Monday, December 29, 2008

Capital Christmas

Dear T,

I’m on a bus east out of Hanoi heading to Halong Bay, which I expect to be as shockingly beautiful as the other parts of Vietnam I’ve explored. I was flipping through one of my notebooks looking for the details and impressions that I recorded as I experienced them in Saigon, in Hanoi, in Sapa and the northwest mountains along the Chinese border. And then ‘The Killer’ shuffled to the front of the ipod queue, and I got swept up for four minutes in the great immolation of Life on the Run, and that seemed a sign to put some of those impressions in a letter to you.

You’d love Hanoi; it invites you to be submerged in it on its own terms in a way you’d eat up. Whereas in Cambodia everyone is out to make a buck off you and so all English and smiles, smiles, smiles, in Vietnam they could care less. They’re a society of post-Soviet communism, that in-name-only communism in which people rake in the dough from a liberalized market but keep lips buttoned tight under the scrutinizing eye of conservative single-party rule. But it’s their scrutinizing eye and that’s the bread and butter of it I think. The Vietnamese don’t need your tourist dollar and, “Oh, by the way, you ravaged our lives and our land, so you can just fuck off.” I have received more than a few hateful glares and a couple of instances where older men jab their fingers my way, spit words I cannot understand but whose resentment and disgust I can feel. That’s more than fair but it has come to kinda hurt my feelings. Silly.

The younger people, though, those under thirty-five, they’re thriving in their knock-off American brands and on gleaming new motos. I just don’t exist to most of them; I’m not a symbol of death and destruction, I’m just something moving too slow in their peripheral vision. People here are prideful and busting with new growth, new income, new ideas of what is possible to achieve. I can’t see the Vietnamese ever tolerating a return to the stagnation of a government-mismanaged economy. The young men dress sharp, the women are elegant and stylish, older men in crisp-cut suits remind me of my grandfather. You walk through Hanoi and it’s the living embodiment of my sense of 19th Century America, industry and commerce at breakneck speed, no traffic laws and no regulation on innovation, tip back the bottle at the end of the day, toss some money around if you got it and get up and do it again. This is all the greenest example of the Capitalist Good Life that I’ve ever seen. It’s plain that the Vietnamese are communist out of national pride - out of a means of self-determination - not ideology (which makes me think long on why people in other parts of the world flock to fanatical Islam.)

This is worlds away from Cambodia. There are national heroes here stretching back for centuries. We visited the Temple of Literature, a national university founded in the 11th Century, and inside saw row upon row of ancient stone tortoises supporting steles documenting the origins and lives of centuries’ most learned men. On Christmas Eve we went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (religion was re-legalized in 1990) expecting a small mass in a half-filled church. Instead we got the multitudes crammed into a gated yard and spilling all over the streets, watched an hour of little girls dancing to a Praise His Name! folk song and then a bizarre Vietnamese-Spanish rendition of ‘Felice Navidad,’ people buying Santa Claus puppets and then attending a full mass in Vietnamese, the festivities of the high commercial season blending with The Christ Mass, everyone participating and high on the wave of something too unfamiliar for me to thoroughly decipher. Back out into the street and around the lake Hanoians raced at top speed on their motos, waved their red flags with the single gold star, screamed and shouted and rolled like a human lake across the plaza that caps the north end of the true lake, beat drums, a rally in honor of the national football team beating the Thais, a rally in honor of being Vietnamese and being hardcore to the bone, a rally of gold stars on red satin, gold hammers and sickles on red satin. Earlier that day we had lost ourselves in the city’s endless alleys and dead ends, the narrow passages no more than three feet wide and the houses stretching high all around, a maze like what I’d imagine in Cairo, in any city so close to celebrating its thousand-year anniversary, and hundreds of motos honking on the other side of every corner, swooping through the passages toward us as we’re flat against the wall, the sun setting and losing us in twilight warrens that spilled us out next to a reservoir surrounded by old tenements crumbling down, being built back up, a neon BAR flickering pink in the grey of sunset, spilling us out next to food stalls where the BBQ’ed heads of dogs were waiting behind glass to be served, lips charred back and leaving teeth and jaw jutting out like werewolves or strychnine victims, spilling out next to schools releasing kids into the evening to create traffic jams in their uniforms and oblivious happy chattering, next to bia hoi stands where men sat on toddler-sized plastic stools and drank fresh-brewed beer, next to that lake, a lake that in mythology delivered to a great Viet king the sword to drive out the Chinese after a thousand years of occupation, a lake that on that Christmas Eve was the hub for Hanoi’s masses to wave their banners to the sky in so much red.

I get sucked into these things and I miss you ‘cause I know how we’d go about it. Of all my tribe, your appetite and stamina for the world is closest to mine. You got to come. We got to go everywhere. All in good time.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Cambodian Cash

Dear Ryan,

Cambodian paper notes are called riel, and like a lot of countries’ money, they come in all the colors of the rainbow—an indigo shade for the smallest 100 riel bills, pink and burgundy for the 500, blue for the 1000, and so on. But it doesn’t take very long to realize that the national currency is really just for show. I rarely buy anything larger than a snack on the street with riel. For all intents and purposes, Cambodia runs on the pure green of U.S. dollars.

On a personal level, this is very convenient. I haven’t had to spend any time thinking about exchange rates. ATMs will spit crisp prints of Jackson and Grant at you with the push of a button. One needs only to be careful that the bills don’t get carelessly left in a pocket or the bottom of a purse. I was confused by the way cashiers fastidiously examine every millimeter of a bill for tears and imperfections, until I realized that trading in a currency not really your own means that you have no easy way of taking money out of circulation or putting more in. Why it is U.S. dollars rather than euros or yen, I really have no idea. I suppose it is because (at least until recently) it was the most stable currency around. But I am just guessing, as I do about most financial matters in Cambodia.

One thing is certain—Cambodia has embraced capitalism with wild fervor and, with it, an almost manic striving for wealth. To step outside the front gate is to be immediately bombarded with people trying to sell me something—a tuk-tuk ride, a massage, a piece of fruit. And that same desire for money is on every rung of the economic ladder. A Western friend asked a Khmer friend who the Cambodian people considered heroes, and the Khmer couldn’t come up with a good answer. All he could say is that most Khmer would consider anyone with money to be a hero.

I am not trying to bash the Cambodian people. They have been pillaged and picked apart for centuries longer than the U.S. has existed, and the fact that they have scraped together even a semblance of stability and normalcy just one generation after a mass genocide is nothing short of miraculous. But it exhausts me, sometimes, noticing how much further they have to go, in matters both large (a mess of an education system, poor health care) and small (the postal service seems more inclined to hold packages hostage rather than actually deliver them). It’s like America in the early nineteenth century, except with more cell phones. And for them to move from the third world to the first one is going to take a lot more time and money. Which begs the question, where does the money come from?

I’m no expert on the Cambodian economy, but it doesn’t seem like they’re thriving in terms of manufacturing or exporting goods. There’s no way they can compete in that department with surrounding countries. There’s tourism, I guess, but Angkor Wat is the one big attraction, and everyone here in Siem Reap who owns a business is expecting a dry spell due to the economic crisis the world over. So a lot of Cambodia’s money is still coming from foreign aid. And while I’m not begrudging them that and feel like it’s worth it if it keeps things from crumbling into chaos again (Cambodia has not yet turned me into a Republican), it’s frustrating to see signs that the money is being misused or mismanaged.

A lot of foreign money gets poured into NGOs, some of which seem to be little more than scam operations. There are plenty of reputable, upstanding NGOs, too, but even they seem sometimes misguided. For example, I went with a newly-founded organization as it was making its first delivery of school supplies to a poor rural district. The kids were excited about the books and pencils, but word had spread through the village and there wasn’t nearly enough to go around. The NGO staff were also handing out candy, and as I watched I couldn’t help thinking, "These kids’ teeth are rotting out of their heads and we’re giving them candy? How about toothbrushes?" A feeling of utter hopelessness took root in my stomach when the NGO leaders started to ask the villagers about how to expand the school and their basic response was, "Why? Whether you finish first grade or sixth grade, you’re going to be working in a rice paddy." A part of me kept thinking that maybe they should spare everyone the trouble and just divide up the Western staff’s salaries among the villagers so they could all go buy a house someplace else—instead of teaching them to fish, just give them the damn fish, already. All I’m saying is that even with the very purest intentions behind an enterprise, it often seems like the blind leading the blind.

But any trespasses of the NGOs pale in comparison to that of the corrupt government. It’s taken as a given here that everyone and his brother is skimming a little (or a lot) off the top. And if government officials are getting rich that way, what incentive do they have to make their country a more pleasant place for the masses? Giant billboards of the prime minister, Hun Sen, and his top two lackeys are everywhere, and Jason and I have come to refer to them as the three stooges. Nonetheless, Hun Sen seems to be remarkably popular, even though he’s a former member of the Khmer Rouge, a fact that everyone seems to conveniently overlook. That’s like if, in the post-Civil War U.S., Robert E. Lee took over the presidency after Lincoln got shot. Or maybe like if Osama Bin Laden renounced radical Islam tomorrow and we thanked him with a prompt appointment to the Supreme Court.

But what’s the alternative? I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this except that I think Cambodia needs some sort of uber-financial consultant—some big mythic version of you who will come along and tell not just individuals but the whole country what to do with its money. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could take this mess and with some deft computations tidy it into a nice secure investment portfolio? Because even I, the member of the family with the least financial acumen, can see that when it comes to Cambodian cash, something always smells fishy, and it’s not the Tonle Sap lake.

With love,

Friday, December 19, 2008

Re: Stadium Cambodian



Dude, I’m listening to ‘Boys of Summer’ and I know I don’t need to tell you how perfectly awesome it is. Shannon hates it; I mean she C A N N O T S T A N D it. Every time it comes up (which is fairly often, actually) she lets out this long groan. No amount of explanation of how the guitar in the bridge sounds exactly like seagulls, nor how the keyboard rhythm section sounds perfectly like sunset in a beach town – not a rosy, tropical sunset beach town but an All-American, Eastcoast, twilight between hazy-afternoon-glare and neon-boozed all-the-trash-you-can-be nighttime sunset – none of that makes a lick of difference. Man, the tune’s a good testament to what you could do with arrangement in an ‘80s pop style… Ha, she just walked in to tell me that what she thought was bamboo when she bought it at the market was actually a kilo of shredded ginger, and when I turned up Winamp (stick it, Apple) she flung out her arms like a bird and scrunched her shoulders up like a palsy victim and fled out of the room. I can’t sell her on AC/DC either. Anyway, this all reminds me of how Emily just didn’t get Red Dawn.

I put on ‘Boys of Summer’ because I was going to write you a letter about a Khmer pop concert, needed a little accompaniment, and then got distracted scrolling my way to Pat Benetar. Now ‘Shadows of the Night’ is on and the keyboard bombast is pretty spectacular. You know what else is spectacular and even more ludicrous? Stadium concerts in a country just getting the hang of sponsorship and showmanship.

A little bit ago Shannon and I rode our bike – me pedaling and her shotgun on the little package rack on the back – northwest out of Siem Reap. We’re looking on assignment for the Cambodian Magician, a ropey guy who leaps through hoops of knives for captive Khmer audiences. A moto driver pointed us toward the road out of town and soon we’re out into No Man’s Land, miles of flat dirt and scrub unlike the typical lush scenery. Huff and puff, huff and puff, and as we’re both starting to think of bagging the whole thing, we turn a corner and blam!, the horizon holds what on first look seems to be some kind of castle, as odd a thing to see as if you were wandering across the Mongolian Steppes and came upon a Navaho Casino. Turns out it’s a stadium-sized stage and in a few hours the last show of a three-night get-down ends the ten-year-anniversary party Khmer TV3 is throwing for itself.

The show has what all stadium shows have: a massive stage decked out with tremendous lighting rigs and two jumbotrons, the throng milling about a giant gravel parking lot, sponsor banners four stories high and company booths lining the lot, people hocking disposable bits of plastic that flash and whiz for half an hour before being tossed on the ground. The primary sponsor is Colgate, and their banners feature a white doctor looking confident next to an as-white-as-possible Khmer family grinning sparkling white teeth. The Colgate company booths are selling Honeysuckle Salt-flavored toothpaste to an endless crowd. On the vast, grey gravel, people have set up roulette wheels made of index cards and chopsticks and a woman illuminates her three-card-monty table with flickering candles. At the edges, where Colgate has turned the shuddering candle light to the blasting pink and green of neon tubes, players throw darts at balloons tacked to the wall, trying to win bottles of squid sauce or liters of Sprite.

The music on stage is atrocious, soft nothing with an airy whine substituting for melody. The dancers, however, those guys are something to see. They’re more or less on par with Van Halen in the ‘Hot for Teacher’ video. Watching them clunk and stagger through their moves, studmuffin grins on their faces, I realize that this, like seemingly everything in Cambodia is done jackleg. It is as if everyone from the choreographer to the performers to the producers all have the general idea of what they want to do (in this case ape routines from New Kids on the Block) but none of them really know how to go about it. In keeping with the modern Khmer spirit, no one is an expert but collectively they reach some semblance of competency, at least to a level acceptable to the crowd packed shoulder to shoulder in front of them.

The whole country is like this. Our washer was busted and when the two teenager boys sent by the landlord couldn’t fix it, they hefted it out of the front door. Oh, I guess they have a truck, I’m thinking. No. One dude climbs onto his motor scooter and the other guy gets on behind him, balancing a full-sized washing machine on his lap between them, the thing looming a foot and half above their heads as they weave out the gate and off through the gullies. Public trash at even the big hotels is beyond spotty and public maintenance of roads consists of dumping loads of dirt after five months of monsoon rains have made those gullies, so people use rubble and coconut shells and trash to smooth out their moto rides home. A friend took his grandmother to the hospital because her blood seemed to be clotting, making her lightheaded, and what did the good doctors recommend? A good massage to get that blood flowing, or else to push the clot to her brain, everything relative to education, understanding, the tools at hand. Society here is a kind of wonder. There is not enough infrastructure, leadership, or skills to successfully assemble all the pieces of daily life, yet collectively some workable system is developed. It’s like assembling scattered audio tracks of a Beatles song into something by Sonny and Cher. You recognize that things aren’t really the way the should – or maybe could – be, but everyone makes do in a relatively cheerful and oblivious fashion.

The only exception I’ve detected is the machinations of the government. Those guys have their society down cold, knocking out opponents and consolidating land, money, and power with only loud words spoken calmly and the slow and steady reconfiguring of what is and is not legal. Those guys have learned from the failure of the Superpower to their north and the success of our Superpower to their west. “Common criminals” is something I read a lot in reference to them, their peers in the north of India and Pakistan, leaders all across the African continent. That quality of leadership seems to be an intrinsic characteristic of Developing World societies, and as I reflect on the similarities between them and our Wall Street and K Street criminals, I am reminded of an Op-Ed piece I read, I think in The Wall Street Journal, that was the Developing World’s welcoming of the U.S. to their family.

I guess we have more or less ignored our homegrown conmen for ten or twenty years. Or maybe we just have felt powerless or unqualified to address them. Either way, that means we have something in common with jackleg Khmers. We make do with what we have before us. Anyway…

This email went in a different direction than I intended. I still want to convey the kind of jolly bumbling quality to so much of life here. It’s worth ending, then, by telling you that those geniuses that worked with Colgate to put on that show saw fit to top the male headliner with a Jennifer Aniston hair cut, cover the bass player’s head with a Seattle-style stocking cap, and have the female headliner rough-riding the air at the end of the stage, going to town cowboy style and singing, “Oh, I want it, Oh, I want it,” in between long strings of Khmer.

Love you,

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Running on Two Continents

Dear Deanna,

I knew, even before the starter’s pistol went off, that this letter would be for you. You’re the one who ran a half-marathon before, the one who sent me information about how to train. But it wasn’t until someone asked me why I was doing such a thing that I realized that I’d never asked you the same question, nor could I provide a very good answer for myself.

Not having a good answer caused terror to set in just before the race began. Did you experience this, joining the crowd at the starting line in Columbus? I was standing in front of the imposing steps to the causeway of Angkor Wat, and my hands were trembling so badly that I could barely safety pin the number to the front of my shirt. After all, you know that I am not really an athletic sort. I have never learned to ride a bike, become uneasy and clumsy the instant a piece of sporting equipment is placed in my hands, and have always been picked last for every team, from preschool Red Rover to Dunlap family reunion volleyball games. My body is not going cooperate, I thought, not for 21 kilometers. Why am I doing this?

The easy answer, the one that I use most often, is that I do it for the runner’s high, and that’s at least partially true. Maybe you use this explanation—being the mother of three small children is undoubtedly stressful, and maintaining a thirteen-year marriage (even if it is to my adored brother) must have its difficulties, too. I started jogging on a regular basis when I first moved to New York and felt lonely, then more when my relationship with Jeremy started to hit the rocks, and more still the summer after we broke up. Running through the streets of Jersey City could sometimes flip a switch in my brain, could allow me the luxury of daydreaming about how the next day would be better. But we both know that the runner’s high doesn’t always cut it, that sometimes you need life to cooperate. I remember a day a year and a half ago when I crumpled onto the living room floor in tears after a run, wondering why I didn’t feel any better. A few hours later, my friend Jason came over to hang out. A movie, a bottle of wine, a kiss, and suddenly the race course had taken a sharp turn, went stretching out in a different direction, one that led, eventually, to Cambodia.

Running in Cambodia is different than running in the US. In some very straightforward ways, it’s difficult to train here: stray dogs and chickens chase me wherever I go, moto drivers tease me, and it is always either muddy or dusty, resulting in red-stained sneakers and frequent coughing fits. But it’s difficult in subtler ways as well, producing some mutated reversal of the runner’s high. Cambodia is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, pure and corrupt, friendly and forbidding, and to run through the streets is to force yourself to see all of that. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I fit in here, what I was supposed to be doing, or even if I wanted to stay. There have been many days when I couldn’t write about this place, couldn’t even think about it, but at least, I thought, every time I put my running shoes on, I was seeing it.

I think that’s why the idea of running the half-marathon through the famous temples appealed to me: that somehow I would see them differently if I looked at them in this context and understand the ancient and complex fabric of this place better. That’s not exactly what happened. There was so much adrenaline, so many people—it was hard to meditate on the secrets of the Khmer empire. All I had time to process was that, after weeks of feeling as though I was stumbling into obstacles, it was all a little easier than I thought it would be. My body did not fail me; the training you suggested had done its job and I ran every step of the way. But there was something else, too. I was used to the climate, I didn’t need to take a hundred tourist’s snapshots during the race, and I could speak some words of Khmer to the children who had come to give the runners encouraging high fives. This is a strange place, I thought, looking up at the carved stone faces that are over six hundred years old. But it is also a home.

And so, even after crossing the finish line, the running continues. That is the best answer that I can think of right now—that we run because there is always more ground to cover. We are in different hemispheres right now, and for now my course stays in Cambodia, but someday we will run a race together and prove to ourselves one more time that we are tougher than we think.

With love,

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Re: Holiday Fowl and Khmer Kitchen


Dear E.A.,

We had a good Thanksgiving. Shannon and I got all jazzed to have four or five Khmer friends over for as good of an approximation of the holiday as we could fashion. We ended up inviting 9 people in addition to ourselves and our roommate. Then we realized that we only had 2 stove tops and a toaster oven that is 30 centimeters wide. Well, we assembled a brigade of borrowed toaster ovens and went to town, doing a good job of sneaky beans (string bean-mushroom thingamabob), mashed potatoes, stuffing, salad, fruit salad, etc. In lieu of turkey I went out and found what I thought were chickens. Turns out they were ducks. So I took those 2 ducks I'd purchased and went and found actual chickens. They're all over the place here in the afternoons and evenings, killed fresh that morning and cooked until they're the color of dirty tallow. In a communication breakdown, I asked the sellers to simply cut off the heads, but they instead went Thor-style with a meat cleaver and tossed everything into a bag. "Oh, there's the right side of the head...oh, there's the left...oh, there's a piece of eyeball." When re-heating the birds in one of the toaster ovens, I made sure to pull the bills from out of the assemblage of parts. The Khmers were all about this big platter of bird I’d assembled; the Westerners took the occasional wing and went to town on the sides. A lot of it ended up going to Sheba, the dog of a French friend.

Also, I won a gift certificate from this business called Cooks in Tuk Tuks, which takes you to the local open-air market, explains all the exotic foods and herbs (referred to as "fertilizers," for some reason), and then takes you back to a nice restaurant where they make your food in front of you and let you participate. (I feel it’s worth noting that I won the gift certificate at a culinary pub quiz when I responded to the question What is another name for Sago? with the answer Sago the Wise. Apparently sago is sea tapioca but it sound Middle Earthian to me.) Anyway, back from the market the cook made us all this good grub and, after a desert of sweet potato with sago (!) in coconut cream, he pulls me up to help make prohoc. What is prohoc, you ask? The cook holds up individual bowls of grey fermented fish goop, garlic, salt, chilies, sugar, some other ingredients that escape me now.

Then, the last bowl: "Rat ans," he says.

"Red anne?" we ask.

"No, rat ans."


"Rat ans." He gives the bowl to Shannon, we both look down.

"Oh, red ANTS!"

Tiny in their bowl they looked like three-dimensional stick men broken and heaped upon each other at the bottom of a ceramic mass grave.

"Adult rat ans," he says, pointing at the stick men. Then he points at the little white specks tossed in to the mound. "Rat ans children."

"Red ants’ children?” we ask.

"Yes," he says, pointing at the larvae. “I catch the ans in the garden and put them in the freezer.”

I follow the dude’s directions and make and eat the prohoc. The ants have a bit of tang to them. “Why do you add the ants?” we ask.

“You can use lime if you have no ans.”

“Good to know.”

“The ans are sour, so prohoc is not too sweet.”

Awesome. My palette is coming along nicely.

- R.J.

Friday, November 28, 2008

My First Tropical Disease

Dear World Health Organization,

I am pleased to announce that I have isolated a new strain of disease in Southeast Asia. I believe the reason it has gone so long uncategorized is because of some striking similarities to the common cold, but long hours in the lab and a harrowing personal bout with said disease have convinced me that we are dealing with an entirely different beast. I will enumerate in this letter the additional symptoms that appear alongside the more mundane congestion, coughing and fever.

This symptom usually has an early onset, starting with the certainty that the contracted disease is definitely malaria or at least dengue fever. Even after these suspicions have been quelled, paranoia will simply shift onto a new object, usually one’s romantic partner. Patient may feel as though partner has switched dramatically from sympathy (“You poor thing.”) to mild disinterest (“Are you coughing or puking in there? Just coughing? Oh.”) This perception, combined with a complete lack of symptoms in the romantic partner, may convince the patient that she has been purposefully and maliciously infected.

This may manifest itself in a hatred of all things Cambodian (“If it wasn’t so muddy here I would be better by now”) or a desperation for all things familiar and unobtainable (“My kingdom for a Cheez-it”). May be combined with previously listed symptom to produce rage in the patient at the thought that romantic partner is probably at a special café that specializes in crossword puzzles and Boggle while patient is dying on couch.

Impairment of Judgment:
Disease can cause patient to make poor decisions, including (but not limited to) taking a generic decongestant which may be a mislabeled elephant tranquilizer, jogging at the crack of dawn with the conviction that it will actually make one feel better, and watching terrible movies on the only English-language cable channels, featuring slightly out-of-fashion actresses like Sandra Bullock and Kim Basinger being hurled into states of despair.

May be a direct consequence of poor film choices (“Why must Kim Basinger’s son die of an African snake bite? Why?”) or a separate phenomenon. Patient may begin to assert that death is imminent and engage in elaborate fantasies about repatriation of remains.

This matter requires immediate attention and swift action on the part of WHO, with an eye toward vaccination and eventual eradication. Much work remains and you can rest assured that I intend to see it through to the bitter end. Also, please note that the name The Shannon Syndrome has a certain je ne sais quoi and is currently available for use.

Shannon N. Dunlap

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Re: Global Branding


Dear President-elect Obama,

Congratulations on your victory. Though American, I live in Cambodia, and myself and a handful of other Westerners gathered at a local bar at 9:00 a.m. on our November 5th to watch the returns in real time. There were not many of us, and even fewer Americans.

Khmer don’t care about your election or what Americans think of you. In contrast to what seems to have been the predominant feeling across the planet for the past seven years, Cambodia still likes America. The Khmer teenagers my girlfriend and I tutor in English pronunciation eagerly tell us, “American accents are the best.” I don’t know why this is the case. There are more Brits, Canadians, and Australians spending tourist dollars here than there are Americans. Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese shows dominate on local cable TV. The bootleg films available do seem to be largely American, but they are all dubbed or have subtitles. From the pragmatic standpoint of winning the generosity of a tourist, a local person would be better served to know Australian slang or practice using pants only when referring to underwear.

So what is the reason for the average Khmer to still love America when most of the globe has grown accustomed to hating us? In a country where the vast majority of people are uneducated and thus cut off from the tides of international news, does the legendary promise of the Land of Opportunity still reside in the collective conscious? I asked my Khmer friend Diné. “They know America is very powerful,” he said, smiling around a Marlboro Light. “They want to better their lives, so they want to sound like Americans when going for job interviews. Many Khmer do not even know that other countries, they speak English.” I asked the monk that tutors Shannon and me in English, and he said that America is very generous in its aid to Cambodia, apparently either unaware or unconcerned that until the 1990s we supported the maniacal Khmer Rouge as the official regional enemy of Communist Vietnam. But average Khmer people now live calmly alongside former KR soldiers. The prime minister is a former KR head honcho and well liked. Out of decades of chaos has come a respect for strength and stability above any notion of justice. America has the widest shoulders and the best carrots and sticks, and we are widely admired for it.

Every Thursday, Shannon and I go to the pub quiz hosted at an English-owned ex-pat bar named Funky Munky. Money raised goes to local NGOs. Aside from the occasional British football team pennant and the odd LP cover tacked to the wall, the decorations at Funky Munky consist of large, framed silkscreens of legendary Americans with Guns from our popular fiction. There is, of course, Robert DeNiro, surely the most frequently displayed American gangster and mad man, here as Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas. There’s also a picture of Christopher Walken about to lose Russian Roulette in Deer Hunter, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, and a 12-year-old Natalie Portman test aiming in The Professional. There’s even a charming black-and-white film still of a handlebar-mustachioed Lee Marvin showing off his six-gun alongside cowboy Jack Palance. I’ve seen this same décor in scores of college dorm rooms, most pizza parlors in New York City, and in bars across the world. Its style is on display on the covers of most of those bootleg films for sale in the Khmer markets. This is an integral part of our global brand, a part of our national image that is incredibly potent. And standing in the Funky Munky a day after your victory speech in Grant Park, I thought of another part of the American image.

I was cynical when you first announced your candidacy two years ago. Your bonafides as a true reformer were lacking. But by this fall, I was as worn down and as terrified of another GOP victory as everyone else. I put my hope in you. And as I watched in disbelief my home state of Virginia turn blue on CNN’s scoreboard and your victory declared, I felt, as simply as if a switch had been thrown, that my country was mine again. After seven years of watching the judiciary, legislature, executive office, fourth-estate press, and general citizenry stray ever further away from my code of ethics, I was suddenly terribly lonely for my home. How powerful, the popular belief of the pack.

I moved to Asia in part to avoid the crush of the 24-hour coverage of the campaign and I had no interest in watching the empty heads chattering at the commentator’s desk. Just as I was thinking that I’d need to leave the TV to keep my happiness safe from those useless human markers between ad spots, those voices just nothing to me, just air and narcissus-breath to me, the camera pulled away to Chicago streaming into Grant Park and I felt like my breastbone might finally crack to let the air and light in. When was the last time a quarter-million Americans gathered in one place and were happy? When has anyone ever seen Al Sharpton smile? I come from a city where statues of Confederate generals line the grandest street, and still that city has voted for you?! It is astounding, and as the camera panned over my ecstatic countrymen and woman, I saw evidence of what I hope we will recognize: that we are all truly The People; of, by, and for each other, and thus, ourselves.

This, Senator Obama, is the part of America that I want promoted to the world, and it is the part of America that you have made your flagship marketing initiative. I don’t blame you for making our best ideas of ourselves into slogans and T-shirts; we live in an age where all is product, and we are all bound by the rules of that age. So I don’t blame you for using U2’s cathedral chiming to close your DNC speech, even though it turned the evening into a propaganda music video. I don’t blame you for the way your campaign sold an abstract like ‘hope’ until the letters were worn translucent and the word was as substantial as the idea of fog in a morning of gray rain. We certainly need hope and you, my friend, are an exceptional namebrand for it. What I want, then, is for that image of America gathered in Grant Park to be as widely admired by the world and on display in the pubs and markets of Cambodia, as is the brute business sense associated with our brandishing of a gun.

I am no fool. I know that a whole universe exists between what we all say and who we all really are. But I am choosing to believe that you are genuine, that your unparalleled adeptness at the political machine has thus far serviced, rather than clouded, this genuineness. You are galvanizing and we need that. We need you because we desperately need each other. You were a good product on the shelf, and we have bought you, Barack Obama. I hope you are as superhuman as we now need you to be.


Jason Leahey

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lords of the Snack

Dear Mom,

I hadn’t written a letter to you yet because I knew that when I did it would have to be about food. Over the course of my twenty-seven years, you have generously nourished and soothed me with enormous quantities of food (anyone who has encountered a pan of your brownies knows what I mean), and it seemed only appropriate that a letter to you somehow connect to that theme. But the Cambodian food scene left me uninspired. It’s not that Khmer food isn’t good, but it is somewhat repetitive, particularly for vegetarians. I will soon be a connoisseur of any conceivable combination of vegetables and rice noodles. Anything that does not involve meat, I’ve been told, is not considered a real meal. But then along came a holiday that impressed upon me how grievously I had overlooked a crucial culinary category.

The Water Festival, or Bonn Kam Tdeu, takes place when the rainy season ends and the water in the river reverses. The holiday turns the banks of the Siem Reap into a massive carnival for three days (complete with a rickety and startlingly rapid Ferris wheel). There are two notable features to the Water Festival. One is the boat racing. Teams of about twenty-five people in coordinated t-shirts climb into traditional Cambodian boats and paddle down the river in an endless series of head-to-head matches. They look like crew races but with a more flamboyant rowing style. The other essential component of the festival is the vast array of snack food. You literally cannot take two steps without bumping into a snack vendor. Hundreds of Khmer people (sellers and eaters of snacks alike) pour into the town from the countryside provinces to watch the races and, apparently, work on raising their cholesterol levels. I am no stranger to snacks, certainly, but the Water Festival proves that the Cambodian people are light years ahead of me—veritable Snackmasters.

Here is a just a small sampling of what’s on display, some of which I’ve tried and others which I have actively avoided:

-moon-shaped pastries, crimped on the edges and filled with caramelized onions

-chilled pieces of sugarcane, nubby little cylinders that are strangely tasteless until you bite down hard, at which point they give up a gush of sweet juice, leaving only a woody pulp that you spit out

-tiny prawns, flattened (shells and all) and deep-fried into a shrimp pancake, their beady black eyes gazing up through the batter

-plastic bags filled with mysterious Technicolor fluids

-freshly made crepes drizzled with Best Cow sweetened condensed milk

-popcorn cemented into enormous balls with sugar syrup

-sliced green mango, served with little individual packets of a spicy, salty dipping mixture

-pure white dumplings stuffed with pork, their little puckered tops hidden beneath the domed metal lids of steam trays

-lotus pods, which look like bright green shower heads and can be broken open to get to the raw edible seeds

-many variations of sweet fried dough, which Jason has grouped into the Trans Saturated Snack category. My favorite are the wee doughnuts, deep-fried to a satisfying crunch, and topped with something that tastes like a sesame version of peanut brittle.

-carts full of color-coded kebabs, piled up neatly and waiting to be fried and put on a bed of cucumber and basil

-great mounded trays of boiled peanuts

-“bamboo rice,” or hollow sections of bamboo filled with coconut milk, beans and rice and then grilled until you can strip away the bamboo like a banana peel and eat the sticky finger food inside

-perfectly spherical bits of bright red meat that, when skewered and grilled, resemble a kindergartner’s drawing of a caterpillar

-short, fat ears of roasted corn

-“barbequed eggs,” stuffed full of spices and cooked in their shells on hot coals

-bags full of kreuk moh, a sort of Khmer sundae, in which geometrically shaped bits of custard are drenched in sweetened condensed milk and topped with shaved ice

This is only a partial list, and I feel confident saying that there are still more that I have not yet discovered. An afternoon of tasting has left me sluggish and craving something green, so I will end this letter and make myself a salad. But rest easy knowing that two days of the festival remain and that my snack needs are being more than adequately fulfilled. And also know that I still desperately miss your brownies.

Love always,

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Native Tongue

Dear Mme. Dahlberg,

I do not want to you to feel wholly responsible for the fact that I am miserably monolingual. After all, it could not have been easy to be the sole high school French teacher in Lexington, Ohio, the only local expert in a language not your own, the lone Francophile amidst the fields of corn. But I do not think I am being conceited when I say that I was one of your most promising and attentive students for the four years that I sat in your classroom, nor am I being modest when I say that I came out of those four years lacking the ability to speak any French. Half of the expats in Siem Reap are French, but I would rather feign mental retardation when I meet one of them than try to strike up a conversation in my pidgin français. And if I can’t speak even a fairly common Romance language with any fluency, how will I ever be able to tackle Khmer?

Mind you, learning Khmer is hardly a prerequisite for living in Cambodia. Everyone here, from the tuk-tuk drivers to the wealthy businessmen, can speak English, and one’s fluency is usually a good indication of one’s affluence. ESL textbooks and workbooks are everywhere (though I’ve yet to find similar ones that teach Khmer). Children and young adults love to test out their English skills on us with stilted but spirited conversations. We have been told that American accents are especially respected, and when I see Obama and McCain orating from every television screen, I understand why. Unwittingly, and through pure luck and happenstance, I have been fluent in the language of influence and power for over twenty years. For a monolinguist, it is the most fortuitous possible position, and I can’t help but feel some guilt for stumbling into it.

Maybe because of this guilt, it is important to me to be able to speak at least some semblance of the local language. I refuse to look like a tourist for the next ten months, unable to pronounce even the blandest pleasantries correctly. Let the record show that I tried, in advance, to prevent this from happening, by purchasing “Talk Khmer Now!” for my computer, which features two decidedly Anglo-looking people whose lip movements do not match the words they are supposedly saying. But a single CD-ROM gave me little insight into a language so complex that it’s difficult to pronounce even the name of the language correctly (despite being spelled “Khmer,” it’s pronounced, inexplicably, more like “k’mai”), and while the software was marginally successful in teaching me a few single words, I am still incapable of stringing them into sentences (“Rice yes meat no please thanks big-big!”)

Since the intricacies of Khmer grammar seem to be something only a real teacher can convey, Jason and I went in search of one at the local monastery, Wat Bo. A monk named Savuth was convinced to take us on as students, though he usually teaches English and seemed a little nervous about the prospect of teaching Khmer. Nonetheless, he told us we could come as often as we want, and when we mentioned the subject of formal payment, he looked embarrassed and said something supremely monkish, such as, “If you will learn to speak the Khmer language, this will make me happy.” Savuth’s request seems like an exceedingly modest one, but I worry that making him happy will be a little harder than scoring an A in French IV.

Apparently, the sight of crazy white people wandering around the monastery is not an everyday occurrence, and two other monks showed up at our first lesson, counting on the potential entertainment value of the event. Savuth got right down to business, trying to teach us how to say I. This sounds simple enough, but the way you say I varies widely depending upon whether you’re talking to your grandmother or to a monk or to the King of Cambodia. A simple k’nyom will do if I’m talking to Jason, for instance, but for the king it’s knyom prea-ang meh cha, and God only knows what would happen if I had to speak to both of them at once. If I wanted to say something to Savuth, like “I think I might feel faint if I have to look at any more of the absurdly complicated Khmer alphabet,” I would have to say, “K’nyom prea-cah ro nah…” or something of the sort, just to express that initial pronoun, at which point I would have forgotten the rest of the sentence.

After an exhausting assortment of Is, we moved on to learning how to tell someone your name. “Listen,” Savuth said. “Cheameuooioereh,” or some other combination of vowels I have never heard before. “K’nyom cheameuooioereh Savuth.”

“Chamore?” I said hopefully.

“Cheameuooioereh,” Savuth said, moving his mouth in a way that I cannot hope to replicate.

“Shamoo?” I said, feeling smaller and smaller. This went back and forth for a while, until Savuth settled back to drink some Coca-cola and compose himself and I slumped dejectedly while one of the monk audience members told me, “Clever student! Clever student!” in a way that I found extremely kind but unduly optimistic.

The lesson ended with Savuth trying valiantly to teach us how to say, “See you Monday!” and then waving goodbye as we sputtered gibberish back at him.

Mme. Dahlberg, where did we go wrong? Am I really such a dullard that acquisition of a foreign language is beyond my reach? Or did all that time in the middle of an enormous and powerful country muffle all the other voices of the world? Keep fighting the good fight, Mme. Dahlberg—we need people who can talk to each other, and Savuth and the rest of the international community deserve better than a one-trick pony like me.

Best wishes,
Shannon Dunlap

Friday, October 24, 2008

Re: Angkor Lite FM


Dear Richard Marx,

I am writing to let you know that you are absolutely huge in the nation of Cambodia. I mean you’re a veritable titan. This is no small feat; though one would expect various trappings of Western culture to be embraced by Southeast Asia, Western music has yet to deeply penetrate the Khmer market. Though I find the music echoing from the local wats alluring and the traditional instruments played in the streets lovely, popular music here is, by and large, comprised of Khmer-language ballads with melodies as soft as wet bread and beats as compelling as a fork. Though one time I heard English-language hip-hop from a passing SUV and once even saw videos from Mary J. Blige and Lupe Fiasco, the limp native tunes seem to be the most ubiquitous music across the widest measure of society. They are the bread and butter of the thriving karaoke-cum-brothel scene. Their videos are played loudly and incessantly on every bus line for hour after hour after hour. Ninety-eight percent of them involve:

  1. a boy standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost girl
  2. a girl standing in a beautiful river and mourning a lost boy
  3. a boy standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost girl who is trying to make amends
  4. a girl standing in a beautiful river and sticking it to the lost boy who is trying to make amends.
Khmer young and old, hip and bumpkin, lean forward, elbows on knees, and watch intently as the Khmer words pass across the bottom of the screen. Occasionally someone sings along. But nary a word of English is to be heard.

Except your words, Richard. In the six weeks I have been here, I have heard Right Here Waiting multiple times, in multiple social situations, and in multiple forms. You might be saying, “Well, that’s my biggest hit; it’s no surprise it finds a home in the international market alongside Soft Rock Classics like (Love Lifts Us Up) Where We Belong.” You might be saying, “Right Here Waiting is in every mid-level piano practice book printed since 1989, it was only a matter of time.” You’d be right, Richard, but your ignorance and humility is leading you to sell yourself short. Though your song is inevitably a potent part of the Soft Rock Classics mix that I occasionally hear in tourist establishments, it is also the sole English-language song that I have found treated as equal to the Khmer pop videos. It is the only song I know of to not just cross the cultural divide, but to bridge it. Lest you think that the art of letter writing leads me to embellish facts, let me state here and now that all of what follows is one-hundred-percent truth:

The morning my lady and I left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap, I woke up with Shoulda Known Better flexing itself in my brain. There was no reason for it - my cassette of your debut is in a box in The States - and yet there I was, snarling to Shannon in the shower, “Shoulda known bettah…then to fall in love with yo-ou…now love is just-a faded memory.” Then, just because the spirit moved us, we traded verses of Right Here Waiting. Two hours pass, we’re on our way north, and what comes onto the bus television after one of those limpid Khmer ballads? A fan-fucking-tastic cover of Right Here Waiting sung in English and Khmer, that’s what. The video is an American Bandstand-type set up, a round-faced and sincere man singing from a small center stage, Khmer couples in prom attire turning across the floor, arms rigid, partners held a basketball’s width apart and smiles unflinching. “Whatever it take,” sings the man in time with the karaoke prompt. “Oh! How my heart breaks?” Then, only one day later, Shannon and I are sitting in an outdoor café that doubles as a butterfly sanctuary and, after a delicious Celine Dion cover (that number where she bellows, “I’m your LAY-DAAEEH!”), Right Here Waiting comes on again, this time a full-English cover sung bravely by a Khmer. Another week and a half passes and, lo and behold, we’re having a drink when at the next table over a Belgian woman starts in with her own rendition. The best part? When we laughed and tried to engage in a tête-à-tête with her table over the long reach of your staff-writing arm, that other table was confused. They’d just arrived in town. They were just singing your song because it popped into their heads apropos of nothing. And do you know what just came over the café speakers when I was writing the sentence before last? A pretty solid rendition of Now and Forever, a twinge of Khmer accent whispering above the clatter, “Until the day the ocean doesn’t touch the sand, now and forever, I will be your man.” All of this is the gospel truth.

I don’t know just what it is about the Khmer experience that makes you so relatable. I’ve dwelled on it and there’s precious little similarity between Cambodia today and the United States at the end of the 1980s. It’s true that Khmers seem to be suckers for a good ballad of lost love but I don’t think that alone is enough of an explanation. I wonder if it is the combination of loss and patient waiting that is the key. If, in a country where every family includes the memory of a loved one stolen away by war and torture, there is deep resonance in the declaration, “Whatever it takes, or how my heart breaks, I will be right here waiting for you.”

The point is this, Rick: you’re in the bloodstream here, part of the cultural compote of the moment. Your song is not merely enjoyed by people in a distant land; it inspires them to make it their own. I’d put a lot of money on the bet that few people here know your name. I’m sure they haven’t seen your videos, not even the super sweet one in which you morph into a Major League slugger and take a fastball from Dennis Eckersley. I bet you the engineer and producer who set up those local recording sessions of Soft Rock Top Tens don’t even know who you are. And that’s okay. You’re as ubiquitous in Cambodia as 7-11 is at home. Americans don’t need to know the ingredients of a Coca-Cola Slurpee; that doesn’t keep them from needing one every now and again. Cambodians count on you being there and trust that you will be. That’s a trick, Richard, and I suspect you know that. It’s one thing to be a fancy face that keeps tabloids in gossip. It’s a whole other planet to craft a song that survives without you.

Warm regards,

Jason Leahey

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Loneliest Martini in Cambodia

Dear Llalan,

Thanks once again for your efforts to shower me with your superior knowledge of beer the last time we saw each other in Boston. Your lesson has been on my mind more than once in Cambodia since bars are many and varied here and not an uncommon destination for an expat writer prone to periodic attacks of displacement anxiety. I will freely admit that I was a terrible student—terms like lager, ale, stout, porter, and pilsner have become impossibly muddled in my mind. And though I may have pretended that I understood the difference between hoppiness and yeastiness that night in Cambridge, I will take this opportunity to admit that I still have no idea what you were talking about. But while I am certainly not the best judge of beer quality, I thought that as one of your oldest friends I owed you a considered and well-researched survey of the region’s brews.

Beer is very cheap here. Seventy-five-cent happy hour specials are easy to find, and if you go into any bar at any hour and are still sober five dollars later, something has gone horribly awry. In most cases you get what you pay for. That is, cheap Asian beer tastes much like cheap American beer—not very good. Jason has flashbacks of the beer truck at the St. Mary’s Social Union Annual Picnic whenever he tastes Anchor; I am curiously transported to sweaty frat parties of my past whenever I make the poor decision to drink Chang. I have already heard expat urban legends about formaldehyde lurking in the kegs of Angkor beer. Worst of all is Bayon, which advertises itself as “The Beer of Cambodia,” but which has an oddly chemical odor and a dishwater aftertaste. But even a beer novice like myself can tell that when it comes to the pours of Southeast Asia, there is a clear standout. During your time in Thailand, did you have the pleasure of drinking Beerlao? I say with confidence that it is the most perfect $1 beer you will ever find. One sip would convince you. Complex and layered, yet still refreshing in the heat, it is a giant among its puny peers. Even in one’s darker, more brooding moments, the golden sheen of an ice-cold Beerlao can has the power to calm and cheer.

And yet, I am no beer connoisseur and find myself turning to other potables as the need arises. But what to choose? Ordering wine is never a good idea. Even the nicer restaurants have offerings that would make any oenophile blanche with fear. I bought a bottle of palm wine at the grocery store thinking it would be the Cambodian version of table wine, but found that it was instead a kind of syrupy liqueur which smelled a little like paint thinner. Down the street from our house is a shack with a large sign that says “Dara Local Wine,” but I think it specializes in the rice-based moonshine that I have not yet had the courage to try.

Cambodians do, however, seem to be fond of their mixed drinks, producing endless lists of strange concoctions. At one dark restaurant at the edge of Phnom Penh, I unexpectedly found the Bee’s Knees, that old flapper favorite that I thought everyone had abandoned except for me. While I have to question some of the combinations (the Picador, made by mixing only tequila and Kahlua, seemed particularly ill-advised), I do appreciate the potential for creative names—the Blue Dragon, the Amnesia, the Journalist, the Japanese Slipper, the Gin and Sin (which I like mostly because it implies that gin is the virtuous component of the drink).

Jason is fond of Cambodia’s zealous mixology because it frequently involves the fresh fruit juices that he so adores. But this often means that a waiter will bring over a tremendously effeminate pink or peach or creamy yellow number with umbrellas and cherries and curly straws, set it down in front of me, and giggle helplessly while Jason tries to slide it over to his side of the table with his masculinity intact.

As for me, I am not a fruity drink kind of girl, preferring my booze to taste like booze. This philosophy fits poorly within a society that prefers all of its beverages tooth-achingly sweet. Order an iced coffee with milk and forget to say the word “fresh” and you’re likely to end up with half a can of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of your glass. My desire for a non-sweet cocktail inspired a safari for what seems to be the most elusive quarry in all of Cambodia—the perfect gin martini. Mind you, the words “dry martini” appear on almost all drink menus, but what you get if you order it varies widely. The one thing that all versions have in common is that they do not resemble martinis. One consisted almost entirely of sweet vermouth. Another involved pineapple juice. The most peculiar incident was when I was brought a shot of brandy. Say the word “dirty” and you will ignite a storm of confusion and apologies amongst the bewildered bar staff.

And then, just as I was beginning to think that it didn’t exist, my hunt ended on a quiet rooftop bar in Siem Reap. A cool and delicate glass already beading with perspiration, the sharp, clean scent of juniper wafting toward me, the single green olive bobbing in time with the rustling banana trees below. It may have been the only one of its kind in this lonely country, and I like to think that we soothed each other in equal measure.

Oh, Big Lla, I do miss you. What good is a frosty glass without a friend beside you? Please know that I think of you often and also know that, while I am loath to ruin any potential Christmas surprises, the Beerlao logo does look particularly fetching when emblazoned on a t-shirt.

Bottoms up,

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cricket Canapés and Arachnid Amuse-Bouches

The Food Network
75 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Dear Executive Producers:

We’d like to call your attention to a new programming opportunity that we have been developing. Specially designed to capture the sector of the market interested in adventurous eating and culinary bravery, we feel it fills a gap in your current schedule.

As we become ever more aware of our global community and our impact upon it, the interests of the discerning gourmand are broadening accordingly. Though every serious foodie knows the environmental toll of the West’s industrial cattle production, how many know that many of the under-developed cultures of the East find protein in animals and animal parts most Westerners have never even considered as food? In a shrinking world, dishes and ingredients once considered exotic are available as never before, and the cosmopolitan eater expects the food media to keep him on the cutting edge of gastronomic opportunities such as these.

Accordingly, please find enclosed the transcript and a short sample of the pilot episode of “From Crepes to Chitin.” We look forward to hearing from you.

Shannon Dunlap and Jason Leahey

Transcript from 10/10/08

S: We’re in Cambodia this week, outside of Phnom Penh and cruising by bus up National Road 6 on our way to the small town of Skun. I’m here with Jason Leahey, renowned food critic, and I think I’ll let him describe what exactly we’ll be doing there.

J: Arriving drunk and eating bugs.

S: Yes, Skun does have a singular distinction, in that it is the French-fried spider capital of the world. Many Cambodians travel to the town for a taste of the region’s specialty. A little research into tourism in Skun reveals few attractions save for its trademark delicacy.
Jason, can you give me an approximation of how many people in the United States you expressed excitement to about eating bugs? Just an estimate.

J: It’s true that in my zeal for travel, I told many people—dozens? A score, maybe?—that I was jazzed to eat bugs.

S: How many bugs have you eaten since arriving a month ago?

J: You are tricking me and backing me into a corner. (Sigh.) I have eaten no bugs.

S: What makes you most nervous about eating the bugs?

J: I think it’s that they’re fucking bugs, man. We saw some at a roadside stand, and they had crickets, which I’m sure taste like the crunchy stuff at the bottom of a French fry basket, but they still look like crickets, which is a bit of a hurdle. And the tarantulas, they make daddy long-legs look like tiny little punks.

S: Are you more nervous about the cricket or the tarantula? Because you will try both today. Am I correct in thinking that?

J: Yes, I have committed myself to trying both. It’s the tarantula that makes me nervous. Maybe we should have done this afterwards. I’m starting to get jittery. Yeah, I guess it’s mostly about size with the spider. But there’s also that big ol’ abdomen. What’s that going to taste like? Like the inside of a fire-roasted marshmallow? Will there be a texture issue? That’s my main concern.

S: In case you’re feeling too sorry for Jason right now, we have come up with a plan to make him slightly less nervous. Would you like to tell our viewers what time it is?

J: Almost ten in the morning.

S: And how many beers have you consumed?

J: Approximately two and a half in the past forty minutes.

S: Would you like to describe for us how you’re feeling?

J: Mostly sleepy. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten drunk in the morning. Though there is a measure of collegiate nostalgia to it. Mostly I’m just focusing on what I need to do.

S: Do you know anything about the nutritional value of bugs?

J: I imagine there’s protein. Some salt and serious fat, too.

S: There is protein, in fact. I read that spiders and crickets have more protein by weight than beef, chicken, pork or lamb. And the cooking kills the venom, so you don’t have to worry about that.
I know you’re just doing a straight sampling today, but can you give us an idea of what might go well with the bugs? Condiments? Wine pairings?

J: Wine would definitely be something red. A little spicy. A shiraz, perhaps. And they’d probably go well with other Cambodian delicacies that we’ve seen, like barbequed entrails and pork faces and deep-fried chickadees.

S: Is there anyone to whom you’d like to feed a bug?

J: Hmm. I hesitate to answer that since I don’t know what it will be like. If it’s exciting and new then it will inspire me to feed it to someone different than if it’s vile and revolting. So given that, it could be anyone on the spectrum from my brother Andrew to Rupert Murdoch.

S: How are you doing on your third beer?

J: You know, it’s Anchor Smooth, man. Goes down easy.


S: Alright, we are back with Jason Leahey, on the other side of the spider, as it were. Can you describe what you’re doing right now?

J: Smelling my fingers. What do they smell like to you?

S: Familiar, actually. Like salad dressing, maybe?

J: I would not have said salad dressing.

S: Can you tell us how you’re feeling right now?

J: I’m feeling pretty good. I feel like I climbed a mountain. I don’t know if I’ll be going back to that mountain, but still.

S: So you won’t be eating bugs again any time soon?

J: No. And I’m a little disappointed in myself. There’s a part of me that was hoping that I would love it—that I’d just be walking down the street tossing crickets into my open mouth on the way to the malt shop to have a shake with my baby in between cricket munchings. But that’s not how it was.

S: Can you give us a rundown on the differences between cricket and spider?

J: Cricket—you had to pull off just one leg because it had like, little harpoons on it.

S: I think those are the legs that they make the singing noises with.

J: So I just ate a musician? Bummer.

S: Go on.

J: The crickets, you just put them in head-eye-goobery-antenna-end first. And there wasn’t a lot there. They tasted vaguely fishy. And greasy, very greasy. But that tarantula, you bite into one of those legs, and you’re just chewing, chewing, chewing. Not really breaking it down, but just beating it into tiny pieces. But the abdomen—that was pretty fucking gross. It looked a little like the inside of a moldy old samosa. It was just mushy and mealy and fishy-tasting.

S: It looked like the inside of a fig to me. It didn’t taste like a fig?

J: Not remotely. It was just gross. The Spider King will hate me. Forgive me, Spider Father, for my trespasses.

S: Okay, I think that’s enough for today. Thank you, Jason, for taking us on this culinary ride to Skun. Today’s episode has been brought to you by Anchor Beer.

J: Goes down smooth.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Insect Consulting, Inc.

TO: American mosquitoes
RE: Poor job performance

I regret being the bearer of bad news, but I feel you have a major problem to confront. It has come to my attention that the American mosquito industry has approached a point of crisis.

During the years of my childhood, you seemed to be enjoying a period of great prosperity. Your superior organizational skills and efficiency were the stuff of neighborhood lore, and I fastidiously avoided any area of stagnant water that might serve as your headquarters. But let us face the facts: in recent years your performance has been slipping. Yes, there was a brief surge of business during the West Nile scare, but even during those heady days, people were more grossed out by the dead birds everywhere than they were frightened of you, and it did nothing to add to that year’s bottom line.

If the situation does not improve immediately, you risk a massive and hostile takeover by foreign competitors. I have recently been touring the Cambodian mosquito industry, for instance, and I feel that they are poised for dominance of the market. Every aspect of their infrastructure is superior: biologic construction, breeding grounds, stealth tactics, etc. They seem to be drawing more liters of blood per capita than ever before.

Their brand image is superb. Humans, particularly the non-native ones, fear the trademark welts, notable for their size, duration, and peculiar bruising factor. The mortal fear of malaria and the unpreventable dengue fever only serves to add to brand recognition and visibility. There are observable results in the wild swatting behavior of tourists and expats, their carrying of smoking mosquito coils from room to room like sacred talismans, their sudden fits of tearing at their own flesh in the middle of the night. It is rare that the number of bites on my legs at any given time dips below fifteen. When it comes to Cambodian mosquitoes, we are simply talking about a better, more advanced product.

And they are achieving this level of production in a market saturated with obstacles. When was the last time American mosquitoes had to deal with mosquito nets? We’re talking about thirty-five, forty, even fifty percent DEET repellents flying off the shelves, here, all of which does little to affect Cambodian mosquito morale or effectiveness. And you guys are being taken down by citronella candles and a product named Skin So Soft? Please.

So it should come as no surprise that layoffs are imminent. If you don’t want to see American mosquito jobs being lost to foreigners, drastic measures must be taken quickly. It may be time to invest extensively in new egg production or training facilities or at least to move into the Lyme disease sector long dominated by the ticks. The ball is in your court, and the Cambodian mosquitoes are waiting for your next move.

Shannon Dunlap

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Re: American Meltdown


Brother Reece,

Your summation of the American Meltdown was the most succinct, clear, and blackly poetic explanation of the thing I’ve heard or read. I don’t really understand the default swaps you described even though I read that part three times, but I’ve saved the email for further study. Study of this con is good because to dwell on it with any part of my body other than the head is just too much. Shannon and I went to a chat with three Buddhist monks this evening (the county is almost entirely Theraveda Buddhist). On one end was a dude about my age who spoke excellent English and had a lot of carefully considered things to say, and on the other end was a teenager in glasses who was was so enthusiastic he just couldn’t stop himself from talking, even when the performance troupe of landmine victims was ready to begin in the garden downstairs. (That reads like a joke but it’s not; people here are all sorts of mangled and some of them are now musicians or other sorts of performer.) In the middle was a guy approaching forty-something who at one point pulled a cellphone from beneath his robe to check a text message. The super sharp guy told us how the Latin roots of ‘philosophy’ mean ‘love’ and ‘wisdom.’ The eager beaver told us that the Latin root of ‘religion’ means “reverence for or pondering of God.” The somewhat bored middleman talked about the relationship between intention and action.

And that put some sort of understanding and cohesion to the words I was laying down to you earlier in the day. We were in this terrible Western café for their wireless access and they were playing the Beatles’ collection of number one songs. ‘Let It Be’ came on at about the time I realized there was a muted TV on the wall above us. Along with OJ’s conviction and the sale of $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan, I learned that the New & Improved Bailout Plan has passed both chambers. It made me want to heave or break something or maybe curl up and pretend to snooze. I was having a hard time loving because I was finding it a bit too much to forgive lack of wisdom.

But what are we to do? I love ‘Let It Be’ for its remarkable ability to give me hope and a modicum of peace that, if I can keep on top of things, can last long after its three minutes have passed. Simplicity, brevity, and the brilliance to acknowledge and build upon the forms and sentiments that have worked for centuries. And though it did give me a moment of peace this morning, I can’t feel it as a lesson to live by at the moment. Part of me wants to take those bankers and traders and idiot homebuyers and all the deregulation Republicans and flog them in the street. We have to raise a ruckus until America’s backs – so broad and multitudinous, as you said – are respected and treated as more than frames from which we hang our bellies and our grabbing, snatching, buying eating directionless aimless arms. Remind me later to bitch to you about the peculiar indecencies of Boomer-specific self-centeredness and apathy. The Tyranny of the Foolish. The Reign of the Overgrown Children. I am livid and impotent. Surely the monks would wag their fingers at my lack of Peace of Mind.

And yet McCartney’s melody and repetition and Harrison’s clean and honest guitar, a choir chained down on Earth. Striking that balance between being a reed bending in the wind and throwing down a little regulation and a slap or two to those who need it, that’s a hard trick. Maybe it is Life Skills 101. For five or six years no I’ve been promising to run to Martinsburg when the system collapses, and now that it’s come I find myself having fled even further than West Virginia. I’m 10,000 miles from you and now scared to be so far from Home.

The papers and tube talk about the greed of a few in Wall Street and Washington but we know that it’s more than a few. When you and I were kids, parents bought school clothes at the thrift store because they knew we’d outgrown them in six months. People ate dinner at home and saved long and thought hard before buying a (single) TV. Sometime in the past fifteen years or so most everybody started buying whatever the hell they wanted and charging it to plastic. Shopping for its own self is a pastime? Please. Those bankers and traders and bureaucrats are still villains, but they’re villains of our particular time and moral compass. We have abandoned any respect for philosophy, for the cultivation of love and wisdom. And we have certainly replaced any real respect for any idea of God or gods with a faith in the Might Makes Right of the Market. Our intentions? Uhhh, just floatin along and blinkin at the sun, man; got myself a sweet new ride and two weeks this summer in the Caribbean. Shannon and I are in Siem Reap at the moment, Cambodia’s boom town as the ancient temples of Angkor are hacked out of the jungle and the Tourism Money Train picks up ever more speed. People have flocked in from the provinces to make better lives for themselves. They want what we have and can use what we have to get it. Or so they think. There are blocks and blocks of hotels under construction. Nobody’s told these guys that the world owed more money than it has…

Did you know that every country has a code for the phone? France is 33, Cambodia is 085, etc. Know America’s code? One. That’s it. We are not just omnipresent culturally, we are woven through the hardware of World Society. We invented the phone, the airplane, the pre-packed sub division, the pre-packaged tour to the Third World. There’s a responsibility in that.

The Cellphone Monk said something else: that Cambodia has people who are Buddhist by tradition and those who are Buddhist by understanding. Those rooted in tradition, the familiar rituals of family life, bring lotus flowers to the statues of Buddha and ask for winning lottery numbers. Those who work to understand work toward bringing themselves (and others, by default) a bit of peace and dignity. We need to understand our power and responsibility and I’m tired of feeling like I’m condescending when I think that way. America turning back to a time when it thought before it bought isn’t a bad thing. I love America, but like Leonard Cohen (also a Buddhist, now that I think about it) said, “Love is not a victory march.”

Don’t start building your house until I’m home, okay? I’ll work for you for peanuts if you’ll teach me those skills. After ‘Let It Be’ the café played ‘Help’ and ‘Yesterday,’ in that order. Life makes its own Art. On the other side of the glass, Siem Reap kept hustling, oblivious of the tidal wave, working for that American tourist dollar.

Give my best to Emily and a kiss on the head to the boys.

Much love,

Friday, September 26, 2008

Kinds of Rain

Dear Grandma,

You told me once that when you watch the evening news, you always check the weather in whatever place I happen to be living. It’s a connection—a way of looking out for me. You did this when I lived in Chicago, you did this when I lived in New York. You got nervous about any inclement weather I might have to face. And now I have moved to a point beyond the edge of the weather map, which I know has only amplified your worries. So here is a special meteorological report, just for you.

I arrived in Cambodia near the end of the rainy season. How can I explain the rain here? In the mornings it comes down in long silver strands, drawing straight lines from the sky to the ground. Even in this crowded, chaotic city, that kind of rain seems to bring a hush, sort of like the muffling quality of Midwestern snow, and it can be calm and pretty—a rain painting. Or sometimes, in the middle of the day, a spattering of heavy raindrops will appear out of nowhere. The sky directly above will be clear and sunny, but fat blobs of water will splash onto my shoulders with the weight of coins. But in the late afternoon or evening, thunder booms in the distance and the rain comes down like watery missiles being fired into the ground. And then the wind picks up, creating enormous buffeted spheres of air and water droplets that roll through the streets like they’re chasing someone.

Two days ago, I witnessed my first flash flood. While Jason and I were walking to a museum, the rainclouds seemed to tip over all at once, drenching everything in an instant. In the shelter of a coffee shop, we licked ice cream cones and watched the tuk-tuk drivers, the men who own the little motorized taxi carts, throw on ponchos the colors of spring flowers and snap covers onto their vehicles. The gutters were full of turbulent currents when we climbed into one of the tuk-tuks; the streets had turned into canals just a few minutes later. The driver stopped and pointed at the block with the museum—the road had become an impromptu swimming pool for the neighborhood kids, who were unfazed by the still-torrential rain. “Back?” the driver asked us. “Go back?” That was when we made the questionable decision to climb onto the barely-there sidewalk and go on foot instead.

It was impossible not to think of all the stories you’ve told me about the floods on the Ohio: how you’d have to move all the furniture upstairs and then move it through the windows onto boats when the water reached the second floor; how it would be weeks or months until you could move back in and your father would have to keep the water moving through the house with brooms so that a knee-deep layer of mud didn’t collect; how the wooden floors warped under all that water until every board looked like a crumpled length of ribbon.

So I thought that, surely, this rain would shut Phnom Penh down for hours or even days. We gave up on walking to the museum—the entrance was at the end of a long swirling river. I had to close my eyes while we waded across the street, so I did not have to look at the paper cups and dead leaves and dog poop floating past my ankles. We fled to a nearby restaurant where I could wash my feet in the sink of the restroom, and as I did, I wondered how I would ever make it back to the apartment. So I found it curious that none of the native city-dwellers seemed to be treating the situation as a disaster. Hundreds of motorbikes and cars went about their usual business, plowing through the streets and leaving great rooster-tails of water in their wake. In the bars and restaurants, people were relaxing and laughing and beginning to order their after-work drinks. In minutes the rain had stopped; in an hour the floodwaters had disappeared, leaving behind a city that looked like it had received no more than a light shower. The rain here, just like lots of other things in Cambodia, works in mysterious ways, and I don’t pretend to understand it yet.

Whenever I talk to you on the phone, we speak of the weather, the droughts and storms in Felicity and wherever I am. But this is not because we are making mindless chitchat the way other people use weather talk. It is because you, more than anyone else I know, understand the importance of weather, the power of it. Tornadoes have been known to rip through entire communities just up the road from you, lightning now kills more people each year in Cambodia than landmines do—when you ask me how the weather is, I know it is not as simple a question as it seems.

So let me add, to offset this talk of storms, that there is lots of weather that happens between these brief spells of rain. The clouds disappear as soon as you turn your back. And if you’re lucky, there’s a dry period just as the sun gets low in the sky. It’s good to sit on the balcony when there’s a Golden Hour, that time of day that photographers love, when the angle of light makes everything soften and glow. The old buildings, the rusted gates, the teeming streets—suddenly they all look inviting and almost familiar. I sit and watch the world go by, and I think of you on your porch, and I hope that the sun is on its way to make an evening just like this one, for you, on the other side of the world.

Love always,

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Re: The Art of Walking


Dear T,

This place is a photographer’s dream. Every day I step out with my camera and every night I’ve taken maybe four pictures. There’s just too much; putting a lens between yourself and the city is like putting horse blinders on. This is a 360° place and nowhere is that more apparent than in the street. Crossing the intersections of Phnom Penh is the true making of life into art. There are precious few stoplights and they are only occasionally obeyed; neither the right nor left side of the street is especially reserved for the flow of traffic. Thousands of motorbikes dart every which way, every inch of empty space a potential new current. Neaveau riche Land Cruisers, chugging whales, plow through so many fish, so many expendable, unprecious lives. Your form and the rhythm of your steps keep you alive to the next curb.

The streets are newly paved, but their quality conjures a recent past of pig-mud ruts, the medieval Europe of school books where waste buckets are tipped from second story windows. Gleaming hotels and condos ringed in razor wire have sprouted every few blocks and they loom like fresh pink seashells above slums where families of six live in tin-roofed shacks the size of a hotel bathroom. The apartment we’re crashing in is of the same kind, though Kate tells me it does not count as wealthy when compared to the homes of long-term expats, those who have turned UN funding into paychecks while in the service of bringing Cambodia into the Global Community. “Cambodia is a dream because even if you’re poor, you’re not that poor,” Kate says, pointing from the balcony toward the hovels and tents and off down the muddy alley toward the moon, the whole city beneath her index finger. I follow the arc she draws and I hope it – or some other yet-discovered comfort – is sufficient for me to feel justified in my lifestyle here. But I could never consider myself poor.

Maybe I should not come to feel justified in my lifestyle here. Lifestyle, what a word. Doesn’t situating our days and nights in this, that, or the other fashion insult us? That’s rhetorical; I know your answer. But the seduction of a justified expat life is so compelling it is scary. Everything is so inexpensive and damn near everyone is so genuinely nice. I’ve never been to a friendlier place nor met a friendlier people. I’ve called “sustai” (hello) to hundreds of people and only two or three haven’t smiled and returned the same. It defies imagination how people so brutalized have remained so…I want to say ‘sweet.’ Their smiles could make it so second-nature to just accept the pleasures of buying whatever I want, being serviced whenever I want. For instance, Kate has a housekeeper who comes three times a week. She’s not a good housekeeper, but that’s beside the point. I don’t want a fucking housekeeper, no matter how affordable. I want to take care of my own mess. But then you get to thinking, “well, it is providing income to someone who needs work, Jay. Maybe you should think of it as charity.” I’m figuring I’ll choose a different method of giving charity, but you get my point. The social paradigm is arranged such that there is no easy way to Do the Right Thing.

I’m not even sure what the Right Thing is anyway. Take those chi-chi condos and apartments. I’ve learned that Kate’s place is down the street from Tuol Sleng, the infamous torture house of the Khmer Rouge. No Khmer in his right mind wants to live so close to such a thing, so only those who have no choice and we Westerners who don’t know better do so. Other neighborhoods in the city have less Dark Ages poverty in them. You’re crossing the street like a game of Frogger, and you realize a lot of those motos are new. There are a good number of hip teenagers with complicated haircuts zipping about come four o’clock, some plugged up with iPod earphones. And the SUVs are fucking monstrous. Yesterday, I saw a Lexus (with, inexplicably, a metal plate reading Toyota riveted to the flank) larger than any car or truck I’ve ever seen, no lie. Expats tell me that there is a growing middle class, that a middle class will emerge in the next generation or two, this, that, or the other. And middle classes are essential; they keep money in-house and have the time and finances to demand a little respect for a people now and then. So then I guess I shouldn’t talk trash on the Pink Palaces and Kate’s cleaning lady. But still, those gas-chugging dinosaurs. Those bitches aren’t sustainable tools of a strong middle class. They are the tools of a take-the-money-and-run class, the kind of Golden Umbrella-ed Thieves who have about tipped our economy off the ledge. They’ve tricked America into these fleeting toys and we, with the benefit of widespread education, haven’t known better. What kind of outcome can be expected from a beat-down people just getting a glimpse of The Good Life? It’s worth noting that the only modern and shiny new buildings here besides our Dreamland apartments and the occasional (only occasional) government building are gas stations and huge car dealerships. The dealerships seem to be mostly Japanese, but the spirit and style are All-American, these unwieldy things trying like beached whales to double-park, the man inside talking on a cell phone while the motos stack up behind like blood cells backing-up in a clogged artery. Cell phones, they’re ubiquitous. You can be in the full-on ‘hood and you’ll still see multiple – multiple! – shacks decked out in bright new phones for sale, the tell-tale yellow beach umbrella out front like a Golden Arches. And everyone but the monks and those women who still wear Khmer pajamas to the market wear western clothes. To paraphrase Obama, “America: the world’s last best hope…,”for all the stuff you need. We’re everywhere, dude. I think I will never find a place we aren’t. Maybe the Mongolian steppes, in tents where we burn buffalo chips for heat.

But I’m being a bitch; I’m just squawking because I can’t find Jason’s Perfect World where everybody values exactly what I do. Cell phones and obscene traffic are better than genocide and colonial subjugation, right? They’re good, these Western toys, even though they’ve brought along the insidious side of Global Capitalism too: government officials want the dough so they lease public land to this Chinese firm or that Russian mob for 200 years; homes are in the way of turning the central lake into a mall, so tenants are evicted at Army gun point. Etcetera, etcetera, the collateral damage of Progress, the usual Growing Pains.

As I get more comfortable with crossing the road without a crash helmet, I’ve noticed that the locals have it down to an instinct, a kind of Zen Glide that looks effortless. I think they must be so hyper aware as to be beyond awareness: sight, analysis, muscle movement so in-synch they’re simultaneous. You need to know the situation so stone-cold that you are both aware and oblivious. You need to dance across the street and give in to the flow around you too. You need to look without looking. Like you do passing the babies begging in the dirt, like you do buying that SUV whale and trying to park it.

A’ight, that’s enough of that. Hope ya’ll are settling in to Brooklyn life.