Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rise Up Washington Bureaucrat!

There are bureaucrat lulls and bureaucrat lows, and months and months of muddling through: hours up and down the hall to find a functioning color printer, changing the voicemail system or the departmental distribution list. There is the semi-androgynous office enthusiast who, clocking in with pear-shaped chinos and frappuccino, shares a measured dose of cheer each day with the surrounding hall and cubicles. This is the safe haven, the little island of snow globes and dried roses, ceramic penguins and framed departmental recognitions. This is the warm place where even the saltiest institutional hack can refesh himself, pick up a piece of gossip, or be reminded of the next unit meeting.
In between such oases are stretches of gray paneling, closed doors, frosted class, and behind it, tight-lipped functionaries scrolling through email.
In short, I’m back in Washington.
How have I come full-circle? How did I, the self-styled adventure-mom, bumping bus-bound across Mondulkiri to teach my kids worldliness, end up back in my minivan, shuttling suburban achievers and blackberrying budget projections to—oh no!—the old distribution list. The short answer is, I had a temporary assignment, and it ended just as neatly and abruptly as it began.
The long answer is even too self-pitiful to regale our team assistant, who lends a patient ear to almost any story. What am I really made of? What kinds of skills do I actually have? How does my vision of motherhood fit with that, and can I have all these things and live with my husband, too? Are work assignments totally arbitrary, or is there a rhyme and reason to one guy landing in Hanoi and the other in Tegucigalpa? When managers are holding their licked fingers to the wind, how can I make sure my face is flashing before their eyes? Well, you get the picture. And I don’t want to become the Disgruntled Colleague, whose afternoon rounds to your door signal a half-hour of aimless bull-shitting.
No, I’ve got some spiritual ground to recover, and I’m not all that spirited to begin with. If alcoholics can hit a bottom, then at least bureaucrats can hit a plush carpet. That’s where I was on Tuesday. Coming back from a seminar on results-based, unmonitorable lending, to a pin-drop office with a day-old, carved-up sheetcake in the hall, I did what I shouldn’t. Nose-dove into a corner slice. Then in the afternoon stillness of a quiet office, I found myself hitting refresh on emails to keep the screensaver off. I had an urge to sleep and no reason not to. So I turned off the light in my office, kicked off my shoes, and crawled into the roomy space under my desk for a nap. Was it wrong that it felt so good? That the chatter of the returning assistants was a sweet lullaby beyond the wall?
But how did I get back here? What is it about this city, this job?
I’m now the waking office-body brushing back her plastered hair and smoothing away the rug-marks on my cheek. It’s going to be a really, really honest process here, and boy have I got some changes to make!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bookends: Belatedly, the end of an adventure

Where are the bookends of this great adventure? Where is the summing-up? Months have passed since the boxing-up and hugging, and airport schlepping, and giddy-kissing Daddy at Dulles. Hundred of new tasks and plans and routines have come in between. The old sticky notes and last impressions got stuffed into the back of a folder behind the 2012 school directory and just made their way out today.
So reader, I guess you deserve an ending to this story, even a belated one. School had ended in Phnom Penh, the slow, dreary days of summer had overtaken the kids and Atey made daily trips to the Himawari Hotel pool, the historical museum, the bakery, and any other shady place that got them out of the apartment. The days were counting down, and new excitement—at least for our family—was on the horizon.
Atey was anxious about her future, but confident in my ability to string together her next job. Each day I came home with more printed emails and forwarded text messages seeking nanny or housekeeper. Each interview I coordinated for her, marked the location on our big Phnom Penh city map spread out on the kitchen table, and coached her on selling herself. A bit of a stretch for the shy college girl who so often shrunk below her shoulders at the suggestion of a new task and said, “I don’t know—I so scared!”. Atey’s last day was bittersweet, with a lot of tears and hugs, and strapping onto her new motorbike all the household goods we had bought that we would leave behind. Our last hour was spent in a three-way skype call with a State Department lady and her kids who were boxing-up in Eastern Europe, meeting Atey, meeting our kids, and setting up work plans and a bridge-payment to lock-in Atey as their future nanny. A funny meeting and departure. Atey was thrilled at the magic I could work with laptop, camera, and a bit of online networking.
Tika wanted more than anything to see her kindergarten buddy, Joy, one last time. The two had been BFFs on the playground, allies on the swings staking their claim against the boys who rushed around to push them off. She needed some kind of goodbye, but we had no address directory, only a crayoned telephone number I could barely read. We made a few attempts, and finally got a friendly voice on the other end. Tika held the phone to her ear, and Joy said hello. She smiled and breathed heavily into the phone. ‘Tika—she’s not going to know it’s you.’ …’Hi’, she finally managed to say. I coached the goodbye out of Tika. It was an awkward goodbye.
Yoshi and Puck live in the moment. They had been canon-balling into the pool, hanging their arms and legs out of tuk-tuks, and mimicking the singsong call of the egg vendor outside the apartment. Each day in Phnom Penh offered something to touch, something to laugh about. Our last evening, I took them all out to the big city playground by the Ministry of Religion to burn off steam before the long flights. Yoshi and Puck flew around the equipment, racing past smaller kids up ropes and through tubes, panting and chasing and drinking the last drop out of our fun. Playgrounds in Phnom Penh are best after sundown, when all the working families come out to play, the equipment doesn’t burn your bottom anymore, and—to an American—it feels mysterious and wonderful. The kids were pink steamy dumplings packed back into the tuk-tuk going home.
Ernest helps me fold each shirt self-consciously moving toward departure. He has finally finished his first grown-up book, Survival in the Killing Fields, and eyes each tree and cobblestone in the city with long, penetrating glances. He understands things like they really are, he doesn’t need the kiddie version of facts anymore. Now he is looking out around him from the tuk-tuk heading back to the apartment for the last time. He wants to absorb every moment in his mental catalogue.
I was in the same frame of mind this morning, walking the now-familiar route to the office for the last time. Two buildings away from ours a mid-rise apartment building has just been completed, and workers are putting in the last paving tiles in the ground floor parking area. As I walked past the open gates, a well-dressed older man sat on a plastic chair halfway into the sidewalk, surrounded by small bowls of fruit and burning incense. With motos buzzing past, stray dogs scampering around, the persistent smell of garbage, and the familiar mother-baby team of trash-pickers walking by, he sat, focused on his task. Before him was a large pot with low flames inside. Into his pot he was slowly dropping sheets of gold paper. Undeterred by noise and stink and everyday hustle, he kept to his task. I’ve learned enough about Asian sensibilities to figure out that he was blessing this new building and putting the new apartment business into spiritual order. And I mulled it over the whole way to work.
It’s an idea that’s crossed my mind once in a while after a really trying night with the kids, feeling worn down, feeling like the house is only clean after everyone has gone to sleep, and wrecked the moment they get up. My impressions and notes about this little adventure are equally disjointed, little bits put down from time to time in between our daily chaos.
But I keep the image of the purposeful man in my mind. The world keeps right on driving, pedaling, begging, honking and wailing around him. But he picked the time and positioned his chair where he thought God would be listening. He arranged the bowls in a makeshift altar where he sat, and started right there on the sidewalk a conversation with God.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dinner as a Metaphor?

I miss Costco! TJ is restocking the cabinets back at home in Virginia and made the first big-ticket run without me. Weirdly, the idea of pushing the flatbed, loading the 20-lb bag of flour, the palette of toilet paper, and the paint-can of garbanzo beans, kindles warm memories of home. You see, when we first came to Phnom Penh, I needed to explore the local shopping venues. After the first experience guiding four kids through a labyrinthine covered marketplace, overwhelmed with smells of fish and bodies, haggling over each item, and toting it all out on my shoulders, we made an about-face and headed to Lucky’s, the Chinese-owned, air-conditioned supermarket down the road. And when I learned that the two places are selling nearly the same inventory at similar prices, well, it just seemed like I could do without the pointless weekly torture ritual. Of course, there are limitations on what you can afford in a store that’s almost all imported, and some serious limitations in our kitchen with skinny urban refrigerator, no microwave or oven. But we’ve become used to those limits; we’re happy to eat kidney beans and rice a few days a week if we eat out the other times.
Atey has gone to several interviews for her next job and returns to us with a worried expression. ‘They are asking can I cook Western food,’ she reported from the last encounter, a U.S. Embassy family. Apparently, the woman got really bent out of shape and asked Atey why she wasn’t more motivated about learning from their cookbooks. Atey doesn’t really jump to sell herself or bend the truth on her skill-set, as I hoped she would. She seems to just crumple up and look at her feet in these situations. And I feel badly, in part because I haven’t really prepared Atey to deal with my Western professional peer group—sticklers for household hygiene, neurotic über-moms, and lily-livered food-pokers. When we designated dinner-making as one of her responsibilities a few months back, she shrugged and accepted, and has doled out a Monday-through-Thursday casserole of chicken, beans and rice, with very little variation. And with enough else to do with the kids between 6 and 9pm, I haven’t made cuisine a priority. I guess you could say Atey and I have a meeting of the minds on this one.  
But returning to the States will also mean returning to the land of foodies, where I’m sort of the odd-man-out, even in my own family. They think I’m exaggerating when I say I mostly don’t taste food anymore. Maybe that comes from four kids. Or maybe the accumulated years of managing dinners by myself with them. I have trouble talking-up Atey’s cooking to some of these folks, because I just can’t imagine getting that excited about Tuesday dinner at 6:15. And yet these folks are everywhere in the US, rubbing their fingers through the arugula, sniffing strawberries and squeezing plastic-wrapped packages of marbled steak. How did eating become such an obsession?
I should probably stop there at risk of offending my entire extended family. The pragmatist in me says that the meal isn’t worth the time it takes to cook (and clean up after) it. Not in a country where I could buy a simple meal anywhere on the block for about 75 cents. Not with books to read, and violins to practice, and a hundred more interesting things to do, and only about 3 hours a day to do it in.
Maybe I had this awakening on child #2. Coming through the door at 6pm is like stepping from a moderate-paced treadmill (your whole day) onto a speeding treadmill (your evening). When the kids were in preschool and daycare, we’d all cross the threshold together, famished, weary and hyper all at the same time. That’s when frozen bricks of chicken breast look like way more trouble than they’re worth. And then, as now, getting the food onto the plates is only the beginning of the challenge. Most of it never seems to reach their mouths, and dinner isn’t dinner if at least 2 kids don’t have to run to the toilet the minute after it’s served. In case there was any glory in the presentation of a well-cooked meal, it is totally deflated by the call to wipe a child’s behind just as you’re lifting the first forkful. When it comes to mealtime, I’m running a barnyard, and cooking to me has all the glamour of animal husbandry.
Unlike so many of my yuppy, socially-conscious brethren, I am not fascinated by the purchase, preparation, and metabolism of food. (And sorry, Atey, because I get the feeling it’s limiting your job prospects).
No, when I finally do re-emerge from the bathroom, relieved children in tow, I fork the food down as fast as I can while still breathing. And when it comes to food-issues, I should stick to the same principles with my peer group, or they will be jabbing their forks into me. A few weeks ago, working on an agricultural finance study, two ag-experts explained to me the devastating effect of EU regulations prohibiting growth hormones, various pesticides and fertilizers from entering the EU-bound food supply. While French and German mums are worrying about harmless levels of fertilizer in their little ones’ mashed peas, producers across Africa are pigeon-holed in some pre-industrial farming methods, low land productivity, and high vulnerability to climatic changes. Sorry Africa, Europeans only want organic. In case you thought legislating organic food was a win-win, here’s a Foreign Policy article to chew on. (Don't want to subscribe? Here's a good synopsis.)
And after my exhausting food shopping experiences here, Bagehot’s recent blog in the Economist on Supermarket Bashing offered a good laugh. It also peaked my longing for Costco. You see, there’s no harm in grocery shopping on foot at your local farmer’s market, if you don’t mind the prices and can feed your family on the contents of a wicker basket. But the English are apparently taking the nostalgia a step further, and pushing municipal legislation making it harder for supermarket chains to enter their towns in the first place. Worth a read, especially if you are one who prefers to shop once a week or less, and has more than one mouth to feed.
Unfortunately, this sepia-tinted version of reality seems to be creeping all over the mommy-and-me-yoga-practicing world. At the surface, it seems to be guided by indisputable aspirations: wellness, simplicity, community. There is always a hearkening back to some Norman Rockwell yester-year that we will re-establish on today’s strip malls and suburban sprawl. (Well, the closest remnant of yester-year that I can put a finger on is my granddad’s house in New Jersey. The best adjective for that place is spartan; two chairs and a lamp from 1965, tiny formica kitchen, one bologna and cheese sandwich (not too much mayo!) on white bread every day at noon. And I bet if you surveyed the nearest assisted living community, you’d get a similar picture of meals from back-in-the-day.) But my peer group is trying to invoke and old-fashioned simplicity not through—well, simplicity—but through elaborate (and pricy) consumer rituals, day-long food shopping processes, and homes filled with things intended to provide some spiritual self-portrait.
I guess we’re saying that dinner is a metaphor.

I was eating a jar of kimchi when I read the spate of nervous analysts anticipating a US Treasury default on August 2nd. Apparently, if Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling or come to some kind of budget agreement, then the Treasury can either stop paying veterans, freeze social security, or stop making interest payments on its debt. And that would be really embarrassing, after all the fun we had opining on the gluttonous Greeks. (Although a new acronym could show our solidarity with the mommy-states: USPIGS). Seems we may be caught in a generational melee of over-indebted and under-skilled young folks pitted against entitlement-hungry, footloose baby-boomers, who are in turn supporting octogenarians with longevity-genes. Whew! We might need some bologna-on-white-bread days to make it through this one.
So why do I think dinner is a metaphor? A whole generation of women belittled the business of dinner-making before I was even born. And now it seems like half of my cohort is spending a good number of hours squeezing tomatoes and enquiring into the origins of their chicken breast. I don’t begrudge them their morals—it’s a free world! But since having kids and living here, I can see that all this contemplation of mealtime and fulfillment through food is as meaningless to the poor world as the French cookbook thrust under Atey’s nose at her last interview. Are we so busy (navel) gazing at our heirloom tomatoes to miss the shift in American competitiveness? I’m guessing that most of the poor world is eating like Cambodia: eating is a function more than an art form, and most people are getting by on some unvaried combination of starch-and-bean. In this part of the world, there is no doubt that “wellness” relates to productivity.
Next week will find me back in Costco, pushing the giant cart around the cold warehouse aisles. Hopefully Atey will be settling into a good job with a nice, respectful family. For her sake, I hope that she can learn to grill a salmon or sauté an onion. For my family, I will learn to keep my mouth shut on food-related issues, or at least eat without talking. I also hope that Costco extends its operating hours, cause wouldn’t I love to get that out of the way first thing in the morning.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Light-Family Philosophy, Packing It Up

We are a family on the move again! The kids are having final play-dates with school friends, I am cramming in last-chance meetings, and we are working Atey through the interview circuit toward her next nanny job. Five more days in Cambodia—I can’t believe the adventure is already reaching its end. TJ is home from his assignment and skyping with us regularly. We can feel the tug of our other little nest pulling us back to Virginia.
I’m not going to let this move stress me. Being a planner, I had a spreadsheet of packed items coming over here on a thumbdrive, so I pulled the file out to start again in reverse. For me it’s a soothing feeling to throw out worn-through socks and busted flip-flops. I see the floor of the apartment looking more bare each day, and it makes me feel light. A missionary mom of Ernie’s friend told me that she’s mastered the allotted moving cube. And with no house in the US and a pool of shared furniture in Phnom Penh, she smiled when she explained to me that everything they own quite literally packs into a cube. I’m a little jealous.
Well, I admit that some of the trashing goes on after the kids have fallen asleep. But I know I’m not the only parent doing that. Jamie Lee Curtis calls it “toy editing”, and my brother calls it “the final putting away.” It’s where you arrive after the first-baby euphoria of accumulation. (Or you don’t, and by baby #2 you are drowning in it. No offense, hoarders, but it gets to feel like the fourth plate at the Lucky Panda buffet.) Anyway, I would feel guilty about all the “editing” I’ve done if it weren’t that the kids seem just as happy with the light-family philosophy as I am. (OK, in fairness, as I have written before, we have plenty of head-banging and hair-pulling going on here. But do we have a control group? I don’t see the causality of kid+toy=fulfillment and kid-toy=misery. In fact, I rather like my dad’s assessment of McDonald’s “sad meals” that dispense disappointing, unequal, and quick-to-break toys which pretty much guarantee that a carload of multi-age children will burst into kicking and tears minutes after opening the packages--driving some moms insane.) On the light-family side, yesterday was such a good example that I wanted to burst into Julie Andrews and have a bird land on my shoulder. I walked through the door and Ernest was reading another book, Yoshi was drawing space aliens, and Tika and Puck were playing hide-and-seek. We might not have a control group, but we have a counter-factual! Take that, McMansion-dwelling consumer-hoarders!
In case you hadn’t guessed, I seem to have a problem with being stationary. Ernest and Yoshi have been anxious about returning to the circle of kids in their American school, many of whom will spend their entire childhood in the same school system. The age cohort has built a social hierarchy that will last from kindergarten to first cars and facial hair (and that's not too pretty, as Greg Heffley can attest from the junior-high lock-in). And while some parents think that this kind of stability nurtures healthy childhood development, it seems to me an unfair trade for my going totally nuts.
How will we cope with the return to Americana? Thanks to some lucky timing, we’ll start with a few cold beers and firecrackers. Then I think it won’t be long before we’re huddled back around the tiny kitchen table studying some new corner of the map.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Yoshi and Me, Busing Back from Kep

We’re rocking and thumping along on our last great Cambodian bus adventure—a weekend in Kep. We’ve just settled down in the Sorya bus after more than an hour waiting in mud at the side of the road. We said a wistful goodbye to the Gulf of Thailand as an all-night rain was coming to an end, and the turquoise fishing boats were heading out into choppy surf. We are stopping, as usual, every kilometer or so to pick up more passengers from muddy turnoffs here and there, riders carrying one small bag on their journey. Dogs are crisscrossing the road ahead careless of our approach, and women are squatting along the roadside with large pots of cashews, guavas and lychee to sell. The kids are one by one dozing off, and I’m using Yoshi’s back as a surface to write.
Now that we are seeing regular afternoon rains, the fields are bright green shoots of new rice, dotted with colorful stooping backs and the white frames of grazing cattle. This year they say the rains have arrived early, so there could be three rice-growing seasons. Farmers are encouraged to plant while rice prices are high. For us, the rain made for a damp and chilly weekend in Kep, but not cold enough to stop the kids from swimming. We sat through a gusty afternoon storm looking out at bouncing fishing boats and wondering how the boys working out there in thin T-shirts and flip-flops could stand the chill. We were wrapped up in damp towels shivering, and Yoshi’s skinny legs looked purple. Seems our bodies got used to heat.
On the Sorya bus we are the largest, albeit decrepit, vehicle on the road, and everything smaller—boys on bicycles, young couples with baby wedged between, old ladies carrying baskets—must yield to us. Transport in Cambodia makes any expat think about safety. It also gets me thinking about fairness.
When we had just pulled into Kep, the kids and I rode a tuk-tuk up the hill into the forest preserve, already more developed since our April visit with tree-top hotels and eco-restaurants built over the jungle canopy. We stopped for lunch at one called Veranda, a platform restaurant high in the trees overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Yoshi was impressed with the pomelo, shrimp and cilantro salad. I watched with a puzzled eye the young Khmer waiter writing in a delicate, swirling script on a chalkboard, “Israeli couscous, lamb and feta vinaigrette”. What’s with us expats, anyway? We headed back out to continue our walk, and Puck almost bumped into a wiry Khmer worker, bent awkwardly with a large bucket of freshly-mixed concrete on his shoulder. He was setting another walkway through the ‘preserved’ forest of his home town.
From the top of the hill in Kep you look down at a roundabout, the road leading to Kampot, the provincial hall, and an orphanage to the left. I pointed it out to Yosh. It is a quadrangle of old yellow buildings set among palm trees along the beach next to the sea. Yoshi thought the Kep orphans are a pretty lucky bunch. It really is a beautiful spot. And all along the beachside road we spotted kids Puck’s and Tika’s size splashing in the surf, swimming naked or in underwear. A boy stood further out on a sandbar spearing crabs or fish with a sharp stick.
When the bus stops along our ride back to Phnom Penh, there are still more kids, Tika’s and Yoshi’s size, holding sticks that dangle small plastic baggies of sliced mango and pineapple, pushing up into the bus as the driver thrusts them back. They press in around us when we step down. You buy! You buy! Ladeee! You come back you buy! Yosh has become so accustomed to the sing-song, nasal incantations that he mimics the kids right back to their faces. They are undeterred. Finally I buy some fruit. When we settle back into our seats, I begin to dole out the snacks. Puck pushes his round little body between my knees and nuzzles into the bag. Yum-yum? Yum-yum? He is imitating another chant, this from the grimy, shirtless little boys who hang from our tuk-tuk and poke at our bags and then their mouths every time we leave Lucky Supermarket. But Puckie is smiling his happy eyes at mom, because he knows he will get a treat. 
I guess I think about fairness on the bus, because we are usually seated up toward the front, and I can see the moms with little ones dodging us on motorbikes and kids on bikes narrowly missing the front bumper. It doesn’t seem fair that some babies would get flung off the front of motos and some are digesting shrimp and pomelo salad and getting sleepy on the bus. Tika doesn’t think it is fair that mommy buys donuts for her and another kid puts his hands into the bag outside of Lucky’s. It doesn’t seem fair to me that our whole ideas of safety and dignity are tied up with where we’re sitting.

Maybe we should re-visit Monticello when we get back to America. If Yoshi had stayed in his school in Virginia, he would be studying Thomas Jefferson right now. TJ enjoyed those units with Ernie and said we’re a lucky family, because our kids can look right at the Declaration of Independence and walk around Mount Vernon. Maybe Yoshi would have made a poster about certain unalienable rights, and we would visit the National Archives. I got thinking about Jefferson on the bus back to Phnom Penh. Particularly the part about being endowed by our Creator. Because that seems to be the catch, if you take a critical look at how un-equal everything is looking around you. We might not look equal, we might not be treated equal, but there is some invisible seed planted in us by God that gives us an equal measure of the same stuff. And in my skeptical moments, well, that just seems like a dodgy hypothesis.
Yoshi won’t have a full year studying Virginia history, since social studies over here has been a bit of Chinese imperial history and Bible study. We will certainly have our day-trips to Charlottesville, Leesburg, and Arlington, though. At Yoshi’s age, I thought Jefferson was awesome, up there pretty close with Henry David Thoreau, who I sketched and hung over my bed. But I’m not sure what kind of relationship Yosh will have with him. Next year he moves on to world history, that’s a series of units on colonial empires.

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Heisenberg and Child-rearing

I guess I’m already missing school! Well, I got a break tonight. Atey stayed late and I went—with adults—to the office party at our manager’s house. I ate in peace and had a glass of wine and wore heels. Our manager thanked me for my contribution to the country work, and I smiled and shook his hand. That was nice.
Ernest and I are leaving the other kids in the dust on Brief History of Time. We’ve gotten to the point where general relativity breaks down at the singularity when the universe is collapsed in a point. Ernie explained to me that there can’t be relativity when there are no two objects to witness motion relative to one another, and so there can’t be time either. Now we’re getting into Planck, Heisenberg, and the uncertainty principle. I guess when all the other order breaks down, there’s still another order beneath that, but it’s an order that says you can’t predict everything at the same time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

End of School-Year, Slogans and Stock-taking

The ending of the school year is always a time for ceremonial trashing of workbooks, paging through finger-paintings and favorite reports. It is also the time of final email reminders and parting words from  vacation-hungry school administrators. This week I was reading emails from both countries. It is a time for that age-old cliché, how the year has flown by! But we are still in Phnom Penh, so I don’t want to say that yet.
For me this has also been a week of long office hours and many meetings. My supervisors from Washington visited to take stock of the progress on my work here since February. It has been a confused stock-taking, because a few months ago our headquarters put an indefinite suspension on new initiatives and lending to government of Cambodia. In the past few days, I witnessed several awkward conversations with government officials while we hedged and waffled, and they tried to look sympathetic and helpful, and at the same time we were all left confused. What exactly are we offering to do? The stranger conversations are the ones about keeping things going “at a working level” and then the knowing smiles and nods. What does that mean? We have a beer afterwards among other donors and admit that other agencies are eagerly gobbling our piece of the aid pie, that Hun Sen couldn’t care less if we leave in a huff, that we probably won’t, and that the Chinese are keeping the show going on a much bigger budget anyway. And there is an embarrassing sense of the self-preservationist in all of us. Please just let me have my little project, some justification that I can hang from, and I will hang in there and make it through this “difficult time”.
So do I have much to show for my time here in Cambodia? If I were a Chinese investment firm, I’d have built an airport by now, have broken earth on a mine or something. But I’ve got the internal clock of a Chinese investor trapped in the career of a Eurocrat. Collaboration trumps implementation, and signaling is everything. The government of Cambodia has sent some pretty bad signals, so we are signaling back, I guess, in long pregnant pauses, in pin-drop meetings, doodling in my notebook. Well the Chinese will have their highways and airports, but we will have our standards!
Oh, what the hell!
On the home side of things, the absence of a school routine is putting a stretch on Atey’s energy, and each night in the apartment is some new mix of boredom, inspiration and aggression. Ah, life is like a glob of mashed potatoes. It’s up to you to make it interesting. I think if I could rephrase the stock end-of-year message to parents, I’d say time isn’t flying by, it’s plodding along every day. I was not climbing a professional ladder when I came here, just plodding through six months of this mucked-up relationship with the government. My efforts to mold and direct the kids are not really arriving at some grand conclusion, either. Some nights we are getting along, playing together, having a good, solid, 20-minute read. Other nights it is all wailing, foreheads banged on table corners, smashed crackers in couch cushions, water pouring out from the bathroom floor, and we are just muddling through. My brain is all scrambled eggs, and it doesn’t seem like I could put together a two-sentence storyline if I tried. With no school to drain the energy and aggression, Tika and Puck keep up a steady whimper-wrestle-wail all day. Up at 5:30, down at 10:15. I am pumping coffee on weekends to keep two-steps behind their upsets.
Maybe I need to be me 20 years from now to see that there has been some order or result to all of this. I’m not sure if Cambodia will be much different with or without us donors scrambling over each other for some kind of engagement. But the kids and I are different people for having had this time here. I just can’t put my finger on what it is that’s happening to us. You could say parenting is like painting the Waterlilies, and I’d need to stand back to take it all in. But it’s more like our museum run-throughs, impressionism on the fly, and you’ve got to take it in while being tugged, whacked over the head, and persistently whined at.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dog Days in Phnom Penh, sleepy dysfunction

Pulling a worn wad of riel and dollars from my bag today, I noticed something odd about one of the bills. I’ve seen wear on a bill, but the design always remained. This one had worn blank at the top. Damn! Somebody mixed that into my change. I’ll have to fold that into my next tuk-tuk payment.
I showed Ernie my funny dollar when I got home from work, and he examined it cautiously. He says this could be the beginning of an Alex Rider adventure, hunting and hunted by criminal masterminds. He didn’t see the $1200 in counterfeit bills that I balled up next to the little Buddha statue in Takeo. We don’t need any trouble at the airport, and Puck was drawing attention from the local kids waving it all around.
There’s a lot about this country that I still don’t understand, even if it’s filtering through my own wallet. Ernie and Yosh see an action-adventure unfolding at every turn. I am mellowing to it, like so many moto drivers asleep in the midday heat without riders, like our slow-moving security guard drinking cane liquor with his breakfast, like old leathery women in an all-day squat at the side of the road, watching. It’s a sleepy dysfunction. Sort of like an old granddaddy-house where everything’s broken, but it’s holding together with coat hanger and masking tape. Move slowly and don’t push anything too hard.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lazy Weekend in Takeo

We’re feeling more at home in Phnom Penh, so there’s less enthusiasm to run after the next must-see. I wanted to get the kids out of the cramped apartment and the night-noise of the city, but didn’t want to spend a day on the bus. So taking an interest in Atey’s hometown, I set my sights on Takeo, a town set on a lake about two hours southeast of the capital. It’s barely a paragraph on the travel advice sites, not promising much more than its lake, a few low-budget guesthouses, and some food stalls. A history museum set up by some donors is apparently kept under locks to save on a custodian while nobody visits. Not much aimed to please tourists. But Atey’s sister has been in town and was planning her trip home, and her family jumped on the idea and set up our shared ride.
So to celebrate the end of another school year, we grabbed our bags again and headed out to the street. The two sisters packed us into the car and laid out to the driver all the plans in Khmer, then Puckie kissed his babysitter and we were on our way. The driver looked over my kids clamoring into his backseat and then smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I was in friendly territory. That was the extent of what we understood from each other for the weekend. But it was OK for me. This was a crap-shoot, and I was pretty sure we’d figure out how to entertain ourselves no matter where we were headed.
It was a mostly peaceful ride, a pretty good, tree-lined, paved road out to Takeo. I had read that Takeo is a very poor province, mostly farmers. We would pass many stooped elderly Khmers along stretches of road, sometimes throwing a pot of water in the roadway to signal drivers to give money, sometimes leaning on a stick, sometimes just sitting in the sun with their hands out. We were cheerful riders, and Atey’s sister kept up a steady peek-a-boo with Puck while we rode. We stopped at a group of women with a bucket at the side of the road, and she jumped out of the car, returning with a bag of dark purple berries that she pressed into the kids’ hands. We chewed and spat pits for the rest of the ride. Then, as in all Cambodia trips, the driver spotted an unmarked dirt turnoff, and we veered off into the fields. We came to a gate and then a yard by a one-room bamboo house. A man with darkened teeth was smiling and waving his hat, welcoming his wife home. Atey’s sister gave a friendly lee-hay and we turned back out to the main road. Twenty minutes later we came to the town of Takeo, as the websites had suggested, a few streets, a lake, and a place to sleep.
On Saturday afternoon we crossed the street from our guesthouse to the walkway along the edge of the lake. Under a tree we passed a monk squatting on the low wall, having a smoke and watching us go by. Next to a bush we stopped to watch a lizard dart up a branch. We noticed that the biggest building in town was two blocks to our right—a colossal peach-stucco and mirrored-glass structure—the Takeo District Tax Office. A noisy cart drove by on something like a lawnmower engine. Two blue plastic tanks were set on the back marked H2O, and a young man sat on top. At a break in the low wall, we stepped over a hose running across the walkway and down into the lake. Then Puck peered over, and we saw the same young man maneuvering the hose into the littered muck at the side of the lake. Glad I didn’t try the tap water. We ventured a ways down a raised concrete walkway out over the lake to see what things might look like from that spot. A few meters out from the shore, the walkway holds up the concrete shell of what used to be a little room. Tika peered in. It was once a toilet, suspended in a concrete box over the lake, and now partially blown up and filled with trash and soil. We came back to the shore and the food stand I’d read about. We approached tentatively two women at a plastic table under a covering, beer flags strung from side to side. She turned on a small light and a fan, indicating ready-for-service. I pointed to the first three items on an all-Khmer language menu, and motioned toward a refrigerator with bottles inside. She let me pull out four sodas and a beer, lukewarm drinks from the unplugged case.
That night I lay in bed alongside Puck and Tika and listened to total silence. I don’t think anyone drove past the lake all night.
On Sunday morning, we tried something new, turning left as we walked out of the guesthouse. We meandered from side to side of the street, nothing but bicycles passing here. Then something caught Ernie’s eye. A hundred-dollar bill poking out of the grass. Two, three. Then fifteen or twenty of them fluttering down the sidewalk, and the kids were giggling and diving to grab them. Puck squealed with uncomprehending delight. The boys rolled and stuffed bills into Puck’s pockets, and he smiled and patted his pants. I turned one over in my hand. The size and design were right, but the paper texture was wrong. No wonder so many girls were bicycling over them.
Then we were passing the gates of the Ministry of Youth, Recreation and Sports Takeo Division. Sounds of an amateur brass ensemble rang out into the street. As we got closer to the honking, we could hear a frustrated instructor correcting the students with an accented “DOE-doe-doe, RAY-ray-ray, ME-me-meeeee!” A boy with a tuba balanced on his legs peered out at us from a doorway. I aimed my camera, and he hid behind his horn.
As we headed back toward the guesthouse, an important-looking vehicle pulled into the Ministry gates, and Ernie yanked Puck back. Rolls of the fake money were poking out of his pants, and Ernie was suddenly nervous. I pulled them along by the hands, still more bills blowing behind us.
Everywhere are so many anachronisms—glorious dilapidation and everyday jerry-rigging—that you need a sense of humor, a can of (warm) beer, and a long, lazy weekend to appreciate what’s going on around you.
In the hottest hours of the afternoon, Takeo offers nothing. We’d learned that walking further down any one of its roads led to the same beer umbrella and charcoal grill serving an identical glob of rice and salted meat. That was also breakfast and dinner, although I held off on beer until noon.
With nowhere else to go, we retreated again to our guesthouse room. The little ones made a game that the closet was a rocket ship, and the big boys grabbed their books. Ernest is deep into Survival in the Killing Fields, a gritty and probably-not-age-appropriate recounting that makes him wrinkle his face and ask me all kinds of questions. He dug his elbow in the crease of his book and warned the little ones to keep quiet. Yoshi rolled and stretched on the bed for a while, then settled down with Swiss Family Robinson. He digs between his toes and rocks from side to side when a book is good.
I read him a few pages. Tika shouted that Puck had just landed on Jupiter. We read about a rigged-up homestead of a family in the trees. Yoshi chewed his finger and looked out the window toward a fisherman on the lake.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cupcakes and Partial Theories, doing a little something for mankind

Yoshi is gearing up for his birthday in two weeks. He’s a food critic trapped in a nine-year old body. When I found Bloom, I knew we needed to make a trial visit. Bloom is a new and hugely successful high-end cake shop near my office. It was founded by an Australian wedding cake designer with a mission to rescue trafficked Cambodian women. There’s a lot of that going on here, with girls and women lured into promises of foreign work as maids and assistants who are shipped to Malaysia and Thailand, their identification paper seized, sometimes physically imprisoned by their bosses, unpaid and abused. Well this Australian woman identified potential talent among women rescued (by another NGO) from a trafficking scheme, and spent two years training them up as bakers and cake decorators. Now she’s racing to fill orders for custom cupcakes, marzipan-and-cake handbags, and multi-storied fondant and chocolate-hazelnut wedding cakes covered in edible flowers. Inside the cool tasting room on soft couches surrounded by photo albums of treats, Yoshi was in paradise. He slowly licked the cream cheese and ricotta frosting from his blueberry-crumble cupcake, and Tika nibbled on a marzipan bird. I explained to him in simple terms what the bakery is all about and who is working there. ‘Wow Mom,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Do you think that’s something I could do?’
And then I realized that I have been way too caught up in math drills and grand theories. This cake-decorating-social-crusader has transformed the lives of fifteen Khmer women with marzipan cupcakes. And maybe God is already clearing a path for Yoshi’s special purpose in this world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Schooling and Home-Schooling in Phnom Penh

We’re reading Hawking’s Brief History of Time sprawled out on the living room floor in beds made from the seat cushions under our fan. Tika and Puck are the first to fall asleep, but Ernest sits alert at my side. His constant interruptions are like the seams on a concrete roadway, another bump at every interval. We were moving along pretty well on debunking Ptolemy, Galileo dropping the weights, and Newton figuring out gravity. We even made sense out of Roemer, the Danish physicist who observed the moons of Jupiter disappearing behind the planet on a changing rhythm throughout the Earthly observer’s year, decided that the light was taking longer to travel farther to his eyes, and reasoned backwards that light travels at a finite speed, which he then calculated. That one took a lot of positioning kids about the room and spinning pens around their heads, and then me racing back and forth from one position to another. Seemed to make sense. But Michelson and Morley’s discovery that light moves at the same speed no matter how you fast you are moving (not like the changing sound of an ambulance siren going by, not like the apparently faster train racing toward you on the opposite side of the tracks) was an impossible thing for Ernie. And then added to it that Einstein said there can’t be any absolute time, and Ernie was almost in tears. He wanted to conquer this book, to unbundle it and pack it up in his brain, and that part just knocked the wind out of him. Stuttering, stumbling, he kept cutting me off and asking me to re-read, then indignant, Why couldn’t I explain it better? We had got past what I could try to demonstrate with props and hand gestures. Even race cars don’t go fast enough to slow time down. And why do things have to turn more massive from going super-fast? Our bedtime physics lessons sputtered and limped to an end, and three kids were asleep. I could start to see the ridiculousness of my position. Mom wanted to push through and cover more pages, Ernest kept throwing on the brakes and demanding clarifications, the rest were unconscious.
Aside from the feeble ending, this has been a proud day. The kids are bursting their buttons, and I’m feeling like a lucky mom again. Graduation time at school! I had been invited to the all-school sing-a-along in the school chapel this morning, and I happily played hooky from work to join the parents along the back wall of the large room, dabbing away tears, standing on chairs to take pictures, and waving to my beaming kids. I watched each child led into the room in the long chain of his class, smiling, then ducking down awkwardly among his friends. Puck lit up when he saw me and smiled and waved a hundred times. I laughed and cried watching him with his class and his super-energized teacher, forgetting all the hand gestures and words for “Baby Beluga” while he fixed his eyes on his mom.
Watching Puck watching me, over all the heads, and Yoshi and Tika and Ernest all under the same roof, I thought, I’m lucky to be in this little chapel today. I also thought, this is so painfully temporary! They don’t realize how quickly this moment comes and goes for us! And I thought, we’ve come all the way around the world and here we are nestled into something like a family—a safe, warm, good-intentioned family of believers in this funny place down a long dirt road.
The event ended with a farewell to the principal and his wife. Their family is moving on to another missionary assignment after three years in Cambodia. Teachers, parents, and students were crying, and then the group laid hands on the couple and said a prayer for their onward journey. The principal’s wife shared the story of her childhood, finding Jesus, and discovering her calling to teach music. Her voice cracked when she said that she heard God tell her to teach in Cambodia, and then she told us all to invite Jesus to guide our paths and purposes in life. My kids were watching her thoughtfully, and I was wiping more tears off my face.
To be honest with you, I’ve had mixed feelings about evangelical Christianity ever since we got here and the kids started at Logos. I have put evangelicals in a few different groups, and none of them too flattering. There are the spit-and-hellfire evangelicals, like Ernie’s teacher, Mr. Walker. These kind dispense the sort of fear and guilt and mind-games that no eleven-year-old deserves to carry around on his shoulders. Then there are the cum-ba-ya evangelicals—I’m sure it comes with an acoustic guitar—and I think of Yoshi’s teacher this way. She sends home weekly inspirational Bible verses, brings in baked goodies, and reminds the kids in colorings and hand-outs that Jesus loves them. But no math homework from her since we got here. Yosh and I had a frustrated, then teary discussion about fractions last night.
Is Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know OK for 3-year-olds, but not OK for 9-year-olds? Do I look at these folks as intellectual light-weights? Maybe I did, and that has been driving the late-night math sessions and the cramming, even to unconscious children, of bedtime Hawking and Shakespeare. In my crankier moments with Ernest, I’ve tried to deflate his notion of the evangelical Christian, maybe a quiet comeuppance against his teacher. The Bible is not your four food-groups! I told him. It’s an important book, and it can guide your life, but it only makes sense when you read the other great works alongside it. We had a talk the other day about Jesuits, because I thought he should see that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The Jesuits founded universities and promote the sciences, you can study Islam and evolution at Georgetown. We even took at dig at Mr. Walker’s recent letter to parents—a warning that the end-of-year celebration would involve co-ed swimming in the school pool! Did he really think his students hadn’t seen bodies before? This is certainly not the country to lobby for child modesty.
But then I have days like today at the chapel, and I think again. Evangelical Christianity is a force to be reckoned with, both for the world, because it really is a super-power, and for me, because a lot of what these folks are about speaks straight to my heart. Evangelical Christianity is changing the landscape of the world—and particularly the poor and post-conflict world—with gung-ho purpose, remarkable geographic reach, and incredible mobilization of resources (an interesting read on this topic from the Carnegie Council). Maybe they are second to China for investing in the poor. You can’t discredit that as a lot of cum-ba-ya. For myself, when I saw my kids in this community today and listened to their music teacher’s message, it reminded me of what I wanted for them here in the first place.
Back in Arlington, the parent culture seems to say “The most important thing for my child is that he understand himself and appreciate his unique [and, for 2nd grade and up, “gifted”] abilities and talents.” The Zainy-Brainy, nurse-your-kid-til-he’s-8, and get-him-into-the-GT-program crowd elevates this credo to religious status. But it bothers me, not least because, if you put that same statement into first-person past-tense, it just sounds awful.
In evangelical mission schools, test scores don’t feature in the mission statement, and kids aren’t competing for precocious claims to genius. Instead, they’re taught to aim for humility and service. They are lined up behind the missionary parents who brought them—pioneering folks who show up in Burundi after a civil war and Liberia after Charles Taylor. These are groups that install wells and clinics, that drum up $500 here and there—they are human instruments of good-will. And it seems right to me that at an age when they can take themselves to the bathroom and drink from a cup, my kids should start seeing themselves this way. They are instruments through which God wants good things to be done.
That’s a wholesome, heart-felt message for kids to sing about in chapel, no matter what grade they’re in. For me as the mom, though, the day-to-day challenge is, what am I supposed to do to make that happen? I’m kind of on the fence on that one. For the past few months, I’ve been pounding the nightly violin lessons, hammering my own math and grammar drills, I fidget around at work from time to time looking up one tutor or another online. Why don’t I home school them? I think I’d strangle them, and then they’d hate me after the first day. I’m embarrassed to say, there’s a little too much in the now-much-maligned Tiger Mother that rings true to me (and here all the backlash against her).
No, if there’s anything I should be taking from Stephen Hawking, it’s that grand, unified theories of everything are hard to come by in one lifetime. He’s an amazing super-brain. Tika thinks he looks like James Bond in a wheel-chair. (If he didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s disease, he’d probably be a real cocky ass. Even withstanding his handicap, he has dumped and replaced several wives.) And yet his quest to fit everything logically into one mega-theory in his own lifetime is dogged by the limits of the everyday. He is getting weaker and suffers from pneumonia, he can’t travel like he used to. Much as he doesn’t like it, he may die in a universe that’s only understood by partial theories.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mothering by the Seat of My Pants

Well, tonight there were more tears, and Ernie was silent behind a closed door. Yosh says it’s weird riding next to his brother on the van. But this time I grabbed the situation by the balls.
Fuck you Mr. Walker!! Fuck you for over-loading the homework, and making Ernest think Jesus is keeping track if he finishes it or not!
I pulled a beer out of the fridge and insisted that Ernie drink half of it. Finally I got him to do it, and then showed him how to burp. He slammed his fist down on the table with me. We made up a little song about all the bad things that could happen to Mr. Walker on his way to work tomorrow. I reminded him that his daddy knows how to break knee-caps, and Ernie actually cracked a smile.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Everybody Hates Moms--aka a tough weekend

This has been a draining, exhausting weekend. I had a lump in my throat tonight when I was kissing the little ones, Tika half-asleep and Puck, who fell asleep with feet on floor and head on couch while I read the Ugly Duckling. Yoshi said he felt like the persecuted ugly duck that didn’t belong in our family. Then he held my hand and shuffled to his bed and climbed under his covers. He gave me an innocent kiss after a painful weekend of tension and heartache between us. And Ernie. An hour later he is still awake on top of his covers and unresponsive to me. He watches me pass each time outside his door.
Ernest came home on the school van on Friday afternoon quietly crying. A group presentation file had somehow not been saved to his thumbdrive, work would need to be redone. His face was a contortion of agony and embarrassment.
Yoshi had spent Friday with me, feverish on the couch, while I sat by him working at the table. The fever seemed to make him a hundred times more sensitive to sound and light. My sympathy for him changed to aggravation and anger as he whined, kicked, and then pummeled his little brother and sister when they burst through the door in the afternoon.
I didn’t take any pictures this weekend. We are in the void between photos, the part I don’t want to journal about, because I’d like it to disappear.
I have learned that the dirty-little-secret about mothering is shame. Shame at long, public wailing, snot running all over the face, every eye turned on the red-faced mother as if she ought to have an off-switch on her kid. Shame at the uncontrollable, remorseless, aggressive little beast—where did he come from?—that holds his baby brother below the water and beats smaller kids with his fists. Shame at her own broken will—something has snapped inside, and she is not even self-respecting enough to hold it together for the public eye.
And what about that eyeing public? They are an inconstant ally to the mother. She is all things good and apple-pie in those Kodak moments, but if she can’t keep that image up, she’d better run for cover. I’ve been barked-down over the airplane seat by even another mom, who, impatient on the tarmac, beat her cell phone over the back of my seat and suggested I get my then-two-year-old Puck to “shut the fuck up”. Between the seats her own pre-teen son gave me a cool, blank expression. I’ve been kicked from behind, this by an older woman in a suit, who said I have no respect. Puck was an infant and in my arms at the time. That was a pioneering (and never-to-be-repeated) outing to the Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center, a free nightly performance intended to engage ordinary people in the arts. Just not people with kids. I was actually scrambling toward the exit with my other three in tow when she got me. I’ve been cut off by an ER nurse at Georgetown Hospital who asked me to please not answer questions for my son when I took him in with a cut on the back of his head. That was another low for me. Ernie had fallen while jumping on our bed. He was only 2. I’ve been out-rationalized by my therapist, who asked “Why do you think you had so many kids if it’s so hard raising them?” Why the hell was I paying that lady anyway?
Now that I’m up to my neck in motherhood, I see that the mom is no icon at all. No, she’s a washed-up beauty queen—pitiful but tolerated. We’d like to see her heel crack, her teeth break, and her lipstick smear. We snidely triumph in the revelation that her ideals and orderliness were all wrong, that her kids are miserable beasts. Why else Wife Swap? Why Super Nanny and Nanny 911? And it’s not just the old bitties or the childless café crowd who do this to the mother. No—it’s other moms!! Jesus Christ! Who will give the woman a break?!
In case you didn’t guess, this weekend didn’t go well. Yoshi’s hyper-sensitivity and aggression went from bad to worse, so that he repeatedly tried to drown his sister at the pool (was it lucky that his fever was gone on Sunday?), bit and scratched, bore his teeth at me during the peace at church (I nodded and gave a half-hearted smile—what else am I supposed to do?). Tika kept up a steady underscore of wailing, recovering, then jabbing him again. And over all, nothing tasted just right, juice was never the right juice, sandwiches were together that should be apart  …You get the idea.
For times like this, I have learned to pull into a turtle shell with only my middle fingers jabbing out to the world. My face is hot with the public eyes I can already feel on me, and my trigger-tongue is ready for their anticipated interjections.
But there is a deeper fear that I am afraid to talk about and know almost nothing about. It’s the fear that my eleven-year-old son is so unhappy with himself. He pinches his arm to finish a math problem. He cries for missed assignments and mistakes on tests, correcting remarks from teachers and frustrated expressions from mom. Now I’m afraid to confront him and afraid to ignore. I need an ally, but I’m smart enough not to go asking around. If their reaction to ordinary screaming is any indication, most people are totally incapable of helping.
For now, I’m turning the lights out. On my last pass-by, his eyes were shut, so now, I guess, I can sleep.

Puck, My Fearless Water-Baby

I think Puck will be the most fearless of all my children. He could jump into the pool a hundred times and not get tired. Now he holds his nose and takes a running leap, not even checking will mommy be ready to catch him, and he likes to plunge beneath the water before I scoop him up.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bleary-Eyed After Khmer Wedding

Sleep is getting harder even as I’m craving it more. Our room this weekend overlooked the pink and yellow garlands of a Khmer wedding tent, and undoubtedly those guests, too, were bleary-eyed. The traditional wedding is a 2- or 3-day affair, the duration a measure of the bride’s family’s means. Often the tents are assembled across sidewalks and roadways, even one lane of a speedy thoroughfare. I guess you can’t leave a tent like that unguarded. Neighbors and relatives dancing, or breakfasting, or holding tired chins in hands, are drinking and eating at all hours. A marathon of family togetherness. And all day and all night from huge speakers the plaintive, nasal warbling of Khmer festival songs. It was impossible, mind-cracking noise, and we lay above our covers with pillows on our faces, enduring.
On the long cross-country bus rides I am also craving sleep. But the driver is forever honking and swerving, and the kids are fidgeting little chicks. Feed me! Feed me! I spend seven or nine hours doling out snacks, recovering dropped toys, and settling minor disputes. When Yoshi fell asleep on my lap, we suddenly stopped at a roadside snack stand, and all the lights came on. I am in perpetual alert.
On Sunday night we collapsed into our own beds in Phnom Penh, and I really longed for sleep. Tik wanted her hot leg on top of me, and Puck put his damp hand across my face. Again vigilance and awake. Then in the early hours of dawn a nasal wailing—this time not of wedding music but of a cheated woman—in the apartment over our heads. Her voice became a rhythm of accusation punctuated by shattering ceramic. How many dishes do they own anyway??
I think about the poor cleaning lady as I pour another cup of coffee in the morning.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Puck's Rise and Shine

Close to the equator, the sun rises faithfully at 5:45, and Puck is the first to sense it. He pulls open the curtains in the front-room where we sleep together, he and Tika and I. And he stands up next to my side of the bed with his warm face against mine. Now he has a new song to sing for these mornings, and he takes his good cheer from room to room. Rise and shine and give God your glory-glory! He takes it through every verse he can remember and then settles down on the couch to wait for his juice.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Riding the Bamboo Train, and meeting kids at the other end

After a morning of ancient ruins and somber memorials, I decided we needed a dose of pure pointless thrills. In Battambang, this is the bamboo train. From Highway 5 you can see here and there a parallel track out in the fields. It runs from Phnom Penh to the Thai border, and at some point it actually functioned. Now it’s a mostly defunct and overgrown track with only a few short, viable stretches. Even the poor villagers who used to set up makeshift bamboo platforms and small motors to clack-clack from town to town have given up on this railroad. Now it is a playground for tourists. From a few kilometers outside of Battambang down an unmarked dirt road you can board one of the old bamboo trains—a rickety platform mounted on 4 wheels and hooked to what looks like a lawnmower engine—and you can ride a stretch down the track and back for five bucks. We thought it was a steal. Cheerfully paying our fee, we scrambled on board, and with a jerk of the engine, our deafening adventure began. The kids hooted at the rice farmers we passed, who looked back with blank expressions. Yoshi enjoyed the wind through his sweaty, dust-caked hair. Even Ernest cracked a wide smile.
The funniest part about riding the bamboo train is running into travelers bound in the opposite direction. There’s only one track, but you’re going straight, and slow enough to see the opposing traffic coming from far off. Both drivers stop and seem to weigh which train has right of way. Then the yielding travelers step off, the two drivers lift the platform in one movement, and toss the wheels to the side with the other arm. In a minute you have switched spots and reassembled the other train, and then you’re on your way again.
The other funny part about riding the bamboo train is your arrival at the turnaround point on the other end. The whole village seems to come out and check you over, and a few kids try their English phrases. There is a small lean-to with women and coolers, eager to sell beer, soda, and lollipops, and to ask you which city you’re from. As I sipped my beer and the kids cooled off on Fanta, two girls presented Tika and Puck with rings made out of palm fronds. A soft-skinned, delicate boy sat down by me and explained that he loves America and teaches himself English by talking to bamboo train riders. He hoped it would be OK if he could be my guide and show me his village. He also wanted to know when I started having children and to confirm that these four are really mine, because he said most white ladies don’t like to have kids until they’re much older. I’m getting used to this kind of scrutiny, and just agreed. Then he told me that I should speak fast, because that’s the only way he’ll improve his English, and he said it was time to take a tour of the village. It looked like the kind of place where I could carry my beer around, so I accepted.
Behind the lean-to with the coolers we came to a fenced-in area with a few large brick domes, some covered areas housing machinery, and a dirt yard with a mound of rice husks. The four kids, joined by a group of curious village kids, ran ahead to play king-of-the-mountain in the rice husks. Ernest and I hung back, sizing the place up. It was a brick factory—the rudimentary kind (there are plenty of videos online about this work). The machinery, our guide explained, formed and cut the clay with moving strings into bricks. Puck and the other kids clamored to play brick-making on an idle machine. Nobody around seemed to mind. The rice husks, he explained, were used to dry the bricks. The domes in the rear of the compound were the kilns, and right now they were cool. As Ernest and I approached we saw two young boys emerging from the kiln carrying each a load of bricks that would have crippled any of my boys. They quietly deposited the loads in a stack outside the kiln and returned for more. They lifted, carried, placed, and returned over and over again. Ernest walked right into a kiln-dome and watched the process up close. I asked our guide about the boys. Yes, they’re local kids too, but their parents don’t want to send them to school, because they earn money here. Also, they can climb the brick piles more easily than the women can. I took another look at their slight, wiry frames, and tried to guess their ages. Eight? Nine? It was hard to tell.
On the walk back to the bamboo train, Tika was surrounded by a group of same-size chattering village girls. They wanted to know her age. Six, I said. So big? Wow! They were eight and eleven. I thought again about maturity, and Tika's questioning what makes it happen. I guess to Khmer folks we are loping giants, over-sized and juvenile. I also thought about my efforts in these past few months to prod the kids ahead toward maturity, or some kind of consciousness. The kids in the kilns seemed to have been stunted by too much prodding. Over their armloads of bricks they watched quietly our departure.

Awkwardly Growing Up, My lovable little ones

Tika is every day picking up tidbits of new ideas, like a girl gathering shells and shiny stuff on the beach, and she proudly shares with me each new find. She is trying to piece together what is womanhood and diligently working at making this happen to herself. With enough study and practice, she figures it’s going to happen.  For instance, she discovered a few months ago that husband-wife kisses are different from grandma kisses—she sat on my lap and told me about this with a sly grin. Now she enlists Puck for practice kissing, and he innocently offers up his face to her. She has also learned—through her brothers, I think—that pimples are a signal that things are about to change. She wondered about a bug-bite on her face. And since I saw no point in taking birth control while I’m on another continent from TJ, my face is abloom with zits. Am I turning into a grown-up? When will I finish changing? On the bus-ride back from Battambang, Tika suddenly gave me an earnest expression. Why are some ladies pretty, but not married? I explained that marriage really isn’t about pretty, and that some ordinary-looking people were quite happy together. But I can see that her mind is a grab-bag of ideas and inspiration, she just hasn’t figured out causality yet.
Ernest and Yoshi are approaching that delicate time in a boy’s upbringing when one foot awkwardly straddles either side of maturity.  Grouped under a dusty tarpaulin for too long at the roadside, they pinch and jab and provoke one another. Still they whine to mom in the heat about endless hunger, thirst, and bodily irritations. But when we’re back on the bus seated two-and-two and the AC has finally cooled us down, Yoshi looks out across the paddies and tells me he wants to see more of the world. He thinks it would be pretty neat to be a teacher or run a school in Africa. When Ernest can get away from his brothers and sister, he sketches inventions in a notebook he hides in his desk. Standing by me at the kitchen sink, or kicking pebbles waiting for the school van, he returns again and again to conversations in his head: ‘If there was one thing you could do to make a difference…’ ‘If there were just two things you had to change…’ And then he launches into a criticism of Cambodia’s bad electrical grid, crappy roads, and run-down schools. Yoshi can tuck away his ideas for another day, but Ernest exudes, well, earnestness, and needs to solve problems in the here-and-now. He waves his hands for emphasis, and looks either hurt or pissed when I suggest he wash up for dinner.

Happy Birthday King Sihanouk--A Trip to Battambang

I suppose the Khmer people saw no irony in King Sihanouk’s birthday falling on Friday the 13th this year, but Yoshi, who was on the lookout for tragedy, mentioned it as our bus came to a sad stop at the side of the highway an hour west of the capital. Our long weekend in Battambang was off to a shaky start. It seemed like forever creeping out of Phnom Penh traffic, and then a slow roll along Highway 5. Now following the direction of our fellow travelers, we were stepping off into the mid-morning blast furnace, not sure what was the problem. ‘This bus no good,’ the driver offered me a feeble smile and gestured at the bus. Ernest, ever-diligent, and Yoshi, begrudgingly, took each a bag as I held the little ones by the hand and followed the others. We headed for the one patch of shade along that road: a bamboo platform over a ditch covered by a tarp. For an hour we squatted together, intermittently looking up for cues from the driver, keeping the little ones in check, and then jabbing, pulling hair, and squealing.
It was a relief to finally arrive at the bus station in Battambang. The city is surrounded by rice paddies, and then mills and warehouses as you get closer to town. It is a town of homegrown business, not a Siem Reap or a Sihanoukville. Here much of the country’s rice is dried and milled and packaged for sale in Thailand about a hundred and fifty kilometers down the road. It’s a city of 3 and 4-storey rowhouses, some in the 19th century French colonial style, some burnt-out shells of former homes, some functional re-makes in tile, stucco, and chintzy mirrored glass. Stacked on the ground floor of each is the homely commerce of the day-to-day: tires and carburetors, bathroom fixtures and mobile phones. None of the well-heeled adventure-travelers of Angkor Wat, nor the vacant-eyed backpackers of Kep. At dusk the riverside pavilion fills with middle-aged Khmer women doing dance aerobics. After dark, young couples make modest advances at each other along the benches.
For tourists, it’s not the heart of Battambang, but the surroundings that are the draw. A thousand years ago, a Hindi dynasty built great temples in those hills. Later, great reclining Buddhas were added. And around the time I was born, some of those temples became interrogation and torture cells, and caverns beneath the hills the dumping ground for more than ten thousand victims.
Early Saturday morning, we headed out in a tuk-tuk to discover. We rode south along the west side of the Sangker River, where villagers plant multi-tiered vegetable gardens along the deeper, dry-season banks. Ernest and Yoshi craned their necks to check for crocodiles. Wat Banan is an 11th century hilltop ruin that offers sweeping 360-degree views of surrounding paddies to those who manage the 358 steps to the top. Puck tripped and skinned his knee on the second step, so he rode in mommy’s arms the rest of the way.
Then a bumpier ride along a pot-holed dirt road across the paddies to Phnom Sampeou, a Buddhist temple set on a steep bluff, and next to it, the infamous killing caves (here are two similar blog posts (1) (2) ). We rode the steep incline to the top and were rewarded with our first wild monkey-spotting. Napping in the trees, walking along the railing and swinging in the hammock of the monk’s residence were four feisty monkeys, which Yoshi playfully identified as mommy’s four kids. I could see the resemblance. Monkeys can get pretty mean, though, when people throw rocks and flip-flops at them, as we quickly learned from our unsavory fellow visitors. Ernest was mortified to see adults behaving this way. Inside the cliff-top temple is the laid-back resident monk, who takes naps when he’s not dispensing blessings. He came out to get a look at us and apparently to count my children. Did the airline offer discounted pricing for kids’ tickets?, he wondered. I explained the policy of Star Alliance carriers.
After a passing look at another massive Buddha, we headed for the killing cave at the side of the temple. We descended a long, narrow staircase, built more recently to give visitors easier access. A small altar and reclining Buddha were also added. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, this cave had been only a pit with one hole further up the hill, where victims’ throats were slit, and through which they were then thrown into the depths below. At one time, their bones made a heap along the floor of the cave. But then skulls and bones started disappearing, maybe to darkly curious tourists, or to the same folks that throw rocks at monkeys. Now the remaining bones are encased in glass boxes near the altar. Tika eyed them warily. She is still worried about land mines, she told me, and having trouble, I think, to distinguish between the killing and the dead. Puck took off his shoes by the altar, and made sure that his brothers and sister did too, lining up the sandals carefully. Yoshi peered into a dark corner and tried to make a loud ‘Echo!’ Ernest paced around the floor, thinking through aloud, again and again, the killing process. Even in this eerie under-world, each kid seemed to be in his own world.
Climbing back up the staircase, I thought about our trips to Tuol Sleng, and Choeung Ek, haphazard efforts at growing my children’s consciousness. These places are a dominant feature in the geography of this weird country, and pretty hard to avoid. But the kids’ impressions are a mystery to me. They seem to see things with eyes sometimes insightful, sometimes naïve, sometimes totally distracted. I guess I’m trying to nurture some sort of awakening in them, but it’s an awakening to an unknown thing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reading Things Fall Apart, not sure if kids understand

We are reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart these days, I guess because I think it’s interesting to always have a part of your imagination in still another place. As we were getting started, I kept trying to translate the Ibo words into commonsense equivalents the kids would know, like an obi is the man’s central hut and his chi is like his guardian spirit. But the book has overwhelmed us with unknowns that don’t have any ready comparison to things the kids have seen before. So we are plowing ahead, and they are picking their toes, zooming paper airplanes while I read. Sometimes I stop and ask Yoshi what does he think is going on, and he surprises me with a sudden snapshot. They’re bargaining with goats and palm wine for the bride. So I keep on. We read and read on into the night under the steady hum of our fan with bags of frozen vegetables tucked up our shirts.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Visit to Choeung Ek, and Trying to Get Something Out of Church

Going to church can become like tying your shoes when you’re a Catholic. You just keep doing it over and over. Tika takes things at face value. ‘I like Jesus, but I don’t like church.’ TJ tries to do the right thing, but has admitted after some masses that he couldn’t hear ninety percent of what the priest said. Does that still count? Dragging half-sleeping children into 5-o’clock mass on long Saturday afternoons, I get the impression it’s hit-or-miss. We could spend forty-five minutes kicking each other, or two might sleep, or the priest might say something that seems to shoot across the heads and hit me straight in the heart. After many shushings and elderly glares, Ernest has developed some of his own views about ceremonial catharsis. If we’re all open arms and holiness, then why do some people look at us like they wish Puck would drop dead? Does catharsis require silence? At least we’re not Episcopalians. We’ve had a few wish-I-were-dead moments in clapboard halls with those geriatric WASPs. No, you can count on Catholics to produce some screaming babies. And, since I’ve had many Sundays to mull this over, I wonder how real is that enlightenment if it can only be conjured by stodgy old ladies in daffodil suits sitting in creaky silence. I need enlightenment on-the-go. I like a good loud church where kids are sucking the pews and crying out at all the wrong moments, wiping noses on dads’ lapels, because it seems to me that if you’re going to get some enlightenment, you’d better be able to get it with a toddler screaming in your ear and a kid falling off the seat next to you.

I guess it was in the same spirit that Yoshi and I decided over breakfast on Mother’s Day that the time had come to pay a visit to the Killing Fields. We’ve been here for three months, and won’t be here much longer, and it’s a place you can’t leave without seeing. Through the hodge-podge of Cambodian history the boys have picked up at school and in our conversations, I hoped they’d have some context to put this in, and then I figured they’ll find more context later on, like growing into clothes. Ernest and Yoshi were eager, and Puck is always obliging. Tika, however, dug in her heels. She remembers the Tuol Sleng Prison, and is haunted by a man who approached us straight off the tuk-tuk. His entire face had been burnt off, and showed only eyes and scar tissue. On the streets and entering church, she folds herself into my legs to avoid eye contact with amputees and so many disfigured beggars. Now she sees museums as the place where they are waiting for her. I tried to reason with her. It is a field. You will see grass and hills. Mommy will carry you. She drew her hands up to her face like little folded paws and consented.
From the gate of our apartment building, we rode a tuk-tuk out of the city, along Sihanouk Boulevard, then the long stretch down Monireth Boulevard, to the turnoff for Choeung Ek. The ride gets dustier as you get further from the city, and there are only plots for grazing cattle, fallow farmland, and a cement factory along the way. Yoshi looked out into the distance and enjoyed the breeze on his face. I tried to imagine what the late-night ride in a covered truck must have been like, blindfolded and hands bound, believing you were being transferred to another prison facility. Along the entry road to Choeung Ek are a few shops with tables, offering sodas, beer, cigarettes. We reached the lot outside the gates. Sure enough, two elderly men approached on crutches to greet us, hats in hand. Tika was shrinking back. But they wore broad, toothless smiles, and thanked me when I folded bills into their hats, pointing me toward the gate like welcoming hosts.
Between 1976 and 1979, Choeung Ek was hell. The Khmer Rouge took the land, once a peaceful Chinese cemetery, when they couldn’t bury all the victims of Tuol Sleng on the prison grounds. After giving in to forced confessions, many of the Tuol Sleng prisoners—former Khmer Rouge elites, doctors, writers, scientists, teachers, as well as wives, children, infants—were loaded into covered trucks and carted to this place, unloaded by dark of night, and led in single-file to the edge of pits. Death was unceremonious and continuous, hundreds at a time. Lacking more expensive weapons, their executioners used hoes, shovels, clubs. Babies were wrenched from their mothers’ arms, held by the feet, and beaten head-first against a tree until they died. Some were buried alive, with pesticides thrown on top. Some were executed naked. More than a hundred were decapitated, their heads apparently disposed elsewhere. All the time, a loudspeaker hanging from a nearby tree blared the cheerful music of a marching band.
And though I had read about Choeung Ek before coming, tears welling up as I saw the online picture of that tree with its sad marker, here we were on a sunny morning, walking through a grassy field, just as I had promised Tika. We entered the three-room museum—photographs of the Pol Pot clique, paintings of atrocities not photographed, descriptions of the excavations—and watched with Australian and Indonesian visitors a short film about the post-war discovery of this place. We crossed the grass to a tall pagoda-like monument. Inside, it houses a multi-storied glass column filled with skulls, jaw bones, femurs, layered by some order of approximated gender and age. At the bottom, in a heap on the floor, a pile of recovered clothing.
But this place is a Cambodian history-making, and if history is what you see of it from the present, then it is just as chaotic and disorganized as the rest of the country. There is no custodianship, no orderly arrangement for tourists. The glass display case inside the monument has sliding doors that were open on two sides, with skulls precariously tilted out in the open. Clothing piled at the bottom was spilled over into the walkway.
We passed outside, where the ground gives way to a deeply pock-marked field. With the discovery of the mass graves, Cambodian and foreign investigators excavated the area, counting victims as best they could, and marking sites. Now the grassy land dips unevenly around narrow dirt walkways where tourists pass. At some places in the grass are still more pieces of cloth poking from the soil. A museum worker indicated that heavy rains still raise clothing remnants from the ground. There is another glass box next to an outdoor signpost indicating recovered clothing, and it is open on top with more clothing fallen to the ground beneath. There are a few fenced-in areas with signs that provide details about particular graves—here women only, here the decapitated bodies. And then the place I was most afraid of, the tree where so many babies had been killed. Tika was already standing next to it when I approached, not taking any notice of the sign. And really it is just a big tree.
We are looking for stylized moments of truth when we erect memorials, and hoping these truths will awaken us when we visit them. I have read that Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are styled by the Vietnamese, to invoke a certain truth in which Vietnam’s role is a saving one. It’s hard to see how such poorly preserved memorials bear any conscientious plan, but these critics have a point. Over and over, the memorials remind you that Pol Pot and his clique were at the center of this violence. Little is said of the many ordinary Cambodians who themselves participated in the atrocities, and who today might be farmers and merchants. Nothing is said of the Vietnamese invasion, the installation of Hun Sen, who remains a dictator today. No explanation is given for the lack of any prosecution of Pol Pot, who died apparently of heart failure in 1998.
What did I expect? Cambodia is not a place for such contemplation.