Monthly Archives: August 2011


This morning I went to the market and got some food. I bought:
a large carrot
a large potato
several longish ears of baby corn
a half-kilo of rice
about a quarter-pound of beef
a large coffee with milk
noodle soup with beef
and one baguette
for a total of $3.20, or 13100 riel. Now, when I look at it like this and remember how a trip to the grocery store back home used to cost upwards of $30 (shopping only for myself, obviously much more for an entire family), $3.20 seems like a steal! But here I think, “Wow, 13100? I really overspent myself…” Nevermind that this is enough food to feed me for the whole day… Haha.

Anyway, the last thing I bought on the way home was the baguette. I ran into a bread peddler on my lane, and I’d never bought bread from a bread peddler, so I thought, what the heck why not. Like most peddlers, he had his wares strapped to the back of his bicycle, in this case a very large basket with a lid (to keep the bread hot). Sometimes people walk, as well, with their wares dangling from the ends of a long pole that they perch on their shoulder– even old ladies do this, it’s pretty amazing. One baguette was 800 riel (20 cents), and served hot, as promised. A barang eating bread, how appropriate. So when I got home, I started right into it– delicious! Cambodians make way better baguettes than Americans. I’m no bread expert, but generally I’ve found baguettes in the States kinda pitiful. The only part I usually want to eat is the middle. But this baguette is well worth twenty cents, and is also delicious with my soup.

Baguettes are, of course, the legacy of French colonial rule. They are one of the few things that really remind me that this place used to be a French colony. Once in a great while in Phnom Penh, I get a strong sense of déjà vu, and realize it’s because certain parts of PP on certain days at certain times in certain weather sorta kinda remind me of Paris. If you look more closely, you can see that that is what they were trying to go for when they built the city; some of the old architecture, the layout of the streets, the riverside, are strongly reminiscent of Paris. And once in a while, an older person will come up to me and start speaking French– in their day, most white people were French. Hence why Cambodians of all ages use the term barang (Frenchperson) for all white foreigners. Occasionally I trouble myself to clarify that I’m American, as with my neighbors, and with friends I even explain to them that some Americans would consider it insulting to be called French. I try to imagine my dad reacting to being called French (or “those fairies” as he likes to say), hehe, that would make him happy. To make the point with some stubborn Cambodians, my friend Eileen likes to say, “Do you want me to call you Thai?” And then they’re like, “Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry, you’re not French!” >_<

One thing I can't understand about Cambodians is how not bitter they are about colonialism. America is the “wealthiest, most powerful” country in the world, but we still have a chip on our shoulder about England. “HAH, that's right, Great Britain, not so great anymore NOW are you?!” I'm exaggerating a little, I suppose, but let's face it, we make a pretty big deal about Independence Day and freedom and what have you. If we weren't a bigger, more powerful country than Britain, we would probably be just as obnoxious and only less smug. But Cambodians don't seem to hold a grudge against France, in spite of the fact that France indirectly ruined their country by siding with (inducing?) the U.S. against Vietnam, which later spawned the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

Hm, I feel like I haven't said much about Pol Pot here. Well, he was basically the devil. He was a school teacher who became a tyrannical dictator. Khmer Rouge actually started out as a kind of guerrilla, freedom fighter gig, but then it went horribly wrong. Much of this was because of Pol Pot. He had a vision for Cambodia of “an agrarian utopia”, completely egalitarian and free of class politics and religion. He, like Mao, claimed to be Communist, and also like Mao did not make good on his promises. Instead he became a violent dictator who ordered the perpetration of unspeakable crimes against his own people. Following Mao's model, he attempted to eradicate religion, which meant murdering thousands of Buddhist monks and destroying countless temples. He destroyed the country's infrastructure (schools, roads, bridges, city utilities), and then enslaved the people to build new, somewhat pointless stuff under his direction (dams, failed irrigation projects, new roads and bridges).

My host sister Tidah's mother was a child at height of Khmer Rouge power. Tidah's mother, Kimhaiy, says she remembers her own mother desperately trying to hide Kimhaiy's faintness from the Khmer Rouge. Kimhaiy was terribly weak from eating only a tiny portion of food each day and yet being required to work 12+ hour shifts with no breaks. I'm not sure, but she must have been about 12 at the time, maybe younger.

When I first learned about the systematic execution of millions of Cambodians, I was reminded of the Holocaust. But in fact, to my mind, it was possibly worse than the Holocaust for the ways in which people were murdered. If you have a weak constitution, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. There was no lining people up and shooting them (instantaneous death), or gassing them in large numbers. Khmer Rouge soldiers would use farm tools to bludgeon people to death one at a time, which would usually be done if front of other people and take several minutes. They would suffocate people with plastic, or strangle them with their bare hands. They would take mothers with their babies out to a field with a large tree, pull the babies out of their hands, and smash them on the tree right in front of them. They also had many, many ways of torturing people (often their own Khmer “comrades” who were suspected of being dissidents or spies), which almost always resulted in death. They had their own, more heinous form of waterboarding in which a person would be strapped to a board on a lever, which they would tilt down into a tub of water so their head would be completely submerged, upside-down; when the person stopped struggling, they would tilt them back up, revive them if possible, and do it again. One form of torture that I simply couldn’t believe for how awful it was involved tying someone down, cutting slits in their body, and putting dangerous insects in the wounds (insects that usually only appear in dead carcasses). The person would usually continue to live in complete agony for several days, until they died from infection. Everything I’ve just mentioned was done to women, men, and children of all ages.

The bombing of Cambodia by the U.S. seems paltry when compared with Pol Pot, but I think the effects have been rather understated. I, myself, was completely unaware that we had done any such thing; we never studied Cambodia in high school– actually, I never learned anything about Cambodia besides its geographic location before I was invited to serve here. No one really knows how many people the bombings killed, but the psychological effect has been long-lasting. Multiple aspects of the Vietnam war and subsequent civil war have left countless people suffering from PTSD.

Getting back to France: Cambodians generally seem aware that France and the U.S. were indirectly responsible for helping Pol Pot come to power and then doing absolutely nothing to intervene while millions of people were massacred. A third of the population was killed at that time. But, Cambodians seem rather genial towards France, and even Americans.

When I hear Cambodians talk about all this, they just seem very…disempowered. They seem to feel that there is nothing they can do to hold anyone accountable, and besides, now their own government caters to the same world powers that helped put them in an impoverished state. I try to encourage my Khmer friends to think about it, and talk about their thoughts and feelings. They have all studied their history, to a greater or lesser degree; some of them are finally starting to speak up, often with the unvoiced miseries of their parents. And you know what often comes to the surface? Not a resentment of France, as it turns out, but a resentment of America. Some of them seem to feel that their powerlessness is derived from the perceived all-powerfulness of America. This is so not typical-Cambodian (speaking earnestly about their feelings of their own sociopolitical situation) that I am often surprised at how insightfully they make connections between the past and their country’s current situation. I’m still a little annoyed at how easily France gets off the hook, though.

Anyway, so I guess this is what baguettes reminds me of. I don’t know much about the French colonial period here, I really should study up on it. In spite of that (and myself), I very much enjoy eating Cambodian baguettes…

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globalization O_o (or, life is a bowl of cherries?)

I was in the market last evening, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but… CHERRIES. Yeah, real ones! They were heaped in a box with a label from California. I literally did a double-take. I asked, “Where did these come from?!” in complete astonishment. The seller probably thought I couldn’t read my own language; “America”, she said in annoyance. It’s on the box, dummy. Beside myself, I made the mistake of asking how much they were. $15 a kilo, the seller said. Or, almost $7 dollars a pound. Holy cow. A little bit out of my price range. To give you an idea of some average, in-season fruit prices: mangosteens= $0.75/kilo ($0.34/lb); rambutan= $1/kilo ($0.45/lb); dragonfruit= $0.85/kilo ($0.38/lb); the most delicious bananas in the whole world= $0.60/bunch.

So, $15/kilo for cherries is, to say the least, outrageously expensive. But I counted at least three sellers who had boxes of (delicious-looking) cherries yesterday. Who could be buying them?? Phnom Pennhers definitely have more money than rural folk, but cherries seem like an extravagant indulgence, especially considering hardly a native sole here has eaten them before. Nevermind that they’re universally delicious (I’m obviously biased). But someone is creating the demand…

Which led me to think about globalization, in general. Cambodia is often in the bottom third of United Nations development indicators, be it in GDP, education, health, gender equality, etc. It is literally on the other side of the world as California. Yet somehow, Californian cherries ended up in my tiny market just down the road, next to all the fruit that is native to this region. (And believe me, Cambodia doesn’t need more fruit.)

Does this make sense? Obviously I think everyone is entitled to eat cherries. But what happens when Cambodia becomes “developed”, and people start having disposable income comparable to say, Thailand? Cambodians eating fresh cherries is like Americans eating fresh mangoes; it don’t make no sense. And Cambodians eating cherries will be the least of it. There is also a Chevy dealership a few blocks from my house. They sell a cute little compact called the “Spark”, which makes some sense on Cambodian roads. But they also sell suburbans and SUVs, which doesn’t make sense at all. On the narrow streets of Phnom Penh, a lone SUV is frequently the source of a three-block traffic jam. But more importantly, gas here costs over $5/gallon. SUVs are purely a status symbol. People do not need SUVs here, anymore than most drivers need them in America. But people want them.

Perhaps therein lies the answer to the globalization question… Globalization isn’t just inevitable, it’s realized. When you can buy Californian cherries in Phnom Penh, you know Cambodia has been sucked in to the globalization matrix for good. I read in article in Smithsonian before I left arguing that overpopulation (though it is a problem) is not the most serious, immediate problem; consumption is. “Imagine”, the article said, “the population of China, or India, or Rwanda for that matter, consuming at the rate of the American population.”

Like many “Third World” countries, Cambodia aspires to be “like America”. Yesterday a Khmer friend told me that the government doesn’t want people to think about “important things”, the government wants them to think about money. If everyone is absolutely convinced that their survival is based entirely on money, they will be far too obsessed with earning money to care about anything else. Huh. That pretty much sums up the U.S., although I’m not sure it was originally the government’s idea. Cambodians often express a great dread of being perceived as “poor”. They know that “rich” countries like America pity “poor” countries– it is shameful. I frequently hear Cambodians talk about how poor their country is, but it’s kind of like bashing someone’s mom: it’s okay to bash your own mom when you’re mad at her, but the minute your buddy agrees with you (“Yeah, what a witch!”), you want to sock them in the face. It’s like a complex from which the whole nation is suffering: “I’m so poor, my country is so poor, but don’t talk about my country being poor!”

I think this is caused by the whole aspiring-to-be-like-America thing, which in turn has been spurred by globalization. America = Hummers and SUVs, ipads, eating out, washing machines and refrigerators, cabinet safety mechanisms to keep your kid from drinking drain cleaner under the kitchen sink. And now cherries.

A lot of the Cambodians I know have the good sense to realize that a great majority of the stuff Americans slave away to buy is just that: stuff. They don’t really need it, although some of it undoubtedly makes life “easier”, like washing machines. But they also know from experience that their clothes get just as clean from being done by hand, and they have the free time to do it anyway, so why not? And they really, really know they don’t need stuff like ipads and Amazon Kindles– but, like Americans, they WANT them. Badly. Actually, when they talk about American stuff that they want, some of them look very sad. Like they’re excluded from wanting, let alone having. I guess in a way, they are… The United Nations indicators portray Cambodia as this pitiful, stone age, impoverished nation. I guess I should not be surprised that Cambodians want to have American stuff, look like Americans, live like Americans– or Europeans and Australians, for that matter.

But at the same time, the globalization stream is flowing both ways. Khmer culture is leaving Cambodia just like outside cultures are flowing in. People see Angkor Wat on NatGeo or in Tomb Raider and they’re like, “Heck yes, that’s my next vacation spot!” And you can tell that when an American has heard about something Cambodian, Cambodians are very proud. They’re the first ones to admit that terrible things have happened in their recent history, but they are, themselves, in awe of their own cultural creations. I went to the National Museum in PP with a PCV and a Khmer friend, and my Khmer friend (who had never yet been to the museum, though had studied Khmer history in school) was just astonished at the statues, temples, weapons, tools, and other cultural artifacts that the ancient Khmer civilization had created over a thousand years ago. Cambodians get ragged on so much by NGOs, the UN, World Bank, and their own government, it must be a relief to discover that one’s cultural background is a wealth unto itself. “My country is poor,” my friend said, “but my culture is rich.” My anthropology student self didn’t launch into a discussion about culture– I think I understood what he was trying to say. “Yes,” I agreed, “Cambodia is very rich.”

I wish I’d never laid eyes on those godforsaken cherries, p.s. Way, way out of my price range… 😉

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