Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Steam of the New Year

Dear Dick Clark,

New Year’s Eve, with its raucous promises of good things to come, has long been one of my favorite holidays.  For years I was faithful to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin' Eve, dutifully tuning in each December 31st to watch you play ringleader to the mayhem in Times Square, even when you had to start bringing in Ryan Seacrest as backup (a lame substitute for you, Mr. Clark, if I may be so bold).  I even recall one year, when a friend got held up on an international flight, and I recorded your coverage of the stroke of midnight so it could be replayed for him several hours later.  But I have come to realize over the past few days of Khmer New Year celebrations that perhaps Cambodia has a thing or two to teach America about ushering in a new year.  Giant glittering dropped balls, drunken choruses of Auld Lang Syne, and BeyoncĂ©: in these matters, our homeland still clearly has the upper hand.  Other aspects, however, must be more closely considered.

First there is the timing of Khmer New Year, which is governed by the lunar calendar rather than the solar one.  Our own new year always seems destined to play second fiddle to Christmas, overshadowed by that barrage of gift-giving and family obligations.  Who, after all, has the energy to make strict resolutions as the holiday season finally gallops to a finish?  In Cambodia, though, New Year comes during the hottest dog days of summer, with no other holidays to compete.  First there is the desert of long hot afternoons, during which one’s body is up to nothing more strenuous than being parked under a ceiling fan to consider the passing of time, and then, like an oasis, comes the biggest celebration of the year.  One tradition that has emerged is to throw water and baby powder at people, supposedly to symbolically cleanse and freshen them for the upcoming year, but which has the added benefit of rinsing or absorbing the gallons of sweat that everyone is producing.

On the second matter I am more torn.  Don’t get me wrong—I have always loved the rather debauched nature of American New Year’s Eve.  The high heels, the alcohol, the dancing: it all adds up to a bacchanalian type of revelry that I hold near and dear to my heart.  But Khmer New Year, in spite of having its fair share of drunken parties, seems to maintain a sheen of gentle innocence that is inarguably appealing.  We went to watch some of the students at the Buddhist school play traditional Khmer games.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I got was a bunch of teenagers and young twenty-somethings enthusiastically engaged in musical chairs.  It was heart-achingly sweet, and seemed to hearken back to a time in America’s history that we are both too young to remember.  Even the dance parties seem less about showing off and more about joining in, everyone eager to teach me those delicate apsara wrist circles and a line dance that appeared to be a pigeon-toed version of the Electric Slide.

And what of the intensity?  From my current perch, there seems something almost aggressively ferocious about the Western countdown.  It’s all about setting up the conditions for one perfect instant—by the stroke of midnight, you have to be at the right place, with the right person to kiss, at the right level of champagne tipsiness, and if you’re not, you run the risk of entering the new year on a disappointing note.  There is no such pressure with Khmer New Year, mostly because it is spread out over at least three days (and often colors the atmosphere of the following weeks with easy-going revelry, a period termed “the steam of the new year”).  Even the Khmer name for the holiday, Bon Chuol Chnam, means “the festival of entering the new year.”  I like that word “entering” because it indicates a process, not just an event.  In Cambodia, the new year does not appear at the snap of one’s fingers; it is an act of becoming.

And finally (and this, I think, is where Khmer New Year really gains an advantage), there’s a generosity inherent in these festivities that don’t seem apparent in our own.  Maybe it is simply that in America, we are a little worn out with the spirit of the season by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, but good tidings here sound refreshingly genuine.  Last night, on the final evening of the three-day holiday, Dave and Amy (two visiting American friends), Jason and I happened past a madcap and charmingly amateurish drag show and stopped to watch for a few minutes.  We were pulled inside and enthusiastically provided with chairs and beer.  It began to dawn on us that we’d just unwittingly crashed a private party, a shindig for the young staff of a big restaurant.  We were underdressed and smeared with baby powder from an earlier stop at a carnival, but no one seemed to mind.  They chatted with us, led us out onto the dance floor, and urged us to partake in their wildly exuberant games of tug-of-war and tandem floor skiing.  By the end of the night, we’d all been invited to an upcoming wedding.  “Gee,” Amy said.  “I feel like next New Year’s Eve, I’m required to pull a few people off the street and invite them to my party.”

And isn’t that what a new year should be about?  A fresh start that allows you to become a better and kinder version of yourself by the time the next one rolls around? 

Susaday Chnam Tmai, Mr. Clark.

Warm regards,

Shannon Dunlap

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Re: Expat Life


Dear Saloni,

It was fantastic to talk to you the other evening. You have such a lovely laugh and a matter-of-fact way of being supportive, as if the kind, the helpful, the sympathetic response is simply a matter of common sense, with no subjective take of me, your friend, entering into your opinion at all. Life here is hard, and the only people Shannon and I have to commiserate with over this fact are each other. I don’t think many of our families and friends really understand the stresses and creeping uncertainties of living in (rather than just visiting) a culture 180˚ across the globe from your own culture, let alone doing so while trying to make a living on art. I figure first and foremost that you are good at understanding all of this just because you are you: kind and empathetic and street smart in a sweeping Great Art of Living sort of way.

But then there is the expat factor, you having lived in New York, a long way from Jamshedpur. When you are a traveler, a visitor, there is movement to your days, the adrenalin that comes with adventuring and discovery. Settling into one house or one town, finding work, developing new habits and the practice movements that make them, that is an entirely different kind of adjustment. You are taking the Life of Adventure and trying to, needing to, make something stable out of it. And that’s hard, hard, hard. Some days I go to the public market and wander the food aisles, trying to remember what I used to cook at home and what to buy to make a dinner. You get seduced into thinking you are in some kind of home because you pay rent every month to the same person, and then small things such as a meal, or the standard practice of local weddings blasting music through a Stones-concert-worth of speakers at five a.m., or the disregard for driving with lights on in the dark sneak up and smack you with anger or confusion or exhaustion.

The other ingredient to these past eight months is the fact of a writer’s life. Writing anything worth a damn is hard enough at home, and though you make well the point that I’m absorbing too much stimuli to get a good piece of fiction going, I get panicky when stuck in that rut. There is only so much time!, only so much money saved!, only so much endurance and oh so much that must come out of this situation Shannon and I have created. Family and friends ask us why don’t we come home and spend another year teaching, ask us what we have sold lately, ask us when we will be coming home because they miss us. They miss us for us, but for themselves too. They don’t understand what we do and that makes them scared and uncomfortable. They don’t understand that the requests they make of us may make them feel better but will hurt us greatly. When your calling lacks a regimented progression of achievements, it can get very hard to assess your own accomplishments. There is no pre-determined flow here, no widely accepted system of cause and effect such as: Kaplan school...clerking...employment. So we end up trying to keep up our own spirits in the face of confusion and even anger from those we love while trying to actually work at and accomplish something at the same time.

Doing all of that in a thoroughly alien environment is profoundly difficult and draining, as you know. Just existing here for eight months is an accomplishment, a success in its own right. I know this, but hearing it from the mouths of others is so important. That part of Jay that’s ambitious to the point of desperation and fatigued disappointment, the worming Doubt, those get in the way of that recognition. I know you know all this, and I know you know it more profoundly, having come out of a much more conservative place than I have. In retrospect, I can think of times when you tried to convey all or part of this to me, and though I thought I understood, I did not, could not, could not understand it fully anymore than loved ones back in the States can understand where I am now. I have a much greater understanding of how you must have felt your three years in New York and a real admiration for what you did there. You are very brave, I now understand.

I sit writing this, and I remember you singing that Jain prayer to me and Quincy on the pier at Maribar, and though I remember that is was so beautiful, I cannot remember the way it was beautiful. Though the notes are lost to me, I have the memory of being shocked at the beauty of the song ringing out over the water and beneath the moon and how much it moved me, moved me though I will never understand its meaning, and so I believe that your voice announcing your presence to rural Virginia and the way it stole my breath away are surely creations of an expat life as worthy as any short story or essay.

Much love... your buddy,


Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Things I Hate

Dear Ted,

You hate many things: smoker’s breath, Ernest Hemingway stories, Scott Bailey, deadlines, people who are too good at karaoke. I may, in fact, know more about the things you hate than the things you like, and that is how I know that you are my friend, because when two people tell each other what they hate about the world, it doesn’t mean that they’re misanthropes, just truthful with each other. You also hate people who sugarcoat things, so I should admit that it’s not always roses and sunshine over here. Cambodia is a vibrant country full of strong and beautiful people. There are also some aspects of it that annoy the living shit out of me. These are, in truth, small matters in the global scheme of things, but it often does not feel like it when you have to look at them every day, and I thought it might be time to get a few things about Cambodia off my chest.

Dog Genitals
Let us begin with the fact that I come face to face with more furry testicles every day than I have in a lifetime in the United States. Yes, one would see the odd purebred Boxer kept for breeding strutting his stuff in Washington Square Park. But apparently no one in Cambodia has ever heard the gospel of spaying and neutering your pets. These omnipresent canine nuts cause multiple problems. For one, they lead to dozens of gnarly-looking, agitated and mistreated strays roaming the streets. (If the Buddhist notions of karma and rebirth are true, then you should fervently hope that you don’t land yourself in the animal kingdom of Cambodia next time around. Stoned pigs strapped to the back of motos on their way to slaughter, irritable crocodiles displayed in tiny cages, the howl of kicked dogs in the night—it’s a PETA nightmare.) For another, dog nuts seem to be a magnet for a whole host of diseases that I sincerely wish I knew nothing about. Scaly, itchy, misshapen, bleeding, ripped open, or swollen to the size of cantaloupes—you name a symptom, and I have seen a poor dog afflicted with it in his most sensitive of parts. And the horrors are not just limited to genitalia. All female dogs that are even months beyond puppyhood sport slack, stretched-out teats that all but drag in the dust. These do not seem as susceptible to disease, but as I watch them whipping painfully to and fro when a female dog so much as trots, it puts me in mind of the realities of mammalian aging and a mortal depression begins to set in.

For a while, I could not understand why my fingernails were perpetually dirty here. And then I realized that it’s because I always have mosquito bites and scratch them. I am where the dirt is coming from. A layer of Cambodian dirt mixed with my own sweat is permanently caked on my skin, and no amount of showering will remove it. I wonder sometimes how many pounds of dirt I must have ingested since arrival just by opening my mouth or licking my lips. Now, during the hot season, the dirt becomes airborne and then comes to settle on my pillow, my toothbrush, my dishes. This, I think, is actually preferable to the wet season, when the whole of Siem Reap turns into a giant mud puddle which gets splashed up the back of my legs as I walk. And surely my feet will never be the same again. I have never been a foot fetishist, but the sight of a fresh pedicure on some newly arrived Western tourist alongside my calloused, grubby paws is enough to cause me actual physical pain. The issue was not even resolved by a trip to Dr. Fish, the place at the night market where hundreds of fish will eat the dead skin off your feet. My soles did, indeed, feel softer but were still stained the reddish-brown of Cambodian grit.

Bad Jokes
I love the Khmer for their good cheer. Old women smile toothless grins and try to stroke my cheek, and happy babies yell “Hello!” from every street corner. But there is a serious mismatch when it comes to our notions of what is funny. Aside from Khmer pop music, the most popular entertainment offering on long bus rides is a strange variety show which seems to consist mostly of shrieking drag queens and a small child dressed up as a surly pirate. Maybe there is smart dialogue that is simply lost on me, but judging from the reaction of fellow bus riders, the mere appearance of that pirate is enough to make all the passengers almost pee their pants with laughter. And for some reason, my fellow inhabitants of Siem Reap cannot—cannot—get over how funny it is that I go jogging in the morning. Running apparently registers just above pirates on the laugh meter. It is not uncommon for at least eight tuk-tuk drivers to double over in laughter as I jog past, and all of them then proceed to make the same joke. “One, two, three, four,” they yell like a military drill sergeant, occasionally running along with me for half a block before collapsing to the ground in peals of hilarity. “But you saw me yesterday,” I want to say, “and you did the same thing.” Weird foreign habits are apparently the bad joke that never gets old in Cambodia.

Hairy Moles
Just a few moments after trudging over the Cambodian border for the first time, we stopped to ask for a taxi at a deserted hotel. The valet may have been helpful; I am not certain because all I could do was stare at the astonishing mole on his chin and the handful of black whiskers, each maybe four or five inches long, growing out of it. It was alarming, as though a large paintbrush had begun to sprout from his face, and it waggled at me tauntingly whenever he spoke. What I couldn’t have known then is that he is hardly alone among his countrymen. It’s rare to see any Khmer men sporting facial hair, except for this one glaring exception. Khmer men and women alike seem to be attempting to grow long, ZZ Top-style beards, but only from their moles. Everywhere I go, hairy moles are leering at me. When I asked our seventeen-year-old buddy Han (my go-to guy for this type of question) about the phenomenon, he said that people believed it was “unhealthy” to cut mole hair. He was a little foggy on what would happen if the hairs were cut, but whatever it was, it was bad.

But what can I do about any of this? The best approach I’ve found so far is to shrug and laugh politely one more time at the jokes of tuk-tuk drivers. Besides, maybe it is important to hate a few things, no matter where you live. It’s a way of reminding yourself of the things you like. May you dream tonight of Fitzgerald and nonsmokers. As for me, I’ll close my eyes and think of home, of loofah sponges and The Colbert Report, mole-hair clippers and neutered beagles.