Friday, April 23, 2010

. . . and counting.

'lo everybody!

It's Saturday, April 24th in Cambodia and that means that I'll be departing Cambodia in under a week already, next Wednesday. And I sure can't believe it.

I also can't believe that I misspelled "mango" in the title of my last blog post. In the title, really Ann Marie, that's awesome. And yes, I realize you can go back and edit and change these things, or just hope no one notices, but gosh, wouldn't that just be a coward's way out? I think it would. I choose, instead, to draw attention to it, and then to pretend that there are actually two fruits that I eat every day, mangoes and magnoes, and each day the magno I eat is tastier than the mango I ate the day before. What, you guys never heard of magnos? I guess they don't grow outside Cambodia. Maybe not even outside FLO. Weird.

Khmer New Yearsing in Chansy's hometown was an experience full of all it's own mangoes! (No magnoes there, either. How evidently noteworthy!) Chansy and I spent much of our time meandering from house to house, visiting her family and neighbors, bathing multiple times a day, and eating all the food we could. Cambodians know how to treat a guest: with plenty of food! And, I suppose, plenty of baths. KNY falls on the hottest part of the year, just as the dry season is having enough of itself and about to turn things over to the rainy season. Spending a bit of time in the countryside and bathing so frequently made me think of a few things I've gotten better at during my stay in Cambodia. Among them:

All sorts of bucket showers. And there are all sorts of bucket showers.
  • A bucket shower is totally no problem.
  • A bucket shower in a sarong ~ Trickier, but still doable.
  • A bucket shower in a sarong in the open air ~ Very tricky! Doable, still, but . . . very tricky! Even seasoned Cambodians like Chansy agree!
  • A bucket shower in a sarong in the open air in the dark ~ Trickier and easier for all the logical reasons. For a bucket shower pro, though, no problem!
The Khmer language. Alright, that's sort of a lie and sort of not a lie. I’m not sure I can vouch that I’ve gotten any better, really, at speaking Khmer, though of course I pick up a few new words and phrases every week. I’m just as confounded as ever by written Khmer, and the alphabet will indeed remain a mystery to me until I get some good book~learnin’ in. (Speaking of goals ~ okay, we’re not speaking of goals yet, but trust me, in just a paragraph or so we will be ~ I fully intend to take on some Khmer classes when I return to the US in preparation for my return to Cambodge. And mistake me not, I shall return.) But improvement! Right. I’ve gotten a lot better at understanding Khmer. Given that I know the topic at hand, I can usually follow about 20% of a conversation. If someone just walks up to me and says something, there's about a 50/50 chance I'll be able to figure out what they've said, but really only because there are only so many things that people just walk up to one and say. For example, if a random Khmer dude in Phnom Penh walks up to me and says something, he probably wants me to employ him as a moto driver to take me somewhere. If one of my students walks up to me and says something, they've probably just told me I'm beautiful. (I'll miss them . . . ) Oh! Remember, Visal, the little guy who never called? When everybody got back to FLO after KNY, I went over to say hi to the kids, and he tried to sneakily tell me in Khmer that he loves me. Little did he know, I am completely capable of understanding that statement!

I might, just might also contend that I’ve gotten better at understanding Khmers, or if I haven’t gotten better at that, I’ve realized more that I don’t always understand Khmers. Sometimes I think we (we westerners, maybe) get so caught up in reminding ourselves of all the ways in which people are the same that we forget all the amazing and special ways in which people (or peoples) are different. There are so many interesting and noteworthy idiosyncrasies about Khmer culture, Asian culture (oh any culture, but I'm in Cambodia right now!) that I couldn't do them justice even in a blag entry entirely thus focused, but one that jumps to mind immediately is a focus on appearances. I'm so used to thinking about appearance~consciousness signifying superficiality at best, but it's actually kind of nice to be around people who notice so much about how things look. People are frank about appearances in a number of ways that are actually much more comforting than disconcerting. It's so interesting what people notice, too. After an afternoon and evening of dancing in Chansy's village, all the older ladies kept telling me I looked Khmer except for my nose!

Oh! I've gotten much better at Khmer dancing. All my kids will vouch.

(Before I veer completely onto another topic, I'd like to note that giving and accepting items with two hands is a conscious action I've really grown to appreciate.)

Attention to the needs of others.
Four or five summers ago, I decided to make some goals for myself. This was the summer following my now legendary goal to eat ice cream every day, which transformed from a summer goal to a way of life (I’m pretty sure I ate ice cream every day until I started trekking on my trip to NZ last year). Spurred on by my success, I decided the next year that since I’d warmed up to this whole goal~setting/attaining process, I’d give it a slightly more serious go, and set three goals for that summer:
1. Notice beauty in more things.
2. Focus more outwardly. (You know, be less self~absorbed.)
3. Create something. (Hopefully something beautiful ~ though I guess goal number 1 would be helpful in finding the beauty in whatever I could come up with to create.)

I made a little progress on each of these goals that summer, but the time I've spent in Cambodia has done more for me than any experience prior to help me become aware of what I can do for the people around me. I'm sure this made me a much better travel companion than I would have been otherwise for my auntie when she graced me with her visit, and hopefully it's made me a more effective teacher. I'd actually be really happy if that awareness has helped me to be a better person to have been out here, because . . . well, I've been here for awhile now, and I certainly hope to return. So I've got to get better at doing things for folks somehow, even if it's just by throwing myself back in here, over and over again.

I think that's a nice note for a blag to go out on. Oh hey! I'll throw in a couple photos, too.

love love love

Monday, April 5, 2010

Every day I eat a magno that's better than the mango I ate yesterday. That's not even a metaphor.

Su s'dai, loved ones!

Sorry (once again . . . ) for the delay in writing, but things have been effing (sorry Grandma White Bear, Ron Tom, and all the other respectable persons I'm constantly forgetting are reading this) crazy around here! Fortunately, that does provide me with some tasty stories upon which to update you all. Prepare to be updated upon!

Some welcome obstacles to the regularity of my online communication were a few wonderful guests who popped into FLO for a week. Four incredibly lovely young ladies from the UK & US came to volunteer and hang about with the kids, and I had a blast hanging about with them as well. I believe they would all be obliged to vouch that I talked their ears apart without ceasing ~ but I couldn't help myself! They were the first native English~speakers with whom I'd conversed face to face in over a month! We probably all know I'm ever willing to converse with anybody, but the kids just don't play the preferred amount of attention to all that clever wordplay I'm always employing. Thanks, ladies, for putting up with well over your fair earfuls. Your company was so appreciated!

Near the end of the week the ladies were staying, still more exciting visitors made their way to FLO: a few foster parents, a few visitors along with them ~ one of whom just became a foster parent! ~ and my own foster parent: my auntie! Look at that, foster parents of all sorts. I had a blast touring my auntie around a bit. We gallivanted off with a couple of kids and families to Kirirom, a national park in between what I believe are the Cardamoms and the Camelback mountains, although I might be completely wrong. Tim, I think you're the only cartographer who's reading this. Someone tell me if I'm wrong on this one; I lack the internet capacity to check up on my own geographical statements.

The auntie and I also took a lovely trip up to Siem Reap so she could check one more wonder of the world off of her "to see" list. Meandering among the temples of Angkor, we were lucky to run into half the quartet of rad ladies who'd visited FLO the previous week. We ate touristy foods, stayed at a touristy hotel, got the whole tourist experience!

Upon our return to FLO and Phnom Penh, we meandered into the city for a couple days to take in the must~sees of PP. Rather than scheduling a sad day in Phnom Penh and a happy day in Phnom Penh like I did for myself, with my auntie and I split up the sobering and rather painful stops with more fun, exciting, interesting places to see like the Royal Palace and the National Museum. My second viewing of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S21 Khmer Rouge prison) was not so . . . just hard as my first, but that will never be an easy place to visit. It's just too enormously tragic.

I kept my auntie captive around FLO for a few more days before allowing her to return to the US. She's been gone about a week now, and things have just continued to be nuts around here. Like they will. Most of the kids went to their homelands this week to celebrate Khmer New Year with their families. KNY is the biggest holiday of the year: basically the cities shut down completely and the entire populace makes their way to the countryside to celebrate. Whole villages gather at pagodas, where the festivities only begin with offerings to monks for good luck in the new year. (It's the year of the tiger. Brace yourselves, everybody) As the day wears on, there will be lots of music, dancing and traditional games. Traditional game~playing is one of the only venues in which it's acceptable for Khmer teenagers to flirt, so the whole social scenario should be rife with potential for entertainment . . . and, dare I suggest, romance?

In fact, just to practice for KNY, we had quite the shindig here at FLO on Saturday. A whole afternoonful of traditional games followed by a lovely dinner and a dance party that rivals any other I've ever attended. If you're lucky, my Next blag post will involve some snappy KNY photos or all sorts.

Happy Khmer New Year everybody!


Friday, March 19, 2010

A day in the countryside, a night in the city. . .

First things first: I felt bad for telling a story about Veasna and not including a photo of him before, so here's one. Veasna's the stripey one ~ man he looks like such a scalawag! And aptly so. He's a total scalawag.

Anybody want to hear about some more cute things that my students write? Sure you do!

So, Chansy informed me that when one is speaking Khmer and referring to a very young child, one might correctly use a gender-neutral pronoun (like 'it') rather than (the Khmer equivalent of) 'he' or 'she.' This functioned as an explanation for some of the sentences we've seen on the kids' homework. Still, when the subject is 'it' I just can't help imagining some mysterious androgynous creature ~ now, given Chansy's additional information, a younger version of said creature. Some of the sentences have looked something like this:
It can play volleyball. (Volleyball is everybody's favorite sport in Cambodia. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that It likes to play, too.)
It can play badminton. (Perhaps this doesn't look nearly as adorable if you don't know Rasann, who employs badminton in Every Sentence he composes. Not only can It play badminton, but He can also play badminton! In fact, They can play badminton. We can all play badminton!)
It can eat Italian food. (This image just makes me giggle.)
It would like a Coca-cola. (In a similarly adorable manner, most kids call Coke 'Coca.' I dig.)

Sometimes, when I give kids writing assignments, they seem to mistake the instructions to "Write about your morning" for instructions to "Impress me with how closely you observed me today". I accompanied a few of the kids to high school on Monday morning, and as all of my (afternoon) writing students had state school in the morning, they all wrote about seeing me there. My personal favorite was Sineth's account:

I went to school. A beautiful lady walked by my class. It was my teacher.

Another recent adorable and very appreciated endeavor of my students was to write Happy Birthday notes to me mam (her birthday was the 16th). The lady of the day, incidentally, definitely cried. (Good work, kittens!) Mam, don't even bother denying it, I know you did. Also of note: I have the best rentals ever. My mom and dad are my emotional and intellectual role models, and every day I'm happy and grateful to have been raised by two so wonderful people, who I still learn so much from all the time.


A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to take another lengthy day trip into the countryside with Chansy. We motoed almost 3 hours (no idea the actual distance, sorry blog-following cartographers) from FLO into Kandal province, toward Takeo province and Mt Takeo (which was unfortunately too far for us to travel on that day. Another day, though!). We stopped in a village and sat down to nyam (favorite Khmer word, nyam, means eat) some dessert and I was immediately hooked up with a bowlful of dessert, a tangy mango, and a frosty mug of Angkor beer. By frosty mug, I of course mean mug filled with Angkor beer and enormous chunks of ice. It's just how you drink beer in Cambodia, otherwise it's darn near impossible to keep cold. So our visit was clearly off to a brilliant start. We were at the home of Chansy's teacher, who also is the father of one of my students, Choury, and Wong, one of the older boys at FLO. Choury showed me all around her home, introduced me to her (expansive) extended family, including her adorable grandmother, and her best friend took us for a ride on a rickety rowboat (Choury complimented my bravery on accepting a ride ~ as though I could help but accept!). While we were gamboling about the river, several other guests arrived: the same pile of older FLO boys who attended Vanni's wedding. We shared a delicious lunch of some sort of fish (sometimes you don't ask) which, I was told, will protect me from diseases (and then you continue not to ask). We lazed about in hammocks, walked about the village (Choury got all dolled up to attend a wedding across the river), snacked on some mangoes, oh! and the highlight: went for a swim!
In this ultra-summery Cambodian weather, I've just been aching to go swimming, and this weekend getaway provided the ideal opportunity. And ladies (hey, why the heck not, gentlemen too), might I most highly recommend bathing in a sarong. It's awesome! All the reckless abandon of swimming fully clothed so artfully combined with practical modesty! In all seriousness, I'm 26 and I don't think I've ever owned a bathing suit in which I felt comfortable appearing in public, but everyone looks pretty in a sarong! (You, too, gentlemen.) Not to mention that sarong-swimming marked the second occasion on which I've been told I'm officially Cambodian now. And being Cambodian, from what I can tell, involves some really pleasant swimming.

Another recent adventure involved a night in Phnom Penh with a new friend, Estelle, who works at FLO on Saturdays. It was an utterly unique night and a total blast, one of the only evenings I've spent away from the orphanage in a good long time. We went out for dinner (Mexican food!) drank cocktails (cocktails!) and chatted the night away. Estelle was good enough to have me stay at her lovely home, with her two crazy kittens (actual kittens), and the next day we shopped around, dined at the finest marketplaces, and just out and out enjoyed a sunny day in Phnom Penh. At the end of the day I met up one of my former students, who is studying in her second year at university and just got a job in a dental office, so she moved out of FLO to live with her sister. I'm so proud of her! It was great to see her place and spend some time walking around her hood, too. In fact, here's a photo of me being proud of Sokuntear and Sokuntear smiling:

Another recent time I was told I've become Cambodian was when I accompanied Chansy on an errand in the city. She needed to pick up some supplies for the handicraft shop, and I love riding a moto, so off we went to some crazy market (They're all crazy) to pick up some enormous bag of stuffing (like for stuffed animals and pincushions, not turkeys). Both Chansy and I could have easily fit into this bag. And the two of us transported it by moto! Just like real Cambodians! It was a treat ~ accompanied by drinking icy~cool treats (fruit shakes!) on our way back. All sorts of treats, for real Cambodians!

Well, that looks like about enough out of me for a week. This girl misses you, everybody!
P.S. My auntie arrives to visit in less than a week! I'm beyond stoked

Monday, March 15, 2010

A+ is for Amazing

Shall I say it again? My brilliant students keep me in constant awe of their potential and capabilities. They're so wonderful. I'm so proud of every single student in my writing classes.

Also, remember how I said I'd seen geckos in love, but not making love? I can actually scratch that as of this afternoon. Totally walked in on two of the little guys (well, I guess one little guy and one little lady) in my bathroom. So Rob (it was great to talk to you today) . . . looks like you're not the only one studying reproduction.

More to come (hopefully less regarding gecko reproduction, which is, in all honesty, kind of terrifying),

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's come to my attention

that this blog contains just a shamefully small amount of evidences to the extreme adorability of my students, which is criminal, because they do cute things All The Time.

As my own dear Homie commented recently, I have quite the doting students. It's true! Seldom does a class (or any interaction, for that matter) fail to begin with at least one girl exclaiming, "SisTAH! You look so beautiFUL!" You might think this would get old, but nope, it really doesn't. On the rare occasion I even receive the utterly unanticipated compliment: One of my writing students walked into class and told me I looked "beautiful, like the Buddha." I'll never forget my immediate feeling of bewilderment and 'aww shucks.'
It's not just me, either: these crazy kids will dote wherever they're allowed! I was grading monthly tests in my elementary English class, and in the section where they were asked to write a paragraph about themselves, every single student (I kid you not, 100%) wrote about how smart, funny, and/or beautiful their English teachers are. (It helps that Meata ~ my student intern co~teacher ~ is certainly one intelligent, awesome and gorgeous lady.) Here's a photo of Sopharey, one of the doters in Meata's class, all decked out for a dance performance.
Visal, one of my favorite students (not that I have favorites) noticed that I had checked the time on my (awesomely terrible garbage) cell phone telephone and asked for my phone number. I'd like to further illustrate this situation by adding that Visal is 9, which means he looks about 5 to an American, with floppy straight black hair and ENorMous brown eyes. While I recited the number to him, he concentrated so hard on copying it down I wouldn't have been surprised to see him sticking out his tongue. After he copied it down he scampered off so happily, you'd think we'd made plans for dinner and a movie. Visal occasionally comes up to me before or after class to recite my number back to me. And yet, he never texts, never calls . . . my poor heart. Here's a photo of the little ladykiller.
Veasna, another star student in the same class, was helping me give an example of creating a conversation beginning with a question using the word 'can.' It went a little something like this:
Veasna: Can you tell me the time please?
Ann Marie: It's about six thirty.
Veasna: How do you know? You're not wearing a watch!
Tricky little trickster.

Alright, whoever's being good enough to read up on my adventures, this is short because I've been trying to post for almost two weeks now and the internet's been awful around here and sometimes I just don't know how much to write over a given passage of time, so I'll certainly write not the proper amount. But I did post three cute anecdotes and two photos, and now I'm going to list at least two things that I've improved at since arriving in Cambodia:
1. My Khmer has improved! Nobody get excited, it's still Awful. But I'm also trying to learn Khmer script ~ which I'm unabashedly proud of, because it's crazily difficult. The point is I'm actually pretty bad at both speaking and writing in Khmer. But darn it if I won't give it a try!
2. De-boning a fish using only a spoon. I feel a lot more like a kitten than I typically do as a result of eating so much fish off the skeleton. No complaints there, it's pretty enjoyable to feel like a kitten. It's also worth mentioning here that Chansy has been providing me with some amazing meals. I have tempura fried mushrooms and eggplant slices, fish grilled with ginger, all sort of things that don't sound nearly as impressive when I write about them but even remembering them makes my stomach growl. Yum city.

Oh! More good news! It's sweet mango season in Cambodia, which is fantastic news for this lady. My students have continued to exploit my fondness for this fruit, and even if that means they're stealing from the trees on the compound, I'm not even going to try to stop them. As ever, I'm a slave to my love of fresh fruit. What can I say?

Alright, I'm going to read to children. You all have my long-distance love!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Make me an instrument . . . maybe a sralai?

A few of you who know me well may also know my fondness for making lists. Nothing practical like a to-do list (I'm not what they call a planner . . . ), but lists that just help me arrange my thoughts, kind of inspired by Brod's list of sadnesses in Everything is Illuminated, which approach a sort of poetry (Brod's list, not mine). If not poetic, hopefully mine are interesting enough to be worth reading.

Songs I think I hear being played on the sralai (a Khmer oboe, unlike any oboe you've ever heard before!) which are assuredly not actually being played on the sralai:
  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Simple Gifts
  • Peter and the Wolf (the oboe part, of course, although I forget what animal that is. The duck?)
  • Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy
  • The overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Things the kids call me (just a sampling):
  • Sister
  • Teacher
  • Ann Marie (harder than it seems, believe me)
  • Marie (much easier, evidently)
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • Merry Christmas
  • Reat-bot-rei (as close as I can come to approximating the Khmer word for princess . . . the little charmers)
  • P'kah (Khmer for flower, once again, aren't they the sweetest?)
(Mostly) Green foods I'm (still) really enjoying:
  • Maaannnngoooooooes (preferably with chili salt which is not green, but extremely delicious)
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplant (As we all know, the eggplant is the king of all vegetables. It is also featured prominently in my favorite Khmer meal.)
  • Tiny eggplants! (Perhaps the princes of all vegetables?)
  • These little olivey-type . . . fruits? I think they would technically be fruit. They're savory, even a little bitter, and they make dining more delicious.
Reasons Chansy's awesome:
Please, do we need more of these? Yes, of course, absolutely!
  • She gives me hot, black coffee (Coffee in Cambodia - and Vietnam - when you can drink it unadulterated, is incredible! It's so rich it's almost like drinking liquour, and nice and strong. Taking in the aroma is almost as good as a sip.)
  • When Chansy and I go out to Phnom Penh, we eat ice cream.
  • Twice!
  • She doesn't question the number of chilis or any other spicy flavor enabler I enjoy in my food
  • Chansy does so much all around FLO. She teaches a class with me, works with the handicrafts, and feeds me, just to name a few of her many duties
  • She is a model of beauty (outward and inward), charm and composure; while being a 100% Cambodian lady she remains admirably capable of friendship with a crazy foreigner like me
  • Chansy is pretty much just straight up the best. I adore this lady!
Creatures with whom I'm sharing living quarters:
  • At least twenty geckos
  • At least one th'kai (another approximation for a Khmer word for a big ol' lizard who makes alternately lucky and unlucky croaking sounds, whenever he wants to)
  • Several frogs, some sticky, many just slimy ~ and for the most part, the frogs live downstairs, actually. One talented little guy regularly sneaked into the corner of my room and formed himself into a perfect circle, just a little drop of a frog, usually just waiting for me to find him under a shoe or backpack. What shenanigans! I miss him.
  • Only occasional mosquitoes, and certainly no yellow fever of any sort
  • One nighttime butterfly
  • Oh, some spiders
Rules about spiders in Cambodia:
  • Spiders in Cambodia must be either fuzzy or capable of leaping great distances, or both (The other day I walked out of my class in the library and saw a spider jumping all over everybody's shoes. "What a cute jumping spider!" I said to myself. I'm not as squirmy around spiders as many folks, but I'd never had a thought like that before. Evidently I've been in Cambodia a little while now)
  • Spiders are not, however, required to have all eight legs. I have a medium~sized fuzzy yellow roommate right now who only has 5 legs. Clearly he's been through a lot. We get along well, although I'd prefer if he'd stop sleeping in my towel. All roommates have their problems, though, I'm sure we'll get through it.
  • Just like you've heard, spiders are edible. I haven't been offered any spider yet, but if I am, and Chansy tells me it's delicious, I will eat one.
Things I've seen geckos do:
  • lack a tail
  • lack most of a tail
  • appear blue (as a prize-winning French bulldog)
  • be in love (NOT making love, although I guess I can only imagine that that was the result; gecko sex is really not an activity I hope to observe. There are a lot of tiny geckos wandering about these days, and I like to imagine that they're babies, although it's just as likely they might be a tiny variety of gecko.)

Perhaps also of interest:

One of my more resent notable interactions with animals involved a particularly persnickety monkey outside Wat Phnom. Chansy and I were snacking on some eggs (with some baby ducks inside them) when a monkey ran up behind us and snatched the empty eggshells off our plate. When he realized they were babyduckless, he crushed them in his hands and threw them on the ground, lept back onto the bench and snagged a (full) egg! He ran off, shook it up and slurped it down right in front of us before preparing to approach again. We bought a bunch of bananas to feed him so he'd leave our eggs alone, but he would have none of it! This monkey was interested only in baby ducks, no banana would appease him. (Leaving Chansy and I to eat the bananas like good monkeys.)
Wat Phnom is also the home of Phnom Penh's only elephant. You might think there'd be more (there is, after all, an elephant hitching post at the royal palace), but there aren't.
The most common ingredient in Khmer cooking is rice, spluh. ('Spluh,' it should be noted, is not an expression of disgust, but a supercoolfuturistic pronunciation of the term, 'duh.' Spluh.) The second most common ingredient, from what I've observed, is salt. I would need to say the word 'salt' or 'salty' three times just to list what I usually have for breakfast, and I've become accustomed to eating fruit with salt, which is amazingly delicious. Chansy gets all happy when I ask for salt with my fruit and tells me I'm Khmer style (the highest of compliments, of course).
Yesterday, in the excitement of all mine and Chansy's adventures mot0~ing about Phnom Penh, I got sunburned. On my nose. The kids think this is just hilarious. Last year, when I was in New Zealand in January/February, I know it was the first time I'd ever had a sunburn in January (or February, for that matter), so I've been trying to recall whether I've ever been sunburned in March before, and I think this is a first for me.

Well there you have it, I updated my blag. I think I'll throw in a photo of Chansy with me, since a lot of this writing is connected with Chansy-related activities. A lot of food, and animals, sure, but sometimes it's just a little too distant to get into the thoughts that fill up my head most of these days.

If you're reading this, I really like you for it!

Also, I miss you all.

Til next time,

Friday, February 19, 2010

In the US, I'm told, good students give their teacher a shiny red apple.

My students give me green mangoes (and the occasional coconut!), and the good ones give me chili salt to go with it. Sorry American teachers, I'm afraid I win this one.

Monday, February 15, 2010

So it turns out that the absolute best way to spend Valentine's Day is at a Cambodian wedding, followed by treat-giving to kids

Who knew? Well I suppose if I were being completely honest, I'd have to admit that I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the best possible way to celebrate Valentine's Day. To top it off, I was also notified that the day (particularly my attendance at Vanni's wedding) marks the day I became a Cambodian. Big news, yeah?

The whole affair was somehow both very formal and rather relaxed, quite traditional while intermittently improvisational. When we arrived(we being Donna, an email foster mom presently visiting her daughter; Chantha, said daughter; Touch, who would soon step up to the considerable task of teaching me to dance; Masa, my fashion consultant and resident photographer; Srey Mom, exuberant attendee; Papa Soeurn, deputy director of FLO; and of course our handsome driver), the celebration was already well underway. Entertainers were telling jokes to the wedding party and a crowd of guests, including a mob of jubilant ragtag younguns. Naturally the comedians couldn't resist including the newly arrived foreigners in their skit, and if I'm not mistaken both Donna and I were proposed to. Buuuut I could be mistaken. As any of my students(/teachers) can vouch, my Khmer's a little shaky. (Actually, the adorable truth is that none of them would say that. My Khmer is atrocious, but as long as I'm willing to toss up a word or phrase here or there I'm told that I speak Khmer very well all the time. LOVE them!)

It was after the traditional hair-cutting ceremony that most of the FLO kids who were in attendance showed up ~ and wow, do those boys Bring the party. About a half dozen of the older boys from FLO were esteemed wedding guests, and they were just a barrel of trouble and fun. We sat down at a couple tables ('Why can't we all sit at the same table?' I wondered to myself until I saw the lovely bridesmaids join the young gentlemen and all became clear.) to dine (on lemongrass stuffed grilled fish! - My SE Asian Favorite! - and more!) and down a few (mediocre) lagers before the dancing began. And oh dear. I'll let a couple photos tell the remainder of that story.

Anyway the wedding was beyond grand and Vanni was beyond beautiful. She was breathtaking. I had an utter blast and I'm so glad I was invited and able to attend! Congratulations and thank you Vanni and husband whose name I can't spell!

After a brief stop at Mt Oudong, we returned to FLO to hand out Valentines. February 14th happens to be "Auntie Donna's" birthday, and she had the brilliance to celebrate it by giving little gifts to the kids. They were delighted, and it's always fun to monkey around with them at the end of the weekend. They are all so busy with school and other classes most of the time; weekends are just priceless. (Remember the love from before? It's continuing!)

In order to top off my weekend of affection and certain romance, here's one more lovin' highlight: I walked into my writing class today to find my two (best, of course) students waiting for me with bunches of coconut flowers! Thank you boys, you jokers.

Need I repeat that these kids are the best?

All love,

Friday, February 12, 2010

Reality Check

Another blag post, another su s’dai. If you’re reading this, I’m thinking of you and more than likely missing you, too.

The faithful among you readers will remember that last week we celebrated Visa Extension Day. And a celebration it was – I must have taught three classes that evening! What a crazy night. As my memories of such legendary festivities gradually returned to me, I began to muse over one chain of thought in particular:

Even as I anticipate my next two and a half months (See how quickly the time dwindles! Joel, I still can’t and doubt I ever will handle the passage of time.) here in Cambodia and at FLO, my mind has started to wander . . . toward what will I direct my energy when I return to the US? Rents, you’ll be glad to hear I’m already applying for jobs, as a good deal of my motivation for returning at all is financial. (Attn Student Loans: I hate you.) And would anyone believe that as I flipped through my mental rolodex (So what if I still have a rolodex? It’s functional!) for future opportunities, I actually thought-sighed, “Back to reality.”

Oh, I’m sorry Ann Marie; did you just imply that you’ll be returning to reality? As though from somewhere else? Where exactly do you think you’ve been for the past month?

Good. Question.

Yesterday I went to a class in Phnom Penh to add some finesse or pizzazz (I’m honestly not sure which) to my efforts volunteering with the handicraft shop at FLO. Several artisans produce traditionally crafted silk products there, and the proceeds they generate help to support the children at FLO as well as the handicraft project itself. All I’m doing in conjunction with them, besides saying good morning every day, is editing and updating the promotional material. Anyway we all sat down for lunch together, and I happened to be sharing a table with three NGO organizers who know Phaly (the director of FLO) and asked after her, asked what I was doing in Cambodia and where I was from, the usual third degree. As I began to ask likewise, they told me about different provinces in Cambodia and one of the gentlemen offered, “All of the people you are talking to are former refugees. This is how we know Phaly.”

How, I ask in sincere seriousness and not at all rhetorically, does one respond? It’s not so unusual, I know, to converse with a person and be unsure of what they’ll be comfortable talking about. The extreme degree to which this (I would say, quite appropriate) uncomfortable awareness exists in Cambodia talking to anyone over 40 is something I’ve never experienced. If you ask where someone is from, you should certainly be aware that the entire urban population of the nation was displaced thirty-five years ago. It’s impossible to fathom; as I write I’ve lifted both my hands to my head several times in futile effort to comprehend. It verges on the unreal. I can’t tell if my mind is just doing a very poor job of relating or if the situation is so unlike anything I’ve ever experienced that I don’t even know how to imagine myself in that place; I’m leaning toward the latter.

As I corresponded with a friend familiar with FLO recently, she very astutely observed, “So many people at FLO and in Cambodia in general have gone through so much tragedy that it becomes banal and is rarely spoken of.” Everyday I’m surrounded by ten-year-olds who have seen more hardship than I will in a lifetime. Furthermore, these kids are (for the most part) incredibly candid when it comes to telling their stories – one wonders whether it’s due to such an intimate familiarity with pain or relishing any invitation to accept individual attention, and I’m sure both contribute – actually I’m sure there are still more contributing factors that I’m unaware of and leaving out.

What is still more staggering is that the children living here are the lucky ones. Every evening over a hundred children from the village come into FLO for English classes; just over a third of my evening classes are village kids. I was walking back to FLO from the primary state school the other morning, and I saw one of the young ladies in my beginning English class outside her home. She offered me a ride (driving someone or riding on the back of a bicycle is seriously the best way to get around FLO) and while we biked I asked if she had school in the afternoon (most of the kids at FLO have class at the state school either in the morning or afternoon, full time maybe once or twice a week). She said no, and I asked what she was going to do that day, and she told me she would go to work, but she wanted to go to school. This isn’t atypical: two village kids have left my evening classes (in the month and a half I’ve been working) because their parents take them out of school to go to work in factories.

And the village kids who aren’t in school still have a distinct advantage (just given their proximity to educational opportunities) over kids in rural areas – when you say ‘rural’ in Cambodia, you’re serious.

All of this is to say that in the course of my time here at FLO I’ve only continued to explore and consider my own understanding and experience of life, and what I can grasp of reality. Sure, I can come out here for a few months and involuntarily tear up when I talk and dream about my students and new friends, but what is the end of my efforts? (In an effort to understand that much more about Cambodia I’ve been doing a bit of reading on Buddhism, and that last statement just got my mental wheels turning concerning what end to efforts there is at all. There’s a lot about Buddhist philosophy that I’m critical of, even at its root, though there are plenty of valuable thoughts wrapped up in there as well. Right now my thoughts are regarding the joy I obtain from making efforts and feeling even a little bit satisfied, though more than likely inspired, by my attempts to fulfill them.) When I return to my own usual experience of reality, will I have accomplished anything lasting and worthwhile? Not just for me, although my own growth is valuable, sure, fine, but really: will I have contributed something? It seems almost impossible that I will have. But I still hope so. So wish me luck, kittens. (Sometimes I call my students ‘kittens’ in class. They’re confused and amused by it.)

I want to sign out by saying that the I lunched with the same group of people today, and the same man who told me that they were all former refugees challenged me to tell a joke – I naturally opted for my favorite joke, the one with the he(a)rd of cows, and I think it went over pretty well – and then countered my joke with one set in the Pol Pot Era, which I feel begs the question, do I just wear my diplomatic sensitivity that conspicuously on my sleeve and he is just totally effing with me?

Actually I think that more significantly displays the inherent positive nature that I’ve come to really adore about Cambodian people. A few of you are already familiar with my fondness for the biblical encouragement, “Be joyful always,” but I think there may only be one person to whom I’ve ever expressly stated why I consider it an important and valid piece of advice. We talk about and seek out and run after happiness all the time, but ‘joy’ seems seldom to be a goal, or even something we’re aware we’re capable of attaining. In my understanding, what makes joy special and worthy of pursuit is that it is happiness rooted in something more significant than immediate pleasure or some vague good feeling, maybe the absence of any present bad feeling. Joy gains its authority from faith (today I read of faith that “the decisive efficacy of faith is not that it stimulates its objects to act supernaturally but that it transforms the subject” – Mom & others reading or who have read tBK, put that in your treasure chest containing your impressions of Alyosha and bury it) that there are ideals worth striving for. Of course there's more to it than that, but there's always more to it than that.

Annnnd that’s enough out of me for one day! Thanks for reading, whoever’s out there.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Happy Chansy's birthday!

It’s Chansy’s birthday! Wherever in the world you are reading this, you should probably stop right now and throw a party, and only if it’s the best and most fun party in which you’ve ever been attendant will it be a near appropriate celebration of that lady.
I don’t have much to give, unfortunately, and actually Chansy doesn’t seem that into making her birthday a celebration, but I’m still so happy to be here even just to say happy birthday and give her a hug in person. Chansy has been a true source of joy for me here, even in the times I’ve felt loneliest. She’s an incredibly strong, smart and independent lady, and wonderfully sweet and piles of fun to boot. Not to mention that she is perhaps the only person I’ve met here who doesn’t treat me like a novelty, and with whom I can interact just like people. It has become the most obvious and appreciated of the many instances in which Chansy proves herself a very good friend.
(Now comes a potentially great parenthetical moment: I’d like to send out this bashful apology to every friend and love of mine – and there are a number of you – to whom I’ve ever fretted that my novelty was wearing off and I therefore must be less interesting to you, and you must therefore be less interested in me. I think I can safely say that I quite understand now that ‘novel’ is not a notion I really want to inspire in people, not in essence. It's true that there's some romance to relishing something new and exciting, but it seems like there is a richer value in something complicated and challenging, and you appreciate it as it becomes more interesting when you bet to know it more thoroughly.)
Today is a busy day; my classes (two down, five to go) are going smashingly, and there's more to come!
(I really just wanted to post today to give more observance to Chansy. She's amazing, she does so much, and she sees so little attention herself. Everybody aim love in this direction!)

As ever,

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Seriously, that was a really, unusually slow tuktuk

Happy Visa Extension Day, one and all!

So I just returned to FLO from the most ridiculous tuktuk ride. This guy, Srom, is an utter anomaly among tuktuk drivers: sweet as all things holy, but the slowest motorist on several wheels (it just occurred to me that I have no idea how many wheels a tuktuk has. I'll have to count next time). [Edit: there are four wheels on a tuktuk; two on the moto, and two on the trailer.] Upon my word the only vehicles that didn't pass us were bicycles. On the positive side, I saw cows grazing on a median and another group of cows milling about a car lot (presumably shopping). Silly cows! Good ol' hilarious cows.

Even from an extraordinarily slowly-moving tuktuk, however, I truly enjoy spying on Phnom Penh. I dig the city, I do. Perhaps it’s the grit. Many of you know already that I'm an absolute sucker for a gritty city. PP was the natural next step following Chicago, and before that, Tacoma, the Gritty City of Destiny. While it's true that I don't know Phnom Penh well (at all) yet, I just have a good feeling when I get into town. It's probably a combination of that gritty city affection and the minivacation that just relaxes me that much when I make the occasional jaunt off the orphanage compound. FLO’s a really great place, to be sure, but we all need a change of scenery once in awhile. Some of us more than others . . . and myself, perhaps, more than most. It’s an attribute of myself I’m learning to deal with.

So the time I've spent riding in numerous tuktuks, biking, and moto-ing (Indeed! I drove a moto myself!) about in Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hanoi, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Siem Reap has given me a lot of insight into oh, every stereotype of Asian drivers I’ve ever heard alluded to. There is one main difference between driving in the US and driving in SE Asia, from what I can understand based on my limited experience: in the US, driving is a competitive sport; in SE Asia, it’s a cooperative effort ~ by this I don’t mean (at all, really) that anyone is working together, but that everyone on the road is operating with the understanding that they are surrounded by a lot of individuals in constant motion. I can’t really say it makes driving any safer, either. When I was in Portland visiting Famous Michael (Hey Famous Michael ~ I miss you!) we (mostly he) talked to a man from India who was telling us (him, really) that India is the freest place in the world, and the first example he cited was that you can drive as fast as you want. Hmmm . . . .

Anyway, my point is, Mom, Auntie, Addie, others who show regular and understandable concern for my shocking propensity towards physical malady resulting from my utter lack of coordination and magnetic attraction to clumsy situations, don’t worry: all moto drivers and passengers wear helmets all the time in Cambodia. I, of course, wear a helmet whenever I’m mobile. And in the tenderly rocking arms of a nearly immobile tuktuk like Srom’s I can get around Phnom Penh in perfect safety. Very slowly. Ahem. (What can I say, I desire to be a quickly moving lady!)

Needless to say, I prefer Chansy’s moto. Driving a moto is fun, but it’s more relaxing to ride along, and I (am going to sound like the biggest nerd saying this but it’s true so I’m going to say it anyway) feel so cool riding with Chansy! This is in large part due to the awesomeness of Cambodian people. The culture here is so warm. Before coming out here I didn’t know anything at all about what people in Cambodia are like, and I’ve been so frequently blown away by the sincere joy that comes from welcoming someone around here. (Of course the kids are the very best example. But there are plenty of others, too!) But a person, just any person on the street, if they don’t smile immediately upon seeing you, give them a smile first ~ a reaction in kind is guaranteed.

Oh, not long ago my Mom (look, Mom, it’s like a whole blog post dedicated to you!) asked a few questions about some general things in Cambodia, and since maybe a few other people have the same questions I’m going to answer them here. Also I don’t remember if I ever emailed back regarding those questions. (Sorry!)

Khmer is the name of the language most commonly spoken in Cambodia ~ you can pronounce it either k’mer like the first syllable of mermaid or k’mai like the first syllable of the name Maya; either is acceptable. Khmer is also the name for the major cultural ethnicity of Cambodia. Some 97% (?) of Cambodian people are ethnic Khmer, so generally the terms “Cambodian” and “Khmer” can be used interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. For example!
On my first trip into Phnom Penh on Chansy’s moto, we met her friend Moni to guide us around the Royal Palace, and the three of us were meant to hop of the moto to go to the National Museum. I’m a giant here, so I was worried that we wouldn’t all fit, and said so. Chansy and Moni laughed and Moni said, “We are Cambodian!” (And we all fit ~ rather easily. The most people I’ve seen on one moto is six. So far.)
When I was staying in Siem Reap and Chansy, Sieng Eng and Bora brought lunch back to Min (I can’t spell her name; it sounds like “mean,” but she isn’t) and me, we were presented with rice, salty fish and watermelon. When I eat at FLO, fruit is usually served at the end of the meal for dessert, so that’s the role I assumed the melon would play. However, Bora told me to eat the melon with the fish, in one bite. I paused with my mouth full. As this suggestion met with incredulous disbelief, Chansy and Sieng Eng insisted, “It’s Khmer style.” (And tasty!) Yull?

I’m doing my best to pick up some Khmer while I’m in Cambodia, and it’s been slightly easier than I’d feared due to my having as many Khmer teachers as I have English students, but the language is Difficult. One of the girls in my writing class (Emily, the one who is your little Cambodian sister!) told me today that there are 23 vowels and 32 consonants in the Khmer alphabet. What?! (Angkor Wat, the kids reply. The jokers.) I’m trying to learn to write, too, so whenever anyone teaches me a word they also have to teach me how to write it. The kids think it will be easier for me to learn to write word by word, but I want to learn the alphabet so I can take the words apart and figure them out. Hah, I’m sure I am going about this in an entirely hackneyed manner. But I’m working hard at it! I have plenty of encouragement and motivation, though: everytime I use or write a word correctly (in class or out), the kids positively erupt into applause and grins, and Wanee, one of the girls who works here at FLO, tells me I look more beautiful when I speak Khmer ~ and eat Khmer food. So, okay, good deal, I’m in, is what I’m saying.

Alright, I’ve already written much more than I’d planned but I’m going to include one last bit of news: I’m going to a Cambodian wedding! Wanee is getting married next Sunday, and she invited me to her wedding! I’m stoked. It will be the best Valentine’s Day ever.

In other, less exciting news, my morning classes were cancelled today. The sort of thing I just love learning when I walk into the classroom. More time for Khmer lessons and less formal kid hangabouts!

Later, taters!


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cutest event in the universe reported yesterday at 1700 hours

So somebody's been spreading rumors among the children that I like to sing, and now everytime there's a lull in conversation (and there is the occasional lull), the kids ask me to sing. I was walking around with Sovann, Panha and David and they asked me to sing. I said I would sing for them if they sang for me. So, Sovann started and Panha and David joined in singing a Khmer song, and so did the kids who were setting the tables for dinner (the kids eat at 530, and we were sitting at the edge of the dining hall). Pretty cute already, right? Well brace yourself: when I came through with my end of the deal and sang a little song for them, each child immediately started playing the airguitar, airkeyboard and airdrums. It was the best band I've ever been in! Sugarbasket, you should get out here and, you know, jam!

(Edit: The cutest recorded event in the universe actually occurred last Sunday at approximately 1700 hours. I just didn’t have time to blag about it because I was spirited away to Siem Reap for a week.)

That’s right, faithful readers, I was in Siem Reap for a week! Several of the staff here at the orphanage were evidently concerned (with good reason) that I hadn’t gotten out of FLO much in the month I’ve been here so far. (A month already? How crazy.) This concern happily coincided with a handicraft fair in Siem Reap that a few staff members – including my pal Fancy Chansy – were going to be attending. Chansy, by the way, is totally the Addie of my FLO experience. For those of you to whom I've never gushed my adoration of Addie, that's the highest of compliments. (I'm in the regular habit of saying that if the only good thing to come from me living in Chicago were meeting Addie, it would be enough. Totally enough!) After processing quite a bit of welcome but required encouragement, I packed my bag and boarded a van full of silk products. The better portion of my week was spent helping out at the handicraft fair, but the real highlight, of course, was catching my first glimpse of Angkor Wat. It’s amazing! Just like everyone says. Who knows, maybe I’ll include a photo or two for your viewing pleasure (yes, your personal viewing pleasure). Maybe. Our first evening in Siem Reap, my Khmer travel companions sneaked me into the temple and Chansy took me on a frantic whirlwind tour. Later in the week, I treated myself to the pleasure of renting a bike and touring around a few of the temples – by my lonesome, but lovely nonetheless. I spent the most time back at Angkor Wat and at Bayon (the Bayon? I don’t know how to properly talk about these places), a ruined temple full of stone faces within the ancient fortified city of Angkor Thom. I met a few traveler friends, and also had a really great time being back on a bike. (I miss Bikey!) I made it out to the temples and back to the fair without so much as breaking ol’ wristy.

Since my little journey, I’ve resolved to make myself a little more regimented in my blagging. I’m going to try to post more regularly, maybe even a few times a week, even if I don’t have much to say, if I do have anything to say. Even when I feel like I’m falling into something of a routine, the crazy truth is that there are new things springing up around me (around all of us) all the time! And since even my pretty insignificant new things are springing up in ways with which I’ve been heretofore unaccustomed, I might as well set them down here for you all to see. My resolution is really in response to a couple wonderful ladies in particular (That’s you, Auntie and Fallon!) who have remarked on their habits of checking up on me, and I want to give them something fun to read. Incidentally, if anyone has any questions about what I’m doing or what things are like around here, please ask! It’s nice to see that people are interested, or at least that someone’s reading. Makes me feel less like I’m just releasing pieces of my mind into the ether. Not that releasing thoughts into the ether isn’t just a fine use of writing space and time.

Another resolution I made on this trip is, next time I travel by car, to spill more beverages on myself. I’m not sure it’s possible, but that’s not going to stop me from trying!

Oh, in other very exciting news, I’d like to welcome a very special new reader: Hi Grandma White Bear! Thank you so much for blog following me! I’ll try to clean up my language J

And while I’m shouting out to individuals, Happy Birthday Kevin!

As I’d begun to say (or at least begun to think) earlier, it’s interesting how easy it is to settle into a routine, how quickly strange and new things can come to seem normal. As Chansy and Tey and I talked about returning to FLO at the end of the Siem Reap trip, I even found myself saying, “Back to normal.”Just a month ago, everything I did every day was part of something I’d never done before, and within a matter of days those things have become habitual; I was even struggling to think of what to write in this contraption because even new things were starting to feel the same. The truth, however, is that new things are new! So I'll write about them.

And for now, off to class. Til next time ~ am