Friday, October 9, 2009

My Bipolar Flood Response

Dear Llalan,

On Monday morning, my editor at the newspaper called and asked me to churn out a funny little column about the flood that had wreaked havoc across Cambodia a few days previously, and so I did.  I made light of the smelly pestilential water that is still thigh-high on our street and my wacky antics with a bug-zapper as thousands of mosquitoes zeroed in on my arteries.  I think it turned out okay, actually, hopefully even kind of funny.  You can read it, if you want, since it’s probably more amusing than this letter.

But was there any truth to that article?  I’m not sure.  The rain has seriously dampened my mood.  I would like to believe that this is some kind of sympathetic response to all the damage that’s been done to Cambodia by forces outside of its control—all the people who are still out of their homes, all the people whose businesses have been damaged, all the people in the countryside who are bound to come down with positively medieval diseases like cholera and dysentery in the days to come.

But my dourness is probably due to more selfish emotional triggers.  My work schedule is destroyed.  No one wants to be interviewed while they’re trying to deal with their own flooding issues.  Most days, the water outside our house (one of the few areas in town still flooded, by the way) is too deep to take our motorbike out, meaning I have to trudge for ten minutes through nasty shit-water, my plastic-wrapped laptop pathetically clasped to my chest.  I spend most of this walk imagining that if this was happening somewhere in America, there would probably be some hunky National Guardsman to carry me to safety, where friendly relief workers would feed me cookies, and by the time I have finished these fantasies, my desire to spend the next six hours writing has significantly diminished.

Ah, but then I just feel like a spoiled First-Worlder.  As I wade out of the muck, feeling sorry for myself and wearing an expression like a wet housecat, all my Khmer neighbors smile sunnily at me, laughing at their predicament and hoisting their infants out of the floodwater.  But then I think: what the hell is wrong with these people?  Isn’t there something terrible about a society that has completely given up on the idea of the government or anyone else in power helping them at all, even in times of crisis?  Sometimes, this washes over me even during easier days—sudden flashes of anger that nothing is getting better for ninety-five percent of the people here, and that most Khmer are too sucked in by the leaders’ lame promises or too afraid of the alternative to complain above a whisper.  Look, I know that in America people disagree, sometimes in a violent, ugly, ineffectual way, about what will make the country better.  But at least there is a sense that people care about making the country better, rather than just beating the odds in some idiotic Darwinian system.  What is wrong with the leadership of this country?  They are living parasitically off the misery of their own people.

So which is more true, my lighthearted column or this pointless rant?  Both.  Neither.  I was certainly happier while I was writing my column, not because of any situational difference, but because the act of writing forced me to find humor in it.  So should I then limit myself to writing mildly funny but disposable material, or send my blood pressure through the roof by writing angry blog posts?  I think that most of the time writers want to believe that they are writing to inform or entertain or change the opinions of others, but maybe it is only a way of reassuring or convincing ourselves of what we are feeling at any given moment.

Grumpy, yet still full of fondness for you,



Andrew and Emily said...

Wow. Dig it.

Llalan said...

Very nice post! As the addressee and someone intimately familiar with all kinds of bipolarnesses, I feel I should share my thoughts.

First of all, I don't think you made light of the flood as much as you think you did. I found the article well balanced and not at all offensive to my delicate Western sensibilities nor, I imagine, to any of those who live there.

Secondly, as you know, I struggled a lot with the frustration and anger you're feeling now when I was in Thailand. I couldn't decide whether it was best to let people be as they are--fairly happy--or tell them what they could/should have...and possibly make them unhappy. This is not to say that plenty of them weren't unhappy in their situations, but then I felt completely impotent.

Making change happen yourself is so hard and humiliating and humbling. I found myself becoming strangely angry with my fellow students who eagerly worked on causes I saw going nowhere--I guess because I couldn't myself get behind them enough to think I'd make change.

Anyway, you are right to be angry and equally right to laugh at the situation. There's no other way to comprehend the mess we humans live in.

walrusattack said...


That's cool that you're writing a column for Cambodia's Newspaper of Record. I like their logo. They also have the most educated readership in Cambodia, in case you were wondering. Don't mess up.


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