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,