Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Re: Kentucky Fried Cambodia

From: writersblok@hotmail.com
To: robertleahey@XXX.com
Hi Dad,

Thanks for faxing that stuff to Sallie Mae.  That’ll keep them away from the door for a bit.  In getting all the papers in order, the Ts crossed, etc., I called their main number and got caught in the endless automated voices and choices.  So I went for my standard technique, which is to press ‘0’ many, many times very, very rapidly.  But they’re slick.  Whereas that will usually get you a long pause of dull air, followed by a fembot saying, “Please wait, while I transfer you to the next available representative,” Sallie only gives you, “That is not a valid choice.” 

Eventually, after choosing many numbers that transferred me to other numbers to be chosen that transferred me to still other numbers to be chosen, I ended up with an Indian guy who said his name was Max.  Max was on top of it.  He gave me everything I needed to know in about a fifth of the time it took me to get to him in the first place.  One of my intentions in this rigmarole was to consolidate my loans, since interest is now just above 2%.  Sweet.  But Max told me that Sallie Mae doesn’t  consolidate anything anymore.  They just don’t do it, period.  I’ll be at 2% until they decide or are allowed to jack it to 7% or 8% and that will be that.

So this torques me off severely because, in the most immediate sense, it goes against my best interests.  Not that Sallie Mae has any reason to have my best interests at heart; it’s just not what they exist for.  But it speaks to a broader symptom of rot in America that turns my frustration into hatred.  What is the rationale for inserting a private middleman (woman) in between students and the public money the feds provide as school loans?  There’s no benefit to the students, to the feds, or to that larger aim of creating and supporting an educated populace.  Sallie and Freddie and their siblings and cousins exist solely to take a cut of the funds that the populace themselves contributed in the first place.  Sallie and Freddie don’t really do anything, at least not anything of value.

And that brings me to the hatred and, further down the Stream of Consciousness from that port, to Cambodia.  Sallie and her ilk treat us as nothing more than tiny pocketbooks from which to squeeze profit.  They obviously lunch with health insurance companies.  And then I read how Goldman-Sachs' CEO takes in another monstrous bonus and I think, “These people are pigs.”  They use our money to buy influence in order to take more of our money.  There is something inverted in these relationships.  So now, Cambodia:

One of the chapters in the book Shannon and I are working on concerns Cambodia’s changing relationship to its food.  This was inspired by the opening of a KFC in Siem Reap.  KFC is the only foreign fast food company in the country and Shannon thought it’d be cool to investigate Khmer thoughts on this, the attitudes of Yum! Foods (KFC’s owner), and what it’s like to have your Extra Crispy chicken come with soup and rice rather than a biscuit (oh, but for a even a single biscuit!) and potato wedges. 

So we took Savuth to lunch yesterday and asked him his thoughts.  It was all too charming in its picture-perfect way.  Vuth can’t ride on a moto with a woman because he’s a monk, so I dropped Shannon off and picked Vuth up and rode through the morning sunshine and over the river with his orange robe flapping behind us and in my side view mirror.  We bought him the Snack Pack, which included an Original Recipe drumstick, a Spicy wing, a white bread roll, a dollop of mashed potatoes with gravy, and a thimble-sized lump of coleslaw, as well as a Pepsi, though he’s a Coke man himself. 

This was Savuth’s first time in what he called, “a modern restaurant.” The first time was a buffet in a hotel he was staying in while attending an ecumenical conference in Phnom Penh.  That food did a number on his stomach (the nature of which we were left to determine by the way he smiled shyly and looked at the floor), but he liked KFC.  He had actually seen a news broadcast on the restaurant while at that conference and told us that, at the time, he’d imagined himself one day with lots of money, free of the robes, and giving Colonel Harland Sanders’ secret recipe a try.  KFC is expensive by Cambodian standards, though Savuth’s meal cost just shy of three bucks, and young people consider it a sign of status to dine there.  When we asked Savuth what he thought of the restaurant itself, he said it was pretty.  When we asked him in what ways, he said, “I think it is clean.”

After taking him back to the wat so he could host his daily radio show, I though about a Taco Bell across from the Sixth Avenue ball courts in Greenwich Village, how it was permanently shuttered after hidden cameras taped and broadcast video of a battalion of rats crawling over every flat surface night after night.  A week or two after the ignominious closing, someone Sharpie-d “Rats all, folks!,” on the lowered security gate.  And sitting here now I think of the time you said it was a testament to the hardy American constitution that though we all eat out all the time and secretly know that so many of our restaurants are unsanitary, so few of us get sick from them.  (We get heart disease and long-term, debilitating illnesses, but these are from the composition of our food, not from the filth in their preparation.)  

Cambodians are used to their foods prepared without refrigeration, of flies and bugs crawling over their ingredients, of only unclean water used to wash hands.  We interviewed many Khmer diners in KFC and they echoed Savuth’s feeling that the food prepared out of sight in an airy, white-walled, and air conditioned space was the cleanest option available.  Cambodia’s experience of our fast food is the opposite of ours.  What we think of as cheap and rather lowly, they think of as expensive and a sign of affluence.  What we assume is relatively unsanitary, they believe is optimally clean.  And what about physical health, if KFC and the local Pizza Hut knock-off are actually nutritious?  Savuth didn’t understand the question.  Food is food; nutrition extends to simply getting something to eat.

So I think of the perversion of America’s Greed Pigs, how they contribute to making a Democracy of the People an oligarchy with compelling window dressing.  And then I think of the fact that Cambodia is so happy to get food they associate with us and with the pinnacle of lush modern living.  So I should be happy that we have at least the level of control over our government that we do.  And the Khmer should examine very closely the new options open to them.