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… 😉