22 August 2011

G'bye Khmer

(that rhymes)

After 8 months, I'm off to Beijing tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the embassy seemed to ignore the details on my application, including an official government invitation letter requesting a category 'F' business visa, and they issued me an 'L' tourist visa instead.

There's no way to remedy this right now. But I hope there's some possibility of correcting it in China. I have 30 days to get a re-issue or extension or something. If I have to leave the country to re-apply, that might prove a serious obstacle.

Some reflections on my time in Phnom Penh.

I knew very little about Cambodia before coming here. I had seen the film The Killing Fields sometime in my teens, which formed the bulk of my impression about its people and culture. I think it took about 3 months before I began to develop a sense of things that went beneath the surface. Ironically, given my own initial ignorance of Cambodian history, one thing that struck me was the profound lack of historical and global awareness among Khmer.

Oddly enough, hardly anyone living or working in Phnom Penh grew up here. Most Khmer I've met are from the "countryside," as they say. On holidays and frequent weekends, the city nearly empties out, as folk travel back to their "homelands" in scattered poor farming villages throughout the various provinces.  Even among upper-class college-educated Khmer with decent English-speaking skills --their picture of the world still seems mighty provincial. When asked about history beyond the horror of the Rouge, there's a general acknowledgment that once there was a glorious Angkor period in Cambodia, and that's about it.  Upshot: not knowing much more than it takes to get your next meal makes for a strange sensibility that's hard to describe.

The center of much present-day Khmer culture seems to revolve around intimate (not to say necessarily emotionally healthy or supportive) family ties, and a popular "Buddhism" focused on ancestor worship and highly superstitious ritual to ward off bad luck.

I'm afraid all this sounds somewhat vague and negative. While there's some aesthetic appeal to the chaotic grit and grime, I'm really no fan of the "undeveloped" world.  And on the whole, Cambodian food is pretty bad (a real surprise as I enjoy both Vietnamese and Thai food). Nevertheless, it's been a positive experience learning about the city, also visiting Siem Reap / Angkor Wat and Sihanoukville (even visiting Bangkok, Thailand during Songkran, a comedy of errors), and I truly enjoyed getting to know some eager students, friendly neighbors, bar/cafe/restaurant & guesthouse staff... and even tuk-tuk and moto drivers.  Moreover, tropical weather is wonderful.

I suspect I'll miss the small town feel of Phnom Penh. But mostly I'll miss those colleagues who became close friends. Living and working here can be exhausting, and the companionship of kindred minds keeps you going. I'm grateful to have met a few people who were open-minded, mature, and kind enough to have genuinely befriended me.


A word on church. As far as I know, there's no confessional Presbyterian or Reformed church in Cambodia. But there is a PCA/MTW mission team working with a local congregation here that I attended. The team has an enormous job of reformation ahead.

07 February 2011

Month One

As it is with new places, at times you can feel you've just arrived, and in other ways you feel you've been there for years already. My feelings have been somewhat mixed, but on the whole, the month that I've been here in Cambodia has gone by with unreal speed.

My first two weeks consisted of course work, conducted at Pannasastra [pahn-yah-SAHT] University (PUC), main campus on the east side of town, near the river's west bank. My second two weeks consisted of practice-teaching, mostly 3 & 4 yr.olds at International University's new elementary school (somewhere on the northwest side, I think). Because IU closed several days for Lunar (Chinese) New Year festival, I also had two days assisting a fellow student-teacher at one of the nearby orphanages. Our class was composed of several 20+ yr.old orphan-alums who continued to live and work part-time at the orphanage.

For those 4 weeks I was living a ten-minute walk south of PUC with 2 classmates; Russ, 10 yrs.younger, originally from east London, and Mark, maybe almost 10 yrs.older, originally from Georgia. Both these guys are well traveled, and have many-a tale to tell. Mark is headed back to SaudiArabia; Russ and I moved into a new house with some other teachers about a twenty-minute walk north of PUC, just beyond the Palace across from the Royal University of Fine Arts.

The things I find peculiar about Cambodia are legion. But I fear an attempt to descriptively catalog them all may be tedious. I'll try to throw in cultural observations now and then. Here's one:

As a largely undeveloped country in the tropics, one of the main forms of entertainment seems to be gathering in various city 'parks' or squares around town, every evening (approx. 5pm to 9pm). Folk will play net-less badminton, kick a sort of be-tailed hackysack (oddly like a shuttlecock), or wicker mini-soccer ball around. There's some eating (rice from home or street vended fruit and corn-on-the-cob), surprisingly not much drinking or smoking. There are public lip-sync'd musical melodramas, light & music shows in the larger fountains. Some will power-walk or jog around before sunset. The most conspicuous activity are the often large groups dancercising. Imagine scattered groups of 50+ people in columns line dancing to Korean Pop music.

Just for reference: The Cambodian word for 'Cambodia' is Kampuchea [kahm-poo-CHEE-uh]. The Cambodian word for the native ethnicity and language of Cambodia is Khmer [kuh-MY]; I've been pronouncing this wrongly as 'keh-MEER' for ages, but the last part sounds like “my” (as in a singular, first person, possessive).

Future entries: weekend trips to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Sihanoukville.

07 January 2011


I flew out of DC and arrived in Los Angeles to spend the night in a hotel.  I had hoped there would be an In-N-Out burger joint near the hotel, but I was pleased to find a non-franchised taco shop.  I relished the torta and horchata, and it brought back strong memories of 10 years ago.

Presently I'm in the China Airlines lounge in Taipei for a ten-hour layover.  I'm here with Brian the Marine (heading back to Okinawa); Casey the Kindergarten teacher; and Darla a fellow English teacher.

Didn't get much sleep on the 14+ hr flight, but I did have some great conversation with a cattle farmer Buddhist from Columbia, Missouri.  It's good to be in the world again.