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.

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