Baguettes

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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