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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Lazy Saturday Morning, Phnom Penh

The heat here is oppressive and constant. Everywhere we go we are under a blinding, baking sun. This morning we took an early trip to a playground—one of two modern parks nicely arranged with Western equipment set among beds of flowers. Only a few white parents pushed children on swings and sipped from water bottles. Two Khmer security guards played a lazy game of cards under a tree. I tried to fit my body in a small triangle of shade next to a large multi-colored climbing gym, while Puck laughed and chased bubbles another kid was blowing. Tika and Yoshi pumped themselves higher and higher on the swings. Ernest took a few passes through the climbing structure and returned to join me in the shade.
When everyone’s face was deep red and we had exhausted the place, we headed to a little bar I had seen before. It is set back from the road behind a shaded courtyard offering a few brightly-painted rickety playthings set among the trees. The kids drank Shirley Temples and I took a whisky on the rocks beneath a fan on the porch. I watched Puck and Tika rock back and forth on a metal pelican. Then all four ran to a rusty swinging metal dragon beneath a lychee tree. Yoshi pushed with his foot from the side, revving it up to break the screws off. Tik and Puck were squealing with delight. Ernest had folded his knees up in the back and was gazing out past the street vendors, looking into the distance where he keeps his mid-day thoughts.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pork Licensing and Bacon-Eaters

This week I am learning a lot about agricultural economics in Cambodia. We’re trying to get a study off the ground that will look at finance and other bottlenecks to the value-chain for foodstuffs. And this story is rich. It seems there’s a guy on the Cambodia-side of the Vietnam border who’s in a very lucky spot. He holds the only license on import and export of pork. An ag-expert explained the details to us on a marker-board in our meeting room. With his monopoly licensing rights, this guy collects 200 riel per kilogram of pig. Pigs weigh about 80 kilos each, and 2500 pigs are crossing the border on an average day, so the guy sits there raking in about US$3.5 million a year without doing anything. He is the king-pig, and so he gets all the bacon. I laughed so hard I snorted …oops.
You see, I have become a little sensitive about the fat on the bacon, because it’s not so clear to me who should be shaking his finger and who is licking his lips. If I am sitting with officials, sipping coffee in meeting rooms and keeping a conversation going, and if I am not making a difference—either because I am not capable to make a difference or because they are managing me into a corner—then am I not too extracting rents from this crazy place? Maybe they don’t want me to touch the entrenched order of things, and so they are leading me and others down dead-end paths. Or maybe I am keeping up appearances?
Today another meeting and back-scratching. This time a high-ranking finance official visited our office in a simple short-sleeved shirt. No rings, no driver, or fancy gadgets. He told us he had just come from prayer at the temple. Then our own consultant, a large, bilious, fat-necked Turk, held the guy’s elbow and grabbed his shoulder. These two go way back—way, way back! Their reunion left us all a-tingle. We watched from the side-lines the two sitting knee-to-knee, and the patting, the beaming. You’re a guru! I learned from the best!  I looked modestly at my blackberry.
Where are we here? I’m not sure where this is going.

Sometimes I think back to what I said about the allegory of the cave. We stood in a cave in Kampot, and village kids said, ‘That over there is an eagle’ and Ernest nodded obediently, ‘Yes, that must be an eagle.’ It can be pretty hard to put my finger on what I’m looking at around here. Does having a safe under your desk mean you’re corrupt? Or maybe you just pay your employees with cash? Another guy on our team is married to a Khmer lady. He said she did a favor for a friend last weekend on a motorbike trip to Mondulkiri. The friend asked her to carry a rice sack to bring someone there. When she returned after making the delivery, his wife asked the friend what was in the sack. Two million dollars. Then maybe the moto-driver with the break-down doesn’t seem quite so hard-up to me anymore.
A few weeks ago I stopped in my tracks on my walk to work. All the time I pass Khmer people pushing large carts of cans and bottles, squeaking a hand-held horn to draw attention, and collecting recyclables for re-sale. I was walking an arc around a smelly cart parked along the roadway. Then it caught my eye--inside the cart a baby, covered in grime and apparently completely alone, was screaming. I stood there for a while, afraid to move toward the grimy screamer, and afraid to move away. What was I supposed to do? As if in answer to my question, a smelly woman, head wrapped in greasy cloth, approached angrily and shooed me away from her cart. These two were a street-cleaning team, I guess.
What I mean to say is, it’s anybody’s guess what you’re looking at.
Sometimes when he’s not caught up in homework, Ernest and I have drifting philosophical conversations. He is carefully probing the unknowns of adulthood (When is it going to start? How will I know?), and I am hazarding generalizations about things I’m not sure of, but which he might believe. We were walking around Kampot thinking about the kids I under-paid at the cave when Ernest asked me why there’s such a big difference between rich people and poor people in this country. We had already shared ideas about roadways, rural electricity, and schools (he had a ADB-ILO pamphlet on prevention of child labor on his bedside table). So I ventured a simplification of trickle-down economics. ‘Think of money like sand, Ernest.’ OK, mom. ‘Different kinds of countries have all kinds of buckets for moving the sand around. Some countries pick it up like a sieve and it runs out of tiny holes all over the place. Other countries are more like a funnel with only a few holes that channel the sand in a few big piles.’ He seemed satisfied with that explanation, although I offered no particular reason for countries having funnels and sieves.
Looking back on it, I’m not sure that any country, or any person, is operating like a sieve. I think my indignant Canadian guest believed that there ought to be sieves, or that she could uncover the buckets of accumulated rents and shake out the contents fairly. But this is sandbox economics, and I wonder if even Ernie believes it.
When S&P put US treasuries on negative watch on April 18th, cynics jeered, pundits jumped to defend America’s reserve-currency status, and the Assistant Treasury Secretary essentially said ‘You can’t downgrade us, because we’re the US’. Bloggers and editorialists pinned the blame for America’s excesses on everything from Wall Street bailouts to over-extended shoppers to pill-popping healthcare gluttons to early-retiring baby boomers. A new moniker caught my eye, that seems to replace the irrational exuberance which described all of us in the last decade. We are a people of inordinate privilege.
We are inordinately privileged, because we thumb our noses at S&P while using other peoples’ money to over-eat, over-buy, retire early and then over-prescribe. We are inordinately privileged because we out-live our savings (by a decade? by more?) and then live off the under-consumption of Chinese households, who by the way are scape-goated for every seemingly unfair transaction. Where is fairness anymore? Maybe Ernest and the angry Canadian woman can help to set things straight.

I think I figured out why the priest at World Vision cut me off at confession. Even for believers in original sin, this starts to ramble. Enough. Suffice is to say things aren’t fair. We’re sinners. What my counterpart wads up in his safe at the end of the day may well be less than the entitlements I’m collecting from day to day. Or maybe it’s more, but there are things I can change and things I can’t.
To get to the crux of my problem, I realized that I too am sitting on a pork license. What I can do at least while one hand is in the bacon is try to make some good with the other hand.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Body Troubles--Ears, Eyes and Rear-ends

When you’re not throwing up or having diarrhea over here, it seems you’re fighting off other bacteria in your eyes and ears. Maybe it doesn’t help that kids like to touch, rub, smear and then taste virtually everything around them. I watched Puck slurp pool water at the Cambodiana this afternoon after he had gone down the water slide a hundred times. He’d fill his cheeks with pool water, climb out of the baby pool and run into the middle of the pool deck, where paunchy old men and seedy, tattooed globe-trotters sprawled out on deck chairs, then spurt the water over them. Mommy was amused …and embarrassed. Ernest spent the afternoon forgetting his homework in the deep end, diving, flipping, cannon-balling over and over and over.
Small wonder, then, that we wring out our suits on the balcony and complain about ears and eyes. My advantage here is that amoxicillin is 3 bucks over-the-counter. Its GlaxoSmithKline powder packets, and I have to stir it into juice. We can get the cycle started right away, rather than suffering a few days to get a slot with the pediatrician.

Puck's Not Scared of Water

Puck fell asleep in his clothes this afternoon. He is my fearless swimmer. All afternoon he had me in the pool with him. Without waiting to see if I was ready, he pushed off the side and glided towards me, sometimes reaching my arms. When he fell short, his head sunk under with his mouth, still open and smiling. As I pulled him back up again, he sputtered and shook off the water. Again! Again!