Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning to Fly

Dear Dad,

Perhaps you have wondered why it is that I have not addressed a letter to you sooner.  But actually, I have been writing this one in my head for many months now, maybe for years, even, and waiting to commit it to the page until it was finally the truth.  I rode a bicycle yesterday.

You should not feel concerned or guilty that it took me this long.  I offer this reassurance only because when you found out that I could not ride a bicycle about a year ago, you looked a little horrified, as though you had forgotten something important, and responded by gamely running down the sidewalk and holding up the back of a bike as your twenty-seven-year-old daughter wobbled ineptly through the streets of Westerville and demonstrated little to no signs of improvement.  Most people master this skill before they have lost all their baby teeth, but then, if anyone understands that I am not like most people, it is you, who have borne my eccentricities and stubbornness for many years now.  For one, let us not forget that I was far from an athletic child, finding solace only in books, and you responded by trying to be as excited about Academic Challenge meets as you would naturally have been about basketball games.  Also, I was not always receptive to help, as witnessed by my disturbing meltdown in the parking lot of the school when you tried to teach me to parallel park a car.  Anyway, it was in no way your fault that you did not personally usher me over this particular milestone.

I will admit, however, that it might have been a less humbling experience if I had learned when I was six like everyone else.  There were many aborted attempts.  There was the time I went with my friend Kent (another non-biker) to practice in a park in Brooklyn, but we could not figure out how to adjust the seat, so we gave up and drank margaritas instead.  There was the time you tried to help me in Ohio, and though I think all those avid cycling enthusiasts in spandex shorts were trying to be encouraging by giving me waves and thumbs-up as they whizzed past, it was a little humiliating.  And then, of course, there was Cambodia, where not only are biking conditions far from optimal, but also where advanced knowledge of two-wheel vehicles is taken to be much more of a given than most of my skills.  One evening, soon after we moved to Siem Reap, I was practicing in a hotel parking lot, providing the local tuk-tuk drivers with some novel entertainment, and one of them walked over to where Jason was watching.  “No,” he said, pointing to me and sadly shaking his head.  “Cannot.  Is impossible.”  Later I would recognize that that is a favorite English phrase around here, but at the time, it felt like a good summation of my public shame.  I should admit that I did not handle these failures with very much grace or patience.

Given these setbacks, it was a revelation to finally feel my feet pedaling steadily under the blue fluorescent lights of the Royal Empire Hotel last night, weaving around parked tour buses, waving at the baffled-looking drivers.  There was no reason that this attempt was any different than the rest, except that this time, for some reason, it worked.  Bah! Bah!” the tuk-tuk drivers yelled, finally.  “Yes!”  I felt victorious, much as when, right before I moved to New York, you looked at me proudly.  “If living in Chicago has taught you anything,” you said, (what would follow?  A reference to my college GPA? The degree you shelled out thousands for? My first real job? None of the above…) “it’s how to parallel park.”

Maybe it would be an exaggeration to say that the most important thing I have learned in Cambodia is how to ride a bike, but then again, maybe not.  After all, is it not the small obstacles that surprise us, that cause us to stumble, that embarrass us, and consequently, that teach us the most about ourselves?  Yes, I learned something about my shortcomings—it reinforced that my poor motor skills are not going to carry me to a victory in the Tour de France.  But there was something else there, too, something about perseverance and propensity for change, something that reminded me of you. 

Keep the bicycle chains oiled for me.  We will go on a ride together, even if it is frozen and icy by the time I make it back to Ohio.

With love,


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dear Adam,

One thing that I admire about you is your tendency to become tremendously excited over psychological research that most people will never read or even hear about.  It is a sign, I think, that some people find their ideal career path, you among them.  I can remember an almost ecstatic glint to your eye when you told me about how monkeys instinctively compare rewards they receive with those of their peers, that they can sense fairness and unfairness and behave accordingly.  You described with glee the video you had seen of pissed-off monkeys flinging cucumber pieces at the researchers when their cagemates received more-greatly-coveted grapes for performing the same task.

It is normal, I suppose, that comparing one’s own situation and background to the surrounding landscape can radically shape one’s view of both.  Take Ye for instance.  Or at least, take what you can of her—I’m afraid to say too much about her, like her real name or the name of her business, for fear that it will get her into trouble with the Burmese government.  It will have to suffice to say that she is a sweet, middle-aged, soft-spoken woman who provided me with a truly kick-ass vegetarian meal while I interviewed her, but that this gentle exterior belies a backbone of pure steel.  Because she was an educated woman when the junta took over in 1988, she had to leave.  But she still knows very well what is happening there—she has family  members there, her eldest brother died after being kept as a political prisoner, she was there on a visit during the monk protests of 2007, she went back with an NGO after the 2008 flood to help with relief efforts.

And though it was interesting to hear stories about her native country, it was also intriguing to hear her talk about Cambodia, which has been her home for the past thirteen years. The model in her head that she uses as a point of comparison is Burma, and mine is the West.  While I can be griping and cynical about shortcomings in both Cambodia and America, she knows how bad things can actually be and views things as constantly improving here.  Where I see people being strong-armed into paying lip service to Hun Sen, she sees a steady, gradual gain in personal freedoms.  Where I see people burning plastic on the street, she sees school children in Phnom Penh beginning to pick up litter as community service, something she remembers doing as a little girl in Burma.  Ye and I cannot help but compare Cambodia to what we have learned to expect—it is simply what humans (and monkeys) do.  Yet that inevitably distorts things, sometimes doing the objects of our gaze a disservice.

Perhaps it is just some form of preemptive nostalgia as my days in Cambodia continue to dwindle, but I think that sometimes I speak too harshly of it.  Yes, the corruption and abuses of power can be sickening, and there are inconveniences everywhere (may God strike me down if I ever again complain about the pace of road construction in America).  But many people here have managed to pull together happy, ambitious lives out of absolute nothingness in less than a generation.  In light of that, there is reason to be optimistic that the details will improve with time, and how far Cambodia has come deserves to be applauded sometimes, at least as much as we point out how far it has yet to go.

Last week was Bon Om Tuk, one of the biggest Khmer holidays of the year.  I sometimes think of it as being a little like Thanksgiving, since there is a harvest-festival element to it.  But the central entertainment is the boat races down the river which signify ancient Khmer naval victories, and during the evening awards ceremony, dozens of boats lined up under a shower of fireworks.  “Kampuchea, Kampuchea, Kampuchea!” the announcer shouted, and everyone raised their oars in the air and began to dance on the boats.  It seemed more heartfelt than any Fourth of July festival I’ve ever attended.  Jason and I wandered up the street and released a pra-tip, a floating lantern, for luck, and we stood there for a long time watching the hundreds of lights bob past, the wishes of a nation drifting down the river.

How can I ever understand Cambodia on its own terms without comparing it to bigger, more powerful countries?  I don’t think I can.  But Cambodia is bound to shape my perspective, too.  I think sometimes about another strand of your research, about creativity and living abroad, about how living in a different place actually changes the neural pathways in one’s brain. Can you design a new experiment?  I wonder if you can promise me that expat life not only makes you better at solving problems, but also more forgiving of them.

Warm regards,