll never dare to speak them. Your secrets are also theirs, and fearing that they can hear you, you live self-consciously.

I’ve become semi-used to living in a shared space—hearing the screech of a chair dragged across the floor, the opening of a wooden desk drawer, the clink of spoons being put away. But, living in close quarters also invites others to judge your habits as you judge theirs.

I failed to mention earlier that some of my neighbors are prostitutes (according to what the girls have told me). I don’t talk to these neighbors, and I probably unconsciously look at them with scorn when I see them. But, I’ve also felt that they look at me in the same way, as if I am in someway a loose woman.

I have a friend here who I see quite often since I don’t have many friends as I’ve been here for only about two weeks. We sometimes grab a coffee, go to lunch or dinner, hang out. Normal, right? If only, let’s call him Tuckerman, was a girl. Tuckerman is from America. He’s tall with dirty-blonde hair and hazel eyes. He picks me up on his dirt-bike that roars, making coming and going discreetly impossible. I don’t know if it is me being self-conscious, or if the neighbors truly think that I am a loose girl. It is improper here for a girl to go out with a man alone. Even when the sun is shining brightly. Even when you sit at opposite ends of the table, hands folded nicely in your lap. How I have come to hate the word proper. Since I teach a class from seven o’clock in the evening to eight o’clock, I sometimes leave afterwards to unwind from a long day. Proper girls don’t leave the house past eight. When I return around eleven or so, the neighbors can hear the roar of my arrival through the wooden shades of their windows. The security guard awakes from his slumber to let me in. Bad American girl, he thinks. Or is it, Bad Cambodian girl? If people associate me more as a foreigner than a Cambodian, then I feel a bit more at ease.

I went through a little crisis, thinking that I should perhaps quarantine myself in the dorm and follow proper rules of Cambodian etiquette. For now, I’ve made a compromise, and have a self-imposed curfew at eleven-thirty. I won’t galavant around the city until four in the morning as I might do in America, but I will still allow myself the pleasure of enjoying this new city.

It’s nice to find familiar things in foreign places. But not all familiar things are nice. K.F.C. is one of those places in America I refuse to set foot in. I will not swallow that greasy, oil-drenched, deliciously-crunchy, artery-clogging, piece of chicken. Somehow, the smiling, adoring faces of these girls drew me into K.F.C. here for dinner. I treated the girls to dinner, and for these girls who have very little, this was quite the treat. I felt their excitement as they ordered a family bucket of fried chicken. Sreyhak, who did the ordering, was especially particular about the quality of the food. A thom cheang nung, she told the server, indicating that she wanted bigger pieces of chicken thighs. The girls savored the chicken, sucking all the meat off the bones, leaving empty trays and satisfied bellies, smiles all around. This was a special time for the girls, and I was happy to share this time with them, even if the chicken I had eaten clogged my arteries. Afterwards, we got some doughnuts and chatted about boys and movie stars. When I began to clear the trays, Sreyhak stopped me, taking the containers and placing them in a plastic bag. She rinsed off our utensils telling me we can use these again. I looked at the empty paper cup I had crushed in my hands. Soumthouh, I said, apologizing to her. I suddenly became aware of my own excessive nature. The girls come from farming villages where everything is used and re-used, where things are never wasted, and each object can serve some kind of purpose. Although I advocate recycling and being energy-efficient, I am far more wasteful than these girls who use everything they have to the fullest potential.

When we came back to the dormitory after dinner, Menghoun who stayed home to prepare dinner for other girls asked Sreyhak, “How was dinner?” Sreyhak smiled, holding up a plastic K.F.C. takeaway bag full of empty containers, “Nam ay chyang thoultha lut dai.” Finger-lickin’ good, she said.

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Teaching and Things

I am barely 22 years old. My students are 17-21. I live with them, eat with them, and sleep with them. They call me Older Sister Kanitha. (Side note: I’ve finally begun to pronounce my name the proper way, which is much prettier than the butchered American pronunciation of my name. Here, I am Kahn-ni-tah, pronounced with soft syllables and grace).

I should first explain my role as a resident leader. The place I live is called the Leadership Center for Women. It is a dormitory in Phnom Penh and houses 57 students. These girls are from the countryside, and were chosen to live here on scholarship because of their promise as potential future leaders. Many girls in the countryside are unable to attain a higher education because they lack housing in the city (where the universities are located) and lack funds (most come from farming families). Boys from the countryside are allowed to live in temples, but women are not. This is one example of gender inequality that exists in this society. There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently that discusses gender inequality and religion. The article suggests that whether women are deemed inferior or equal to men in society is determined not by what a religious text says, but rather by the interpreter of this text. Most of the time, the interpreter is male (i.e. priest or monk). According to the article then, more women from the countryside would have the opportunity to go to college if monks allowed them to live in the temples. This would then result in an overall rise in the level of education here. I read somewhere that only 27 of 1000 Cambodians will finish high school today in 2009. That is truly absurd to me. Come on, monks. Anyways, sorry that was a bit of a digression...

The girls who live at this center are smart, motivated, and passionate learners and people. In fact, they work much harder than university students in the US do (at least me, and I worked pretty hard). Many wake early (think 4 am), cook, clean, and then go to classes, leaving before 8 o’clock. There’s an incredible sense of community here, in which the girls think of themselves as sisters. Not in the way that a sorority house functions as sisters. I think it’s safe to say that throwing 40 girls in a house together is bound to brew some rivalries, cattiness, etc. In all honesty, there is none of that here. In part, I think it is a cultural thing, in which Cambodian etiquette requires what we in America may think of as being too doleful and caring. When the girls are not in school, they devote their time to studying more. I have individual tutoring lessons with many of the girls who want to improve their language skills and writing abilities. The first year girls attend an extra class with me every evening in addition to their regular course-load. Their curfew is 8’o clock, and they usually don’t get out of classes until 6. When offered a later curfew on weekends, the girls refused, saying that they wanted to keep the 8’o clock curfew to focus on their studies. Imagine that. Riots would break out across college campuses in the US.

The girls look up to me, kind of like I’m some magical fairy sent over from America. It’s a lot to live up to, and I fear that I’m going to disappoint them somehow. It somewhat makes me nervous that many of them are as smart as they are. I sometimes feel more like their peer than their teacher. But I think that’s also what good teaching is—teaching without that hierarchal bullshit. A professor of mine once told me, “Good students pull good things out of their teachers.” The girls here have challenged me to expand my knowledge beyond poetry and essays, to engage with subjects I am unfamiliar with, to speak Khmer correctly, and to test my own English language skills. I found myself bewildered by the perfect and conditional tenses of verbs, forgetting which is which because I’d grown up knowing the correct verb to use without knowing why. I think back to the time I first took Spanish or Italian classes. Knowing the tenses was necessary to grasping the languages. Teaching requires that I re-learn what I have been taught. I think all teachers, if they are good ones, never stop learning.

I’m finally getting into a routine, which is nice. My first years are reading a Khmer folktale called "The Clever Little Hare." We’ve been working on it for the past three classes, learning vocabulary-in-context as well as practicing the pronunciation of words. The t, d, th, and f sounds are particularly hard for some of the girls. During yesterday’s class, some pronounced the word trunk as drunk, and when I explained the meanings of the two words, they could not stop laughing. We’re still working on that one...

The older students want to focus mainly on writing since their English speaking skills are pretty good. For the first assignment, I had them write an autobiography—not a typical one that spews facts such as one’s hometown, age, school, major, etc. Rather, it requires them to reach for a moment, a place, or a person—some memory that resonates with them. This memory is the vehicle they use to tell the story of who they have become. They must then reduce this story to one paragraph, which draws out the most important aspects of the longer story. Finally, they must reduce this to one word that epitomizes their autobiographical story. Reducing the essay to one word is the hardest part of the assignment, naturally I think. This assignment challenges the girls because it requires a kind of writing that is different from the formal academic style of writing that they’ve been always been taught to use. Menghoun, who I share a room with, tells me that Creative Writing does not exist here in Cambodia. None of the universities offer creative writing courses. Menghoun says that most people would not even know exactly what creative writing is. This is because it is not common for people to read books, and there are few Cambodian authors who write books. I’ve always thought of literature as one of the primary means of transmitting culture. If literature doesn’t exist in a country, how is a country’s history recorded? If it is through academic texts, such as history books, do these texts offer everything that literature offers? Or, is something lost? I am inclined to think it’s the latter, and it worries me. While the girls here are studying law, economics, and politics, they’ve never been taught to write their own stories. As education is slowly improving, if the art of writing never rises here, how will Cambodians transmit their culture? Writing is the most important means of communication, and it seems not only here, but also everywhere, that people are unable to write in an effective way, and thus, unable to communicate effectively.

I am meeting with Kho Tararith on Monday who runs the Nou Hach Literary Journal, Cambodia’s only literary journal. I’ll have to get his thoughts on this. I’m off to a holiday party featuring a turkey, Christmas tree, and the whole deal...

Until then...go read.

Love (Everyone signs their emails here love. Always. Business emails, friend emails, stranger emails.),


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

These boots are made for walking...?

Muh spek chung moh kowt,” snickers the sales lady who hands me five packets of Nestle instant coffee. I hand her a 1000 riel note (the equivalent of 25 cents). I might be getting ripped off, but I’m not sure. She continues speaking to some men sitting in low plastic chairs. “Mouw preah nah neang neah?” I keep silent, hiding the fact that I understand Khmer. I shuffle my feet from right to left, feeling a little self-conscious from the eyes not so much admiring but observing my favorite boots. These cowboy boots are perfectly broken in and tanned to a milk chocolate shade. They’ve trekked through Cinque Terre in Italy and the cobblestones of Florence and slipped around the hills of my college campus in Hamilton, New York. And the heat and dust of the roads in Phnom Penh, Cambodia? Questionable.

I don’t look like the typical Cambodian girl from Phnom Penh, which is to some extent expected because I am from America; however, I’ve begun to wonder if I am consciously separating myself from them, the Cambodian-born girls. My love for my cowboy boots, boots in general really, isn’t the main issue. There is something to be said about being in a place that isn’t one’s home and becoming a part of it by adapting to the culture—the food, the dress, and the customs. This also brings me to the question of what is home? Is it a physical place? The place one is born? Is it inherently tied to one’s identity? A place one feels one belongs? Is it both physical and mental? In my memoir, I struggle to answer this question and flounder. One of the main reasons I came to Cambodia is to mine the questions that I failed to answer in my memoir. I thought I couldn’t answer these questions because of my disconnection with the land. Coming here, I thought, would bring me clarity, not confusion. Writing, I thought, would also bring me clarity, not confusion. Neither seems to have worked.

If Cambodia is my home or a place I consider somewhat as home, I haven’t made the best effort to become a part of it. I wear airy little dresses daily. For one, I’m not so sure how socially acceptable these dresses are, but as you can imagine, I am doused in sweat pretty much all day long. And it’s not that sexy kind of sweat, boys. It’s downright stinky, sticky, soak through your clothes puddles of sweat. My boots, as you can probably guess, scream Westerner. On a side note, I visited a few custom boot shops yesterday in the Tuol Sleng area thinking that I’d be in shoe heaven. Custom boots for under forty bucks? Surely, that’s a steal! Ok, now think not so much Salvatore Ferragamo custom made shoes, but more Dansko-esq shoes. This actually only applies to women’s shoes. Men’s are quite appealing with a good variety of styles, textures etc. Alas, the last thing I need is another pair of boots.

There are other degrees of separation that transgress the material. As opposed to being a pretty tan person in America, I am very light-skinned here. What I find strange, but not exactly surprising is that people are obsessed with being white here. The counters in markets and malls are filled with skin-whitening products. I remember watching my mother apply these same products in America when I was a child. I thought this was odd because I loved being tan, and still do now. Skin color here is associated with class. Darker people are the laborers and farmers, while lighter skinned people are typically considered city dwellers. Also, lighter people are more likely to be mixed-blood, for example, Chinese-Cambodian. It seems that it is better to be a mixed rather than full-blooded Cambodian. This is a pre-war mentality, but I think it stills exists to this day despite the post-war migration into the city. What is so bad about being a full-blooded Cambodian? Is being Cambodian, being dark, associated with being of a lower class? Do Cambodians think of their country as inferior in relation to other countries?

Cambodian culture is far more conservative than what I am used to. Actually, I fully know what is expected of me as a Cambodian girl, and I know how I ought to act. Even-tempered and well-mannered. Polite with a soft-spoken tongue. Modest in dress. My mother tried to instill these traditional qualities in me as a young girl, and it didn’t work then, just as it probably won’t work now. Best put, here, I am improper. I can be loud and assertive. I like wearing hippie headbands and cowboy boots and chipped nails. I lack grace and fall up and down stairs. I like boys and wine and vodka. This is a place where I resemble the people physically, but otherwise am of another land, another people.

I’m trying to find a happy medium between being the me in America and the person I would be had I grown up here. And to be honest, it’s not easy. I don’t want to be the ignorant person that defies the customs of a foreign land, and says, “fuck it I am who I am.” Coming to a place that is so different from one’s own requires a level of cultural sensitivity and understanding. Because my parents are Cambodian, I already should have a degree of understanding that is greater than that of non-Cambodian people who come here. There is the expectation that I know how to act, eat, and dress.

What does all this mean? Maybe it’s time to give the cowboy boots a rest until I make it back home. Maybe I need to get over my hate for pants, and learn to wear them when riding a moto instead of dresses that tend to billow out beneath me. (Yes, I rode a moto! And not to worry, as a passenger...) I’m only different if I see myself as different, if I ensure that differences exist. I don’t want to be the Cambodian who self-discriminates, finding something inferior in my Cambodian-ness.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lost Baggage: No Surprise

I am in Cambodia; my bags are in LA. I’ve taken three showers today, and still am very, very sticky. It is 30 degrees Celsius here; it was -5 Fahrenheit when I left Denver. The beaten path, it seems, defines my journey. When I left Phnom Penh Airport in my Uncle’s Camry, I expected a somewhat smooth ride, seeing as he found my driving in America to be veck-vuh, best translated as swervey. If my driving is veck-vuh, then the only way I can describe the driving here is fucking insane. The unpaved roads are packed with lots of beater cars, a few luxury cars, motos (motorcycles), cyclos (Vespa-like things), bicycles, and pedestrians. The only rule is: there is no rule. One-way street, two-way, it doesn’t matter. Motos fly horizontally. Rice vendors on cyclos weave between us and another moto carrying a 13-year-old boy and an infant who is getting his first lesson in driving. A SUV with an ostentatious Lexus decal stretched across its side asserts its authority on the road laying it on the horn. A boy on a cyclo carrying a steel vat of rice clangs it on the hood of our car as he whizzes by. A Chum Kout, my uncle says. Mother Fucker, indeed.

In the US, many prefer to live further away from busy streets. The opposite holds here in Cambodia. Homes also operate as businesses, and so the homes that are on a main road are the most profitable. These businesses range from cellular phone shops to pastry vendors to t-shirt stands endorsing Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Teenagers love American music and mimic the tunes, saying the words but often without knowledge of what they mean.

My uncle turns down a narrow road. I feel as if I am going to run into a bunch of thugs. “Pou, mek chung mouw kang neah?” I ask in my broken Khmer. He tells me his house is on this street. A sign indicates this is street No. 355. One of the first things I’ve learned is that streets are labeled as numbers, not names. I’ve also learned that nobody knows a street by its designated number. This is a place of landmarks. Turn right where Om Keang has her lychee stand. But what about the other 15 lychee stands I just saw? What if Om Keang isn’t there one day? That would be an unlucky day.

The homes of the middle class (like my uncle) are typically three stories and open aired. Guests are received on the first floor in a living room type area. This opens to a garage-like space. To the rear is the bedroom of neak chnoul, literally rented person, or maid. Next to this room is the eating area, and the backyard serves as the kitchen, which is equipped with a stovetop and faucet. The second floor is composed of a family room, bedrooms, and bathroom. It has taken me a while to maneuver around the bathroom, but I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. There is a showerhead that hangs on the wall next to the toilet and a spray nozzle that is connected to the toilet. I’ve yet to use that and don’t really plan to, but the cold showers aren’t so bad (especially since I am sweltering hot for most hours of the day).

Last night I attended a dinner hosted by Alan Lightman (the founder of the Harpswell Foundation that I am working for) at the Khmer Surin restaurant. The other seventeen people who attended are all affiliated with the Harpswell Foundation as well. One person runs a motorcycle repair shop and teaches people from the village of Tramung Chum the trade. Another woman is working on the Great Hall of Women project for the newly built leadership center that I am moving to in January. A couple from Jerusalem is volunteering for the first month of their honeymoon. (What a honeymoon!) The managers of the leadership facilities and UN advisors also attended. It is an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many people from all parts of the world who are doing so much good. It often seems that there is much talk concerning all the bad things that are happening around the world, and so we tend to forget all the good things that take place every month, day, minute, second. There are not many things that I can say for sure that I believe in, but I do believe that each individual has the capacity to be good and the desire to be good. Being here has reaffirmed this belief. Being here has made me want to be better, to do good.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Leaving Oatmeal for Mudfish

I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous for this trip to my parents' homeland--Cambodia. The months leading up to my departure have filled my parents with worry. How could this 22-year-old American girl live in our old third world country? They worry that I will not be able to adjust to the living conditions in Cambodia. Will there be running water everywhere I go? Will my tongue adjust to the tastes of lemongrass, tamarind, and coconut? Of prahoc (mudfish) and krapeek (ground up shrimp)? Will the sun brown my skin to the same color as that of Cambodians in Cambodia? Or will my skin become discolored with sunspots, reacting badly to the Cambodian heat and air? My mother foresees that the latter will occur. You are an American she tells me.

The truth is: I don't know. I don't know if I will like the food, or if the linens will be as clean as I am used to finding here in America. I don't know if I will enjoy Cambodian food every single day. At home, I have Cambodian cuisine once or twice a week. Cathew Phnom Penh (a traditional noodle-dish with clear broth topped with mixed veggies and meat) or oxtail soup. But most days, my diet consists of oatmeal, hummus, turkey, whole grains and eggs--foods I surely won't find on a Cambodian menu. I take a strange comfort in this sense of bewilderment before I depart, in not knowing what physical and emotional reactions my trip will draw from me. In Michael Chabon's memoir Manhood For Amateurs, he writes that he, as a man, is an expert at pretending to know that which he hasn't a clue about. I don't want to pretend that I know I will be fine in Cambodia and everything will go according to plan. Actually, I don't even know what the "plan" really is. Perhaps, unlike men, women are more comfortable admitting that we don't know everything and we never will. Maybe women are a tad-bit less prideful...

Speaking of things not going according to plan, my father got an unexpected call last night as we were having our farewell dinner. It was Uncle Thoeun, my father's younger brother. My father answered the phone between bites of skewered kobe beef. Yes, the name is K-A-N-I-T-H-A H-E-N-G. Right, Flight 861 from Taipei, China Airlines. My father ended the call, and said to me, "He must be really excited to see you. He's so nervous he keeps checking your flight information. He's scared he won't be able to find you or something." I turned the kobe beef over the grille on the center of the table. It might be the only beef I would be eating for awhile since I'd heard that cows were considered sacred in Cambodia. My dad's phone rang again. My father answered and began laughing, deep down from his belly--a loud and lovely laugh. The waitress raised her eyebrows at him, wondering what this man could possibly find so funny, as did my brother, mother and I. Apparently, Uncle Thoeun was at the airport, thinking that I had already arrived in Phnom Penh. It was Uncle Thoeun, his wife, their five children, my father's cousins Som Bath and Som Nang, their kids, the newborn baby--all of whom were waiting eagerly to meet this relative from America bearing many, many gifts. Oh my god. I was still in America.

As I write now in the Denver Airport staring at the Rockies and clear skies and snow-glazed runways, I take a picture in my memory and miss it already. There's something about Colorado I will always love. Everyone has a special place that is forever kept in one's memory. It is the place we think of when we are in a not-so-great place. It is the place we always want to return to at one point or another, the place we never want to forget. Colorado is this place for me, and I will miss it and think of it. But I will be back, and until then, there are so many incredible places to see and experience--Cambodia being one of them.

I foresee that the next four months will challenge me in many ways--in my ability to adapt to a new geographic land, to immerse in a non-Western culture, to meet family I've never known I've had, to be a teacher and a mentor, to set foot on the land my parents fled and grandparents are buried. These experiences won't be easy. I know this. And they shouldn't. I've found that I learn and grow from that which doesn't come easy, from the experiences that make me question who I am: my values, what I'm doing, and who I want to be. I think of Oscar Wilde's words: "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist." I will be 8,000 miles away from home in 20 some hours, living.