Monthly Archives: October 2011

Coca Cola and KFC

First of all, I’d wanted to post here a lot sooner, but before I could I had to journey through Dante’s hell circles. That is, I’ve had an ear infection for about a week now, and while ear infections on the whole are terrible, terrible things, I strongly urge you not to get one in Cambodia, in particular.

Anyway, I finally feel well enough to share my thoughts with my adoring audience (does anyone even read this? I must be crazy… Cambodians would say “speaking alone”)… Um…

Oh right! So, two things that I never liked back home, which made me very “un-American”, were Coke and KFC. To me, the red-Santa-Coca-Cola-Christmas theme and the old Deep-South Colonel with his “secret recipe” epitomize America– well, at least when you say it like “Amerr’ca”. They’re up there with baseball and apple pie. (Well, actually, KFC reminds me of China, for the most part.)

Sometime during Peace Corps training, I was out to lunch with a bunch of fellow trainees. In the Cambodian fashion, a selection of drinks was sitting on the table in a plastic basket: lychee juice, soy bean juice, grass jelly juice… and Coca Cola (which here they call “coka”). I can’t say what possessed me, but I decided to have a Coke. And, it was delicious! I have hence found myself ordering Coke of my own volition, and enjoying it every time!

I experienced a similar phenomenon with the once-dreaded KFC. In the States, eating KFC when one has the option of a greasy spoon diner or soul food restaurant is just blasphemous. That, and profoundly bad for one’s health. KFC is leading the antibiotic-resistant bacteria revolution, I’m convinced. Anyway, KFC has spread all over the world, including Cambodia. Here it is something of a status symbol to eat at KFC. It’s also the only American fast food franchise around. Why BK and Mickey D’s aren’t here I can only assume is because the Chinese have a secret deal with the RGC to keep Lucky Burger (China’s Cambodian fast food chain) the only gig in town. But KFC is here, and Cambodians love it, even if the mashed potatoes do come out of a box. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Cambodian eat anything at KFC but chicken…)

My friend Eileen quite likes KFC. Once in a while she will take a bucket back to her village for her family, who will eat it even if there are ants crawling all over it (I know this because I’ve seen them do it). And every so often she will take me out for a KFC excursion, too. The first time she suggested this, the self-righteous, anti-factory-farm, anti-MSG Granola Girl (to borrow, the phrase– I am not actually a genuine Granola Girl, but I am my mother’s daughter and in some regards that’s more extreme) in me wanted to say, “Ugh, I could never partake of such repugnant fare!” But instead I said, “Sure, let’s go.” And, I liked it! I even liked the out-of-the-box mashed potatoes and the gravy, if it could be called that. And I’ve enjoyed it every subsequent occasion that Eileen has taken me out for KFC.

So what’s changed? Why do I like Coke and KFC here, where I despised them back home? Have my tastes matured? I am subconsciously craving symbolic food that will stave homesickness? Could it be that Coke here is made with real cane sugar versus the high fructose corn syrup back home, or that the chickens here are not stuffed full of chemicals before they are slaughtered for the fryer?

According to my Cambodian friends, it’s none of the above. “Why do I like these things now, all of a sudden?” I speculate with them. “Because,” they tell me confidently, “now you’re Cambodian.”

Random note: Eileen and I have brought KFC back to my apartment and eaten it with rice– by our own choice! This must be what Peace Corps was talking about all those times they drilled us about “integration”… >_<

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Enter the Dragon

My friend just left earlier today on a 2 week trip to China. By coincidence, I heard some interesting news about China as I did my laundry this afternoon.

China has always been a friend to Cambodia, though admittedly that has been an occasionally fickle friendship. Since China’s rebound from their Cultural Revolution, they’ve been giving aid money and more recently investing in the Cambodia economy and infrastructure. Last year it is supposed that China gave/is giving over a billion US dollars in aid to Cambodia. This dwarfed all aid given by other countries, though there is much skepticism about “actual amounts given” since China is, uh, less than transparent about these things.

Cambodia is not the only country being courted by China for investment, though. Much investment of Africa is well underway, including within Zambia. Evidently China often brings its own workers to Zambia, which work on projects such as mines in addition to local workers. Part of the problem of Chinese workers in Africa means lower wages for Africans– a dollar a day, in some cases in Zambia. A panelist from The Independent (London newspaper) who was hosted by the BBC suggested that tensions between the Chinese and Zambians is exacerbated by miscommunication– that is, hardly any Chinese speak African languages, yet they go to work there. It was suggested that the solution to this problem was to teach Zambians Chinese– in fact, China may be doing just that.

As if the “Western World’s” affront on indigenous regional cultures wasn’t enough, China is jumping on the bandwagon. Also, if anyone still thinks China is Communist, one only need look at their outrageous capitalist exploitation of “inferior” countries. Cambodia (or, more accurately, its Prime Minister) continues to sell off natural resources and land rights to China for practically nothing (short-term gains and points scored with China), despite the fact that much of said land and resources are publicly owned and therefore it is ILLEGAL that one person in the RGC can make such decisions without democratic vote. Sounds a little bit like a dictatorship, doesn’t it?

Oh yeah, one more Africa-China thing: probably you heard that the Dalai Lama could not obtain a visa to give a peace speech on his friend Desmond Tutu’s birthday in Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu was PISSED. Listening to a sound bite of his press conference on the BBC actually scared me– it also filled me with empathetic anger. He spoke wrathfully of his government’s caving to Chinese pressure, going against everything that the new anti-apartheid government supposedly represents. Tutu described China’s oppression of Tibetans as “vicious”, and went on to denounce the ruling African National Congress’ actions as not representing him. Very powerful. You can also watch sound bites from the speech on youtube.


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Hot Off the Press: Phnom Penh in Desperate Need of More English Language Radio!

Was listening to The World Today on the BBC while doing laundry this afternoon; two journalists, one a British woman and the other an American man, were discussing world news with the host. A story came up about an advertisement in Brazil:

Apparently feminists in Brazil are giving it a thumbs down for its blatant sexism.

The American journalist on the show, when asked his opinion, said he didn’t see why anyone was making a big deal about it; he didn’t find it offensive, after all.

Classic. White Western male finds nothing wrong with sexism.

“Well really, what is wrong with the ad after all? It’s kind of funny, isn’t it?” I’m so glad you asked. Couple of points there. First of all is the degrading portrayal of female sexuality, as women are “humorously” encouraged to use their sexuality as the “correct way” to appease their husbands. Women, after all, should be sexually available to their husbands at any time, but at least if a woman needs to deliver bad news she can get something out of it by, uh, distracting him with her feminine wiles. The American journalist aptly pointed out that this ad therefore stereotypes men, too, as “thinking below the belt”. It also frames women’s sexuality as their only leverage: the only way to win an argument is to present oneself as a sexual object available for the pleasure of men. The American journalist decided this was okay because it was her husband in the ad, “it’s not like she’s taking off her clothes for her boss”. So sexual exploitation between spouses is legitimate and not an infringement on the autonomy of the body, of sexuality, or upon human rights. Tell me again, BBC, why did you invite him on air? >_<

Another point: using sex as a way to resolve conflict. In the various spots, the Brazilian model wears lingerie to ameliorate the bad news she has to deliver to her spouse (a crashed car, a maxed out credit card, an annoying in-law). Obviously that is degrading to female intelligence and ability to communicate, among other things, but it also distorts the concept of interpersonal communication, in general. Unless it is the subject or source of the conflict, sexuality shouldn’t factor into the resolution. The ad encourages women to use their “charm” to their advantage. And we wonder why women are still viewed as fuck objects… Teh win, BBC, teh win.

This reminds me of a story BBC did not too long ago about Catherine Hakim’s latest bound garbage on “erotic capital“. The main debate on that particular show was not the legitimacy of the concept or how it reinforces patriarchal values, but rather if “erotic capital” wasn’t just “sex appeal”, after all. I agree, it’s not a new concept– so why the hell are we caught up in theĀ  redundancy of someone’s choice of words? Sexism is redundant, let’s talk about that.

BBC, if you weren’t the only English-speaking radio station in Phnom Penh, I’d probably stop listening to you. >_<

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Can I get a wat wat.

So this month was the 15 (16? depends who you ask) day holiday of Pchum Ben, and this past week I haven’t had any school. Actually, last week students started peacing out around Wednesday, so by Friday I found myself sitting around with the security guard and the maid eating fruit and shooting the breeze.

Pchum Ben has three “big” days of national holiday where the banks and schools are closed and everybody goes back to their “homelands”. P.Ben kind of reminds me of Halloween because it’s around that time of year and it’s considered the time when the gates of hell open and ghosts return to Earth so their living relatives can throw them rice balls. I still don’t understand the rice ball throwing thing, but it’s pretty fun. Older women, teenagers and kids go to the wat around 4 in the morning with dishes of rice balls; they walk around a certain small temple in the wat three times, throwing the rice balls out into the grounds and mashing them onto piles at the base of statues and what have you. This is supposed to bring good luck and appease restless spirits.

I didn’t do the rice ball throwing this year (it’s the kind of fun I think I should only partake in biannually), but of course I had to go to the wat during the big Pchum days. I went to the wat in Eileen’s village when I visited her from Sunday to Tuesday. Beforehand we got dressed in our Sunday best, for me a traditional purple sampot and a new white blouse– but evidently our best was not good enough, because her eldest sister made us change into wedding blouses. Now, I don’t think I’ve said much about Khmer wedding shirts for women here, but wearing one felt akin to the times when I was like 7 and my mom would force me to wear a dress for some occasion. I whined and complained just like a 7 year old, too. Eileen seemed to accept the shirts as a part of life, although she was upset that hers didn’t match her sampot as well as the black shirt she’d chosen, but really, WHO wears BLACK to the wat?! At least I’m sure that’s what her sister was thinking. >_<

I got to check out Wat Udong a bit and saw some of the "resort" there– definitely want to go back when my mom comes for a visit. For Pchum Ben it was absolutely packed with visitors, though the wat, itself, was surprisingly quiet. We ended up sitting in on a blessing ceremony with Eileen's sister, little nephew, mom, and grandma. The nun (who spoke a little English, surprisingly) made me and Eileen sit in the front– you know, the token white people. It would have been a lot more enjoyable if I didn't have to pee so bad, but since I don't have that special ability to pee standing up I couldn't relieve myself at that wat (that would just be sacrilegious). Then we shared a meal with some of the yaes (grandmas) at the wat and took a tuk tuk home again. On the ride back there were boys shooting off very loud fireworks, like cherry bombs or something, that made everybody jump each time there was a boom. Cambodians have a habit of saying a slang word for “vagina” when they are startled (I guess it’s no weirder than saying “shit”, like Americans do sometimes when they’re startled); Eileen’s grandma said it a couple times and it made me laugh a lot. It’s just a funny-sounding word, even if you don’t know the meaning.

When we got back, Eileen managed to unpin me from the wedding shirt without stabbing me, kudos to her, and I finally got to use the bathroom– possibly at that point the highlight of my day. Haha. They need to do something about the bathroom situation at the wat for women, you know?

Eileen’s sister helped me catch a taxi from Udong to PP where I caught another taxi to Kampong Cham. Normally a ride to Prey Chor is like two bulks or something, but because I’m white and because of the holiday, it cost me $5. Bummer Batman.

Prey Chor was fun– the whole fam was there, although I think I saw Pon’s little brother a total of one time, for about thirty seconds, and then he peaced out to hang out with his buddies. My “niece” Sreykah kept following me around any time I got something out of my bags, because I almost always bring a small present for her and her little brother, but I didn’t have time to get anything in PP. She must have been very disappointed!

Everyone– EVERYONE, including Eileen’s sisters– told me I’m too skinny now. My cousin told me I look like a skeleton. >_< I have lost a little weight, but Cambodians are a little extreme about looks; either you're skinny or you're fat. Last time I was there a couple months ago I was fat. This time I was "like a ghost" and they kept trying to force feed me. Well, even if they say you're fat they'll probably still try to force feed you, but that's because if you're fat you're happy.

Luckily, I didn't have to do Round Two of the wat– the Prey Chor fam had already gone the day before I got there. Thank Buddha.

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