Sunday, December 20, 2009

Comforts of Home

Dear Monisha,

When I was nervous about moving to New York, here is what you said to me: “Everyone always complains about how New York is too crowded and too expensive and smells like urine.  And that’s all true.  And you’ll love it.”

You were right, of course, and perhaps about more than just the city.  In Cambodia, it was the same trick of reverse psychology—it was the difficult, uncomfortable things that I came to hold most tightly.  Cambodia from the back of a wheezing moto, with dust in my teeth and amoebae turning my stomach, this weird, lawless, striving land.  Why are my eyes tearing up when I think of the mud and poverty, things I hated for fifteen months?  It might be simple masochism.  Or it might be that we have to love a place after we have spent so much time overcoming its difficulties, the same way we love cantankerous cars and naughty children.  But I think that the truth may be something stranger yet, and more universal—that the borders between comfort and discomfort are thin and constantly in flux.

Nowhere is this more apparent than where I am sitting right now, perched at the end of a week-long visit to India, which has been sandwiched between leaving Cambodia and returning to the U.S.  I flew into Calcutta, a city you have been to, a city you have roots in, to visit one of the sweetest, most level-headed people I knew in graduate school.  Saloni is now living in her family home in nearby Jamshedpur.  How do I describe the feeling of being there after Cambodia except to say that it was comfortable, almost overwhelmingly so?  India is a country easily accessible to Americans like me through its books, its movies, its dance clubs, its dairy products—all of the things Cambodia lacks.  We were nowhere near a tourist town like Siem Reap, but hospitality toward strangers was the norm nevertheless.  Not just Saloni but dozens of relatives whom I’d never met went out of their way to welcome me, entertain me, feed me endless quantities of rich food.  It was so over-the–top, this treatment, that I think most people would have felt a little awkward, but whenever I said so, Saloni shrugged and said, “This is just the way it is here.”  Land of a lot, we began calling it. 

On the day before I left, we went to the Hindu temple in Calcutta dedicated to the goddess Kali.  Here was the India that people and warned would overwhelm me, a Bruegel painting of countless dirty children and beggars and rough-looking dogs, all the things I’d felt myself reflexively looking for since I left Siem Reap.  Saloni snapped her fingers in front of a child whose supposed mother was asking us for money and I knew that she was checking to see if the baby had been rented and drugged, the same way they are rumored to be in Cambodia.  We walked in bare feet through the street and into the temple where frenzied masses of people were pushing, crying out, falling over each other as they moved in a human cascade past the alter.  Men with sticks pushed back the chaos of flesh for a split second so that paying tourists like us could get a glimpse of the goddess’s three eyes, narrowed with wrath, before we were whisked out to a sunken square where goats are sacrificed in the mornings.  Our guide, who seemed equal parts priest and con man, told us to touch the alter because it is “anti-danger.”  Why goat sacrifice in a mostly vegetarian religion?  Why anti-danger, when the mysterious sludge gumming my feet to the ground seems like perhaps most dangerous thing I have seen in India?  We pushed our way back out, zigzagging through the ferocious crowd, everything a dizzy crying spin. Was it desperation or religious ecstasy that was pressing in on us?  This is life lived close to the surface, and if the temple is not built upon the limits of sense, as it feels to me, it is at least at the limits of comfort.

Back in the car, Saloni was a little horrified at taking us to the Kali temple.  “I was born in a crazy country,” she says.  The car driver said that not many tourists come there anymore.  I ask why, and his smile says, “Isn’t it obvious?”  How do we reconcile these two intertwined worlds, the generosity of Saloni’s family and the meanness of the world outside the temple?  And yet, it makes some sort of sense to me—comfort and discomfort are all part of the same country, the same experience.  There is bound to be some sort of discomfort wrapped up in “a lot,” whether it is my own shrinking in front of the unknown or Saloni’s frustrated exhaustion at the constant thread of obligations to the same family members who adore her.

And now I am high above the ground, flying back to a country that is easiest and most comfortable, that is home.  Is ease what I want, though?  I am nervous, soaring above the darkened clouds and arctic waters.  Being in Cambodia has blurred all the lines between what I want and what I need, between what is comfortable and what is not.  I am no martyr, certainly, since that would mean taking on discomfort for a greater good.  I have done so at times out of circumstance and at times to fulfill some sense of pleasure or expectation that I do not fully understand.  You are the same, I think—I can call up so distinctly your almost frighteningly iron work ethic buried beneath the thinnest layer of warm blankets and a stuffed Snoopy.  I send this wishing only comfort for you while knowing that we, and maybe everyone, will always find new ways of standing in the spaces between, for no other reason than it is what we do.

With love,


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Re: Cambodia's Norman Rockwells

To: Norman Rockwell’s Ghost
From: Jason Leahey / Bed of Room 1A / Golden Land Hotel / Battambang, Cambodia

Dear Norman,

I’m sitting here in the Golden Land Hotel in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang translates to “ Big Stick.” Once upon a time, way, way back so that people know none of the names, a man lost a stick here. There’s a big statue of the guy, a Khmer Everyman kneeling and holding the stick in both upturned palms. This must have been some sort of fantastic, boom-stick wand, the loss of which caused such a ruckus that people named a city after that ruckus.

The Golden Land is charging me ten dollars for one night, a double bed, air-con, hot water, cleanliness with decent and crisp sheets. My girlfriend turned on the TV, only to fall right off into sleep, leaving Psycho on the television. This is appropriate. I decided to write you earlier this afternoon because walking around this town got me thinking of your primo, Once-Upon-a-Time Americana, and this movie could be labeled the same. With Psycho, you have a supremely post-war, bad wallpaper, sexually dysfunctional America. It seems to me a tight rendering of a national schizophrenic psyche, the country that nuked the Japanese, encoded maneuvers in Navaho whispers, and cooked up the Marshal Plan.

And with you, Norman, well, you’re propaganda. I don’t mean this is a mean way; I’m becoming of the opinion that everything is propaganda of some sort, that it’s simply the opposing team that gets tagged with the label. But you’re at the other end of the post-war spectrum from Hitchcock. With the exception of your finest—and truly fine—works Freedom of Religion and The Problem We All Live With, most everything is lily white. You sold a charmed idea of our national self, a freckle-faced America that surely had some basis in reality, but was ultimately dream of a country both simpler than the one surviving the war and more individual. The soldier returning home gets fanfare from neighbors who all know him by name, the boy next door sliding down the drain pipe. The two youngsters flirt in formalize fashion at the soda counter, the cop on the seat to them actually a friendly face. There is not a fast food franchise nor Coke Zero can to be found. Your characters undoubtedly would speak with different accents, language yet to head toward homogenization by the great, LCD equalizer that is television.

Walking around a city like Battambang, which has few tourists and little of the gobbling foreign investment that is paving Phnom Penh, I was struck by the multitude of hand painted signs adorning the businesses. I thought of you because though your work is a representation of an American community more personalized that we have today, these paintings in Cambodia are that personalization. They’re not meant for a mass audience or to build consensus. They are the front doors to the lives and work inside, faces of Cambodia’s own post-war landscape, and they are absolutely beautiful.

Take this sign, for instance. I love this. You can get your fan fixed in Cambodia. Have you ever tried to get a fan fixed in the United States over the unity past ten years? Okay, you wouldn’t have because you’re dead, but let me tell you, it’s nearly impossible to do so. For the cost of fixing one, you could buy two new Chinese imports on the shelves at Target and dump the old one in the garbage. Planned obsolescence, Norman, it’s the zeitgeist.

And then there are the signs for laundry...



moto maintenance...

and the humble key.

They show you who in the community would be interested in these services. Cannon cameras that still use 35 millimeter are best used for you couples getting married.

Printing services are ideal for ceremonial invites.

Seeing these makes me lament the passing of a more idiosyncratic America, the kind of rosy ideals depicted in your paintings but which have basis in fact all the same, the world witnessed through the windows of my family’s dark blue Chevy station wagon, locally owned department stores, hardware shops named after the family clan, radio spots for the local bicycle shop, their song, “Feeling good, gettin’ in shape, Nowww, you’re feelin’ great. Agee’s Bicycle, we bring out the best in yooouu!” playing on the Saturday morning drive to pick up tools and honey-do list supplies.

Beehives, tasty food, the promise of quality services and products for the kind of person you want to be. That’s the basis of all advertising, and I love that here the idea of what to be is given one-of-a-kind shape by a hand and brush rather than a banner printed up by the thousands and shipped out en masse across the planet.

Look at this: this woman is connected to the Great Modern Telecommunications Network.

These two are practicing and preserving an ancient form of Khmer martial arts.

This guy is James Bond and this other fellow is a modern Khmer striver and achiever.

Someone chose to paint as cell phone wallpaper a landscape of decimated, lonesome swamp. Who in the hell came up with that? It’s fantastic. Something like this would never make it in the States unless the testing audience was some kind of Mississippi nihilists clique.

Copyright and intellectual property laws are ignored here, these dwarfs, preserved by the Grimm’s and impounded by Disney, a case in point.

And here’s a transsexual Bugs Bunny proving the competency of this business’ pumps, a Winnie the Pooh who let his honey turn to mead.

Many of the products sold in Cambodia are sold world-wide or elsewhere in the region (though I have only seen the corn-flavored pop sickles in one store near our house), but the services on hand in places like Battambang and Kampot have not turned into products yet. The people who perform the services haven’t either.
Condom campaigns in Vietnam are modern enterprises with glossy posters and billboards. In Cambodia, the painted condom tells you what’s up.

Down the road, this billboard tells you not to drop found artillery into the fire.

These are all this moment in time’s documentation of what is valued, what is needed, what is wanted. Real day-to-day needs, rather than the duplicitous psychoanalysis of market research, determines these signs. Cambodian children need to understand that you can’t play with unexploded American ordnance and their parents should know where to get a fashionable hairdo. Just as American children needed to see your painting of the little girl integrating New Orleans public schools.

And it heartens me to see the hand of man, rather than machine, in this documentation.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning to Fly

Dear Dad,

Perhaps you have wondered why it is that I have not addressed a letter to you sooner.  But actually, I have been writing this one in my head for many months now, maybe for years, even, and waiting to commit it to the page until it was finally the truth.  I rode a bicycle yesterday.

You should not feel concerned or guilty that it took me this long.  I offer this reassurance only because when you found out that I could not ride a bicycle about a year ago, you looked a little horrified, as though you had forgotten something important, and responded by gamely running down the sidewalk and holding up the back of a bike as your twenty-seven-year-old daughter wobbled ineptly through the streets of Westerville and demonstrated little to no signs of improvement.  Most people master this skill before they have lost all their baby teeth, but then, if anyone understands that I am not like most people, it is you, who have borne my eccentricities and stubbornness for many years now.  For one, let us not forget that I was far from an athletic child, finding solace only in books, and you responded by trying to be as excited about Academic Challenge meets as you would naturally have been about basketball games.  Also, I was not always receptive to help, as witnessed by my disturbing meltdown in the parking lot of the school when you tried to teach me to parallel park a car.  Anyway, it was in no way your fault that you did not personally usher me over this particular milestone.

I will admit, however, that it might have been a less humbling experience if I had learned when I was six like everyone else.  There were many aborted attempts.  There was the time I went with my friend Kent (another non-biker) to practice in a park in Brooklyn, but we could not figure out how to adjust the seat, so we gave up and drank margaritas instead.  There was the time you tried to help me in Ohio, and though I think all those avid cycling enthusiasts in spandex shorts were trying to be encouraging by giving me waves and thumbs-up as they whizzed past, it was a little humiliating.  And then, of course, there was Cambodia, where not only are biking conditions far from optimal, but also where advanced knowledge of two-wheel vehicles is taken to be much more of a given than most of my skills.  One evening, soon after we moved to Siem Reap, I was practicing in a hotel parking lot, providing the local tuk-tuk drivers with some novel entertainment, and one of them walked over to where Jason was watching.  “No,” he said, pointing to me and sadly shaking his head.  “Cannot.  Is impossible.”  Later I would recognize that that is a favorite English phrase around here, but at the time, it felt like a good summation of my public shame.  I should admit that I did not handle these failures with very much grace or patience.

Given these setbacks, it was a revelation to finally feel my feet pedaling steadily under the blue fluorescent lights of the Royal Empire Hotel last night, weaving around parked tour buses, waving at the baffled-looking drivers.  There was no reason that this attempt was any different than the rest, except that this time, for some reason, it worked.  Bah! Bah!” the tuk-tuk drivers yelled, finally.  “Yes!”  I felt victorious, much as when, right before I moved to New York, you looked at me proudly.  “If living in Chicago has taught you anything,” you said, (what would follow?  A reference to my college GPA? The degree you shelled out thousands for? My first real job? None of the above…) “it’s how to parallel park.”

Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that the most important thing I have learned in Cambodia is how to ride a bike, but then again, maybe not.  After all, is it not the small obstacles that surprise us, that cause us to stumble, that embarrass us, and consequently, that teach us the most about ourselves?  Yes, I learned something about my shortcomings—it reinforced that my poor motor skills are not going to carry me to a victory in the Tour de France.  But there was something else there, too, something about perseverance and propensity for change, something that reminded me of you. 

Keep the bicycle chains oiled for me.  We will go on a ride together, even if it is frozen and icy by the time I make it back to Ohio.

With love,


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dear Adam,

One thing that I admire about you is your tendency to become tremendously excited over psychological research that most people will never read or even hear about.  It is a sign, I think, that some people find their ideal career path, you among them.  I can remember an almost ecstatic glint to your eye when you told me about how monkeys instinctively compare rewards they receive with those of their peers, that they can sense fairness and unfairness and behave accordingly.  You described with glee the video you had seen of pissed-off monkeys flinging cucumber pieces at the researchers when their cagemates received more-greatly-coveted grapes for performing the same task.

It is normal, I suppose, that comparing one’s own situation and background to the surrounding landscape can radically shape one’s view of both.  Take Ye for instance.  Or at least, take what you can of her—I’m afraid to say too much about her, like her real name or the name of her business, for fear that it will get her into trouble with the Burmese government.  It will have to suffice to say that she is a sweet, middle-aged, soft-spoken woman who provided me with a truly kick-ass vegetarian meal while I interviewed her, but that this gentle exterior belies a backbone of pure steel.  Because she was an educated woman when the junta took over in 1988, she had to leave.  But she still knows very well what is happening there—she has family  members there, her eldest brother died after being kept as a political prisoner, she was there on a visit during the monk protests of 2007, she went back with an NGO after the 2008 flood to help with relief efforts.

And though it was interesting to hear stories about her native country, it was also intriguing to hear her talk about Cambodia, which has been her home for the past thirteen years. The model in her head that she uses as a point of comparison is Burma, and mine is the West.  While I can be griping and cynical about shortcomings in both Cambodia and America, she knows how bad things can actually be and views things as constantly improving here.  Where I see people being strong-armed into paying lip service to Hun Sen, she sees a steady, gradual gain in personal freedoms.  Where I see people burning plastic on the street, she sees school children in Phnom Penh beginning to pick up litter as community service, something she remembers doing as a little girl in Burma.  Ye and I cannot help but compare Cambodia to what we have learned to expect—it is simply what humans (and monkeys) do.  Yet that inevitably distorts things, sometimes doing the objects of our gaze a disservice.

Perhaps it is just some form of preemptive nostalgia as my days in Cambodia continue to dwindle, but I think that sometimes I speak too harshly of it.  Yes, the corruption and abuses of power can be sickening, and there are inconveniences everywhere (may God strike me down if I ever again complain about the pace of road construction in America).  But many people here have managed to pull together happy, ambitious lives out of absolute nothingness in less than a generation.  In light of that, there is reason to be optimistic that the details will improve with time, and how far Cambodia has come deserves to be applauded sometimes, at least as much as we point out how far it has yet to go.

Last week was Bon Om Tuk, one of the biggest Khmer holidays of the year.  I sometimes think of it as being a little like Thanksgiving, since there is a harvest-festival element to it.  But the central entertainment is the boat races down the river which signify ancient Khmer naval victories, and during the evening awards ceremony, dozens of boats lined up under a shower of fireworks.  “Kampuchea, Kampuchea, Kampuchea!” the announcer shouted, and everyone raised their oars in the air and began to dance on the boats.  It seemed more heartfelt than any Fourth of July festival I’ve ever attended.  Jason and I wandered up the street and released a pra-tip, a floating lantern, for luck, and we stood there for a long time watching the hundreds of lights bob past, the wishes of a nation drifting down the river.

How can I ever understand Cambodia on its own terms without comparing it to bigger, more powerful countries?  I don’t think I can.  But Cambodia is bound to shape my perspective, too.  I think sometimes about another strand of your research, about creativity and living abroad, about how living in a different place actually changes the neural pathways in one’s brain. Can you design a new experiment?  I wonder if you can promise me that expat life not only makes you better at solving problems, but also more forgiving of them.

Warm regards,


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Re: Alleys and Passages

To: A.C. Evans / Brooklyn, NY / USA
From: Jason Leahey / stoop-side bar / Siem Reap, Cambodia

Dear T,

There are real alleys, real passageways in Siem Reap, and now also The Alley and The Passage. The people walking back and forth are not all white, but they are all dressed the same. You grow up with history books, old photos, and the world seemed then like an endless assemblage of hats, mustaches, shirts and smocks and skin from leather to tracing paper. Faces like dry sink holes and faces like cool water still in its bowl.

The probability of barbarity, caught in a black and white photo and held at bay by expanses of ocean and endless streams of bills, that stirs you. You think, “The world is endless, the people infinite.” Boredom was inconceivable so long as you had the gumption to leap out there, believed that no leap was too far.

I’m sitting here at what is called The Alley. Or maybe this is The Passage. Initially in the creation of Pub Street, of the Siem Reap that feeds and whets the tourists, this was called one of the other, Alley or Passage. There are restaurants here, bars, slate cemented in place when the rest of the sidewalks in town, what sidewalks there are, are tiles hammered into the sand. The Alley, The Passage, think gentrification, think 4th Avenue counted as Park Slope...

Oh, man, remember when we were walking home along there back in 2001, somewhere close to dawn, and we passed that apartment door opened to the street and just the end of two legs and a pair of sneakers jutting out over the lip of the stoop, the fucking Wicked Witch of the East, body swallowed in the dark of the hallway and you laughing that crazy hee-hee that you do, over to snap a photo? Your compass on the world is like twenty-six degrees northwest, man, or maybe really southwest, and whenever I think of that fact I like to make it Due North for a bit because yours is a good gauge to follow when turned around.

...So The Alley, The Passage, you get this nice string of restaurants and a gallery or two, shops selling T-shirts with Tin-tin in Cambodge on them, that sort of thing, and then about a year and a half ago another Alley or Passage, this one with more artistic retail, opens one street over.

And then Lonely Planet comes through and they pull the mix-up, call the Passage the Alley, or vice versa, and when the thing comes out all the businesses have to change their business cards because what’s in Lonely Planet, that’s reality, Due Polaris, and you pretend otherwise at your own financial peril.

So I’m sitting here in The Alley Passage because they have fifty-cent drafts and I need to be away from the house for a bit, read and write, save dinner money by going to town on this bar’s peanuts and popcorn...

A Scout is trustworthy (!), loyal (!), helpful (I hope), friendly (try to be), courteous (when it’s warranted), kind (!), obedient (never), cheerful (on good days), thrifty!!
...and everybody walkin past is dressed more or less the same. And it’s a superficial thing, silly, but it dissapoints me. Like I’ll have to leap out of a plane onto the Mongolian Steppes to find a person I can set eyes on and think, “Now what the hell is going on there.” An American doctor who lives here, a guy named Varoon, wearing khakis, just walked by and when I presented this quandry to him, he said I best leap out of a plane into a place with no people if I want the exotic, and I guess that’s most likely true.

And I guess that’s okay, too. People are people are people and if there’s one great truth that travel instills in a person, it is that. And so maybe I shouldn’t expect anything new and wonderous from my fellow humans. Lord knows, exotic smocks from the Ottoman era or wince-worthy head piercings from the (then)-soon-to-be-ravaged Tropics or whatever else can’t be guides to it. And Lord knows, too, I haven’t rambled far enough anyway, but...

But there’s a little loss in me that even in Cambodian jungles people know that Micheal Jackson died, that everything from Nordic He-men to scuttling sea crabs have heard of Coca-Cola, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And I really like Michael Jackson and can roll with Coke, more or less. It’s just that sometimes if feels like my exploring has been done for me. The arm of the American (half-)Century is long. That’s the other awareness travel instills. So the exploration will have to be of the self, for you of the twenty-six degree Southwest, mine the twenty-six degree Mountain Atlantic, whichever Due Polaris, and still everything hurdles out from the high-pressure center faster and faster, until all of this collapses on itself, to be blown out again.

Keep the faith.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Original Facebook Sin

Dear Krista,

I wish I did not know how many sex offenders lived in your county. I also wish that I did not know what level of Mafia Wars that Jackie has completed, nor what color Erin decided to paint her dining room, nor how long it has been since Rayna’s two sons had haircuts. But it took me a long time to figure out why knowing any of these things bothers me.

First, let it be known that I harbor no real ill will toward you. This is in spite of the fact that my most vivid memory of you was when you wouldn’t let me read your transcription of the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby,” when we were ten years old because you decided I wasn’t cool enough to learn them. I swear that I’ve recovered from the slight, and I’ve heard from reliable sources that you turned out to be a very friendly person and that you married David, who I always found pleasant albeit a bit maudlin. To say that we have ever been friends, though, either back in the days when you would scorn me on the school bus or nowadays when I haven’t seen you in the flesh for something like ten years, would be a gross exaggeration. That’s why it came as a surprise when, after I finally caved to sustained peer pressure and joined Facebook, I received a notification mere hours later that said, “Krista Knox added you as a friend.”

Technologically savvy people tell me that I could have clicked “Ignore,” and we probably would neither have been the worse for it, and yet I can’t bring myself to do that, either out of politeness or dark curiosity, for anyone with whom I can recall having a single conversation. The altercation about Vanilla Ice alone put you in that category. And so I clicked “Confirm” when faced with your request and many others.

And, oh my, what a deluge of information followed. I now know that my friend’s mom hosts a cooking show on the local cable channel and that my college roommate’s brother has a second child and that my boyfriend’s sister-in-law’s eye hurts today. But the vast majority of revelations come from people like you, people I went to elementary and high school with, which I suppose is only natural since we spent a lot of time squeezed into the same small town and then mostly went our separate ways. Without Facebook, I probably would have gone years, maybe a lifetime, without remembering some of these people, but now that I know where they are, it all makes perfect sense. Of course Elisa is in pharmaceutical sales, of course Tricia is a nurse practitioner in Pittsburgh, of course Sarah is a history teacher at our old junior high. And I should think, “Good for them!” and close my browser, but human feelings are rarely that simple.

There are times when I wish I could erase some of what I’ve seen in this strange digital landscape. Surfing Facebook fills me with the same dread, depression, and insatiable yen for more that an alcoholic must feel when entering a bar. This is not easy to admit, but usually the first feeling that washes over me when I look at the profile of a former Lexingtonian is cruel scorn. The things that people post often seem self-involved and petty and bizarre to me. I like to blame this on being so far away from our hometown, and I think that it does have something to do with seeing others through a lens that has become shaped by Cambodia. How can I care if Mike is hitting the gym to lose weight when I live in a country where most people survive on rice alone? How can I not roll my eyes at Brittany’s Week 23 Mommy-to-Be musings when five Khmer women die in childbirth every day? Jason says that this kind of superiority complex is useless, and he’s right, of course. It’s no better than the childish disdain you held for me and my “Ice Ice Baby” naiveté, and I’m frankly ashamed of it.

What’s worse is that it’s always mixed with a kind of acid jealousy. I envy the security and ease and distractions and blithe obliviousness that show in some of these profiles. “Is this all you want?” my scornful side says, while secretly wanting at least some of the same things myself. It’s not that I mean to devalue what many of them have—the marriage and the kids and the steady job—but it’s impossible to imagine myself arriving there by the same path that they did. That’s what’s at the heart of it, I think, the fact that writers cannot use the blueprint that seems to have delivered happiness to lots of the people I grew up with.

Then again, it’s only Facebook and who knows how faithful a copy of real life it is. I know how little of me is on my profile—a few links to articles, a silly photo of me in sunglasses. Could anyone we knew in high school find out anything about me from this? But I’m sure they make assumptions, just as I do. Do they think I am a fool when they read that I am living in Cambodia and that I’m a writer, or are they a little envious, or is it the same complicated blend of emotions that swamp me when I look at a few spare facts about them?

Maybe you are asking yourself why I don’t just delete my account or at least stop checking it, and that’s probably a wise suggestion, Krista. But I can’t—there is some part of me that is tainted by tasting the fruit of Facebook and cannot go back. I need to see Brittany’s baby photos, I need to know how Renee’s honeymoon went, I even need to know the results of whatever weird quiz you’ve taken most recently. And I need to know that maybe you’re curious about me, too.

With nostalgia and everything else,


Friday, October 9, 2009

My Bipolar Flood Response

Dear Llalan,

On Monday morning, my editor at the newspaper called and asked me to churn out a funny little column about the flood that had wreaked havoc across Cambodia a few days previously, and so I did.  I made light of the smelly pestilential water that is still thigh-high on our street and my wacky antics with a bug-zapper as thousands of mosquitoes zeroed in on my arteries.  I think it turned out okay, actually, hopefully even kind of funny.  You can read it, if you want, since it’s probably more amusing than this letter.

But was there any truth to that article?  I’m not sure.  The rain has seriously dampened my mood.  I would like to believe that this is some kind of sympathetic response to all the damage that’s been done to Cambodia by forces outside of its control—all the people who are still out of their homes, all the people whose businesses have been damaged, all the people in the countryside who are bound to come down with positively medieval diseases like cholera and dysentery in the days to come.

But my dourness is probably due to more selfish emotional triggers.  My work schedule is destroyed.  No one wants to be interviewed while they’re trying to deal with their own flooding issues.  Most days, the water outside our house (one of the few areas in town still flooded, by the way) is too deep to take our motorbike out, meaning I have to trudge for ten minutes through nasty shit-water, my plastic-wrapped laptop pathetically clasped to my chest.  I spend most of this walk imagining that if this was happening somewhere in America, there would probably be some hunky National Guardsman to carry me to safety, where friendly relief workers would feed me cookies, and by the time I have finished these fantasies, my desire to spend the next six hours writing has significantly diminished.

Ah, but then I just feel like a spoiled First-Worlder.  As I wade out of the muck, feeling sorry for myself and wearing an expression like a wet housecat, all my Khmer neighbors smile sunnily at me, laughing at their predicament and hoisting their infants out of the floodwater.  But then I think: what the hell is wrong with these people?  Isn’t there something terrible about a society that has completely given up on the idea of the government or anyone else in power helping them at all, even in times of crisis?  Sometimes, this washes over me even during easier days—sudden flashes of anger that nothing is getting better for ninety-five percent of the people here, and that most Khmer are too sucked in by the leaders’ lame promises or too afraid of the alternative to complain above a whisper.  Look, I know that in America people disagree, sometimes in a violent, ugly, ineffectual way, about what will make the country better.  But at least there is a sense that people care about making the country better, rather than just beating the odds in some idiotic Darwinian system.  What is wrong with the leadership of this country?  They are living parasitically off the misery of their own people.

So which is more true, my lighthearted column or this pointless rant?  Both.  Neither.  I was certainly happier while I was writing my column, not because of any situational difference, but because the act of writing forced me to find humor in it.  So should I then limit myself to writing mildly funny but disposable material, or send my blood pressure through the roof by writing angry blog posts?  I think that most of the time writers want to believe that they are writing to inform or entertain or change the opinions of others, but maybe it is only a way of reassuring or convincing ourselves of what we are feeling at any given moment.

Grumpy, yet still full of fondness for you,