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,


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