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

Monday, January 18, 2010

Kidney for a Cold

I ran from shower to tuk-tuk this morning, sopping wet and blurry-eyed (from not having put in my contacts). Channa laid across the laps of two of her friends who held her hands as we moved in stop and go traffic. “I’ve never felt anything like this,” Channa said, fighting back tears. Channa is a girl who has toiled on her parents’ farm since birth. Her hands and feet are calloused. She wasn’t being a hypochondriac or pansy. She was really hurting. When we arrived at the hospital, we had to move Channa from the tuk-tuk to an abandoned wheelchair (found behind a crowd of off-duty nurses and moto men). Lifting Channa’s limp body was no easy task, but the next few hours proved to be a series of even more difficult tasks. If you’re not a patient, then you’re on the staff.

We entered the ER and walked to the front, passing by rows of patients on cots—some groaning, some writhing, some completely still.

“What do you want?” asked a man in a soiled white coat behind the rusted metal desk. I wasn’t buying coffee or cigarettes. I wasn’t ordering fries and a burger at a drive through. I was at Calmet Hospital speaking to a doctor.

Reasmey, one of the girls spoke up: “Lok Kru, I want you to help my friend.” The doctor eyed Channa who lay quivering on the rolling cot. She whimpered softly.

“If you’ve got money, I’ll fix her,” the doctor said. I didn’t know if he was serious or joking, but from the girls’ meek smiles at this asshole’s glib comment, I reasoned it was the former. We handed the man Channa’s health card, and explained that we were from Harpswell. This meant that we had money to pay for treatment costs. Little did we know, we would pay for unnecessary treatments.

“Get her a bed,” the doctor barked. A nurse rolled one in our direction. The three of us girls struggled to move Channa from wheelchair to bed. These rolling beds are old, rusted, and stained with former patients’ blood and markings. There wasn’t another option, though. We were lucky enough to have wrestled a bed from these money-mongering doctors.

The doctor walked to the front side of the desk, and leaned against it, clipboard in hand. “What’s her major?” he asked.

“She’s studying at the Red Cross Hospital,” Reasmey answered.

“Why, then, she should know what sickness she has. Let’s ask her, and see if she’s a good medical student.” He chuckled holding his dirty pen to his lips. He proceeded to ask her questions regarding her symptoms. He decided she needed an ultra-sound. But we would have to go find the radiologist ourselves. Proceeding to the radiology quarters, we took Channa’s IV in hand and rolled her cot to another building hoping that it was the right one. Thank god, it was.

She might have an ovarian cyst. She might have a blood clot. Or, she might be pregnant. These were the three diagnoses we were given. We rolled Channa back to the ER, and gave the lab tests to the doctor. He was busily telling someone that he was a very good doctor. I work until six tonight, he said. I haven’t even eaten my breakfast, and I am working. We don’t close. This hospital never closes. After the doctor was done bragging about his work ethic, he handed me—the Westerner in cowboy boots, who most likely was paying for the treatment—the prescription to take to the pharmacy. In order to administer the tests Channa needed, it was our responsibility to secure them.

At the pharmacy, I was told that the pharmacist who was in charge of selling one particular test—a pregnancy test—hadn’t arrived yet. The test was in plain view sitting on a shelf behind the counter. Perhaps the current pharmacists on staff had some moral objection to selling it. I went to another building hoping the people there could help me. They charged me for the test, took my money, then refused to give me the test because the doctor failed to fill out the form with the patient’s information. I went back to the ER, explained the problem to the doctor, who fussed over his oversight. Why did he have to write down patients’ information? He was an upstanding man. A doctor! He ranted to himself, and finally, I got the test. But, it turned out that Channa didn’t need it.

Channa has never had sex. Ot they, cyom out mean they, she cried, insisting that it was impossible that she was pregnant. To say that Channa may be pregnant is the equivalent of calling her a whore. At least that’s the way Channa understood it. These girls have an 8 o’clock curfew. They’re good girls, and, yes, some of them have boyfriends, but the extent of their physical affection for each other is handholding.

No to pregnancy. That leaves a blood clot and ovarian cyst—neither of which she had. But, she definitely needed surgery according to one doctor. Chakrya, the dorm manager, brought her friend who is a doctor from the US to see Channa. After examining her against the wishes of the Calmet doctors who cursed both him and Chakrya, he determined that Channa had a UTI (urinary tract infection). Channa never needed an ultrasound—but, she received two. She needed her pelvis region examined in the very beginning; it never was. She needed a few pills as treatment; she nearly had her stomach cut open.

Another one of the Harpswell girls was brought to the same hospital today. She was determined to possibly have swine flu. She was put in the hallway of the ER because the ER room was too full. I was in the ER with ten patients, all of whom had different illnesses. At one point, I heard a very loud beeping. Looking over to the opposite end of the room, a man’s heart had stopped beating. I watched his hands curl around the metal grip of his cot and release.

This hospital shouldn’t be in operation. But what is the alternative? No hospital at all? The people who are treated feel lucky to receive care from the doctors. Wear lots of gold and jewelry to the hospital. Dress up. Look like you have money. This is what I’m told will guarantee treatment. And don’t expect good treatment. That’s asking too much.

I was told of a story of a girl who came to the hospital because she had a respiratory condition. While she was unconscious, one of her kidneys was taken out. After harvesting other organs, the doctors sewed her back up. She died later that evening.

Today, I looked around the room witnessing medical professionals acting more like Khmer Rouge cadres than doctors. Cups of urine tests lined empty tabletops. Patients breathed in the same bacteria-filled air. I wore a measly mask, hoping that none of the bacteria would transfer to me. Fresh blood was smeared on floors and cots. Used needles were left on trays.

I was telling my mother today that I might want to live here in Cambodia for a few years. I explained to her all the things I love about the country. The difference in lifestyle. The family and community values. The affordability. The richness in culture. The language. But am I willing to give up things like receiving proper medical attention? Do I dare put my health in jeopardy to be here?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Celled in a Photograph

Someone’s face looked at me through the paned glass—eyes bulged in anger, a mouth ready to bite. Perhaps this boy was the son of doctor or government official. His mother was a city girl who stayed at home, tending to her seven children. Or perhaps, she owned a small jewelry boutique like my mother’s mother. His father was a Professor of Khmer Literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The boy’s parents fled their homes when the Rouge arrived, sewing jewels into their undergarments. They were sent to their graves, their pockets full of riches, their bodies rotting under the sun. Or perhaps, the boy was from Kampong Thom, the same province my father grew up in. Maybe he was an orphan. Maybe, it was his unlucky day, and he was mistaken for a city boy.

Somehow, the boy was taken to Tuol Sleng, a high school turned torture prison. The Khmer Rouge called it S-21. In Building B, there are mug shots of men and women, young and old, even infants all peering out from glass windows. Though thousands of faces were before me, some stayed with me more than others. These unsettled spirits unsettle me.

I entered expecting to see clothes strewn in dried blood, and bones on the iron beds. I entered thinking I would be immediately cast back in time. It only seems normal that the place had been sanitized and made proper for viewing, seeing as it now serves as a national memorial and museum. “Well they’re not going to leave the bodies and blood there,” a friend said to me. There is this tremendous need for the sanitization of everything as a way to fictionalize reality so that it is appropriate, so that we can handle it. So that we are less shocked, less apt to cry, less likely to have our memories marred by what we see. Shielded from what is really real. What would happen if viewers could observe the former prison at its rawest—without the googly-eyed signs indicating that one cannot smile at the site, without the straw brooms in the corner of every room waiting to sweep up dust tracked in by tourists, sweeping away the past along with them.

Perhaps I say these words with a lack of sensitivity for those who endured the strife of the war thirty years past. Those who might re-visit the place where their mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, and enemies lost their lives. For these people, maybe they need the sanitization of the museum. Maybe they need a purer reality so as to not be further scarred by scents, stains, the scuff of a shoe on the floor. Perhaps, the memories of those lost are enough to produce enough tears for a lifetime. Maybe there is a need for the plexi-glass encasing objects and photographs of the past, serving as a wall of separation between what was then and what is now.

A book on Buddhism I’d started reading a few days ago states that all emotions are rooted in pain. A true Buddhist must believe this, and accept it. The suffering of the estimated 20,000 people killed at this detention and torture center is physical and mental pain. It is a pain that transcends time, moving from the past into the present into the future. It becomes pain that is felt in moments of love, times of celebration, and in lost-ness.

I moved from room to room at S-21 and building to building. I began in Building A. Each room is a former classroom and later a cell. Some still have Khmer script on the chalkboard. The discolored yellow walls have etches in them. Whether these were from museum visitors or the people held captive, I’m not sure. One reads Pol Pot=Saloth Sar, the name of the former Khmer Rouge leader, carved in incisive letters. All emotion is pain. Twin-sized iron beds are also found in most rooms. On these beds or next to them is a long rod with an opening that was used to secure the prisoner to the bed during torture and sleep. The only other object in the room is a 9 X 5 iron box—the toilet. I said a prayer in each of these rooms before I left. I felt like I made up for the past tens years I’d stopped praying.

I wonder if the spirits are still trapped in these rooms—no longer by iron shackles, but by today’s visitors of their graves? Because of this disturbance, they are still unable to sleep. What if they feel like they have to re-live their worst moments forever?

Stepping into Building B, I met the mugshots of everyone who went through the detention center. Long rooms are lined with 12 X 12 portraits. Just faces. Each one with its own story, its own expression, its own pained emotion. I came across the faces of women whose features I share: almond eyes, large lips, and a small nose. Under the KR, no one should look strikingly beautiful. The goal was to fit in. Women wore their hair short and cropped at the neck. Each woman met me with strangely familiar eyes, as if they could’ve been my aunts, or cousins, neighbors or classmates. They looked at me with somber faces, telling me I could’ve been one of them.

I came across some cheerful faces and wondered how anyone could find anything to smile about while imprisoned. Their eyes were bright, their smiles unfeigned. I reasoned that maybe they had been tortured into a state of complete delirium. And so, they placed themselves in another place and time where they could find happiness and smiled.

“They smiled because they were tricked. Pol Pot was a master of rhetoric,” a friend said when I asked her about the smiling faces. “They were told they were about to be freed. They thought the torture and interrogation part was over. That’s why.” Their spirits must have thought How foolish I was to have believed them. These joyful faces are frightening—eager eyes and wide smiles and believing hearts until the very end.

I close my eyes and think of a photograph I hold in my memory of my mother’s mother. Her hair is tucked neatly behind her ears. Her back is straight. Her hands hang loosely and delicately by her sides. She wears a plain sarong and white blouse. Her face is thlay thnouw, exuding grace, sophistication, and femininity. I think back to the catalogued faces in Tuol Sleng, the women peering out from glass cases. If their faces are trapped there, what about their spirits? There is the Cambodian belief that a photograph is not just a snapshot or an image on paper. A photograph contains one’s essence and spirit. Looking into the glass cases, I hope that there are not spirits bound by photographs of their faces, still fighting after their deaths to get out.

For more pictures, click here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Leaving Mudfish for Oatmeal

I have thin slices of finger-sized bananas covering my face and neck. I am told this will help the skin-irritations I’ve had from the heat and water. I can’t lie down because I will get banana goop all over my pillow. As I peer out of this sticky, puke-yellow colored mask, I can’t help but think of food. So for the next thirty minutes, let’s talk cockroaches, fried fish, and rotten tofu...among other things.

I don’t exactly have a penchant for rice, but rice is a main staple in Cambodian cuisine. Even if Cambodians have finished a big meal, they are not satisfied until they have one or two hefty bowls of rice. When I dine with the Harpswell girls or my uncle’s family, they look at my cup-sized portion of rice and scowl as if I’m crazy or have an eating disorder. I assure them I don’t, but I just don’t need two large plates of rice with every meal to satiate my hunger! Cambodians I have met eat voraciously, but are stick-thin. Most people also don’t exercise, let alone walk anywhere. (Sun = UV rays. UV Rays = Tan. Tan = Dark. Dark = Ugly Cambodian). Once I find the secret to how people stay thin here despite their generous appetites, I’ll be sure to share it.

I like to think I am quite adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. In the States, I’m all over jellyfish, eel, crocodile, maybe even some Rocky Mountain oysters. I’ve come to realize in these past few weeks, however, that I’ve got nothing on Andrew Zimmerman. I don’t dare to touch many foods because of the preparation. At street stalls and markets, it is common to see a cloud of black flies swarming vegetables and floppy fish. With the wave of a hand, a vendor sends the flies away for a brief thirty seconds before they return to feast on fish guts. Even as I eat at the dormitory with the girls, flies whizz by and crawl on the mats we sit on as we eat. I ward them off by covering my bowl with one hand and waving the other in front of me. I don’t consider myself a germaphobe by any means, but I’d rather dine with human companions.

A few weeks ago, one of the girls came skipping happily through the gates of the dormitory with a ziplock full of fried chunrut, mini-cockroach looking insects. She munched happily on the insect as if she were popping Pringles one by one in her mouth. She held the plastic baggy up to me. I hesitated before searching for one with the least noticeable legs sticking out. I closed my eyes, opened my mouth, and crunched down on the protein-filled little body. Not bad, I thought. A little bit like barbecue chips with the similar crunch, a little spice and not insect-y at all (minus the antennae). I spent the next morning bent over the toilet, hurling the one insect out as well as everything else I’d eaten in the past 24 hours. Apparently, my body has yet to fully adapt to Cambodian cuisine.

Most non-insect foods, however, have not caused any abnormal bodily reactions. Food from the market, which is sometimes considered as “dangerous” for foreigners, is actually quite good. I’ve been much more satisfied with market food than with the food I’ve had at most restaurants that seem to charge more for the service than the quality of the food. Market food has the authenticity that many look for in cultural foods. Having grown up in Denver, I love authentic Mexican foods that are usually found in hole-in-the-wall family joints as opposed to Chipotle. (No offense to Chipotle because their burritos are the best phony-Mexican burritos.) I’ve been to a few moderately nice Khmer restaurants, and I must say, market food is a quarter of the price (think 75 cents for a bowl of noodles) and in the least, comparable in taste. A little forewarning however: MSG is almost as big of a staple as rice because “It [food] doesn’t taste right without,” says a woman at the market fixing me a bowl of num pang chok (a traditional Khmer rice noodle dish consisting of ginger, ground-up fish, banana leaves, mint, basil, bean sprouts, and a lime zest topping). I do my best to request food without flavor-enhancing, chemical altering MSG, and although vendors and servers respond, “Yes. Okay, Okay,” whether they really fulfill my request is unknown to me.

One of my favorite things to get at the market is thuk kalok, a smoothie. The vendors mix the freshest in-season fruits with ice for 4000 riel, just a little under a dollar. My favorite vendor is at Phsar Tuol Tom Poung, also known to foreigners as The Russian Market. I walked there two days ago from the new dormitory in Teok Thla with a friend who estimated the walk would take twenty minutes. An hour later, I showed up in the already stuffy market in my sweat-drenched robe (the term people use for dress), and in a state of dehydrated delirium. I headed straight to my thuk kalok vendor, and she saved me with her all-natural fruit smoothie, which was a mixture of thoup barang (a deep green fruit with milky flesh inside), jackfruit, and sweet mangos. Definitely worth the hour walk under the scorching sun. Plus, I got a nice tan to the dismay of Cambodians here.

And then there are the fried bananas. Jeak chien is one of those foods you know is clogging your artery as you savor the goodness on your tongue, but oh it is so good. I try not to eat one, because if I have one, then I will have another and another. These bananas are battered, producing a thick semi-crispy exterior. I love biting into one and feeling the juxtaposition of textures. There’s the initial crunch and then the smooth creaminess within. The Russian Market is famous for having the best jeak chien in the city.

I’ve yet to try street food, although I’ve stolen a bite or two from others. A lot of street food vendors cook their noodles, make their sandwiches and grill their meats on busy roads where motos, tuk-tuks, and cars practically pump exhaust and kick up dirt into the food. I have no desire to eat dirt. Many residences also employ their front yards as mini-restaurants. They serve whatever food the homeowners have cooked for the day, and some offer a small selection of goods like candy, soda, and laundry detergent.

My friend stopped in one of these homes the other day and had poung thea koun, duck egg with the developing embryo inside. This is considered to be somewhat of a delicacy, as is eating monkey brains. When I was growing up, I used to love poung thea koun. I remember begging my mother to buy these eggs whenever I saw them stacked above the heaps of bok choy and water lilies at the Asian grocery mart. I would lightly tap the narrow tip of the egg with a spoon several times until it cracked. I then peeled back the top of the eggshell, and poured in a spoonful of limejuice, coarse black pepper and salt. Once this was mixed in with the juices of the egg, I would slurp out all the liquid, leaving the solid part of the egg consisting of the baby duck and the yolk. I loved the yolk, but in order to access it, I had to dig through the rest of the solid stuff. If I was unlucky, I found the baby duck before the yolk. I never could eat the little guy with feathers and a beak. I closed my eyes and asked my father to dig out the bird, so I could have the yolk. Now, I can’t bring myself to eat poung thea koun. I probably couldn’t even get myself to tap the eggshell.

So, I have a confession to make: I bought some oatmeal. The title of my first blog post is “Leaving Oatmeal for Mudfish.” Hence, I’m supposed to leave oatmeal in America. I tried my best to stick to a strictly Cambodian diet, but my body began to feel different—not good different. Much food is cooked on a wok, meaning it is fried, and so, generous amounts of oil are used. When I use oil to cook, I am careful to use only a small amount. Meat is also eaten for every meal, including breakfast. Pork is the most common meat that is eaten. I’m not a vegetarian by any means, but I also don’t need meat for every meal. Before I came, I made a goal to eat only local cuisine—no Western food. Fail. But hey, a little cheating isn’t always bad...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Would Buddha Do?

Last Friday, I sat down to have lunch at Boddhi Tree, a little cafe across from the former torture center of Tuol Sleng. My friend Neary and I were seated outside at a table shaded by palm trees. Neary sat across from me, and the discreet gray walls of Tuol Sleng rose from behind her. If it were not for the postcard stands, and moto men who were ready to shuttle people to and from the museum, the building could be mistaken for any old school. Thirty years ago men were having their hands dipped in acid and fingers cut off. I sat sipping an iced lime tea in a wicker chair with a breeze fanning me as I munched on green leaves and mangos. How quickly history can be erased it seems, or rather ignored.

Neary began to tell me a story that has stayed with me, haunting me during the night. There is a recent story of a family from the province, a quite unfortunate story. The daughter who was about sixteen or seventeen complained to her parents that her head hurt. Her parents decided that they would take her to the doctor—a good thing. But then her brother, her stupid brother, said to them, ‘Why are you taking her to the doctor? There is a very good healer who cures many illnesses like the one Sister has.’ The parents agreed, and the next day, they took her to this healer. The man told the parents that they must leave their daughter with him. They said, ‘OK.’ The parents then went back home. A few days later, the parents went to visit their daughter, which is also good. When they saw her, she had clumps of hair missing, and in place of hair, she now had burn marks from lit incense sticks that were pushed into her scalp. The daughter said to her parents when she saw them, ‘Mother, Father, I am very scared. Please, take me home.’ The parents pitied their daughter, but the healer said to the parents, ‘She must suffer to get better. You must leave her with me.’ The stupid parents believed the healer and left their daughter with this man. They believed so much in the power of healers, in Buddha, that they left their daughter even though she was very much in pain. The brother said to the parents, ‘Don’t worry, Sister will be fine in a few days. The healer is very good.’ The following week, the parents went to see the daughter again. The parents saw with their own eyes what this man was doing to their daughter. He fed her dog piss and shit. He made her eat it, and when she vomited, he beat her. Her parents saw this, and still, still they left. The parents began to worry about their daughter’s condition. A few days later, they decided they would bring her home and take her to a doctor. As they were leaving to get their daughter, a neighbor asked, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To get our daughter,’ they replied. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ the neighbor told them. The parents cried and cried. The man apparently raped the daughter and made her do all kinds of sexual things until she died. She was basically tortured to death by a ‘healer.’

Neary’s face was serious; mine was stunned. Stunned at the gray building that was used for torture thirty-some-years ago rising from behind her. Stunned that today, the same kind of torture practiced during a time of genocide still persists. How easy it is to believe in fate, in Buddha. How easy it is to ignore the principles of rationality. Here, especially in the provinces, believing in Buddha and fate completely is the guiding principle in people’s lives. But then again, these people who fully place their lives in the hands of a higher being, have grown up with the cultural belief that one’s fate is beyond one’s control. Having been raised with Western beliefs, I refuse to replace matters of science with religion, at least not completely.

There are two parts to every human being: the physical body and the mind. I believe in the physical maintenance of one’s body. Oftentimes, this requires the examination of one’s physical organs etc. I also believe in taking care of one’s mind, and for many, this happens through spirituality and religion. I believe that one’s body can be healed, but if one’s spirit is not taken care of, the body cannot fully heal. Likewise, I think that one’s spiritual well being can be cared for, but if one’s physical health is neglected, one also remains unwell. It is somewhat easy and idealistic for me to make these suggestions.

I am troubled by my assertions because even though, I am strong in my beliefs, I don’t think I can impose these beliefs on other people. But, what if the parents in Neary’s story had been forced to bring their daughter to the doctor? Their daughter would probably still be alive. How can you tell someone what to believe in or not to believe in? Can you impose your beliefs on someone else? Can you only do so when it begins to harm the well being of another person? I’m not sure. This is a question that I’ve long struggled to answer.

My mother is a great believer in fate and Buddha. And, I’m not a disbeliever, but like my father, I believe in my own capabilities, especially that of my mind. I believe that human beings are able to think for a reason, and therefore, it would be foolish to ignore this ability. I cannot tell my mother that she cannot rely on Buddha for all matters. I cannot tell her that I think her belief in Buddha is oftentimes misleading. Doing so, I would essentially be telling her that what gives her life meaning doesn’t exist.

True Buddhism doesn’t involve the idolatry embraced by many practicing Buddhists today. It doesn’t involve burning paper money for the gods or offering them shots of Hennessey and cigarettes. It doesn’t require one to go to the temple, bearing gifts for monks to receive a sprinkling of holy water on one’s head. Buddhism, at its root, requires one to find peace and happiness with oneself and the world by engaging one’s mind. Material things have no value. We, as human beings, are inherently materialistic, and so, materialism infiltrates every aspect of our lives, even our faith. That was a bit of an offshoot from my original point, but I think that according to Buddhist principles, the parents in Neary’s story would have taken their daughter to a doctor to give her the physical healing she needed. Neary’s story is not an isolated case. What is the resolution? I don’t know.