Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blog Update: Back to the Blogging World

So I know I have been M.I.A. for a long while (3 months?). For that, I apologize, BUT in good news, I have begun blogging again. If you enjoyed my blog on the time I spent in Cambodia, you may enjoy my new blog which I have named Experiments With Pharmakon. Wondering why? You can read about the genesis of this blog here. A few things about my new blog: it's not honed in on any one subject nor place as this blog is. It is a cornucopia of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and as my tag line reads, "anything in between." I invite you to read my first few posts, which include a short story I've been working on: Pare Jones. Don't forget to add this blog to your reader:!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Left in Vertigo

During my last few weeks in Cambodia, I didn’t want to blog (and to the avid readers of my blog, I apologize for that). For some intangible reason, writing about the events that were happening at that time, the words that were spoken, threatened my experience. I didn’t want to intrude on the experiences or alter them by writing about them. I’m not entirely sure this makes sense, but I’ll try to articulate these feelings as best I can. During these last weeks, I wanted to live, to really live. I didn’t want to worry about writing, and when I began blogging about my experiences in December, I fell into the weekly routine of doing so at least twice or three times a week. This is the expectation I set up for myself, and I felt that it was an obligation I now had to others as well. What I mean by saying I wanted to live is perhaps best described by Oscar Wilde’s words: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” Blogging during these weeks seemed to me a way of just “exist[ing]” because I would have written the bare facts, but doing so would have diminished my experience that I knew would be much more powerful than these facts that were composed of a series of events. Existing and living can be thought of as closely related words, but the latter connotes a passion that is absent in the former. I wanted to live, and then later, when the time was right, write with the intensity and passion driven by experience coupled with deep reflection and understanding.

The life of a writer involves an unveiling of the self, and it seems that the good writer exposes herself nakedly before others, keeping no secrets, and refusing to be limited (or self-limit). I’ve been thinking about writing a lot lately, and this is in large part because I have been deciding on what MFA program I want to enroll in this upcoming fall. In particular, I’ve been thinking about blogging. What is it? With my own experience in blogging and judging from reading other blogs, the nature of the writing is oftentimes casual. Now, I’m not saying that all blogs feature writing that is less probing or serious, but it is for me the kind of writing that is in the first stage of the writing process, the immediate finger to keyboard thoughts. I can’t speak for other bloggers, but I can safely assume I think, that heavy revision is not required of the blog. The blog is quick, easy to scan, easy to access. That’s the beauty of it.

Towards the end of my stay in Cambodia, I began to feel things—things that I hadn’t really felt before during my time there, things that I couldn’t pinpoint or express in words for I had yet to understand or identify them. I still have yet to identify these feelings. I guess that’s what living is—feeling. For someone who is somewhat a connoisseur of words, it seems odd to me that I can’t describe these feelings. Happy. Sad. Angry. Emphatic. Disheartened. Disillusioned. Nostalgic. Nope, none suffice.

The act of leaving a place does this; it complicates feelings and displaces you onto the brink where you’re not yet gone, but almost, and so you’re not entirely present either. You’re already thinking about the future when this place becomes another place you’ve left, the people you’ve met characters of your brief story, and slowly your tongue no longer twists to form the soft th sounds of your mother and father’s language, and you’ve lost what you had gained over these months. You fear loss.

Or, at least I do.

I am sitting now in my nicely heated room. Birds chirp. Dogs bark. No chickens squawk. I’m back in Highlands Ranch, Colorado—a suburb composed mainly of monopoly-like homes tucked discreetly into organized rows. I used to complain of this suburb as being a place that lacked character because every “thing” is seemingly so uniformly the same. Things. We always notice things. The material. The house or car or ring or phone. It’s all about these things.

Right now, these things don’t matter to me. But I fear that the longer I am here in America where I was born, these things will start to matter again. People should matter more than things. I think this is a pretty simple concept, and I think in every situation it holds true.

I’m scrambling right now to identify my feelings, and it’s not working out so well. Maybe, there’s a reason they’re unclear to me. You see, I’m sort of rambling in this post, but this is how I feel. A little bit topsy-turvy. A little bit like I’m standing on one foot. Or like I’m a quarter spinning, and about to land, splat, head on the ground.

That’s what leaving feels like. Twisting, turning, directionless, moving, and then, falling, finally, into vertigo.

I’m beginning another journey now, a separate one but very connected one to my journey in Cambodia over the past four months. My new journey is one through memory—some recent, others old, some known, others buried. This will be my last post on my trip to Cambodia for a while as I return to write and re-write the memoir I’ve been working on these past few years. I leave you with a prose poem I wrote a while back that captures this feeling of mine that I can best describe now as vertigo.


That final shot got me, as I lay down only to get the spins. Unleveled, I sway without moving, or is it my eyes that did the swaying? Like a child with wings spread, turning foot by foot, round and round and round, and when stopped, the world shakes for a few moments. Not knowing if I’m upside down or right side up. The ease of being out of control, for once, and not knowing when my next breath will be and what will happen when it comes. It’s nice. Slow-motion inhalations and exhalations as I watch life through foggy, little windows. Playing connect the dots. The game of tops. Quarters set in motion, with quick twists that slow to a wobble and fall. Moments pass and the ground becomes still. My body moves. Boredom sets in.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Being a Hater and a Lover: Phnom Penh Compacted

The writer’s block that inspired my last post still plagues me. One of the tricks I’ve picked up from an undergraduate class with memoirist Jennifer Brice is creating lists as a step to begin writing. This is an exercise I’ve used with my students at the Nou Hach Literary Journal, a literary organization here in Phnom Penh. While some may think of doing writing exercises as a “thing” for novices, I’ve been doing exercises ever since I started writing. Plus, lists are fun. The following two lists are written in no particular order and are full of my biases. Take it with a grain of rice. Cliché remark? Absolutely. I’m totally failing as a writer today.

6 Things I Hate About Phnom Penh:

1) The Trash

A pile of smoke rises from the side of the road. From Uncle’s yard. Next to the vendor selling grilled potato cakes and bananas. Oh, no worries. It’s just trash burning. That’s the way many people eliminate their waste here. Or, it’s dumped into the river. “I don’t go one day without smelling this sweetness,” my friend Chakrya tells me sarcastically as we drive past a river of sewage. Now, let’s talk litter. Much of the city looks as if an evil magic fairy sprinkled Coke cans and scraps of banana leaves and wood confetti over the land and water. Try to sweep that shit up, Cintri.

2) The Stench

OK, so the smell of trash is an ashy-burnt-plastic kind of smell. When I speak of “the stench,” I mean the city carries with it a special scent that is vomit inducing at first, and unfortunately, after being here for nearly four months, I have now become accustomed to it. But let me go back to my first experience taking in the city’s odor. Say you were making a mixed drink. Perhaps Fear-Factor style, and you want to put in the nastiest ingredients. Piss. Gasoline. Burnt hair. Dog shit. Human shit. Exhaust. Rotten milk. Gutted fish. Days of unflushed excrement. Shake it all up in a blender, and take a whiff of that. Hellooo, Phnom Penh. OK, OK. I might be being a little unfair here because ¼ of the city doesn’t smell like this. Congrats to this lucky crowd.

3) The Night Noise

So, if you read my earlier post on “Leaving Harpswell,” you’ll find that I am ambivalent towards “the night noise.” In some ways, my earlier post suggests that I might even like it. Well, today, I must tell you that I’ve changed my mind. For troubled sleepers like myself, take heed of this advice: bring some Ambien if you’re going to visit this city. When I lived in Brooklyn, NY for a brief time, I was troubled by the late-night honking, early morning construction, police-whistles, the old-crazy-polka-dot dress lady hollering at 2 AM, the babies balling. Phnom Penh is like this, but consists of different sounds. Like roosters crowing, dogs fighting, bakers clanging, carpenters banging, hookers prowling, karaoke-all-night-long. And right now as I am tapping away at my now dirty white laptop due to the dusty city and my carelessness, all I wish for is that my neighbor sing a different song. This ShinEE one is way overplayed in my head. (For those who do not know of the pop-scene here in SEA, this Korean boy band is an obsession of the teenybopper crowd. Confession: I went to their concert at the Olympic Stadium here in Phnom Penh. Don’t judge me. I was the responsible adult of four teens.)

4) The Showers

I. Like. Hot. Showers. If you want one, and you’re going to live here, forget about it. (Unless you live in one of those uppity villas or American-like gated neighborhoods).

5) The Traffic

Phnom Penh is a relatively small city. Traffic consists of a conglomeration of cars, trucks, motos, cyclos and tuk-tuks. All mushed together like one of those nutty cheese balls. Where’s the public transportation? At one time, public transport did exist. With the current urban sprawl, the city is becoming overcrowded with people and vehicles. Public transportation could certainly alleviate this problem. Also, it is an easy city to walk, especially if one lives in a neighborhood that typically has all the services one needs. But nobody walks. Why? There are no sidewalks (except near the Independence Monument and riverside). And walking in the streets might be a recipe for disaster. “Hey, Lexus. Run me over” is the sign on your $2 T-shirt.

6) The MSG

It’s unavoidable, unless you want to be the horrid foreigner who prefers only to eat at borathiy or Westernized places. Usually when I eat out, I request that MSG not be added to my food. Whether or not this really happens, I’m not sure, but I feel better that I’ve at least tried to avoid it. Usually restaurants and vendors have pre-made broths or porridges from the morning and have already added MSG to these dishes, so I wouldn’t expect an MSG-free bowl to be made just for me. Most of these places nod to my request, and bring me out a my dish three minutes later. Some places do advertise that they are MSG-free. Be wary, however, these are the less authentic Khmer places. Saying that Khmer Kitchen is really Khmer is as if saying that Chipotle is real Mexican food (No less love to Chipotle, however).

6 Things I Love About Phnom Penh:

1) The People

I’ve never been surrounded by so many Cambodians. Go figure. I’m from Denver where the entire Cambodian community can probably fit under one rooftop. I went to Colgate University where there was one other Cambodian: Robert. I’ve never really had a Cambodian friend growing up. And now...I have over fifty. Also, they’re awesome. Most of the people I meet whether they are strangers or family members have large welcoming smiles when I see them. The people here radiate more warmth than I’ve ever felt in another place. Maybe it’s because I’m Cambodian that I feel so, but I think not. Many foreigners who I’ve met have voiced this same feeling of warmness and kindness experienced when interacting with Khmers. The big smiles and welcoming nature of Khmers is in part cultural, I think, but more so, I have a feeling that it stems from somewhere much deeper...I’ve yet to put a finger on where this is however.

2) The Local Love

If you want to buy a pair of custom made shoes, venture to the fifteen shops surrounding Tuol Sleng. They’re all neighbors selling basically the same shoes. If you want some ice, check out your neighbor’s house. He might be selling some. If you want some fish, go to your mouy, your go-to person.

In a developing country such as Cambodia, people try to make money in any way they can. This could be doing anything from selling cigarettes at the front of one’s house just as kids in America might sell lemonade, bringing in about 30,000 Riel a day (the equivalent of a little less than 8 dollars) to baking goods and setting them in a basket atop one’s head while wandering up and down market aisles for fourteen hours straight. There aren’t really mega-marts here. Just little mini-tents selling certain items. The glory of having a lot of the same businesses is that everyone here buys from local vendors.

3) Toul Tom Poung a.k.a. The Russian Market

As an admitted shopping addict, I confess that during my first two months here, I frequented this market at least twice a week. But hear me out: I’ve bought a good amount of dresses ranging from $2.50 to $5, which is a good incentive (in my skewed head) to keep shopping. Many foreigners ask me, “Where did you get that dress?” To their surprise, I say here in Cambodia, and they are shocked having found “nothing worth buying (clothes-wise).” If you are willing to Forever 21-it, and dig for the good finds, Toul Tom Poung is the way to go. And by dig, I mean dig. There are also clothes from brands like Gap, Bebe, Old Navy, Abercrombie, Hollister and the list goes on that manufacture clothing in Cambodia. I got three Gap plain T’s for five bucks. I’d say that’s quite the deal.

Toul Tom Poung also is known as the Foreigner’s market because it is the souvenir hot-spot. From silver trinkets to opium sets, you’ll find it here.

4) The Fruit

I believe I have harked on the fruit before, but indulge me. I am going through one of those moments where I miss a lot of American things. This also makes me think of how I will feel when I am back in America when I am sure I will miss Cambodian things. People aside, I think fruit might top the list. I can’t get enough of it, and many don’t exist back home. The ones that do aren’t the same. There are at least five different kinds of bananas here and five different kinds of mangos. I pick these off trees and eat them. Note to those who love me: A banana or mango tree is on my wish list for any special occasion.

5) Cheap Living

I’ve lived here for almost four months, and before I came here, I set my budget max as $2000. I don’t think I’ve reached over half this amount. And I don’t live cheaply. I indulge in daily coffees, teas, and croissants—things that add up. I buy dresses and fruit (which is relatively expensive). I ride tuk-tuks, the more expensive way of traveling that caters mostly to foreigners. Back home, I would be broke well before now.

6) Angkor Food (located near Toul Tom Poung)

Food here ranges from 3000 Riel to 7000 Riel a dish. Don’t expect a waiter with a napkin tucked into his server’s belt and spotless utensils. Angkor Food opens to the street, and many of the dishes are cooked at the make-shift kitchen on the sidewalk. Utensils are brought out soaked in a cup of hot water, and you polish your own silverware. Aside from being cheap, this food is real Khmer food with the perfect amount of lemongrass and tamarind and chili. The mee, yellow egg noodles, with some veggies is a must. Somlaw krung is also a must. Way more “finger-lickin’ good” than the overpriced KFC faux-chicken that my cousins pine for.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Living up to the Cliche: Watching the Sunset in Koh Kong

During the past few days, I’ve had a dry spell—oh no, not a sexual one, that’s been here for some time now—a writing one. It’s not that I don’t have things to write about, but I know that if I wrote about these things now, they’d be uninteresting to read even though they are in actuality very interesting matters. They would be a bunch of words that aren’t written with the passion and energy behind them that I believe good writing has.

To spare you the boredom of reading a lazily written post, I want to share these photographs with you. They were taken about a week and a half ago when I was in Koh Kong, a southwestern province of Cambodia that lines the Cardamom Mountains.

I snapped these photos as I was driving across the newly built bridge that crosses over to the Thai border. These photographs remind me of when I was in Cinque Terre two years ago. I took photos of my hike along the coast of the Italian Riviera, crossing five villages lined with pastel-colored homes with a sub-par camera, no photography know-how, and a shaky hand. Somehow, every photograph was captivating. A beautiful setting makes this possible. It makes up for what’s lacking on the other end of the lens.

Saying that the sunset in Koh Kong was beautiful would be cliché. Maybe. And an aspiring writer should avoid clichés at all costs, so I’ll skip the talk, and go straight to the photos. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did when I took them.

As a side note, if you enjoy photos of sunrises or sunsets, I invite you to look at Laura Guese’s paintings. She is a painter based in Denver, Colorado and in her artist statement, she writes of sunrises and sunsets saying, “I am captivated by the few seconds when the sky becomes full of infinite color and energy. I believe that the sky is an impermanent, universal landscape, which I find extremely appealing...The sky is ever-changing and never duplicated. The feeling of insignificance is overwhelming when observing the sky. The atmosphere has the power to evoke a full spectrum of true emotion, which I find fascinating.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catch Me If You Can: My Battle with the Spirits

I’ve devoted hundreds of pages to dead people—people I don’t know other than by name or photograph. But despite the fact that these people are dead, they still talk to me. I began to write years ago because I thought this would stop the noise. I thought that perhaps by writing these spirits would be vanquished by reason. To this day, the act of writing hasn’t vanquished anything. I suppose I have my mother to thank for that.

When I was seven, my mother told me a story that I would never forget. “Buddha was living in Pou Tea, and he kept smiling at me. Smiling. Sitting. Smiling. My eyes became stuck on a candle. I was fifteen at the time. All of a sudden, something came into my stomach like a big lump. You can feel it, rising, rising.” She touched her neck, and it made me nervous. “And I knew something was in my body, and I tried to stop it. I knew what was happening. I kept trying to block it. I tried to close my jaw. I was fighting with the spirit. Since I wouldn’t let it talk, it made me shake my head like a peh, a bad angel. I didn’t let it because I knew if a spirit beat me once, spirits would always be able to come into me.” My mother pulled the bedcovers over me, and I held on to them tightly. “It happened to me – ” she said “ – So it is real. You must believe.”

My mother vouches for these spirits, telling me that they not only exist, but also are in many ways alive. To be alive means that they can hurt you, help you, become a part of your existence. How foolish of me, it seems, to try to kill them with pen and paper. When I was in America, Cambodia was still a place that existed only in books and photographs and stories. There was a separation between me and the land, which included the spirits living there. The spirits couldn’t catch me in America where they’d perish because they had nothing to feed on. No mudfish, or ground-up shrimp. No mounkout, or sai-mai, or lamout or pinkie-sized bananas. In America, they wouldn’t have bowls of rice for every meal. Yes, in America, they’d die. My reasoning that spirits needed physical nourishment may seem peculiar, but in Cambodian culture, spirits still need physical and emotional nourishment. I was successful in ignoring the spirits’ existence for some time, but how strange it is that I’ve now run to their home here in Cambodia.

Maybe they’ve reeled me into their soil because I’ve denied their existence for so long. I think I’m starting to believe my mother about these living spirits. Or, maybe I am starting to admit that I’ve been a believer all along, but feared admitting belief in something that wasn’t accepted by the Western culture I’d always known.

I went to a Kru two days ago, which is a person who has a spirit living in them like Pou Tea, the man in my mother’s story. My aunt took me to see Kru. This Kru lived in a beautiful wooden house that was built for him by one of the people he had helped. He asked for nothing from people who came to see him, but those who he had helped reach great success repaid him with land, villas and cars. This somewhat helped his credibility in my eyes, so I thought why the hell not.

Kru wore dirty white cotton pants and an equally dirty white tank. Otherwise, he looked like a normal man. He didn’t have a strange headdress or long overflowing beard as I’d imagined a Kru might. He spoke casually as we prepared to have what might be called a seeing. I lit five incense sticks as instructed to by my aunt and looked up at the Buddha shrine before me. I closed my eyes and prayed. That’s another thing I’ve found myself doing more since I’ve come to Cambodia. Praying feels less awkward. But I still feel strange and don’t really know what to pray for. I think I end up praying for the same thing—people.

My mother who did her seeing first began asking questions. While I usually divulge her secrets, I think I’ll let her keep these ones. In the middle of asking one of the questions, Kru looked up alarmingly. He pointed to me, and in that moment, I became afraid.

“Your daughter must be careful,” he said. He closed his eyes and listened to Buddha. “Pra-ong says that she must be very careful here in Cambodia. I see a tall man chasing her. A thief in a car. Yes, you must be very careful,” he said looking at my hands. “Give me your jewelry.”

I took off my bangles, watch and ring, and handed them to him. He held them for the next hour we were there, blowing on them and blessing them, so as to keep me out of harm’s way.

“I had a dream ten years ago that my daughter would face danger in Cambodia,” my mother told Kru. “Then I had a dream a week ago and saw I man jump out of a car and try to pull her in. He held a white kerchief and tried to wrap it around her mouth. I screamed and told her to get in the house. And, the day before my daughter came to Cambodia, my husband dropped a frame with her picture in it, and it broke.”

My mother looked at me. “See, Kru sees the same thing. You must be very careful.”

I don’t know how I felt at that moment. Confused, probably. A bit scared. I’ve always thought that I’d only be in danger if I put myself in a position to be harmed, which I don’t think I do. But when Kru looked at me, I felt something. I don’t quite know how to describe it.

Kru later asked me, “Do you get headaches often?”

I thought of the killer one I had a few nights ago, and the ones that never go away. “Yes, yes I do,” I said.

“Does your body hurt?”

My ass was killing me during that moment, but in general, my body aches much more than a twenty-two year old body should I think. I nodded.

“Can you not sleep, and do you see terrible things in your dreams?”

“Yes, a lot.”

Kru closed his eyes again, and listened to Buddha for some time. “You have a peh in you.”

“What?” said my mother with wide eyes. My aunt gasped, covering her mouth.

I looked at my mother. “A what?” I asked, forgetting the meaning of peh.

“An evil spirit.”

Great. I have a fucking evil spirit in me, I thought.

“Well, can you make it leave?” I asked Kru in a slightly irritated voice.

“I can try to chase it out of you,” he said.

“Ok,” I said to Kru. “Get out of me you stupid peh,” I said to the spirit.

Kru laughed, and pulled out a black stone that I’d seen him use earlier when healing a sick child. He placed it on my head as I faced away from him. My scalp began to feel hot and heavy, and I thought Kru had replaced the stone with his hand.

“What is on my head?”

“The black stone. Is it hot?”


“Is it heavy?”


“Not to worry. It will get better. It feels this way because the spirit is angry it must leave you,” he said.

“Here, feel the stone,” he said, bringing my hand to touch the stone atop my head. It was cold, but I felt hot. It was light as my bangle, but felt like a book. I looked at the floor confusedly. How could this be possible?

I decided to stop being so confused for the moment, and just be there. In my head, I chanted Get out evil spirit. Get out. Get out. Get the fuck out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Screw Disneyland, kids. How about some slots?

“Look. Is it beautiful?” Uncle asked me.

I looked up at Naga—Phnom Penh’s casino catering to the Western likes of myself. Red and green lights ran across the front side of the building. A water show was placed before it, shooting spurts to the beats of that 1, 2, 3, 4 song that was overplayed months ago in the States. The building was otherwise a rectangular glass-paneled box.

I curled my lips upward, creating what I thought resembled a smile and looked at Uncle. He stood with his hands on his hips, and looked up at the building, his lower lip jutting out in approval.

“Look,”—my mother said excitedly—“It’s just like Bellagio.” She was referring to the one in Vegas, not the one on Lake Como.

I sighed. Not Vegas again, I thought.

“I shouldn’t come in here. Only neak civilie come here, like you,” Auntie said. Neak civilie are people who are distinctly un-Khmer, who are not modest, who dare to wear shirts that bear their bosoms and pants that shadow their bottoms. I straightened my V-neck dress covering anything that might be showing. Auntie meant this as a compliment, but I suddenly became aware of my un-modestness.

“Come on, Older Sister Kanitha,” piped up Sang, Uncle’s youngest daughter. She grabbed my hand excitedly, pulling me towards Naga’s doors. Uncle’s three other children trailed behind us, each in awe of the world of bright lights and lured by the ching ching ching of slot machines.

A slew of languages echoed through the lobby—mostly Japanese and Chinese. Stepping past an enormous fake flower display into one of the game rooms, I looked up to a dome sky with puffy clouds giving the allusion of day.

“Just like Caesar’s Palace,” mother said.

I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. She shot me that Don’t you judge me look.

Uncle walked up to a table to observe a white haired fellow with a cig dangling from his lips playing some card game. His face looked distinctly Cambodian. I had heard that Naga didn’t allow Cambodians into the casino, that it was for foreigners. This man wore a gold watch and leather shoes. Maybe he was one of the wealthy Cambodians. Uncle observed the man lose five straight hands before he walked away.

“See. If you’ve got money, it doesn’t matter if you lose. It’s just a way to relax, have fun,” Uncle said.

We came to a slot machine. The kids ran their fingers over the buttons. “Find a chair,” Uncle instructed them. Mei, the twelve-year-old sat in the first chair. Sang to the right of her, and Pich at the end. Uncle pulled out his wallet, feeding each machine five bucks.

I looked over at the dealers in the little black vests. They stood watching us with their hands clasped behind their backs. This isn’t Disneyland. Uncle’s really going to get it, I thought.

“What do we press?” asked Mei.

Uncle motioned for a dealer to come over. “Tell them what to press,” he demanded.

“Wait until the numbers stop rolling, then hit this button,” the dealer said.

The kids pressed the buttons as instructed.

“Aren’t they smart?” Auntie said. “They learn so fast. I don’t even know how to play.”

Sang lost her five bucks in a matter of minutes. Next was Pich who then climbed into Mei’s chair. “No fair. Let me play, too.”

Mei was doing quite well. Fifteen minutes later, her five had turned to twenty-five. “Quit or press it again, Pa?” Everyone crowded around Mei, excited by the prospect of gold coins falling.


Moments later she was down to twenty. “Ok, ok, you can quit,” Uncle said. He motioned for the dealer to mark up Mei’s earnings. “Good job, Mei.” He patted Mei on the head as if she just passed an exam. “Come on, let me show you the rest.”

We walked to an open space where some Khmer girls stood on a stage dressed in Christmas costumes—red velvet and all. Apparently, Christmas runs past December.

“Very nice,”—I said—“What else is there?” We kept moving, and I thought I heard the tune of “Santa Baby” in the background.

Tall Cambodian girls stood in front of every door. I don’t know where the Naga HR office went to find these chicks, but they’re tall-tall. Think 5’11”-ish. One of these women, a slender one with a gnarly face, smiled at us when we passed Lady Bar. “This is where people go to drink,” Uncle said. “And there are girls who dance,” he added with a boyish grin across his face. “Want to go in?”

Mother shook her head. “No, no. That won’t be necessary.”

“Pa, Pa! I want to go in!” Sang piped up. “Let’s go see girls dance. Like this,” she said twisting her body. “Sexy girl,” she whispered to me.

Uncle looked amused, and half-convinced to go in. Auntie looked equally amused.

Mother shook her head again. “It’s not necessary.”

Ooo-ahh they?” Auntie asked me as we exited Naga. I’ve never quite figured out where this phrase comes from, but I wonder if it is from what people say when they are amazed at something—like oooo and ahhh—because that’s what I think this phrase means.

Ooo-ahh,” I said, shuddering as I passed by one of the giant chicks with long flowy hair, an elf-like nose, and crooked teeth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Mother's Journey: Re-Discovering Home

The very first home I grew up in had mirrors that stretched from the dining room floor all the way up to the vaulted ceiling—very Alice in Wonderland-esq. These mirrors had panels of some dark wood inserted between them. They had a romantic quality to them, the same romantic quality that one might associate with an old grandfather clock or record player. Whenever I think of the place I first called home, I think of these strange mirrors that I have never seen in any home, other than my first one.

Homes tend to be places of refuge. They are usually places we run to when we are in trouble, and the place we return to when we have no where else to go. But, some people don’t have a place that they can really call home. In a conversation with a friend, she expressed that she never really had a physical or emotional “place” of refuge—a place or person or memory she could associate with as being home. For those who have had troubled childhoods, home is not this romantic place. It is a feared place, a memory that one seeks to dissolve and forget.

Before my mother arrived here in Cambodia, I always hoped that she would take me to see her old home. I didn’t know if she would want to see it, though. I didn’t know if my mother’s old home, which she grew up in would be the same place of refuge that I find in my old home in Denver. It seems to me that the refugee flees from one home to another, but is unable to fully call any place home. If for my mother, her home in Cambodia is a place she fears, then I don’t want her to see it. Something that I’ve had to come to terms with here is that my mother’s journey back to her homeland is her journey, not mine. I cannot prevent her from doing something she desires, nor can I force her to go somewhere or do something against her wishes.

During her first few minutes of being in the city she was born, Phnom Penh, my mother was jarred. “Oh my god,” she exclaimed in English, and then in Khmer, “Are there no driving laws here? How can three people fit on a moto...or four! Are there not garbage men? Do they just let these naked children walk on the street begging? Why don’t they do anything about it? Everything’s just dirty!” Watching my mother react to her surroundings was a bit like re-living my first few days in Phnom Penh. For some reason, I thought that my mother wouldn’t have been as baffled at all these things as I initially was. She’d grown up here, so shouldn’t she be used to all these things?

The city of Phnom Penh was completely transformed beginning in 1975 when city dwellers were forced to leave. The refined urbanites who once inhabited the bustling city were replaced with a diverse mixture of people—a handful of wealthy and mostly corrupt politicians and loads of those struggling—shoeless and dirtied children, old men with ribs exposed and stubs for limbs, women with newborns lain on sidewalks exposed to the heat and dust. This was not the Phnom Penh that my mother grew up in. Somehow, in the past three months I’ve lived here, I have come to know Phnom Penh much better than my mother knows it. “This is not my home,” she tells me.

“Why do you keep mixing English with Khmer, Mom? Oum (Older Aunty) and Ming (Younger Aunty) can’t understand any of the words,” I ask annoyed.

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Because I’m used to it. I left for almost thirty years,” she says, again mixing the two languages. I don’t know why it irritates me, but it does. My mother clings to whatever is American in her, creating the distinction between herself and her relatives who never left Cambodia. Perhaps I am irritated because I’ve also created these levels of distinction, not only between the native-born Khmers and me, but also between my mother and myself. Between her imperfect English, and my English. Between my broken Khmer and her Khmer. Perhaps, I sense my own fear of recognizing myself as being fully Khmer, as if there is something shameful about being so.

On the second day in Phnom Penh, we began heading down Norodom near the Independence Monument. This is an area that I know fairly well, having spent a decent amount of time frequenting the cafes and little boutiques in the area. “That’s Moum’s house!” my mother shouted, slapping my leg and pointing to a home near the corner of the monument. “That means my house is around here. Isn’t it Ming? Isn’t it?” she asked her aunt.

We drove around, and eventually turned down Street 370. “This is it,” my mother said. “This is it.” We parked in front of the home. I remember my mother telling me once that her house had been demolished after the war, and that a new home had been built in its place.

“It’s still here,” she said to no one in particular. The house had been divided into two homes. One of the owners was outside cleaning his moto. She explained to him who she was, and he warmly invited us to look around.

We stood outside gazing upward at the house. “We’ve kept everything the same,” said the man. “We haven’t had money to restore it.” The house was white with square grid-panes along the patio. Large trees shaded the left side of the home, poking into the patio on the second-floor. There was something romantic about the house despite the wornness of it all. There were traces of my mother’s child-self running through it.

“That’s my room,” my mother said, pointing to the room on the second floor, which opens to a balcony. She stared it at it with a loving familiarity, and I turned away. I didn’t want to disrupt her special moment, and I gave her some privacy that I know is so hard to find sometimes, especially in moments when it is really needed.

I stood on the tile of the upstairs patio. “Is it the same floor?” I asked my mother. She said it was. I loved this tile—for its rusted maroon and dirty-whiteness, for its little cracks and scratches. This is my mother’s home, I thought, and snapped a photo, keeping it in my memory.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Leaving Harpswell

I am lying on my bed listening for the night noise that I once despised so much, but there is none. The old man next door is not coughing, or washing, or pissing. The dogs are not at each other’s throats and yelping. Nat, whose bunk is above mine, is sleeping soundly, having remembered for once to turn her radio off. Channa is not up late, hovering under her desk lamp reviewing for a test. Menghoun is passed out, legs sprawled with a book collapsed on her chest. Children are not being spanked. Akon is not blaring. It is quiet tonight, which is rare.

Having complained so long about sleepless nights due to Phnom Penh’s restlessness, I should not complain that tonight’s silence is also keeping me from sleeping. The absence of these sounds, however, reminds me of the many other things that I will miss when I leave the Harpswell dormitory tomorrow. The things that I once found foreign, strange, and at times, uncomfortable.

I’ve gotten very close to the Harpswell girls within the course of the past three months. I remember the first day I introduced myself to them. They insisted that I speak Khmer. I could barely get ten words out. Overtime, my Khmer rapidly improved as the girls conversed with me at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or gossiped during the day. They drew out in me a language that I’d forgotten in my childhood, but it had never really left me. The words were still there. My voice still retained Khmer intonations. Something that I’d thought I’d forgotten, re-emerged. It seems that we so often think we’ve forgotten something, or someone, but it’s only because we haven’t tried to salvage the language, the practice, the knowledge, the memory, the relationship.

I don’t want to forget these girls who are not only incredibly intelligent, but have the kindest hearts and warmest smiles. They care for each other as if they are family. They care for each other in ways that I know I fail to do in certain moments for my own family and friends. What I’ve found here is a selflessness that I hope I can embody one day. A few days ago, my friend bought a silver necklace that she loved. She looked at me later that day, at my silver bangles and rings and earrings. “Silver looks beautiful on you,” she said, taking off the necklace and clasping it around my neck. I tried to refuse, but I also knew it made her happy to give the necklace to me. I’ve never been around so many people whose source of happiness is making others happy.

While I taught the girls English and writing skills, they taught me life ones, and for that, I will always be grateful to them. The things I once rejected about Cambodian culture—the traditional rules of behavior, the modest dress, the need for silence in certain moments—are things that I understand better now and respect.

I’ve learned a lot about respect, respect for one’s parents especially and oneself. It’s always been easy for me to lash out at my parents, for they are the ones closest to me. I never quite minded my manners. After all they would never stop loving me. But here, children do not dare utter a word against their parents. This in part may be out of fear, but moreso, it is out of reverence for the people who gave them life, and for that, they will always show thanks. As my parents get older, I want to make sure I respect them, and I want to start by learning to be silent in certain moments and holding my tongue. As a fully-grown twenty-two year old, when I go home, I want to do my parents’ laundry, wash their dishes, give them a home-cooked meal. These are things that they’ve done since I was born, and have gotten so used to that I still expect it. In Cambodia, children grow up doing all these things to help their parents, so as to make things easier for them, not harder. I want to begin doing this.

Respecting myself is something else I want to work on. In Cambodia, it is looked down upon if a person has had two, maybe three or more boyfriends or girlfriends. These people are said to be sa-vah, fickle when it comes to relationships. Well, I suppose by Cambodian standards I am super sa-vah. Relationships here aren’t all about the moment, the thrill, the sex. It’s about finding someone you care for deeply, and who cares for you. Most Cambodians have one boyfriend or girlfriend, and this is the person they eventually marry. I don’t necessarily agree with the one partner per lifetime rule, but I value the thinking behind it. The physical part of a relationship doesn’t come into play until much later, oftentimes not until marriage. American hook-up culture doesn’t exist. One-night stands are unheard of. Kissing is not just kissing. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to come back to America with a chastity belt strapped on, but I’ve begun to re-evaluate what I want out of my interactions with people. I hope that every guy who reads this doesn’t think I’m going to try to reel him into a relationship then marriage if I show some faint interest in him, though.

I guess the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far is to maintain and foster relationships with whomever it may be, a parent, grandparent, sibling, old friend, new friend. It would be easy for me to leave Cambodia and go back to America and tell these girls that I will always be their friend, that I will never forget them. But being a friend isn’t a passive activity. It’s often easy to forget those who are far away from you, try 8,000 miles. Even if you feel close to them at the moment, it is the remembering part that takes effort. These girls have taught me about friendship, and that is what I want to give them.

To see photos of the Harpswell girls, click here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Arranging My Marriage

It is the second, maybe third time I have met the family. Actually, I should say my family because they are my mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles. I sit on the wooden lounging table that is about the size of two large beds put together. These tables are common in Cambodian households, as are stiff matching wooden chairs. While some may opt for comfort over style, the opposite seems to hold here. Or, maybe Cambodians prefer harder surfaces to softer ones. Now that I think about it, the bed I sleep on feels a little better than a plush yoga mat, so it must be the latter.

The man who sits to the left of me has a soft worn face. He resembles Popeye a bit with his chubby cheeks and wrinkled forehead. He is in his mid-thirties, but has aged ungracefully as teenage acne still plagues him, and his hair has receded so much that he has only a small wisp left to comb over. He holds his thick fingers in his lap and looks almost admiringly at them as he talks.

His wife is also in her thirties and is beautiful with dark brown wavy hair and an oblong face and gentle eyes. She is simple, wearing capris and a loose button up. No jewelry or makeup. I begin to wonder how such an unfortunate looking man ended up with this woman. My first guess is that it is because he’s got money. I want to slap myself once or twice for not thinking it is because he has a good heart. This woman smiles looking at me for a long time, and I don’t know what it is she is looking at exactly. I shift uncomfortably on this wooden contraption, and come off my hind feet and sit bowlegged—the man’s way. My mother turns to me and shakes her head disapprovingly. I shrug.

My mother continues to have small talk with this man as I move around restlessly, still unable to find a comfortable position to relax. The woman’s eyes remain stuck on me, and I am beginning to get tired of curling my lips into this sheepish grin. My mother indulges the man as he explains the various woods of the house. The entertainment center being composed of the most expensive kind. The intricately carved pots are from some Excellency. The small wooden statuette in the middle of the room is “no good” he says, waving his hands in front of him showing disgust. He will rid of it immediately.

I yawn and begin to daydream about the wavy-haired Frenchman who I had a one-minute romance via moto to moto earlier in the day. He pulled up next to my friend who was driving me, and we had a short exchange of words before my friend turned off onto the street we were headed. “Menghoun!” I said jokingly angry, “I just fell in love!”

The room became silent for I’m not sure how long, but it was definitely too long. Each person fidgeted in their own awkward way—my mother admiring her ostentatious ring as she waved her hand back and forth in the sunlight, the man with a tight la-dee-da look on his face as he looked at his beloved wooden belongings, the wife still smiling at me with the same if not greater intensity than before, and me raising my eyebrows and glancing nervously around the room.

“So,” – the man says, breaking the silence and clasping his hands together, “I have something to ask you.” He looks seriously and nervously at my mother.

“Yes?” she says. My mother is not very keen on giving favors. This man’s request better be a small one.

“I’ve heard that many people can go to the US if they marry someone there. Do you remember seeing my younger brother yesterday?”

My mother hesitated for a moment. “Uh huh,” she said, nodding her head assuredly. I knew she was lying because whenever she nods like this she actually has no clue what is going on.

I recall seeing a boy yesterday who looked similar to this man, by no means dashing and younger. He also had one of those Captain Hook mustaches. But still, he was very Popeye-ish, potbelly and all. Yes, it must’ve been him.

“Well, he really wants to go to the US,” the man says. “I know people who have gone over there by marrying an American. Some are real marriages, some fake. But, rich people here” – he says, referring to the likes of himself – “will give good money to anyone who will marry.”

“Uh huh, I know people who’ve done that –” my mother begins.

“Do you know of anyone?”

“Anyone what?”

“Who would help my brother.”

“Oh, no I don’t think – ”

“How much will it cost?”

“Oh, I don’t know maybe $20,000.”

“Done,” he says smiling. “How long – ”

“I don’t know anyone,” my mother repeats with a tinge of annoyance in her voice.

“See, one time, we found someone, and they took our money, $10,000, and disappeared. We need someone we can trust. Like family.”

I interrupt in my broken Khmer, “It’s not that easy these days. People are getting caught and authorities are catching onto these fake marriages. People are deported to their home countries and citizens face major charges.” I don’t know if I am out of place to speak out, but no one is scowling at me, so I take that as a good sign.

“Why doesn’t he visit and find someone he really likes in America that he could possibly marry rather than paying a stranger?” my mom asks.

He shakes his head at the idea and waves his hands in the air disapprovingly.

The wife nudges me playfully, “How about you? You’re perfect, just the right age. And you’re beautiful,” she says batting her eyelashes, almost wooing me for her brother-in-law.

I tried my best to maintain my composure, but I think I went bug-eyed with my eyebrows stretched up on my forehead. “Um, no, no, no,” I stutter. “It’s just not something I would do. Ever.”

Sensing my fear, she says, “Oh, I’m just kidding around.” She sways her body into me, and I shy away. “When he saw you yesterday, he did say that you were pretty. You also look like his ex-girlfriend who he is madly in love with.”

Well, that’s sure convincing me. I think of all the terrible things that could happen. Also, I want to marry someone I actually care for, am in love with, all those marriage requirements. And, someone who I am not related to in any way. And, I don’t want a fake anything, especially a fake husband!

“But, why not?” she prods.

“Don’t be silly,” my mom smartly interrupts, knowing that my next utterance will most likely be improper and rude.

The wife manages to maintain a weak smile.

The husband says, “Think about it.”

Like hell I will. I retire to the bedroom and continue my daydream about the Frenchman. Wavy hair. Not related to me. Tall. No bribery. Marriage material? Not quite, but much more so than my second-uncle’s younger brother.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting Coined

I am one of those people who foolishly take pride in their hardness and feign a tough exterior. I hate it when people see me cry, and so, I avoid doing so at all costs. I fear vulnerability, and I feel that crying exposes a part of me that I like to keep hidden. This past weekend, I was stripped and left shirtless and swollen-faced, spilling enough tears to fill the Tonle Sap. My god was I embarrassed.

It all started when my mother’s side of the family left for Siem Riep. Six people took my Uncle’s beloved Lexus SUV, and the other 12 piled into the rented van. Because I am a guest to this country, I was reserved a seat in the SUV. When I first stepped in, I thought that I was lucky to have gotten a seat in the air-conditioned and leather-seated car. Little did I know, my uncle would barrel his way down the bumpy unpaved roads for six hours to Siem Riep. I am approximating that his hand was on the horn for at least 1/3 of the way there—that’s two hours. I don’t think I am exaggerating. Now, I’d heard about people who drive luxury cars and don’t mind the rules of the road, but I’d never been a passenger of one of these drivers.

“Put your seatbelt on,” my mother whispered to me, as she snapped hers into place. For once, I obeyed her. The road is intended to work just as many roads do: one lane per direction. Our car was always on the opposite side of the road, heading towards on-coming traffic. But we were not in the wrong for we were in the Lexus, and so all other vehicles must navigate their way around us. If you’re on a moto or a bicycle, forget it, you’re doomed. Maybe if you’re in a military car or a newer, shinier, and more intimidating Lexus, then we’ll sway back to our respective lane. I kept silent, recalling my own experience driving and my biggest pet peeve: a backseat driver. I closed my eyes and tried my best not to look at the little motos and carts and ratty cars that might fly into us at any minute.

Along the way, we picked up some food sold by street vendors: ping-peang (tarantula-looking fried insects), ripe mangos with salt and chili dip, sticky rice with black beans stuffed into bamboo stalks, and other freshly made or caught snack foods. The ping-peang had long legs and large heads—quite unappetizing looking things. Oh they’re so good! remarked my 15-year-old cousin. Everyone in the car reached for a handful of these finger-long insects except for me. I learned my lesson with the last insect I ate, chunrut. I had a few slices of mango, skipped the chili and salt dip, and had a little bite of the sticky rice. So far, I wasn’t leaking any unwanted fluids.

When we made it to Siem Riep, we stopped at Banteay Srey Restaurant, a venue that we would frequent for the remainder of our meals during our three-day stay. The food there was decent, not good enough to be the restaurant of choice for every meal of the day for
the entire trip, but alas, I had to be the polite guest who minded her manners.

The next day we went to Phnom Kulen, which required driving up mountainous dirt roads and falling in and out of potholes. I don’t think the Lexus is intended for such driving, and neither is a lead foot. Speed on such roads only lead to bruised heads and arms as bodies crashed into one another and the roof of the car.

After about ten minutes hiking up the steps of Phnom Kulen, I regretted, for the very first time, donning my cowboy boots. They’re just not meant to trek up and down rocky hills. Tripping on a rock and flying face forward, a woman sneered, Som mouk hai, meaning it serves me right. I stumbled around the mountain for about two hours, praying at various Buddha statues and pagodas. The biggest attraction here is a Buddha that was carved from a large stone in the mountain. What caught my attention most were the beggars who lined the steps of the mountain. Most of these people were women, children and cripples. There are many money-exchange kiosks along the way whose sole purpose is to exchange large bills for smaller ones to give to beggars. Siem Riep is a city that is completely geared towards tourists. I exchanged a twenty for two bundles of 100 Riel notes, and walked up and down the steps giving out the bills. Still, I ran short.

By the time we got back to our hotel, I was feeling slightly woozy. We didn’t have time for dinner, so my uncle picked up some street food, consisting of rice, salted eggs, and various meats—including tripe, intestine, and the Cambodian delight, liver. I was a bit starved, so I foolishly indulged in everything.

The stomach pains began. Forgive me if this is too much information, but that night, I might as well have slept in the bathroom with my bum glued to the pot. My body clearly had yet to adapt to Khmer street food.

The next day, I decided to be a trooper and continue exploring Siem Riep. I went to the market and got a fish massage against my will. My little cousins insisted that the feeling of fish eating the soles of your feet is sensational. When I put my feet into the pool of water where ten other people also had soaked their feet, the fish swarmed mine. It was terrifying at first, and when the grey little things bit my feet, it didn’t hurt, but tickled. These fish crowded my feet and left everyone else’s unmassaged, though I wished it were the other way around. My cousins asked, “Why are the fish eating only your feet?” I told them that it was because my feet were the sweetest. My mother countered, “Because her feet are the dirtiest.”

During the next two days, we visited Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Cambodian Cultural Center. Now, I know Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of the most astonishing places one can visit, but I was too busy running from squat toilet to squat toilet to pay proper attention to my surroundings. Luckily, I’ll be headed back in March to explore it in good health, I hope. The Cambodian Cultural Center features wax figures and a plethora of shows from different Cambodian cultural groups in staged mini-arenas. I mostly found these to be kitschy and artificial. I don’t recommend it.

My seventy-year-old great aunt visited all these places with a big smile on her face and cane-less. My legs increasingly felt like jello, and I sniffed Tiger balm every ten minutes, trying to liven myself up.

When we went to Banteay Srey for dinner after the five hours we spent at the Cultural Center, my first instinct was to hurl. I finished my business in the restroom, and sat down at the table. Exhausted, dizzy, and feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach, I propped my head on my fist. Then the tears started. I don’t know where they came from. Honestly, I was surprised myself and a bit pissed. But they kept coming. The food hadn’t arrived yet, the waiters were freaked out, and the children at the neighboring table looked like they wanted to give me a hug. There I was 22, nearly 23 balling like a little child.

My hungry family shoveled food in their mouths as I sniffled with my eyes shut during dinner and compiled a nice hill of tissues on my plate. When we got back to the hotel, it was coining time. I had no choice in the matter. My three aunts and their maid laid me down on the bed, took off my dress, pulled out their Tiger balm, and began rubbing the thin end of a coin up and down my back. This lasted about an hour until I had dark streaky bruises covering my back, arms, and chest. I imagine I looked like a warrior of sorts. Or maybe this is what an exorcism might feel like. But I actually did feel better. My aunt tells me that coining is an old traditional way of healing that works much faster than medicine. It immediately releases toxins from your body, and so once you are coined, you feel relieved. I think being coined helped me not necessarily physically, but emotionally, which I think is equally important for one’s healing. It’s like having a good cry, and it hurts for a while, but then you feel better.

That is, until the next day when I still felt like shit. I didn’t feel like crying anymore, but my body hurt like hell. I was pining for the medicine I’d brought over from America that I’d foolishly left in Phnom Penh because I thought I was invincible from illnesses. I slept for the remainder of the car ride home in the big van instead of the jet-setting SUV. I popped my American-made pills when I got home, and slept for another fourteen hours.

Today, three days after my coining, a waiter at The Living Room, a cafe I’ve taken a liking to, pointed to the warrior streaks peeking out of my tank top and asked, “Oh, you get coin too?” I thought the bruises would have disappeared by now. Later, one of the Harpswell girls said to me with a big grin on her face, “Older Sister, the mosquitoes have eaten your legs and now they’re full of scars, and now your body is full of bruises. How will you ever find a songsah (boyfriend)?” Fml. I was just thinking the same thing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Telling On My Mother

An old saying in Cambodian culture is, “Kom yeh daem khey,” meaning, don’t talk behind other people’s backs, especially if they are your mother or father. When I began writing my memoir, my mother infiltrated every chapter, paragraph and word of my work. It was as if I was watching her life and mine play on a screen that only I could see. During the time I was writing and when I lay in bed at night staring at the shadows above me, these were the only images I saw. Still, I write of her and have been writing of her during the past months I’ve been in Cambodia. And if I don’t write about her, if I prevent myself from doing so, it is as if she lingers daring me to write her name. Perhaps I am weak because I have not limited myself. I haven’t the strength not to write of her, and so I’ve filled over a hundred pages with her name and face and stories. She has never read any of these pages. I hide them like I would hide birth control pills or pot, stashed underneath desks and wedged between old books. Even though I hide them, her spirit watches me. She is a living ghost, tugging at my pages, chiding me for talking behind her back.

My mother will join me in 36 hours here in Phnom Penh, her homeland.

As I was messaging with my brother on the Internet today, he asked me, “Are you excited to see Mom?”

“Kind of,” I replied, thinking it was a normal and fairly accurate answer.

“Why wouldn’t you be excited?” he said. I stared at the computer screen, not knowing what to say. I thought for a few moments, and still, I couldn’t pin down any reason as to why I wouldn’t be excited for my mother’s arrival. I hadn’t seen her since I left home in early December. I missed Christmas, and New Year’s, and will miss her birthday, for god’s sake. Why wouldn’t I be excited?

I lied, still confusedly staring at my Gmail box, “I don’t know. She’ll probably want to see me all the time, and I need to work, get stuff done.” I knew it was a matter bigger than my mother wanting to spend quality time with me.

My mother was born in Phnom Penh in 1959. But from what I’ve overheard, it might’ve been 1957. She insists that it is the former, making her 51 years old as of tomorrow, January 28th. She is aboard a plane from Denver to LA, and will fly from LA to Taipei, making her way to Phnom Penh. My mother didn’t leave this country; she fled it. I wonder if she ran on foot, or laid in the carriages of the big oxcarts that I see in the streets used to transport wood and water basins from the countryside. Did she step on bloated bodies? Trip over misplaced arms and legs? When she tells me she was lucky during the civil war because harm was never committed against her, did she lie, thinking that she was protecting me?

I am an expert liar, a trait that perhaps I’ve inherited from my mother. “Do you love me?” asks a boy. “Yes,” I say with confidence, not knowing what love, or like for that matter, even is. My mother is a traditional Cambodian woman that divulges little. Having a quiet tongue, she knows when to speak and when to keep silent. Most of the time, she is silent. Sometimes, I feel like I cannot fully know my mother. Can anyone ever fully know anyone or themselves for that matter?

Cambodians might call me nyak chong dung, a nosy person who pries into others’ affairs. Am I prying if it is my own mother’s life? My mother is a part of me, as much as I am a part of her. I am not prying. I want to know my mother’s history. I want to see the house she grew up in, but since it was torn down after the civil war, I want to see the land and stand on it. I want to visit where my grandparents died, and might be buried. I want to light incense sticks and kneel on the dirt and pray for them. I want to see where my mother went to school and where she went to the market. I want to share fried bananas with her. I want to roam voung with her, and bend my hands backwards and step gracefully to the soft beats as she does.

What if she doesn’t want to visit her old home? What if she hates the heat because she has grown to love the Colorado cold? What if she is disgusted by the market stalls, the clouds of flies, the stench of sewage and burning trash? What if she hates the cold showers and can’t bear sitting on floors to dine? I suppose these what-if questions are always pointless and circuitous.

Maybe ten years ago, my mother’s youngest brother Phourin came to visit Cambodia. It was his first trip back to the country since he’d left in 1980. When he arrived here, he had a heart attack. He died. I thought my mother would never want to go back to her home country after Uncle Phourin’s death. I thought she blamed the country for all the bad memories it stirred up in her brother and for sucking him back after he managed to escape. Surely, she believed it was the shock of being in his homeland that killed him. But maybe she thought differently. Maybe she doesn’t believe that Phourin’s death was due to trauma. Maybe it was due to things like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels—physical things. Or maybe, one set off the other.

My mother’s family has a history of heart disease. My mother’s medicine cabinet looks like a pharmacy. She frequently complains of body aches, headaches, numbness, and heart palpitations. Sometimes, I accuse her of being a hypochondriac. And then, I feel these same symptoms, and can’t help but think that she is cursed, and so I must be, too. She was unharmed thirty years ago, but the Khmer Rouge cadres followed her to America, making sure she got her share.

Am I excited to see my mother? Yes, but I’m also fucking scared as I’m sure she is. I should not be scared of how she might react. I should not be afraid that she will shed tears. She should shed tears. I should not be afraid that I will not know what to say at the right moments. I should know when to speak and when to keep silent. I should not be afraid of many things for my own sake, and yet, I am. It is my human weakness.

I wrote this poem about my mother a while ago. I am not a good traditional Cambodian girl. I cannot shut up and keep silent.


I fear when your silence might cease:

The tap tap tap of your Singer sewing machine,

The flickering of the television screen,

The whoosh of the washing machine,

The clink clank of china and glass,

Soft slippers like velvet on floors,

The smell of Gucci Red and Gaultier:

Luxurious, strong, and rich,

Moth balls seeping into St. John suits:

Royal blue, red, and turquoise,

Shiny Ruby rings and Sapphire pendants,

Emerald things, like Egyptian ornaments,

Your body milk and honey bubble baths,

And cold drafts blowing through cracked doors,

And fans twirling like helicopter wings,

The drone of a blender,

Night sleep walking and screaming.

The heel-toe trickle of pointy-toed pumps,

Over-baked chicken, tough on the tongue,

Mint leaves and ginger, liver, heart, lung.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cham Girl

Men in white turbans and loose fitting shirts and slacks sat cross-legged before me. Their faces were dark, their lips sharp, their eyes full of secrets. These men eyed me suspiciously. Is this a Khmer girl? Is she one of us? I smiled shyly, not knowing the correct etiquette when interacting with village elders. If they are like monks, I certainly should not make eye contact with or come near them. (But if you read my last post, then you would know that I don’t exactly follow what I should do). One of these men dressed in a grey button up shirt and dark slacks smiled back warmly and invitingly.

Khmer mean they?” he said in a way that made this question sound more like a statement.

Cha, Mah, Pa cyom kait nuh sok neah,” I replied, telling him that my parents were born here. He nodded approvingly, and his eyes brightened.

Before this day, I’d never known much about Cham people. The two things I knew were that they are Muslim-Khmers, and they wrap scarves around their heads in a turban-like way. I knew this because the Harpswell girls and even my mother call me Cham girl when I take silk scarves that are meant to be draped across the shoulders during special ceremonies and tie them across my forehead.

When I got on the van this morning with twelve other people, most of whom are on the board of the Harpswell Foundation, I thought that this would be a tourist kind of day. I snapped photos as we passed by Oudong, Cambodia’s former royal capital until 1866 when King Norodom moved the capital to Phnom Penh. I was with a group of white Americans and one Canadian, and we were transplanted into the rural villages of Kandal province. Donning big sun hats and hefty Nikon-cameras, we stopped in Sala Lek Prahm for oranges that we would later bring to children in Tramung Chrum, a Cham village.

This is the first time I’d ventured outside the city of Phnom Penh. Instead of hearing endless honking, there was the sound of people living. Children shrieked and ran around the marketplace. Chickens squawked. Women called out Vegetables! Just picked Vegetables! These women are tiny in stature, but balance hula-hoop-sized straw baskets atop their heads as they walk with ease through the streets, weaving between men with wheelbarrows and hungry villagers headed towards their favorite market stall for some praboh (porridge) or cathew (noodles) or numpang (french bread).

I was greeted with smiles, not glares. Their faces and voices had a sincerity that seemed to be missing in Phnom Penh. They didn’t triple the price of goods (at least I don’t think they did), to rip off us Westerners. I looked through the lens of my camera, observing this foreign place. I snapped shots of stalls and people and stray dogs and chickens beginning their morning. As I captured theses images, I felt that I distanced myself from everything around me. Through my actions, I said, You are strange to me. I am different than you. Sometimes when I take pictures, I feel as if I’m not really seeing what I am capturing on film. I don’t understand the images, or cannot identify why I find them interesting. Sometimes, I don’t put thought into taking a picture. My fingers point, click, rotate, zoom. It’s all a series of motions. But is this what photography is? Is it rooted in instincts and emotions? Or is it about precision and technical know-how?

After wandering the market and using a moto shop’s squat toilet (a first for me), I boarded the van, and we headed towards Tramung Chrum. I was thirsty, but decided to limit my water intake as I didn’t know what the restroom situation would be at the next village. “Nothin’ in, nothin’ out. That’s my policy and it’s worked since I was in Thailand,” said a woman on the van. I adopted it for the day. Having gotten little sleep the night before, I tried to nap the rest of the way, but it was a futile effort. The road’s rockiness did not foster any sort of resting atmosphere.

As we approached the village, we passed by wooden homes held up by stilts. Some homes were held up by stilts that towered over the land. Many were held up by measly short-legged stilts that look like they would snap should a strong gust of wind come by. Speaking to the driver, one woman asked, “What happens during rainy season? Do the homes that are not high enough just flood?” In a nonchalant tone, the driver simply replied, “Yes.” Imagine if your house existed one day, and the next it was gone. Imagine if this happened every single year. What would you do with all your possessions? What would you do if you had no possessions?

I guess it would be easier then. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed here: people don’t have much. When I moved to the Teok Thla dormitory from Beoung Trabek, I had a suitcase that I could probably fit in and three additional carry-ons. The girls unhung their clothes, and packed them into one or two backpacks, brought their bags of books, and were ready to go in a matter of minutes. “If that’s a three month's worth of clothes Older Sister, how many bags would you need if you stayed here a year?” asked one of the first years. I opted not to divulge that I’d shipped thirteen boxes (each half the size of a refrigerator) from Denver to Hamilton, NY the summer before my freshman year of college. I am excessive. I knew this before, but seeing how Cambodians live here has shown me the extent of my excessiveness.

We parked at the Tramung Chrum School, which is also one of Harpswell’s projects. Many of the children who attend this school are Cham. The Cham people are a minority group in Cambodia, descending from the Champa. There are only a few thousand Chams left in South East Asia. They’ve survived persecution and genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime, and still speak their own language and practice the religion of their ancestors.

When Alan Lightman, the founder of Harpswell, and his daughter Elyse, first visited Cambodia, they were deeply touched by a man in Tramung Chrum who approached them and asked, “Can you please help us build a school here?” These people lacked food and water and basic necessities, and yet their one request was for a school. They believed in the power of education.

The students’ faces lit up when they heard we’d brought them krouch, oranges. We then gave them paper and crayons to draw their oranges before they devoured them, licking their lips and fingertips. This was quite the treat. “I want to take one home,” Sandy, a new friend of mine, said referring to the children. “Oh, and that one looks just like you. Look, she has your face-shape and nose and mouth.” I stared at the little girl, trying to find myself in her. She stared back at me with serious eyes. I pulled out my camera, deciding that I would figure out if she resembled me later.

In that moment, I let my camera do my thinking for me, replacing my own power of memory with this tool. I can remember this little girl’s face through a picture, but I will soon forget her, I’m sure. Had I talked to her, then maybe I would never forget her. Maybe she had a story that has yet to be told. I regretted my decision to snap a photo instead of make a connection.

We headed towards a mosque that was also one of the Harpswell Foundation’s projects. During the Khmer Rouge regime, 132 mosques were destroyed ( In 1988, only six mosques were still standing in Phnom Penh ( It is incredible that the Cham have maintained their culture up to this point. During the Khmer Rouge regime, many of their religious leaders, known as Mullahs, were killed. The Mullahs could read Sanskrit, and thus, passed on the words of the Koran orally by translating into Cham. Now, the Cham face the challenge of maintaining their culture and religion by passing it on to the children because of a lack of teachers and schools.

“We could use the mosque space as a school space,” said the mullah of the Tramung Chrum mosque. There were about thirty village elders sitting on the floor before us discussing possible plans to bring higher education to Tramung Chrum. I tried to understand the discussion, but realized that they weren’t speaking Khmer.

The mullah patted the space next to him, indicating that I was to sit there. “Help translate this for me,” he said. “We need a school, and we can use this mosque space. Or, we can bring teachers to the current Tramung Chrum school, but we need teachers. People from outside villages are moving to our village because we have a mosque and a school. But it’s not enough.” I translated this as best I could to Jean Lightman, Alan’s wife. The mullah continued to have me translate, and I was proud for a moment, realizing how much my Khmer has improved from the day I first got here. Then, I could barely form full sentences. Now, although my pronunciation isn’t the best and my words aren’t always used correctly, I can communicate in Khmer.

After speaking with him for a long time about why I am in Cambodia, the mullah called me koun, child. “You are welcome here anytime, and I take you as my own,” he said. I handed my camera to someone and asked her to photograph the two of us. This was both a moment and photograph that I will never forget.

To read more about the school in Tramung Chrum, visit the Harpswell Foundation’s site.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

And then the monk asked for my number...

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton

When I was five or six years old, my mother told me, “Cover up. Lok cannot see your skin.” I wore a skirt that covered my toes and a white long sleeved top. I longed for the silk scarves the older women wore draped delicately across one shoulder. Pinks, blues, turquoises, olives. Gold and silver patterns woven through them. Some fringed, some with sequins. It was nyay boun, a holy day, and we were getting ready to go to the temple in Broomfield. I always dozed off during these rides, which to my kid self felt like an eternity, but really was, at most, an hour-long.

The “temple” is a ranch-styled house with a red barn to the left of it. Back then, it could have been mistaken for any old farmhouse. Today, it features intricately detailed, giant-sized concrete statues that tell the story of Buddha in the yard area. At first, I thought these statues had an artificial Disneyland-esq quality to them. Some of them have fake eyelashes that I’m sure are eventually blown away by the wind (only to be replaced by another pair of feathery lashes). Others have diamond gems for pupils. But having now been to Cambodia, it seems that what we in America deem as cheap and tasteless is often considered beautiful in Cambodian society. Gold paint. Fluorescent colors. Gems. Glitter. Doll-like make-up. Being overdone rather than underdone.

There are some informal rules I always follow at the temple:

1) Always bend over when walking so that your head is low, especially when walking by older people as a sign of respect for them.

2) Women should never show skin, especially cleavage. Ever.

3) Women should not make eye contact with a monk.

4) Don’t fall asleep while the monk is chanting.

5) Bring the monks offerings to receive their blessings.

6) Never touch a monk if you are a woman. Ever.

I should probably elaborate on number six. It is a bap, best translated as a sin, to touch a monk. Not only are you sinning, but also you are passing the sin on to the monk who is trying his best to keep holy. Avoid doing so at all costs.

Oops. Well I didn’t touch a monk, but in a way, I feel like I might as well have. It began like this. My friend Jodi and I were on our way to the National Museum two days ago. We passed by a wat on the way, and thought we’d check it out.

“The temple is closed,” said a woman near the entrance. She was fifty, maybe sixty, wearing linen high waters, a safari hat, and fuchsia lips. Perhaps a Parisian tourist.

We continued to wander about the temple yard. A group of monks were standing atop the remains of where a building once stood. They hacked away at the foundation. As we approached, they stopped working.

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton

“Is she Cambodian like us?” one of the monks said.

“Yes, she’s definitely Khmer,” said another.

I stared at the dirt. Head down. Don’t look at the monks, I told myself.

“No, maybe she’s Japanese.”

I made sure my scarf was covering any cleavage that might be going on. “Cha,” I said in a meek voice, no longer able to pretend that I did not know what was going on.

“Ah ha! I knew it!” said a monk with a round belly, large smile and burnt gold robe.

Jodi went over and climbed up onto the pile of crumbled stones where the monks were standing. Oh shit! I thought. We can’t talk to monks. Women aren’t really supposed to approach men in Cambodia, let alone holy men. We’re really in for it. She began chatting with them, and they seemed to take a strong liking to her.

“It’s okay,” – said the round-bellied one – “You can come up here.”

With big sheepish grins on their faces, they asked for my story. You know when you meet a guy and he asks about your interests, what you do etc., and the guy really “digs” what you tell him, and gets all excited because he’s into all the same things? Well, I started to feel like some of the monks were really "digging" my story. They stared at me with these strangely fascinated eyes. I began to get creeped out for a second, but then I thought Maybe they’re just intrigued that I am American-Khmer, and I speak Khmer.

One of the monks wearing a short-sleeved robe with perfect biceps and a sharp chiseled face (bad, I know) nodded saying, “Yes, yes, the snow seems very nice. I would like to see snow.” We were within an arms-reach apart. He unfolded his arms and paused a moment before--Jesus, no, not kissing me-- asking, “So, do you have a phone number?”

I hope my eyes didn’t bulge out. But I think they did. “No, no I don’t have a phone,” I said, thinking if my phone rings, I’m fucked. The good-looking monk laughed, and I ran away, just as I often do from attractive nice men, but in this case, I think it is a good thing I did so.

I walked towards Jodi and another monk who “opened” the doors of the temple, which according to the woman we’d met earlier, was “closed.” The monk explained the story of Buddha, which is painted on the walls and ceilings. He also explained that he was 24, studying hotel management and hospitality, and didn’t know what his future plans were.

“Will you continue to be a monk?” I asked.

He shrugged and replied with these honest eyes, “I don’t know.”

I’ve been thinking more and more about monks and their situations. The monk who is studying hotel management has been a monk since he was fourteen years old. He is from a poor province, and he wanted to attain a higher education, so he came to Phnom Penh. Men are allowed to live in temples free of charge. At Wat Botum, there are over 700 men living there, 500 of whom are students. Most of them are monks.

“They’re men, too,” Jodi said. These young men have needs and wants—sexual and material. They aren’t born to be monks. They must learn the way of monkhood. Siddhartha was a young boy who led a lavish life, fell in love, and married before he reached enlightenment. How can these boys and young men who are monks be judged for desiring a life that many people lead? Many of these men enter monasteries not because of religious motivations, but because they want to live in Phnom Penh—the only place they can attend university.

I'd heard a while back that many parents send their gangsters sons to join monasteries, hoping to correct their bad behavior. Many of these young men who are forced to join, rebel. They get drunk, gamble, and sleep with women at the temple. I would not want to get blessed by one of these monks.

Jodi, the monk, and I sat under a pagoda chatting before we left. We were brought chilled Fanta-like orange and green sodas to drink. I felt strange accepting these, but knew it would be rude to refuse them. We were the ones who were supposed to give the monks offerings, not the other way around. The monk sat closely, and if I moved my right foot, it would probably touch his. I sat very carefully. I did not want to bap for both my sake and the monk’s. As Jodi and I rose to leave, the monk asked that we exchange emails. He pulled out a bill that looked like fake money.

“Is that a dollar?” Jodi asked.

He picked up the bill and shook it in the air laughing. “No, it’s a gift for when you go play. They gave it to me.”

I looked at the bill more closely, and it said, “Play to win. $10.00 certificate.” Ah, this one’s a gambler.

Photo Courtesy of Jodi Hilton