Posts Tagged 'cambodia'



Cambodia Is To Buffalo As Vietnam Is To Detroit: The World According to Angelo

Buffalo, cultural hotbed

Unexpected thing #1356 travel has afforded me: a kid I met on a dirt road in bumfuck Italy a year and a half ago has become one of my closest friends, and one of the people I keep in touch with the most.

Things I love about Angelo:

1. He’s New York as shit.

2. He keeps me in the loop. As per the previous post, I’m culturally out on a fucking island here in Cambodia, so I can listen to him prattle on about contemporary art and underground shows and for an hour I can pretend I’m not literally on the other side of the planet from all that.

3. Listening to all his first-year-out-of-college stresses and struggles puts my own shit in perspective.

4. I get him. I met Angelo as he was breathlessly bicycling away from what he called wildlife, what anyone else would call a herd of grazing sheep. Which I totally understood—being an uber-urban kid from a big-ass city, an expert in riding public transit, finding hole-in-the-hall restaurants and living insanely cheaply in insanely expensive places. But knowing fuck all about the rest of the world. That’s what I was, before I started traveling.

5. He never fucking sleeps. That the little green dot on Facebook is always lit, so I can call whenever.

As such, Angelo’s right up there with my parents and my sponsor when it comes to Skype-age. Take last Saturday afternoon: get a message from him to call anytime before 2am Eastern, cause that’s when he’s going out for the night.

Who goes out at 2am? my old-ass asks.

Twenty-two year old New Yorkers, that’s who.

So I call and he of course picks up, just as bright and chipper as always: “Yo yo yo! I’m maaaaad hungry; we’re about to go on a walk, get some dollar pizza.”

So Angelo takes me with him, the horns and hustle of Manhattan coming through my laptop, echoing around the dingy walls of my apartment, making it feel smaller, shabbier, more barren.

“How’s the weather out there?” I ask.

“Aw man, it’s been fucking beautiful,” he says. “I mean, I feel bad even telling you.”

I laugh. I start telling Angelo about what’s been going on with me since we last talked, which basically amounts to a recounting of my last post, but in a whinier tone.

“Man, I really just, you know,” he pauses. “I feel bad for you, yo. Like, I know you’re out there doing your thing, that you went for a reason and all that. And I’m all proud of you—I tell people about you all the time—but I just picture you out there, and, well, I feel bad.” I laugh again. “I mean, shit, I couldn’t do it.”

“Aw, sure you could,” I tell him. “That’s the first thing you learn—how much more adaptable you are than you think.”

“Yeah, well,” I can hear him dragging a cigarette, “maybe it’s just that I wouldn’t wanna do it.”

I sigh. “Yeah, well, that’s fair.”

I hear the clatter of a the pizza place; Angelo orders and it’s loud and then it’s quieter again. “Where are we?” I ask. “On your steps in front St Mark’s Market?”

“Nah, someone was in my spot, yo! I’m having to stand.”

I go on, start telling Angelo about my back-up plan, my ace-up-the-sleeve: going to Hanoi for a few months to bang out some high-paid English teaching. “Yo, yo, do that man,” he says between a mouthful of pizza crust.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Vietnam is like, cool. You’d get mad hipster points.”

I laugh. “I don’t get hipster points for Cambodia?”

“Nah. Obscurity points, but…” Pause, thoughtful chewing. “You know what it’s like? It’s like Vietnam is Detroit. And Cambodia is Buffalo.”

I almost spit out my coffee. “Wait, what?”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he answers and his voice gets more excited as he breaks it down. “It’s like, people in New York talk about Detroit. There’s shit going on there—art shit and music festivals. People go there. It’s mad hip right now. And people know about Vietnam. We talk about it; we eat pho and read Tao Lin and shit.”

A belly laugh shakes my body.

“But say someone moves to Buffalo. That’s like ‘what the fuck?’ That’s just like, ‘Why? Why would do that to yourself?'” I’m damn near hysterical with that. He laughs too. “It’s just like, you feel kinda bad for em.”

“And Cambodia is Buffalo?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“But, what if Cambodia starts getting cool?” I extend the analogy: “Like, what if people in New York start talking about Cambodia and eating prahok—”

“What’s that?”

“‘Fish cheese.’ This gross-ass fermented fish paste shit; it’s foul. But what if it becomes hella hip and trendy and I get to say I was into Cambodia before it was cool.”

We both laugh long and hard. “It’s a gamble, though, yo,” he finally says.

He’s right.

“Come on, let’s go back to your place,” I tell him. And he walks me back the four blocks to his apartment, New York City howling through my computer—just like I was there.

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News Flash: Cambodia Is Hard

And apparently this is only news to me.

Actually it’s not. I knew coming out here that, as a Westerner, Cambodia is simultaneously an incredibly easy and incredibly difficult place to live. That seems to be the jam with developing countries.

On the one hand: the almost ridiculous ease of getting a visa; the nonexistence of work visas; the number of other expats; the way they throw English teaching jobs at you; the way they cater businesses to your rich, Western ways. I mean, I can buy peanut butter in the grocery store here. I can’t even do that in most of Mexico. I hang out at swimming pools and get shoes special made; I have house cleaners and I pay other people to do my laundry for me. I can buy whole fucking coconut for 50 cents.

But then… There’s all the other, developing country stuff. There’s the lack of reliable things you don’t really realize you depend on: health care and a postal system and electricity that doesn’t randomly cut out. There’s how I can’t buy clothes that fit me, how all the towels are made of some nonabsorbent material that leaves a trail of linty residue across my heat-rash-ridden torso (the $90 doctor visit achieved nothing on that front). There’s how far I am from home—about as far as you can fucking go—and how that makes setting Skype dates a pain in the ass, how it means I don’t get to pop home every six months the way friends living in Latin America or Europe do.

I knew that. I knew all that shit coming in. But as I’m edging up towards the six-month mark, it’s starting to wear on me in a way I hadn’t suspected. There’s the forestry activist that was recently murdered. There’s the terrible accident I saw coming home last week—broken brains on the pavement.

There’s the shitshow of the schools here, how no one seems to care—not the administration or the teachers or 90% of the students—but how there’s that 10% that do care, that are sacrificing to be in your classroom and are getting fuck all out of it. There’s the slow, steady way that disheartens you. There’s how shit the pay is in those easily gotten English-teaching jobs, how you start to feel yourself becoming one of those people who doesn’t care. It’s how there’s NGO workers making more than I did in the Bay Area, and how this is the brokest I’ve ever been in my adult life; there’s the little sense of failure that comes with that.

There’s the social scene here—how I’m too much of a fucking alien to really relate to the Cambodians but how I don’t really vibe with most of the expats either. Cambodia is still a place where people come to go off the rails. And it takes me all the energy I’ve got just to stay on the rails. There’s literally one other sober girl under age 50 here. That shit is hard.

All of which I also knew. But I guess what I didn’t know was the way all that accumulates in you, starts to eat at you. I don’t really notice it in my day-to-day; it becomes normal. I’m so busy trying to stay hydrated and keeping my tattoos out of the direct sunlight and trying to eat right and get enough sleep and still exercise (even though it’s so hot I feel like I’m gonna vomit most of the time) and how there’s a part of my brain that’s constantly thinking about the next spot with AC that I can duck into. That becomes normal, and I forget how much energy I’m spending just taking care of myself.

So you know what happened to me? I left. I went to Malaysia for Khmer New Year and rode glass elevators in the shopping malls and pretended to sea kayak. It was great. But before I even left, when I was at the airport in Phnom Penh, I was browsing the magazine rack and holy shit, I saw an issue of Juxtapoz. Which I don’t even read often in the States, but for the novelty factor, I picked it up. The issue was two months old and $11. I stood there flipping through the pages and skimming the interviews and looking at the silly pictures of silly hipster art and outta nowhere it hit me with this insane sense of homesicknesses. It’s funny, you know, what makes you homesick.

And it occurred to me in that moment that there’s whole conversations going on that I’m no longer a part of. Sure, I follow the blogs and since I’ve only been gone six months, I can still kinda fake it—but it’s starting to slip. I can feel it slipping.

Which I guess is to say that I’m starting to realize how much I’ve given up to be here, how much I’m sacrificing. Again, I knew it coming in. I just didn’t know how it would affect me, the way it would feel after six months.

And you know what? That shit is hard.

None of which is to say I’m ready to give up and toss in the towel on Cambodia. But it is to say that I’ve thought about it. It’s an incredible experience, to live in a developing country—not just any developing country, but fucking Cambodia, with its fucked-up history and centuries of corruption. Where I’m about as much of an alien as a person can be.

Of course there’s things I love. Those are harder to vocalize, because they’re not rational; they exist in these random-ass moments, walking at dusk with the pink sky and the traffic, when I suddenly feel like my heart is gonna jump outta my chest, like there’s this feeling my body physically can’t contain. But I guess I just don’t know if that’s enough. Like, in the long run.

It’s like a person. More and more, I think of places as people and living here is like being in a relationship. It makes sense, right?—the initial buzz has worn off, the honeymoon is over, and the first big conflicts are showing up. I’ve gotten to sit and watch this place, how it really is, and I’ve gotten to watch myself in this place and how I really am in it. And I’m thinking to myself—can I really do this? Can we really be together?

Well, I don’t know. At least not yet. This whole expat thing is new to me. But what I can say is that while it’s incredible and amazing and eye-opening and I’m privileged as hell to be able to do it in the first place, it’s also fucking hard. And it’s even harder to admit it’s hard.

But, you know, whenever it gets too hard, I can always just go chill out by the poolside with a smoothie and some wifi. Cause that’s what being a Westerner in a developing country is all about.

The World’s Most Amazing T-Shirt!

About a year ago I blogged about the utterly unironic English language t-shirts in Cambodia—nonsensical phrases, constant-clutterfuck non-words, uncouth slang beside hearts and smiley faces.

Well down at the Russian Market recently, I found the shirt to end all shirts:

First off, you’ve got the letters: glittery gold. You’ve got the allusion to gangsta rap (at least I always think of NWA), which is literally and culturally on the other side of the fucking planet from Cambodia. Then you’ve got the fact that a sizable number of the people who’d actually buy and wear this shirt would have no clue what the words even meant, let alone the potent cultural references.

But that’s not all. The brilliance of this shirt, what elevates it from just another joke shirt to The World’s Most Amazing Shirt, is its juxtapositions. It works on so many levels! It’s multi-fucking-dimensional!

Let’s take a closer look:

Okay, so we’ve got a Philadelphia police emblem—cool, at least we’re in the right country.

Wait… Is that… Sting?

Why yes it is.

Oh, but why should we stop there? Gangsta rap versus new wave, UK versus USA, anarchistic anti-authority versus just not liking a band—what do the words “Fuck The Police” really mean? Can any one group claim ownership to the phrase? What does the phrase mean in different contexts?

There are no easy answers. Like any great work of art, the shirt merely raises the questions, leaving the audience to determine their own answers, revelations, resolutions. If in fact there are any. Perhaps the shirt is actually a statement on cultural relativity. Or maybe on the unifying, equalizing distaste for the police so many of us share.

You can’t be sure. So is the world we live in.

But is it possible, is it conceivable, that inside the glittery block letters, wedged between the emblems clustered around the words, there’s yet another meaning? A third and possibly more sinister layer of context?

Let’s get Crass involved:

Well now I’m really at a loss.

As you can see, we no longer have any fucking clue as to where we are or what any of this means. We’ve got an English-language t-shirt making references to three English-language bands that were all trailblazers in their given genres and decades. But that’s the only cohesive thread I can find (other than the snazzy black stitching along the shoulders). Do we hate Sting or are we trying to stir up revolt? Are we making references to racialized police brutality or a more class-driven variety? What fucking continent are we even on? What decade—scratch that, what century? Why is this shirt in Phnom Penh, at the fucking Russian Market, a sweat-bomb of stalls overflowing with bootleg H&M clothes, sacks of rice and touristy trinkets? Why is it $6? Why am I buying it? And wearing it around town?

And why do I not know if I’m wearing the shirt ironically or unironically?

Well, so is my life these days. An Oakland girl living in Phnom Penh—why should any of it make sense? Why should I even try to make sense of it? Better to just pay the $6 (“Really? $6? Why so expensive? I pay $4? $5? Ok.”)—better to put on the shirt, enjoy the glitter and the juxtapositions and relax in the fact that I’m not ever gonna figure any of it out.

But I can still look fly in the meantime.

Being An Asshole Abroad

I am one.

Not all the time. Not most of the time or even some of the time. But on ever so rare occasions (at least I like to think), I have been known to snap. I’d like to water it down, cushion the blow to the ego, but that doesn’t do anyone any good—I can be a big flaming asshole, and that’s just the truth of it.

That’s what my latest piece on World Hum “The Particular Anger of Powerlessness” was about. You guys might remember the piece—an earlier draft appeared on this blog around a year ago. It was a gamble publishing it for a couple reasons. One, it incriminates my parents for traveling illegally to Cuba. But the good news about having supportive parents is that they’re so stoked to see their kid get published, they’re willing to risk their own hides.

But the main gamble is that I was opening myself up to attack. It’s like going in for a knee in Muay Thai—better keep your hands by your face cause someone can clock you good at that proximity. Basically, I reveal myself to be an asshole in the piece. Or rather, I reveal myself at one of my asshole moments—one where I’m not the picture of cultural sensitivity or a deep, abiding sense of my own privilege. Instead, I’m the picture of An Ugly Westerner.

I knew I was doing it—leaving myself open. In fact, I knew I was doing it in the moment, when I acted that way, and it was mighty uncomfortable. It’s like I was watching myself do it and some other part of me was shaking my head—I knew how it looked. But I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

That’s the question I try to delve into in the piece. We all act like dicks sometimes, right? We’ve all flicked people off while driving; we’ve all snapped at grocery clerks; we’ve all been snippy at waitresses—whatever your version is, there’s been a moment when you’ve thought, “Fuck, did I really just do that?” There’s a certain vision one has of oneself and there’s moments that prove that vision, and there’s moments that contradict it. It’s easier to just push them aside and not think about them. It’s less easy to force yourself to go back and make amends. And it’s even less easy to delve into it, to look at it squarely—“This is not how I’d like to act, so why did I do it?”

My fifteen minutes on the Lao-Cambodian border last year was one of those moments. And the answer I came up with, after looking real hard at the situation, was powerlessness.

This may or may not be the right answer. But the point, at least I like to think, is that I wanted to look it. Cause travel pushes you beyond yourself, right? It pushes you out of your comfort zone; it exposes you to new things, some of which are exhilarating, some of which leave you fuming/confused/rushing for the bathroom. But the idea is that travel expands you, that you’re not the same after a trip, that you learn something—both about the world and yourself.

I knew some people would take up issue with it. And when the comments started to come in—“I thought we independent travelers were supposed to be culturally sensitive”; “Way to go, rubbing the guy’s poverty in his face, you definitely came out ahead there”—they didn’t really bother me. I mean, that was the shit I was saying to myself, in my own head. (I realize in retrospect that I should have worked that angle more explicitly in the piece, instead of leaving it hanging around in the subtext…)

The thing is, they’ve got a lot of valid points. The whole speaking-on-other-people’s-behalf thing makes me a wee uncomfortable, chimes itself of a kind of imperialist attitude—but yeah, you know, I get where they’re coming from. You do carry a certain amount of responsibility as an outsider in a someone else’s country, and there’s a certain level of respect one ought to conduct oneself with.

Which is a whole nuther rant for a whole nuther day. But what happens when you fall short of that? Or when you watch other people fall short of that?

It’s something I have ample opportunity to muse over, living here in the shitshow of Phnom Penh. I mean, fucking Cambodia—it’s Westerners Behaving Badly all over this MF. A lot of folks come here for the sole purpose of acting in ways they can’t get away with at home—sleeping with prostitutes, drinking all day, etc.

And believe me, I was way the fuck judgy at first. I remember standing in line at Lucky Supermarket, watching this guy in front of me totally berate the clerk for not wanting to accept a wrinkled $20. It was ugly. Being Cambodian, the clerk didn’t get back in the guy’s face, but instead apologized and groveled and looked real ashamed/embarrassed. Then I felt ashamed/embarrassed. I shot the guy dart-eyes and, after he left, apologized to the clerk on his behalf.

But you know what I’ve realized? Well, one, that apologizing for someone else’s behavior is not my job, regardless if we’re both Americans in another country. But more importantly, that milder versions of the same thing have happened to me. That—holy shit!—I’ve been on the other side of it. Maybe not that bad, but still. That afternoon on the Lao border was one of those times.

It’s humbling indeed to discover you have that in you. (As one friend says, “Cambodia reduces you to what you really are.”) I hate to say it, but I’ve snapped at tuk-tuk drivers, gotten mad at slow service, yelled at people in English when they’ve nearly run me over on the street. I’ve seen poor dudes from the countryside pissing on the sidewalk and blowing snot rockets and thought, “Ugh, poor people.” And I’ve been fucking horrified at myself.

I’ve talked to a lot of expats here about this and there’s always this cringy way we admit it. At least some of us admit it—that sometimes we snap and act like assholes. Maybe it’s the difference of living somewhere versus passing through on holiday—all the shit you could brush off in the moment becomes your life.

Whatever the reason, I realized I had to look at it. I mean, I’m here, this shit is happening, it’s not how I want to act, so I need to at least pretend to be a grown-up and deal with it.

There are some things I just don’t get. I mean, they can be explained to me and I can conceptualize some sort of understanding, but at it’s core it just seems wrong. Bribery and corruption are one of them. It’s a cultural difference, but guess what?—I’m culturally different. You will never convince me that bribery is okay, on any level, no matter how much it’s rationalized. (The same with pissing on the street. It just fucking smells.)

But here I am, in their country (which I can do, being privileged, and they by-and-large cannot)—so what do I do? Well, one is that I accept it bothers me. I don’t play the tape of oh-you-should-be-more-culturally-sensitive. Nope, I just accept that it doesn’t fucking seem right to me. The second is that I notice that it only reeeeally bothers me when my tolerance is down—when I’m stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. So, in the interest of not being a raving asshole all the time, I do my best to not get stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. When I’m taking care of myself, when I’m rested and full and happy, it’s a helluv a lot easier to shrug and say, “Well, that’s not how I roll, but so be it.”

It’s what I’d do now if I encountered the border situation today. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with bribery—I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not gonna fucking fight it every day. And when I see dudes like the one at Lucky that day? Well, I don’t apologize for them but I also don’t really judge them anymore. Most times I honestly think, “Fuck, he must be having a real hard time, to be spreading that kind of negativity around.” It’s the kind of compassion I’d like for someone to look at me with, if they saw me acting like an asshole.

I get lots of great examples, living in this fine city, of how I don’t want to act. And the cool thing is, I’ve learned how to take them as just that: examples and nothing else. And then I try to be my own example of how I do wanna act.

All of which is to say, I’m a lot less bothered by other Westerners’ behavior. It’s kind of not my business. Of course, if you publish a piece about it, then you’re making it everyone’s business. But I did it cause I thought it was a productive thing to do, to come right out and say it. Like I said in my response, I’d love to see a piece by someone who really lost their shit—cussed out an old woman or some shit. Not for the shock value, but because I think looking at those uncomfortable parts of ourselves is really fucking important. Cause we all have them, right?

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe the folks that left those comments really have never had their moment of entitled asshole total-melt-down-ness. Maybe they’re uber-PC and culturally sensitive every minute of the every day, every trip they’ve taken, every waitress they’ve encountered, every shit driver that’s been in the fast lane in front of them. If they have, though, I don’t really want to know them—I don’t trust them.

Maybe I’ve just grown a really thick skin from all these years of writing. Maybe it’s one in the same—people are gonna say what they’re gonna say and do what they’re gonna do and god bless em for it.

And if I do see people who piss me off? Well, I’ve got a jam for that:

Bones In The Dirt, Best Women’s Travel Writing and Thank Yous

So… this is big news:

“We are interested in including your story ‘Bones Surfacing in the Dirt,’ in our forthcoming book, The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 8, to be published in April 2012.”

Which is great for a number of reasons, perhaps chiefly that it delivers a boost of encouragement just when I need it most.

Some of you may remember the crowdsourcing I did on IndieGoGo a few months back, raising funds to help me move to Cambodia and extend my Glimpse project into something book-length. Some of you may have even kindly contributed. And some of you may be wondering what the hell is going on with the project and when the hell you’ll be getting your postcard/zine/etc.

Well, answer number one is that a lot depends on the Cambodian postal system. Haha. But a lot has been shifting and taking shape for me in terms of my project, and I was waiting for official word from the BWTW folks to write an update.

It was a year ago now that I first came out to Cambodia. I thought I was here to write about someone else’s tragedy, someone else’s story. But the more I worked on the “Bones” piece, the more I realized that the story I had to tell was much more my own than I’d thought.

And I guess you could say the same’s true this time around, with this project. I most definitely still plan on writing something book-length, and I most definitely still plan on writing it about Cambodia. But over the course of my 4+ months here, the focus has begun to shift. I’m still super interested in the long-term effects of the war, on trauma and the ways it affects both individuals and a society. But I’ve realized that’s only one of the fascinating stories out here. Or rather, it touches on all the fascinating stories, is like a kind of thread between everything.

It gets draining, all the Khmer Rouge talk. It’s mostly among the foreigners. As one friend says, there’s a certain breed of expat here who’ll chalk everything up to Khmer Rouge—any problem or quirk or peculiarity in the culture.

It’s both true and untrue, both a legitimate reason and a scapegoat for all the country’s problems: “the war just ended.” But when you put that beside the general silence of Cambodians, it’s an uncomfortable contrast. And not one I’m sure I want to participate in.

But that’s not the only thing going on here. It’s a crazy intense confusing place, utterly confounding for a Westerner—and it’s modernizing super rapidly. There’s construction all over the city; there’s people getting kicked off their land to make way for foreign-owned development projects; there’s millionaire pedophiles getting royal pardons and dodging extradition; there’s human trafficking and sexpats; there’s shady NGOs and fake orphanages; there’s all the wayward foreigners that wash up on the country’s shores—myself not excluded. (Because no one ends up here on purpose; we’ve all got a fucking story—a deep inhalation and a “Well…” If we lived in Paris or Rome, that would be the reason: we’d be in fucking Paris or Rome. But we’re in Cambodia. We’re all a little wonky, some more than others.)

A journalist friend here was complaining about his deadbeat staff. Cambodia is kind of the place were “Australian journalists go to die”—his words, not mine. He was talking about someone saying it’d been a slow day, and he’d said, “Bloody hell, this is Cambodia. Don’t tell me you can’t find a story—you can’t walk outside with tripping over stories.”

And it’s true. I’ve started to realize that, beyond just the war history and its effects, I wanna write about that: Cambodia, now, in this moment, and what it’s like being a foreigner here. Of course, the Khmer Rouge is a part of that—even if you hear about it ad nauseum, there’s no escaping the fact that so much of what I see everyday is a result of it. But that’s not all is is, you know? I guess it’s like childhood shit, friends of mine who survived fucked-up and horrific childhoods—it’s always kind of there, but it’s not all that’s there.

Is this making sense? Probably not, because the ideas are still forming. I’m definitely in observation mode—so much of what I wrote before was about those initial encounters with the country. Right now I’m just sitting back and watching; I feel like it’ll still be a good few months before I have anything of substance or value to say.

Which makes me feel a little unsteady, a little worried sometimes about the project and all. So the BWTW announcement came just when I needed it—like a little nudge, telling me I was on the right track. (I hope.)

On that very positive and celebratory note, I wanna give a shout-out to everyone who helped me get here—through love, support, encouragement, whatever.

Thank You to:

Hugh Bright, Eva Holland, Bailey Nichols, Stephen Beatty, Patricia Marquardt, Katherine Peck, Shana Breeden, Katherine Palau, Lileana Ayende, Joshua Samuel Brown, Meara Breuker, Melanie Westerberg, Shannon Purcell, Erin Gilmore, Ben Sturtevant, Ekua Impraim, Cheri Lucas, Carlo Alcos, “zwiebel16,” James Marquardt, Miranda Gibson, Aaron & Emily Quinn, Alicia Goode, Nhu Troung, Suki Khalsa, Mary Howe, Judith Tannenbaum, Beverly Quinn, Tracy Waugh, Sharon Bjornson, Morgan & Candice Tigerman, Sarah Menkedick, “Sam,” “Lynn,” “Lu,” “Hai,” and of course, Mom & Dad.

Thank you all so much for giving me a 1000 other little nudges.

Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality

“Gender disparity”

I wrote the phrase in blue felt pen on the dingy white wipe board.

“What does this mean?” I asked, underlining the phrase for emphasis. Because it felt teacherly.

I looked out on a chorus of blank eyes.

Which is not actually what I looked out on, but what I’d like to think I did. Really, it was a chorus of chatter, back-of-the-classroom text messaging, shuffling, soda drinking, and probably only a half dozen eyes actually looking at me, the teacher, in the front of the class in my button-down shirt and skinny pants that haven’t been cleaned since Oakland.

This is teaching in Cambodia.

I haven’t written about it much, since I plan to write (and sell) funny disheartening funny pieces about the whole fiasco that is applying for, interviewing for and teaching in Cambodian schools. It’s a complete and total farce. Given that neighboring countries pay double, you really get the dregs of Western society over here. Reminders at the all-staff meeting for the university where I teach evening classes for high school students included: 1) come to class on time, 2) don’t tell your students dirty jokes, and 3) don’t come smelling like alcohol.

Note: Not “don’t come to school drunk.”

“Don’t come smelling like alcohol.”

Are we beginning to get the picture?

So I teach in this rundown ramshackle-ass classroom with trash in the corners and a door that won’t close all the way, that some industrious student wedges a plastic straw in the doorframe to keep it shut. The majority of class arrive late, play on their phones and cheat on tests—all of which I’d been warned of and told was best not to fight against—it’s a losing battle.

But I can’t get myself to totally not give a shit. Especially cause there’s those five kids that sit up near the front and actually appear to somewhat give a fuck. You know, the kind of kids whose eyes light up a bit, whose voices raise timidly after the dead silence of my glaringly obvious reading comp questions.

And as it turns out, they like to write. Well, they don’t actually like to write, they bitch and moan about it, but the class goes real quiet when I make them write paragraphs and when I read them, they’re grammatical bloodbaths but at least they’re original, ie not copied.

And, as a bonus for me, I make them write about shit in Cambodia, so that I can learn a thing or two. The first assignment was to write about how Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year (cause they do). One kid wrote: “We burn the ghost money.” And if that’s not a goddamn beautiful line, I don’t know what is.

So tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. It’s a public holiday over in these parts, which baffled the shit out of me last year when I was here. Really? In a country with a fucking 80% domestic violence rate, endemic prostitution, fainting garment-factory employees and expatriated domestic help who live like slaves in neighboring countries?

There’s not a lot of irony going on in this country, so yes, really. But, you know, okay—at least we get a day off, right?

I’m supposed to do these listening exercises with them—I read aloud and check their comprehension. If you think reading comprehension is painful in this country, try listening comprehension. It’s painful stuff, and just to make it more painful (for me), I pick stuff not in their boring-ass American textbook that they can’t relate to (ie: the lesson on the NYC subway, to which I opened by asking, “Who’s been on a train before?” No hands raised. Now how the fuck do you teach that??). Noooo, there I go giving a shit again, and I bring in one of the English-language newspapers and read that shit aloud, stopping every few words to explain terms like “gender disparity.”

The gist of the article is that Cambodia ranks lower than any other country in the Southeast Asian region when it comes to gender equality, as measured by literacy, economic participation and empowerment. Of course, the government is disputing this, because disputing stone-cold facts is something they do.

Which I’m not dumb enough to begin a debate around. It’s in my contract that I can’t teach “controversial” material, which given the aforementioned propensity to deny inconvenient facts pretty much includes anything you’d read in the English-language newspapers. So I’m already pushing the envelope. I mean, this article’s got a quote from the (female) opposition party leader. (Should I be writing this on my blog?) That, and it took fifteen minutes to drag the above summary out of them.

So we focus on access to education, since “the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.”

“What’s a ‘social pressure’?” I ask. I write the phrase on the boar beneath “gender disparity.”

More blank looks.

We hash it out, and come up with a good little list. A lot of the expected “a woman’s place is in the home” kind of stuff, but I’m surprised by “girls can’t study at the pagoda.” Boys can become monks and study for free; girls can’t become monks. That hadn’t occurred to me.

But I’m most surprised by how quickly some of them say “because the war.”

I just leave it there, on the board beside a bullet point: “war.”

I know better than to ask.

I point to our list. I inhale, “Now, what you’re going to do—” They groan. They know what’s coming. “—is write a paragraph telling me about why you think girls don’t go to school as much as boys in Cambodia. For those of you that have been listening,” I stare not at the kids who’ve been listening but at the ones in the back, “it’ll be easy.

“Oh, and this is how I’m going to take roll today. So you’d all better write something.”

They shuffle around and pass each other sheets of paper, and pretty soon they’re writing, scribbling, and it’s not quiet in the room, but as quiet as it gets—which is kind of like a jungle-quiet, with a constant buzz of insects and the occasional strange what-the-fuck animal call. (It’s usually a ringtone.)

I should say here that these are patently not the population the article is referring to. These girls are the privileged—they have iPhones and bedazzled purses and platform wedge sandals that remind me of Boogie Nights. They’re pursuing higher education, and their families have the means to send them to what is sadly considered one of the better schools in the city.

But still.

The “social pressure.”

“Pressure’s like a hand pushing on you,” I told them, demonstrating on my arm. “It’s what you feel whens something’s pushing on you.”

After fifteen minutes I collect the papers. We review some vocab and I let them go early, their eyes are so glazed.

I read the papers later, over dinner. Some gems:

“Because Khmer old culture they thought that women can’t go to school because if the women get high education they can write love letter to men and it not good for Khmer culture.”

“They think if the girls go to study, girls can go outside and have boyfriends, that is not the culture in Cambodia.”

“I think Cambodia is the small country that get up from war in 1993 and it’s stay from colonial a lot too. Long time Cambodia have one culture that unfair for girl is the boy can go to study but the girl cannot.”

“Some women in countryside [read: poor people] have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. And the schools are far from the house. Some students in Phnom Penh didn’t study because they are allowed the foreiner [sic] tradition.”

“They think if women get high education or not is not important because they will become a housewife and only work in chicken and look after the child.”

“They’re think that if they agree the girl go to study, the girl can meet a lot of boy can write letter love and don’t listen parents advice.”

“Because the girl is 15 year old – 18 year old they alway get marries.” [We’ve reviewed “always” like 800 times, so this especially broke my heart.]

Those were from my more stellar students, most of whom are sit-at-fronters and girls to boot. As you can see, I’ve got my work cut out for me, when it comes to correcting and editing this stuff. Guess that’s what you get for giving a shit and trying to go all Dangerous Minds on these kids.

But strangely, it was the half-assed papers that got to me the most—the ones from the boys in the back of the room, who spent the whole class dicking off and then furiously scribbled shotty sentences, or even bulleted lists (NOT sentences, minus points!).

There’s an almost haiku-like starkness to them:

“We don’t have enough schools for students.
A lot of families are poor.
We just finish the war in 1979.”

“Because:
– don’t have money for them.
– Family don’t have enough money.
– Tranditional.
– War along time in the country
– Girl can help housework.”

“Because parents don’t have money to study. Some women is the countryside have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. Cambodia have war.”

Or this one, the worst one, in terms of effort, information and sentence structure:

“Because Cambodia just get up from the war.”

Oh, there’s a sentimental old poet still knocking around inside me.

Screw it, I’ll give him the points for it.

Naked Like That (Kep Bungalow)

Tonight I miss America
at night.

Tonight I miss tambourines and harmonicas.
I miss the low whistle
of a train through the dark.
I miss fog-soggy sidewalks
and boys with stubbly beards
smoking cigarettes,
windshield shards
glittering beneath their sneakers
like that:
stars.

I miss driving home—
Bay Bridge jaundice,
hungry tunnel howling,
ears ringing
and headlights
like a lonesome pair of eyes.

I missed cracked windows
and cup holders,
the arch of 580
to 24,
the moment before
the highways touch

And I miss that city
laid out beneath me
and glittering

For one still moment

Like that
Like how I miss that—
Something I could almost touch
At night.

Tonight I’ve got the jungle.
Tonight I’ve got
Cambodia’s muggy black
of birds crying and geckos belching,
the low drone of insects
trying to get in.
Tonight I’ve got the world
behind a mosquito net
and the sea somewhere—
I can hear it.

I’ve got sheets and the shape
of some still body;
I’ve got a lonesome pair of eyes
probing in the dark
and all the goddamn stars in the world,
glittering like that

Naked like that

Like how I’ve always been—
Splayed and waiting

And breathing in the dark.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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