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,

1 comment:

Andrew and Emily said...

Funny; the Christmas party at Barb's house ended the same way, only Mitch was sporting the Aniston haircut and Dad was doing those cowboy gyrations.