Sunday, December 20, 2009

Comforts of Home

Dear Monisha,

When I was nervous about moving to New York, here is what you said to me: “Everyone always complains about how New York is too crowded and too expensive and smells like urine.  And that’s all true.  And you’ll love it.”

You were right, of course, and perhaps about more than just the city.  In Cambodia, it was the same trick of reverse psychology—it was the difficult, uncomfortable things that I came to hold most tightly.  Cambodia from the back of a wheezing moto, with dust in my teeth and amoebae turning my stomach, this weird, lawless, striving land.  Why are my eyes tearing up when I think of the mud and poverty, things I hated for fifteen months?  It might be simple masochism.  Or it might be that we have to love a place after we have spent so much time overcoming its difficulties, the same way we love cantankerous cars and naughty children.  But I think that the truth may be something stranger yet, and more universal—that the borders between comfort and discomfort are thin and constantly in flux.

Nowhere is this more apparent than where I am sitting right now, perched at the end of a week-long visit to India, which has been sandwiched between leaving Cambodia and returning to the U.S.  I flew into Calcutta, a city you have been to, a city you have roots in, to visit one of the sweetest, most level-headed people I knew in graduate school.  Saloni is now living in her family home in nearby Jamshedpur.  How do I describe the feeling of being there after Cambodia except to say that it was comfortable, almost overwhelmingly so?  India is a country easily accessible to Americans like me through its books, its movies, its dance clubs, its dairy products—all of the things Cambodia lacks.  We were nowhere near a tourist town like Siem Reap, but hospitality toward strangers was the norm nevertheless.  Not just Saloni but dozens of relatives whom I’d never met went out of their way to welcome me, entertain me, feed me endless quantities of rich food.  It was so over-the–top, this treatment, that I think most people would have felt a little awkward, but whenever I said so, Saloni shrugged and said, “This is just the way it is here.”  Land of a lot, we began calling it. 

On the day before I left, we went to the Hindu temple in Calcutta dedicated to the goddess Kali.  Here was the India that people and warned would overwhelm me, a Bruegel painting of countless dirty children and beggars and rough-looking dogs, all the things I’d felt myself reflexively looking for since I left Siem Reap.  Saloni snapped her fingers in front of a child whose supposed mother was asking us for money and I knew that she was checking to see if the baby had been rented and drugged, the same way they are rumored to be in Cambodia.  We walked in bare feet through the street and into the temple where frenzied masses of people were pushing, crying out, falling over each other as they moved in a human cascade past the alter.  Men with sticks pushed back the chaos of flesh for a split second so that paying tourists like us could get a glimpse of the goddess’s three eyes, narrowed with wrath, before we were whisked out to a sunken square where goats are sacrificed in the mornings.  Our guide, who seemed equal parts priest and con man, told us to touch the alter because it is “anti-danger.”  Why goat sacrifice in a mostly vegetarian religion?  Why anti-danger, when the mysterious sludge gumming my feet to the ground seems like perhaps most dangerous thing I have seen in India?  We pushed our way back out, zigzagging through the ferocious crowd, everything a dizzy crying spin. Was it desperation or religious ecstasy that was pressing in on us?  This is life lived close to the surface, and if the temple is not built upon the limits of sense, as it feels to me, it is at least at the limits of comfort.

Back in the car, Saloni was a little horrified at taking us to the Kali temple.  “I was born in a crazy country,” she says.  The car driver said that not many tourists come there anymore.  I ask why, and his smile says, “Isn’t it obvious?”  How do we reconcile these two intertwined worlds, the generosity of Saloni’s family and the meanness of the world outside the temple?  And yet, it makes some sort of sense to me—comfort and discomfort are all part of the same country, the same experience.  There is bound to be some sort of discomfort wrapped up in “a lot,” whether it is my own shrinking in front of the unknown or Saloni’s frustrated exhaustion at the constant thread of obligations to the same family members who adore her.

And now I am high above the ground, flying back to a country that is easiest and most comfortable, that is home.  Is ease what I want, though?  I am nervous, soaring above the darkened clouds and arctic waters.  Being in Cambodia has blurred all the lines between what I want and what I need, between what is comfortable and what is not.  I am no martyr, certainly, since that would mean taking on discomfort for a greater good.  I have done so at times out of circumstance and at times to fulfill some sense of pleasure or expectation that I do not fully understand.  You are the same, I think—I can call up so distinctly your almost frighteningly iron work ethic buried beneath the thinnest layer of warm blankets and a stuffed Snoopy.  I send this wishing only comfort for you while knowing that we, and maybe everyone, will always find new ways of standing in the spaces between, for no other reason than it is what we do.

With love,


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Re: Cambodia's Norman Rockwells

To: Norman Rockwell’s Ghost
From: Jason Leahey / Bed of Room 1A / Golden Land Hotel / Battambang, Cambodia

Dear Norman,

I’m sitting here in the Golden Land Hotel in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang translates to “ Big Stick.” Once upon a time, way, way back so that people know none of the names, a man lost a stick here. There’s a big statue of the guy, a Khmer Everyman kneeling and holding the stick in both upturned palms. This must have been some sort of fantastic, boom-stick wand, the loss of which caused such a ruckus that people named a city after that ruckus.

The Golden Land is charging me ten dollars for one night, a double bed, air-con, hot water, cleanliness with decent and crisp sheets. My girlfriend turned on the TV, only to fall right off into sleep, leaving Psycho on the television. This is appropriate. I decided to write you earlier this afternoon because walking around this town got me thinking of your primo, Once-Upon-a-Time Americana, and this movie could be labeled the same. With Psycho, you have a supremely post-war, bad wallpaper, sexually dysfunctional America. It seems to me a tight rendering of a national schizophrenic psyche, the country that nuked the Japanese, encoded maneuvers in Navaho whispers, and cooked up the Marshal Plan.

And with you, Norman, well, you’re propaganda. I don’t mean this is a mean way; I’m becoming of the opinion that everything is propaganda of some sort, that it’s simply the opposing team that gets tagged with the label. But you’re at the other end of the post-war spectrum from Hitchcock. With the exception of your finest—and truly fine—works Freedom of Religion and The Problem We All Live With, most everything is lily white. You sold a charmed idea of our national self, a freckle-faced America that surely had some basis in reality, but was ultimately dream of a country both simpler than the one surviving the war and more individual. The soldier returning home gets fanfare from neighbors who all know him by name, the boy next door sliding down the drain pipe. The two youngsters flirt in formalize fashion at the soda counter, the cop on the seat to them actually a friendly face. There is not a fast food franchise nor Coke Zero can to be found. Your characters undoubtedly would speak with different accents, language yet to head toward homogenization by the great, LCD equalizer that is television.

Walking around a city like Battambang, which has few tourists and little of the gobbling foreign investment that is paving Phnom Penh, I was struck by the multitude of hand painted signs adorning the businesses. I thought of you because though your work is a representation of an American community more personalized that we have today, these paintings in Cambodia are that personalization. They’re not meant for a mass audience or to build consensus. They are the front doors to the lives and work inside, faces of Cambodia’s own post-war landscape, and they are absolutely beautiful.

Take this sign, for instance. I love this. You can get your fan fixed in Cambodia. Have you ever tried to get a fan fixed in the United States over the unity past ten years? Okay, you wouldn’t have because you’re dead, but let me tell you, it’s nearly impossible to do so. For the cost of fixing one, you could buy two new Chinese imports on the shelves at Target and dump the old one in the garbage. Planned obsolescence, Norman, it’s the zeitgeist.

And then there are the signs for laundry...



moto maintenance...

and the humble key.

They show you who in the community would be interested in these services. Cannon cameras that still use 35 millimeter are best used for you couples getting married.

Printing services are ideal for ceremonial invites.

Seeing these makes me lament the passing of a more idiosyncratic America, the kind of rosy ideals depicted in your paintings but which have basis in fact all the same, the world witnessed through the windows of my family’s dark blue Chevy station wagon, locally owned department stores, hardware shops named after the family clan, radio spots for the local bicycle shop, their song, “Feeling good, gettin’ in shape, Nowww, you’re feelin’ great. Agee’s Bicycle, we bring out the best in yooouu!” playing on the Saturday morning drive to pick up tools and honey-do list supplies.

Beehives, tasty food, the promise of quality services and products for the kind of person you want to be. That’s the basis of all advertising, and I love that here the idea of what to be is given one-of-a-kind shape by a hand and brush rather than a banner printed up by the thousands and shipped out en masse across the planet.

Look at this: this woman is connected to the Great Modern Telecommunications Network.

These two are practicing and preserving an ancient form of Khmer martial arts.

This guy is James Bond and this other fellow is a modern Khmer striver and achiever.

Someone chose to paint as cell phone wallpaper a landscape of decimated, lonesome swamp. Who in the hell came up with that? It’s fantastic. Something like this would never make it in the States unless the testing audience was some kind of Mississippi nihilists clique.

Copyright and intellectual property laws are ignored here, these dwarfs, preserved by the Grimm’s and impounded by Disney, a case in point.

And here’s a transsexual Bugs Bunny proving the competency of this business’ pumps, a Winnie the Pooh who let his honey turn to mead.

Many of the products sold in Cambodia are sold world-wide or elsewhere in the region (though I have only seen the corn-flavored pop sickles in one store near our house), but the services on hand in places like Battambang and Kampot have not turned into products yet. The people who perform the services haven’t either.
Condom campaigns in Vietnam are modern enterprises with glossy posters and billboards. In Cambodia, the painted condom tells you what’s up.

Down the road, this billboard tells you not to drop found artillery into the fire.

These are all this moment in time’s documentation of what is valued, what is needed, what is wanted. Real day-to-day needs, rather than the duplicitous psychoanalysis of market research, determines these signs. Cambodian children need to understand that you can’t play with unexploded American ordnance and their parents should know where to get a fashionable hairdo. Just as American children needed to see your painting of the little girl integrating New Orleans public schools.

And it heartens me to see the hand of man, rather than machine, in this documentation.