Friday, February 27, 2009

Cambodian Silver

To the students of Miss Miller’s first grade class:

You know more about me than I know about you. During your recent writing unit on “special friends,” I have been told, your teacher used me as an example. It is an honor that I have done little to earn, except for growing up alongside Miss Miller and occasionally spoon-feeding her Dairy Queen Blizzards on long car trips. That, and driving across the Everglades once to retrieve her when she forgot the date of our vacation, missed the plane and had to fly into Miami instead. These are relatively minor requirements, given the length of our friendship.

That length is important, I think. You have not yet had the chance to be friends with anyone for eighteen years, but I hope that time will remedy that for all of you. I do not trust people who lack very old friends the way I trust those who have them. We need people from our past to remind us of who we used to be, to serve as a connection to all the beauty and ugliness of our former selves. It is one of the difficult things about living in Cambodia—that no one here, save for my boyfriend, has known me for longer than a few months. It is too easy to feel lost in the whirlpool of the present.

But friendship has ways of adapting even under imperfect conditions. Here, where everything is in constant flux, friendships spring up quickly like hothouse flowers; things bloom that could never take root in colder climates. Take Elizabeth, for instance. She is one of my closest friends here. She is a lightning bolt trapped inside one tiny human body, a blur of color that leaves Diet Coke cans and homemade valentines in its wake. I have come to adore that energy, to crave her company because of it. But could we ever have been friends back when we both lived in New York? One a quiet and introverted writer, the other a high-powered insider of the fashion industry—I doubt very much that our paths would have crossed, and if we did pass each other on the street, we were probably too busy staring down our noses at the sidewalks of our very different Manhattans. But here, none of that seems to matter. We live in Siem Reap, we like books, we like Cheez-its, we think Khmer aerobics classes are funny—all of this is far more important than the points in our lives where our paths diverged.

Most of that, of course, is due to Elizabeth’s generosity, not Cambodia (she is unusually gifted at being whoever other people need her to be), but there is something about the transient nature of this place that strips friendship down to its simplest parts. In some respects, I know Sheree very little. I have only a small assortment of collected facts about her life (probation officer with an easy smile and a Newcastle accent). And she is leaving in just a few short weeks, so it is highly unlikely that I will ever know her in the same way as my older friends, the kind whose voices and thoughts and personalities have become a part of my own. But these brief snapshots of Sheree—lanky atop a horse on her birthday or doing an ingenious comedic impression of her meddlesome grandmother—give me a sense of her solid goodness, kindness peppered with just enough frankness to make her sweet nature interesting. That immediate certainty has its own kind of weight when it comes to friendship. One day when we first came to Siem Reap, I was feeling sad, and Hak, the young Khmer guy who manages the guesthouse we were staying at, gave me a free cup of coffee and a heartbreaking look that said, “I’m sad sometimes, too.” And that was it. That was enough. I rarely see Hak, our conversations are brief and often a little awkward, but because of that one understanding look, he is a friend. Bonds are forged quickly in Cambodia out of necessity, but that does not make them less important.

Perhaps it is strange that something as small as a single cup of coffee or a horse ride could be the foundation for friendship. But then, maybe it is always that way. When I was nine years old, miserable and scared to be going to a new school, a blonde girl in a white sweater walked down the aisle of the school bus, and from her eyes alone, gentle and blue behind thick glasses, I knew that she would sit down beside me, that she would save me with her friendship because I needed her to so badly. If there is a lesson in that, it is simply that these small kindnesses around which our lives come to revolve happen unpredictably but with regularity, and they encapsulate everything that I find good and right about the world. The person sitting next to you today on the school bus or the person you wrote about as your “special friend” just might be the one who will send you emails about her first grade class when you are eighteen years older and half a world away from one another. I hope that in this respect you are as lucky as me.

With friendship and affection,

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Global Rock A-Go-Go

Dear Joe,

I don’t know exactly why I’m writing this to you. If you are able to get a hold of these sentiments then you’re probably already aware of all that I’m about to describe. Still, ‘Learning to Fly’ just came over the headphones and that space and warmth in Petty’s melody and chord changes, Campbell’s slide swooping down the neck and off through clouds, they made me feel that elevation and you, no matter that at this instant the Heartbreakers are the messengers, you are such a foundation for the collective elevation possible in all of our sounds, and so this goes out to you, to you because you’d like hearing it I think.

I’m American, a writer, know more about rock n’ roll than maybe anything else. I live in Cambodia. A few months ago, unable to sleep, I turned on our TV and surfed through the all-night martial arts fests to land on channel 42, MTV China. In the midnight hour the show was Alternative Nonstop and the video, I quickly realized, was a Mandarin cover of Tori Amos’ ‘Winter.’ The Chinese Tori looked just as eccentric and sincere as the real Tori. She had in her stare that same combination of aggrieved and haunted present in the real Tori’s videos, though her voice, alas, her voice had none of the sex, none of her elemental sex. Save the character of the voice and the change in language, though, the new ‘Winter’ was identical to the original. And the video, the video was Tori Amos to the core, a young-20s Chinese woman with a hurt mouth and penetrating stare captured in jump cuts and collaged film stock, abstracts and editing straight from 1992: a moth on a window pane, a piano silhouetted black against a Bleach White Nowhere, the eyes softened beneath a giant yellow daisy worn as a hat, the mouth gobbling up a real live daisy, a piano in the rain, a dancer in mid-leap, jump, now those eyes, jump, now a red wash jump now eyes jump now a blue wash jump now eyes now eyes now now... jump cut, jump cut, stark solitary whimsies, stark solitary absurdities, a montage of stark beautiful abstracts that set to the Chamber of Raw Soul melodies of Tori Amos, to the delicate and unflinching melodies of Tori Amos, ended up thoroughly Tori Amos, even eighteen years and an ocean away from the cultural moment that announced her.

I will be hard pressed to ever find this Chinese ‘Winter’ again. Though Chinese videos sometimes have entire choruses or isolated phrases sung in English (like the specimen that followed ‘Winter,’ in which all is Mandarin until the last line, when our boy shocks us by singing “Merry Christmas” to our girl as he gives her a red scarf...always red, they are all about the red), there is no real way to track down the song. The website is in Mandarin and I do not know anyone fluent in both Mandarin and English and who happens to be up-to-date on what’s nonstop and alternative in the PRC. So I sat on our uncomfortable rattan couch in the dark by myself and listened to China’s musical youth come to me and go away again, a bit of it unfamiliar and cool, a lot of it unfamiliar and confusing, all of it fleeting flashes of song that will become miracles should I ever actually hear them again.

One thing that become clear in those hours is that though a few select Western artists are played regularly - Pink and that godawful Killers song about dancers, Rihanna and Tizzy Bac – most of the acts are Chinese in face and language but thoroughly Western in musical styles, visual themes, musical subculture, video stylings. People wear Gap clothing and the station spots are riffs on Keith Haring. Characters in videos text each other in English and a good few of the dance sequences are pure Michael Jackson. A lot of the videos of boys with guitars look straight out of 1984. Every boy band is 2001 all the way; I caught a video where the guys were all Chinese versions of the Backstreet Boys, each dude having his moment to dance up to the camera and have his Chinese name plus his Western alias – Nick!, David! – stamped out across the bottom of the screen. The VJ I kept seeing wore a T-shirt with a cartoon of Pete Doughtery wearing a pork pie hat, though neither the Libertines or Baby Shambles were anywhere to be found. The VJ kept trying to beatbox too and he was no great shakes at it either, be sure. After a couple of hours MTV China went from being a fascinating study to being terribly boring and that too seemed imported from the States. Finally, a power ballad came on, the band playing in an empty warehouse, the camera swooping forward and flanking the band, epic moves like the epic atmospheres shimmering out of the song’s keyboards, the camera making another pass, this one swinging towards the keyboardist’s proclaiming finger, all of this Western to the core, mid-‘80s to the core, all of the qualities checkmarked on a notepad, from the grand echoes of British orchestral pop like O.M.D. to the murmur-then-piercing cry of a dozen American New Wave bands. I kept waiting for a cover of ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn.’

Every time I turn on the tube I check channel 42 and it is always the same.

What’s fascinating to me, the way I read these particular symbols on our Collective Invisible Map, is that fifty-odd years after the Cultural Revolution, the capitalist explosion in China has led its youth culture firmly to the Western model. You gotta make the sales, right?, and it’s the kids who have the pocket change, right? A few of the videos displayed, in the lower left corner where MTV would usually name the artist/album/label, just an artist name and an email address. It is as if the explosion of potential and product has been so rapid, people already represented on the tube can look for more work, advertise themselves so nakedly, an amateurish air hanging over everything even when the production budget is no joke. There’s money to be made!, empires to be built!, needs to be created and met!! So you’ve got this ‘free’ market birth, a speeding-train economy that will not simply ride the coattails of the Acceptable Westernness that has come before but must acquire it, digest it as completely as it has digested our Westward Expansion, our slave labor, our glut of automobiles, our environmental disaster. The PRC must digest it to keep growing, to leapfrog ahead to the Next Great Step Forward. I don’t know how the world depression spiraling toward us will affect this. But I do know what I thought that night, what my half-informed conclusions were. I watched and thought that by so thoroughly crushing its own people and culture for so many years, the Chinese government left the country at cultural Ground Zero, at least in terms of the popular cultures that grow when disposable income and upward mobility develop in a country. So without organic models to build upon in their own country, they go to the West, a ready-made seedbed of all the temptations and treats a teenager could want. I’m sure there’s an equivalent for the young professionals, for the middle-agers, for the toddler set and pre-teens, etc., blah.

It all makes sense and I mean no libel against Chinese culture. Culture always pollinates widely, whether through Marco Polo or Phoenician oarsmen or jazz drummers in Paris bistros. Or the Clash. Today’s global pop culture has been cross-fed between the prosperous Western World and the open and prosperous Eastern societies like Japan since the end of the second World War, about the same point in time in which China (most recently) hobbled itself, shut its doors, and starting killing itself. Now that China has the taste of growth and a global weight to shift around, it naturally goes to the youth culture models that sprouted from the Baby Boom, the visions of Bright Young Things happily consuming endlessly, a never-ending climb of unlimited growth and product.

But see, I’m looking for a way to not neglect the wonder in this situation, to see this pollination in terms of people rather than just the dollars shuffled about. I know that wonder is there; I listen to Streetcore and ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and hundreds of other songs and people to remind myself. And I know you’re dead, Joe. But I had all of these things to say and I felt that in the spirit of Global Rock A-Go-Go I could sent this up and out to you and maybe some part of whatever you now are will pick it up traveling through the air. Julian Schnabel made a damn good movie about you and the soundtrack is Strummer all the way, Lena Horne to African dub to Elvis, so many notes and beats compressed onto a tiny mirrored table coaster, probably made in China, now that I think about it. And Schnabel puts on the soundtrack a recording of you from a radio broadcast and it says this: “People can change anything they want to, and that means everything in the world. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people, you’re nothing.”


And so I sit on this terrace in this hopeful and wretched country and I think how this music is spread through all of us, how Chinese kids worrying over a math test or how far to go on a date are listening to music that comes from a place you and I were lucky enough to be born in, and one of that music’s miracles is that everyone wants it, and everyone takes it and makes it theirs, whether in the occasional piano confessional or the legions of hip hop hustlers minting themselves every day across the planet, appropriates it and re-interprets it, and that is the footing of all art, what the intellectual property lawyers can never understand because they are mere mercenaries, mere mercenaries, the fucks. And that gathering-in of such disparate tribes across all continents and ideologies? That’s a gift, man, a gift that works only if we use it right. So maybe that’s why I’m writing to you: because you made that inclusion and commonality your core and it is a noble core, and it recognizes the responsibility in being the ones imitated, that influence is not limited to art but both separate and through art can influence the way we earn our pay, the way we treat our neighbors, the way we spend our money, the way we value the air we breath and the water we drink and the land we tread. And that means everything in the world.

Miss you, Joe. Cheers.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Displacement Vector

Dear Mr. Smith,

Let me be frank—I do not remember much of what I was meant to have learned in your class, and it was not long after our paths crossed that my life diverged definitively from science courses of all sorts. I have some vague recollections of time spent in lab, swinging pendulums to and fro and trying to figure out how to power a small car with a mouse trap. But I would be hard-pressed to explain the significance of any of those experiments. So I was surprised, to say the least, to find myself standing atop a mountain in northern Cambodia last weekend, thinking about Newtonian mechanics.

We had gone to Kulen Mountain as part of a birthday celebration and set up camp next to a waterfall, a site that Khmer people consider sacred. The night had been colder than we expected (the group dreamed, collectively, of woolen socks), so despite a beer-infused barbeque the previous evening, it wasn’t hard to rouse ourselves at 5 a.m., clamber into the back of a pickup truck, and set out in pursuit of the sunrise. After a jouncing, tailbone-testing drive and a scramble up a steep incline, we arrived at the site of a former monastery just minutes before the sun climbed above the thick wall of trees.

And then I started feeling horrible. The place had a craggy, severe beauty to it, with Buddhist statues and shrines dotting the rocky landscape, but I felt anxious as soon as I got out of the truck, wound tight inside for no discernible reason. Our Khmer friend Dine told us that the monastery had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and used as a base, and that it now attracted few visitors because of the rough road. A sad story, to be sure, but hardly a novel one for anyone who has spent much time in Cambodia. And it wasn’t that I was envisioning the murder of monks as I watched the sun break free of the horizon; it wasn’t so much the history of the place as the place itself that was disconcerting, somehow out of kilter. I didn’t speak much on the drive to our next destination.

At the top of a massively wide set of stone steps, surrounded by frangipani trees and bougainvillea, lay the reclining Buddha, a carving so big I could have used his big toe as a pillow. Certainly the statue had played silent witness to much strife and human suffering in his hundreds of years; even his original diamond eyes had been pried loose at some point and replaced with non-descript black stones. But the entire feel of this place was different, soothing instead of enervating, placid instead of desolate. It was as though a foul smell had just been blown away by a sudden breeze.

How can I possibly capture the magnitude of that change? It’s not the first time I have felt it in Cambodia. I know many people who love the ancient ruins of the Bayon temple just north of Siem Reap. I am not one of them. The place is famous for the giant stone faces that stare out into the distance, and as I stood among them I felt immediately dizzy, lightheaded. It’s not that I got creeped out because the eyes were looking at me, or anything like that. The place just felt somehow bad to me, as though the air was choked with sadness. Yet as soon as we moved on to the next site (the Terrace of the Leper King, which you might judge, on name alone, to be more off-putting) I felt fine again.

Though I have certainly felt happy or sad or awed or contemplative at tourist spots in America, it is not the same as what I experienced on the top of that mountain. Perhaps you cannot truly feel a place if you are too much a part of it. I am reading Jonathan Raban’s book Old Glory, about his voyage down the Mississippi River. There is a deep pleasure in recognizing the state fairs and fishermen that the Englishman describes, even when he is poking fun at them. Never do I see the American Midwest so clearly (or miss it so much) as when it is mirrored back to me by an outsider.

I bristle at the New-Agey notion that I am picking up “vibes” from certain places, but I struggle to come up with better explanations. I hoped, out on the mountain, that maybe a man of science like Newton would be able to help. In physics, displacement is the vector that measures the change between the initial position and the final position of an object. At Bayon or in the ruins of that monastery, am I simply feeling a vector that has been drawn too long, like a violin string stretched to the point of breaking? Was there something about the reclining Buddha statue (a shape, a smell, a shadow) that made it somehow more familiar to me and therefore more comfortable? Because how can we help but feel our endpoints except in relation to where we started? But that does not mean that I can compel myself to stop drawing out vectors in my wake. It only means that I hope to be able to see all of it someday (the initial position, the final position, the directional line in between) with the same clarity as the ones I drew with the help of rulers and graph paper while sitting in your classroom.

Shannon Dunlap