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!