Monthly Archives: January 2012

Happy Chinese New Year

Here we are, second New Year of the New Year. Three days off from work plus dancing dragons.

I find it amusing that Khmer people act so resentfully towards Thailand for “stealing” their culture (architecture, religious ceremonies and practices, performing arts, sculpture, etc…), yet don’t seem to correlate their cultural borrowing from China as a similar sort of “theft”.

Of course, Thailand really did steal parts of Khmer culture: in 1431 the Thais finally defeated Angkor, taking most of Angkor’s royalty, artisans, performance artists, and religious officials back with them (a brief history can be found in Lonely Planet’s Cambodia release, but for a more detailed history try David Chandler’s The History of Cambodia).

Angkor didn’t literally steal Chinese culture, but rather as more Chinese migrated into the region over hundreds of years, aspects of Chinese culture integrated with the dominant Khmer culture, up to present day. Legacies of this include ancestor worship, a vague respect for the Chinese lunar calendar, and of course certain Chinese holidays, the New Year probably being the most pronounced.

I’m not very “up” on Cambodian ancient history or its relationship with China (sorry, I know I promised to read more… Those Chandler books are so expensive!), but I can see why China has the profound influence that it does on the Khmer imagination. One of the more difficult classes I took in school was a Chinese history class (holy cow Chinese history is LONG and complicated… I so took for granted my own countries short, nicely compacted history). It was taught by this American woman who you’d called a “sinophile” (lover of all things Chinese). Though she tried to make us understand the infinite glory of Chinese culture and its innate superiority to all other cultures, my biggest impression of ancient China was that it was a bully and a narcissist– a lot like the United States today, actually.

Anyhow, I suppose if you’re an upstart little empire growing up next to a supergiant neighbor, you’d be impressed, too. Maybe you’d pick up their habits. Eventually you might start bragging about the concepts which you originally gleaned from this neighbor, like being proud of an older sibling. This is sort of how modern Cambodia is about China.

Nevermind that Pol Pot, possibly the worst thing ever to happen to Cambodia, was powerfully influenced by Mao Tse Dong, a Chinese product. I might be a little bitter about that, personally. But Phnom Penh doesn’t seem bitter, at least; they have a street called Mao Tse Dong Blvd. here– go figure.

I have so much yet to learn about this Kingdom of Wonder… I constantly stumbling across new and unique things. Cambodians, as a “people”, and the varied aspects of “Cambodian culture” never cease to amaze me.

Happy Chinese New Year.


p.s. my mom said I had a lot of spelling/grammatical errors in my last post. I’m guessing this one prolly does too, because I’m not going to proofread it. Sorry for that. ๐Ÿ˜›

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A lot people, including Cambodians, say that there are only two or three seasons here: hot season and rainy season, or hot season, rainy season, and cool season. As for me, I tend to think of many seasons: hot, dry season, hot rainy season, cool rainy season, windy season, and cool dry season. But however many season there “really” are, one can’t deny that this year has been a little strange.

Normally when it stops raining, I’m told, it STOPS. Rainy season usually peeters out at the beginning of December, wherein begins the windy season. But it’s the middle of January, and something strange has happened lately… It’s still raining. Actually, we’ve had some crazy storms at night lately. I am told that these are the effects of global warming. When the weather is “strange”, Cambodians speculate about this a lot. It can be seen as an omen of things to come. My friends tell me that this is a sign that the world “is not right”. Hm.

View from my apartment balcony.

Anyhow, I’m not looking forward to hot, dry season, which is right around the corner. The weather has been blissfully, unseasonably cool, and quite windy, and quite cloudy. It’s been great. The equatorial sun is so intense at times that you can really feel yourself getting skin cancer, but even midday these past few months it’s been cloudy– and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. The clouds also make for interesting skies and beautiful sunrises/sunsets.

I’ve decided that I don’t post nearly enough stuff about fruit on my blog, so I’m going to start a new “series”: ‘A Year in Fruits’. Now, there are way more than 12 kinds of fruits here, so I can’t really do a “fruit of the month”. I’ll probably post more like a bi-monthly fruit. My life doesn’t so much rotate around weather seasons here as it does fruit seasons, which are far more delicious, anyway. “Fruits of the Month” coming soon!

Holidays are also a seasonal thing around which my life is shaped. Right now is Chinese New Year. I think I’ve mentioned that Cambodia has three “new years”: Chinese, “International”, and Khmer. The year begins again three times annually. ๐Ÿ™‚ Not really; instead of having the affect of making me feel like things are “beginning again” three times a year, it kind of diminishes the importance of “beginnings” altogether. Actually, for me, the “year” really begins around July– because that is the season I first arrived here. So technically I’m only in the August of “my” year… But let’s not make things complicated.

Okay, this post is really random and unfocused, so I’m going to go!

p.s. these are some beautiful birds that a lady at my market wanted to sell to me for twenty bucks last week. No, I did not give into temptation… ๐Ÿ˜‰

sa'at! (beautiful!)


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On the Up and Up

Alas, this title doesn’t really refer to me…

Eileen noted a couple months ago that my neighborhood is “on the up and up”: they were building a BBQ Chicken (Korean fast food franchise) combined with a Swenson’s Ice Cream shop on the corner of Kampuchea Krom by Santormok High School a five minute walk from my house. At the time I was a little concerned that the traffic was gonna get even crazier than it already was. Turns out I was right, but that’s not the only problem…

So they finished that corner and it’s been open for a while, ย and something strange has happened in the past couple of weeks. Everything around here has gotten more expensive. My coffee lady went up to 50 cents. Rice at the market is about 14 cents more than before. Even my rent got hiked! $10, but when you’re not expecting it and you just bought a new fridge which eats lots of electricity, it’s kind of an unpleasant surprise.

A small new coffeeshop (where I’m sitting right now, actually) also opened, which is owned by a Khmer family. I thought, oh how nice, they’re so reasonably priced and I practically have the whole place to myself. Wrong! Every time I’ve been here I’ve encountered at least 2 other foreigners, usually Australian, English or American. WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?? Up to this point the only foreigners I’ve seen have been the missionaries that ride their bikes through this neighborhood and the German guy whose Khmer wife sells fruit at the market.

The problem is not so much the barangs, themselves. It’s that I have this strange feeling I’m about to get priced outta here…

But maybe I’m on the up and up a little, myself. I have a new fridge, after all! Thanks, Ma & Pa. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ย 



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Bummer, Batman.

No sooner do I think I’m making a friend who’s also a foreigner than my hopes and dreams are dashed– by that very person, no less.

The seemingly cool South African girl turned out to be awfully similar to many of the other foreigners with whom I’ve found myself in conversations. The only difference was that she didn’t try to veil her disdain for Cambodians. With her tongue out in a grimace, she told me today, “Oh my God, I would never date a Khmer guy!” Umm, yeah… Me, either? I didn’t burst her bubble. Actually, I was speechless. She started to go on about going out with some other teachers for a “fling” tomorrow evening, and invited me to go (first I’d heard of it, clearly I’m not popular with that crowd), and told me how there would be “lamb on a spit” at which point she again made that disgusted tongue-out face. (I didn’t realize South Africans were this sheltered…? Lamb-on-spit = barbaric?)

Maybe back in the States I would have been like, “As it happens, my boyfriend is Khmer. Twit.” But evidently Cambodia has brainwashed me too much in the ways of “face loss”; I didn’t say anything, because to have done so would have made her lose serious face. Instead I just laughed along with her jokes, even as she described how she planned to break up the long-distance relationship of one of our supervisors because “he’s got a hot face”. Said supervisor is Khmer, by the way. Either she was putting on a show for me because she assumes that’s what I expect because so many other foreigners implicitly or explicitly express as much (Khmer = Other = gross/bad/pitiful/whatever), or she is inherently repulsed by the idea of such a relationship because her culture tells her to be yet can’t help the fact that she might genuinely be attracted to this person, anyway.

Whatever the case, I think I made a hasty decision in exchanging numbers with her. >_< Maybe the easiest way to go about this is just to let her find out I’m a radical and she’ll run away screaming…?


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Masters of the Universe

“Now they will retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate each other on being masters of the universe.” – Rose, Titanic

It’s appropriate that Cambodians have a Titanic fetish, because they are so good at congratulating each other on being Masters of the Universe. I’m convinced that this is the one lesson that has stuck from the U.N. (and most other foreign agencies and NGOs here to learn them natives).

Peace Corps was no exception. Actually, that was where the Titanicย parallel was first pointed out to me by another Volunteer. Eileen and I had just decided that our taxi to Phnom Penh was going to “break down”, stranding us just long enough that we’d end up missing the final training “debriefing” before Swear-In. I was a little worried that we might actually miss something important, but Eileen reassured me that “it’s just going to be more of Peace Corps taking a moment to reflect on their awesomeness and congratulate each other on being Masters of the Universe!” I should have known then that we were going to become good friends. Anyway, each week during training we had Saturday “seminars”, which was really code for PC admin patting us (and themselves) on the back for being such good Americans, helping those less fortunate than us (and they try to tell me that PC influence is outside of the realm of culture? >_<), et cetera et cetera.

But alas, it isn’t just foreigner “developers” who come in with their brandy and cigars and back-patting; Cambodians have hardcore adopted the habit, too.

Like today for example.

We had a “faculty meeting” at my school and so I went in an hour early. Actually, I was ten minutes late to the meeting, but this is Cambodia so naturally I was ten minutes early. ๐Ÿ˜› When the admin walked in, all the teachers applauded; they seated themselves on the stage at a long table, which was strangely reminescent of “The Last Supper”. We were lectured on remembering to erase our classroom boards, not letting out students out early, and all that mundane stuff, and then “What you have all been waiting for!”: Outstanding Teacher Awards!

At first they were rather comical: old expat guys and young male Khmer teachers getting called up for their awards. Then it was a little embarrassing, because they had a first, second and third place for each category of teacher (foreign/Khmer, part-time/full-time), and the first place winner would get to make a speech. It was as if the Khmer teachers had memorized an “on the occasion of receiving an award” speech right out of a book (seriously, I’ve seen those books at bookstores around town). For some reason the expat teachers’ speeches didn’t stick in my mind at all… Each time a winner would receive their certificate (yes, an official Outstanding Teacher certificate plus an envelope with an “incentive”– aka money) they would pose with the school director, each holding one side of the certificate, to have their picture taken. Evidently these pictures are going to be posted around the school. All the time, I was making fun of everyone patting themselves on the back, pointing out how every winner so far had been male, and generally deriding the Masters of the Universe ceremony with a newer teacher from South Africa.

Then something horrible happened. They called my name.

I just sat there a moment, and literally didn’t move: a T-Rex supposedly will pass you by if it doesn’t detect movement. But the admin staff was just staring at me from the stage, so I got up and forced myself to join them. As I glanced back I could see the South African silently laughing her head off at me. I could feel myself turning red as I took the certificate and posed with the director, smiling at the camera like a deer in the headlights. At least I don’t have to make a speech since I’m a third place winner, I thought to myself. “Elizabeth, would you like to say a few words?” One of the admin handed me a microphone. Sonofagun. I don’t even remember my own speech.

After that it was straight to class. My students immediately noted my red face when I walked in. I told them I felt ill. Afterwards, as I was punching out, I ran into the South African teacher again; “I figured out why they gave me the award,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” She was still laughing at me.

“It’s because I look like a guy.”

“You’re funny,” she said, and we exchanged numbers. Could I possibly have made my first foreign [non-PCV] friend?? I guess being labeled a Master of the Universe isn’t a total loss (+ $20 “monetary incentive”, what what!)– though (tempted as I was), I didn’t ask: what is the criterion for a Master of– er, Outstanding Teacher, anyway?


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