Monday, June 21, 2010

You can be a big fish in a little pond, it doesn’t mean you’ve won…does it?

Today was a day of contrasts and juxtapositions. It was a day of two very different kinds of communities that grew up around two very different kinds of leaders. It was a day that brought the concept of the “cult of personality” into relief. Today I went to church and to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which – ironically – are right across the street from one another.

Sara and I went to the International Christian Fellowship church this morning. ( I for one have been craving the opportunity to fellowship with other Christians. It was relieving to see other Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who were also native English speakers and sympathized with my discomforts and hiccups of settling into life in Cambodia. It was refreshing to hear the Gospel preached (our sermon was on Luke 2:41-52 and Acts 15:25-29). It was a comfort to be surrounded by the body of Christ that was warm and welcoming. I talked with a wonderful Canadian couple who were getting ready to return to Vancouver after a year here in Cambodia. The husband was a retired minister in the Presbyterian church of Canada (oh Providence!) and the wife was a second grade teacher. They chatted with me about the ways to adjust, gave me tips on getting over jet lag and encouraged me with my discernment process as I move forward with becoming ordained. It was a joy to worship, a joy to be surrounded by people who welcomed me, and a joy to be in a place which, despite a very different take on church than my home presbytery, was still like home in all the best ways.

But this happy, calming experience is diametrically opposed to my experience of walking through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In a real, physical sense these two places are opposing – on opposite sides of a street corner, one is colorful and bright, the other a bland grey cement enclosure. And in a metaphorical, spiritual, figurative sense they represent opposite ideals – one a refuge of love and hospitality, even in extreme circumstances, the other a symbol of the ugly manifestation of hate which blossoms from deep rooted and unchecked fear. 

If you, like me, did not know what the Tuol Sleng prison was until this very day, let me give you a brief history lesson.  Saloth Sar, know to us as Pol Pot, turned what had been a primary and secondary school campus into a detention center during his reign as head of the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1978 over 10,400 people were systematically imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Detainees ranged from intellectuals and members of the former Cambodian government, to “New City” Cambodians (rural refugees recently relocated to the city looking for work), doctors, religious leaders (monks, nuns) and anyone who could read. Essentially, anyone that the paranoid government decided to detain.  The prison acted as a “high security” location instead of the hard labor camps that resembled ones used by Hitler and Stalin.

Tuol Selng was a place of torture. It was a place where men and women alike were systematically beaten. They were lashed, flogged and shocked with electrical current. Each prisoner was photographed, with meticulous documentation of who they were, where they came from and what “methods” were used to “break” them. The former classrooms were shut up, the open corridor windows covered in a thick fencing of barbed-wire (to discourage prisoners from committing suicide prior to their execution date). Some of the classrooms were subdivided into tiny 3’X5’ cells where detainees were kept in heavy iron shackles until execution – normally 6 to 8 months. The former playground exercise equipment was re-fashioned into the torture devices strategically located in a central quad so that every prisoner could hear the agonizing screams while waiting for their turn. It was a place of immense pain and suffering. Pol Pot, under the influence of his fear and suspicion of all those with education and material gains, turned a place of education on its head and – in sad irony – out of a school where fear is dispelled through education he created a nightmare complex like the gulags and concentration camps.

The museum had dozens of glass boards with the pictures of the many men and women who died in that prison. (Photos can be seen here –  They were black and white mug shots, hundreds upon hundreds in neat rows. Each photo had a number; the scrupulous records of exactly who the regime eliminated. There were pictures of the broken bodies of men after torture, stills of women chained to beds and color paintings of the different torture methods used. There was a room in which several unidentified skulls were kept locked in a glass case – about four dozen of them. Along the walls of this room were photographs of large mounds of human bones that the prison officials would make. Some of them were formed into designs. Some were just rows upon rows of femurs and tibias. It reminded me eerily of Heart of Darkness.

However, what cracked my desensitized heart were the several hundred photographs of children. Let me say that again, so that the impossible weight and horror sinks in: several hundred children. Wide-eyed little boys. Smiling baby girls. Frightened children. Precious children.

The Khmer Rouge killed more than 20,000 children during its four year reign from 1975 to 1978. In that four year period, the Khmer Rouge killed over 2 million people – over 21% of Cambodia’s population – from systematic terminations, work camps, slavery and constant combat. That’s one in five people. One out of every five of you reading this right now would be dead. Would it be you?

Pol Pot was a sick man. His mind was twisted by hate. Hate – an extreme form of fear – had mangled his heart so completely that he was incapable of seeing the humanity in the ‘other.’ The officials that sanctioned and ran Tuol Sleng allowed themselves to become so desensitized that they lost sight of the common humanity between themselves and their victims. Did Hitler not do the same thing to Jews in Germany?  Did the Interahawme not do the same thing to the Tutsis in Rwanda?

But there is another element to this prison visit that is more disturbing and heart-breaking. As I drank in all those faces of the men and women, and especially the precious children, I could not help but remember the part that the United States played in this tragedy. I as an American citizen cannot walk away with clean hands. My government support the Khmer Rouge despite confirmation that Pol Pot engaged in “criminal behavior” (and despite the fact that he executed several Western intellectuals) simply because he opposed the military forces in Vietnam.  We are linked to this because every time we allow for the infringement of human right anywhere, it becomes a threat to human rights everywhere.

I don’t have children. But, I hope and pray that one day I am blessed with the joy of being a mother. I pray that I get to hold my precious child and love him more than life itself. Looking at all those tiny faces I cannot help but think about my life, my actions, my place. Water boarding is torture. Guantanamo Bay is not too far off from this prison center. How far do we have to go before we become complacent parties in mass genocide?

 It was a day of parallels and paradox. It was a day of two men who couldn’t be more opposite. Pol Pot, a murderous fanatic who developed a cult which followed his extreme Marxist beliefs and supported him while he allowed his fears of the “other” to morph into unadultered hate and dehumanization. And Jesus, a man who grew a cult out of the Jewish tradition, preached a gospel of love and non-violence and welcomed all because each human being is a child of the Most High God. Pol Pot died of heart failure while under house arrest in 1998 without even having to go to trial for his crimes. Jesus died innocently on a cross, the lamb of God who took away the sins of all the world. Today was a day of two very different men, one who chose love and the other who chose fear. In its’ simple dichotomy of human weakness versus holy strength it is quiet, and moving, and profound. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Word of the Day...

I’ve been learning a few words of Khmer here and there. A few essentials have helped me in awkward situations. So, I’m going to give y’all a few words of Khmer, which can help if you ever find yourself stranded in Cambodia.

Akun = “Thank you”
Som = “please”
Tuck = “water”
Muy = 1
Be = 2
Bai = 3
Boon = 4
Pram = 5
Sous-dye = “Hello” and Arron sous-dye = “Good morning”
Lee-hai = “Good bye”

Interestingly enough, Khmer doesn’t have a word for ‘no’ – they use English no do indicated dissent. Apparently before the introduction of ‘no’ into the language, if someone were to answer the questions are you hungry, they’d say “yes, I’m not hungry.” Strange, eh?

I’ll try to pick up a few more words and do another Khmer lesson in a few days!


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Christian in a Buddhist Land

It was a constant sort of hum-chanting that filled the room with a warm, radiant vibration. Four monks, ranging in age from about 20 to about 60, sat on the floor of our large conference room. Shrouded in large pieces of orange or red fabric, they chant-hummed in a cacophonic harmony which seemed to swell through the room like sweet incense smoke.  My knees hurt from kneeling on a reed mat. I was lost;  the language was foreign, then moments of bowing strange. I felt terribly out of place.

On Thursday of last week our office had a blessing. Here in Cambodia, inviting a local monk to come to your office or home to bless both your person and your space is a common practice. Monks are everywhere; their bright orange and rich red robes stick out. They ride on the back of mopeds, they wander around markets and yesterday I even saw a monk using the internet. I don’t know exactly why I find this weird – I mean, I am going to become a minister, yet I use a computer every single day. Perhaps it is because for me, Buddhism is still a mystical religion that has – until Thursday – stayed hidden in the pagoda.

I have never before traveled to a country in which Christianity was not the predominant religion. Guatemala is still mostly Catholic and Europe is Christian of some flavor or fashion (mostly). So, even if the form of Christianity practiced differed from my frozen-chosen Presbyterianism it was still Jesus on a cross, Mary the mother of God, and the three-in-one trinity that I could recognize. But here, in Cambodia things are different. Here, boys and men dedicate themselves to strict ascetic lifestyles relying on aid from the communities to help support them as they pray and study. They cover themselves in kashayas, or long strips of saffron and ochre fabric and shave their heads. They serve as religious instructors, community leaders and organizers, and – as what we would think of in the Christian sense –   as ministers.  There is meekness and humility about monks that is in sharp contrast to the often over-the-top charisma of Christian leaders and a sense that monks work hard to balance the need to withdraw from the world in an effort to attain enlightenment and the compassion to remain rooted in their communities as servant leaders.

In the work we have done with IRD thus far, monks, nun and achars (local religious leaders that can be compared to Deacons) have been sought out to help spread the public health message. At our very first day on the job, we attended a ceremony honoring the women who had participated in our “Model Mothers” program (which teaches and encourages good hygiene, sanitation and proper nutrition for children under 5). For many of these women, what they are being taught (like breastfeeding from birth through at least 6 months) goes against what has become the social norm. A monk sat in the first row, his orange kashaya vibrant against his dark skin, and spoke about how important nutrition and sanitation is to healthy families and communities. His presence was a blessing in many ways. The community looked to him for guidance and was encouraged by his support of the work IRD is doing.

Turning to these religious leaders to get the message about public health out is an important way to connect to this culturally distinct country. Last week, I watched as wandering monks stopped outside shops and residences, and said a few words. Some folks would come out, give them a small donation and then kneel while the monks chanted a blessing over them (Buddhist chanting, by the way, is not the peaceful, harmonious chanting of Anglican evensong or Benedictine-style monks; it is a strange nasal-off-key kind of chant that cannot be mistaken for anything else). Sitting in on a religious ritual brought into sharp contrast how different Buddhism is to Christianity. And yet, there was something familiar. Maybe it was the way we all hold our hands, pressed together for prayer. Maybe it was how, at the end of the ceremony the monks used bundles of leaves to sprinkle water on the kneeling crowd, much like the sprinkling of baptismal water on Easter. Or the way these Buddhist families welcomed us and care for us the same way Christian families back home would have. For all the remarkable and beautiful ways that we are different, in the human way we are the same.

After all, the Buddha says: “Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1), while Jesus reminds us: “Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Top 10 Ways to Die in Cambodia…

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster since Sara and I landed in Southeast Asia. It’s become a bit of a joke between Sara and I that this near-death experience or that particular brush with mortality is one of the “top 10” ways to die.  But after what should have been a relaxing and invigorating weekend at the beach (more on that later), I’ve decided that perhaps this list is truer than we originally thought. So, in the spirit of Travel channel lists of a similar sort, I present to you Brekke’s Top 10 Ways to Die in Cambodia.

10. Hydroplaning in a vehicle of any sort  - The monsoon rains are sudden and last for quite a long time (think multiple hours). Paired with rather unkempt roads and rather uncouth drivers, hydroplaning is a sure way to “loose the mortal coil” as one might say. A car out of control could take out not just the passengers, but also passing motos, bicyclers, pedestrians and unwary cows. Because monsoon rains are only once a day though, hydroplaning makes number 10.

9. Infected bites, cuts, abrasions, lacerations, etc – after the tragic implanting of sea urchin spines into my right heel this past weekend (more on that later), I became acutely aware of the health risk that infection poses to most Cambodians, and to ex pats living and working here. With less than adequate facilities dotting the country, any kind of open sore or wound has a high likelihood of being easily infected. The tap water here isn’t potable (which means we can’t drink it) and while it’s not too terrible to wash in, if you don’t want to swallow it, you don’t want to wash a wound with it. Since we hope to avoid open wounds at all costs, infection is only number 9 on our list.

8. Attack by roving bands of she-hes  - according to British Dave, as opposed to Aussie Dave, bands of “she-hes” (we’re not exactly sure what he meant, but we guess that they were transvestites) lie in wait for tourists in bars. While Sara and I have never experienced this, Dave was quite adamant, and had battle wounds to prove it. Apparently, he had been lured into a room with one of these wily bands and had to jump out a glass window in order to escape. He had several deep cuts and a bad burn form where he jumped on a speeding moto in his get-away. If he wasn’t so embarrassed by the story I would have thought he was lying to me. So, because you never know who you’ll meet in a bar, the she-hes make number 8.

7. Drowning in a boat on the way to or from shore – Sara and I had plans to go snorkeling one of the days on our beach trip (can I just say epic fail) and in route to the island the rains hit (in the morning!) and I think we very nearly drowned. The normally peaceful ocean turned grey, warm salty water was smash into our little dingy from the sea, cold water was pelting us from the sky. As we strapped orange life-vests to our shivering little selves, I remember thinking “this is a crappy way to go, out here in the middle of nowhere ocean, no one knowing where we are.” And then the motor of the boat died. Because only the grace the Almighty got us through that storm, death by drowning hits the top 10 list at number 7.

6. Abduction by the Khmer Rouge – while we have been lucky to have had our travels be (mostly) uneventful, the Khmer Rouge is still a significant threat in parts of the country. So, visiting the majestic mountains that rise out on the horizon is a no-go for these rather bumbling Americans. The rebels tend to stay in their mountains; as long as we avoid them, they should avoid us. But, because of their bloody past and unsure future, the Khmer Rouge lands just shy of the top 5 at number 6.

5. Unexploded landmines – Cambodia has the most unexploded landmines of ANY Southeast Asian country. Because there are so many of them, people routinely die from stepping in the wrong spot. Off-trail hiking is illegal in Cambodia because so many tourists have died over the years. And, if the landmine didn’t kill you and you survive the substandard medical care (think back to number 9), you inability to get work will probably result in death by malnutrition. The CMAC landmine detection and detonation training center is about a mile from the IRD office in Kampong Chhnang and routinely interrupts our meetings with small explosions.  Because landmines are undiscriminating and can cause multiple death scenarios, they make it to the top 5.

4. Malaria medication – As Sara unfortunately discovered this past week, mis-prescribed Malaria mediation can be just as painful – and potentially lethal – as contracting the disease itself. Malaria medications have a variety of side effects, including: constipation, diarrhea, fever, hallucination, vivid dreaming, bi-polar tendencies, depression, gastritious and acid reflux. If you can survive your medication, then you’re doing well. Because Malaria medication is suppose to be preventative, and is mandatory for travel in Cambodia, it ranks as the number 4 way to die in Cambodia.

3. Malaria and Dengue Fever – if you stop taking your Malaria medication as a medical intervention, you then run the risk of contracting the very disease you were trying to prevent. Not to mention Dengue Fever, which there is no prevention for except to spray down with bug spray and pray. And don’t think OFF Deep Woods will be enough; I have learned the hard way that it merely dissuades already passive mosquitoes. The really persistent ones pay no mind to the spray. Day or night, mosquitoes present and pose a real threat, especially to foreigners who haven’t acclimated to the climate and to the prevalence of the diseases. Because of the unavoidable effects of Malaria and Dengue fever – whether preventative measures, or unfortunate contraction – this pair of diseases comes in third on our top 10 list.

2. Diarrhea – this unavoidable reality for all travelers to Cambodia is still the number one killer of children under the age of 5. Coupled with malnutrition, diarrhea is a leading factor in why there is an alarmingly high <5 mortality rate and why so many children are stunted and have growth and development problems. The prevalence of contaminated water is a direct cause of diarrhea. What’s more, as the monsoons set in, what is known as the “diarrhea season” hits like…well, you know. And, this unsavory sickness doesn’t just strike poor village farmers; your intrepid explorers are not immune to illness. Undercooked foods, vegetables washed in contaminated water, the side effects of Dengue, Malaria and Malaria medication all cause achy and incompliant bowels.  Diarrhea – like landmines – is an indiscriminant way to kick the bucket (while on it). Because it pays no mind to social class, gender, nationality or job description, Diarrhea comes in as the second best (?) way to die in Cambodia.

1. Car accident – if any of my previous posts didn’t already give it away, car accidents rank as the number one most-likely and best (worst?) way to die in Cambodia. You may survive abduction, angry ocean waves, upset intestines and blistering heat but in a country without traffic laws or traffic police, death behind the wheel is unfortunately a high probability. Not to mention the whizzing moto drivers, riding helmetless through busy Phnom Penh streets. Due to poorly maintained roads, a frightening lack of accepted traffic laws and the sheer swarm of people on all manner of transport, death by car accident (or tuk-tuk crash, or moto catastrophe) is the number one most likely, best and worst way to die in Cambodia.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

An Awfully Big Adventure and Back Before Lunch!

Today has been a very full day, and it’s only 3:30pm (at the time of this writing)! Sara and I have been across Cambodia (practically) and back, traveling with FFE (Food For Education). I have done my best to document our epic adventure, but it has been a wild ride since we first stepped onto the boat at about 7:30am.

We were told prior to this morning’s events that we would be “crossing the river” and “taking the boat” to get to the school where the drama would be performed. I thought to myself, “oh, a quaint little village across the river. Fun.” Silly Brekke, nothing is ever that easy.


A nearly 40 minute boat-ride later, in which Sara somehow either got engaged to or became the sister of this very chatty 17 year old girl, we arrived at this dusty looking hamlet. All the homes were thatched roof, bamboo-planked square cabin-type constructions on stilts. All the roads were a dusty red dirt pathway with assorted bumps that my behind can still feel. We unloaded the drama equipment from the boat and clambered into a tuk-tuk (“took-took”).

This is a tuk-tuk - like a rickshaw attached to a motor scooter

We departed for another nearly hour-long drive along winding streets and across flat, scorched plains. It was beautiful in a broken-hearted kind of way. It was a land naked of pretense and full of raw living truth. I think I may have fallen in love.

We arrived at the school and the drama kids immediately started to set up. They are an efficient little group!

I say “kids”, but they were more like a rag-tag group of high school students and recent high school grads. They ranged in aged from about 16 to 20, with a few speaking English (the best were the girl in green and the boy in pink).

The performances are IRD funded and are designed to teach lessons in basic hygiene (like washing your hands), the evils of alcohol and tobacco, and why eating your vegetables is essential to a healthy lifestyle. The group is hip and funny (as you can see) and I think it was a great way to engage the school children. Hopefully they’ll remember what they were taught.

The drama group then handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste (and a demonstration for correct teeth brushing techniques) to all the school children.

There we lots of neighborhood kids who milled about and watched the drama. They were terribly adorable. I couldn’t help but snap some photos. :)

We want to come to school too!


I got to visit the classrooms (there were only about 5 rooms) and say hello to the students. One room had a hand-made math poster that brought me back to 11th grade Algebra III. No matter where in the world you are, some things never change!

See if you recognize the 3rd line from the bottom 

Then it was time to go, so we deconstructed the set, said our thanks to the teachers and students and piled back into the tuk-tuk, which promptly crashed while leaving the school. No joke, the motor died and we rolled downhill into a tree/fence. Sara and I screamed like the seasoned veterans of travel that we are.  After the manly boys hopped out of the tuk-tuk and pushed us to safety, we were off again. Until the motor died about 12 minutes later. So there we were, half melted in greasy puddles on the floor, stranded in the middle of rural Cambodia looking for a bottle of oil to get the motor functioning again. It was miserable hot, we were tired and hungry. The tuk-tuk wouldn’t start.

Did I mention it was hot? And Sara had decided to introduce the Cambodian teenagers to the musical stylings of Justin Bieber – which really should be a sin right up there with unwrapping cellophane candies in a movie theater. Well, the hand of God got that tuk-tuk running again, and we bumped and chugged our way back to the small river-side hamlet where our boat was moored. With the same efficiency, the drama kids unloaded the tuk-tuk, filled the boat and had us back in the water. And when I say “in” the water, I literally mean that by behind was cruising along a mere 5 inches away from this strangely green water (it looked like someone had washed a GINORMOUS paintbrush with green paint in the river).

40 minutes and some rather awesome tan lines later, we arrived back home in Kampong Chhnang. We walked into our hotel around 1:10pm – home in time for a late lunch! What a day, and it is only half over. In Cambodia, you really must expect the unexpected. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The blogger as Frogger

Monday Sara and I traveled into Phnom Penh to meet with Cambodian HQ staff and do a little bit of grocery shopping (to pick up some home essentials and get a few western things – aka pasta and ranch dressing – that they don’t carry out in Kampong Chhnang. It’s not the city you need to watch out for, it’s the drive there.

You see, in Cambodia, most people of means (which is, oddly enough, us) hire professional drivers. And for good reason. Driving here is serious business. There are virtually no stoplights (even in the capitol), no stop signs (not a single one in KC) and no hard and fast traffic laws (let alone police to enforce said traffic laws). Throw into that mix a wide array of cars and trucks, varying moto-bikes with any number of passengers, tractors, ox-carts (no joke, carts pulled by oxen) and bicycles. Passing slower moving traffic is an art form, and our drivers seamlessly straddle the center of the road (and occasionally drive fully in the left lane) to pass slower traffic. And so, this passing-getting over- speeding up-passing dance is a bit unnerving to us Americans who are quite use to our, “stay in your own lane and pass only at the yellow dotted line  thak-you-very-much.” Which is when Sara turned to me and said,

“This is like a real-life game of frogger.”

Frogger –the early ‘90s video game of getting your little frog across the busy industrial highway unscathed. Suddenly I saw myself as a little frog, hugging the pavement and fearfully watching the enormous monstrosities of semi-trucks wiz by, unnoticing of my trepidation as some unnamed god-figure moved me across the screen toward what could be my impending death.

As that scene flashed before my eyes I looked through the front window to see a large white truck zooming toward us at break neck speed. We were in the left lane, trying to pass a stubborn blue minivan.  The white truck drew nearer and that minivan with about 12 people and two weeks worth of fruit bulging from the windows and back hatch went just fast enough that we couldn’t quite pass it. We were still in the left lane and that white truck was unyielding and absolutely not going to slow down. We inched past that minivan only to discover a slower motorbike had left only a very narrow – and I mean very narrow – gap. The white truck was upon us and I could see the outline of their driver and the dangly thingys around his rearview mirror. It was all so sudden: we were in the left lane, the white truck was in the left lane, the motorbike was blocking our return to the right. There was a narrow gap, and the motorbike and the blue minivan and…

We slide seamlessly into the gap and slowed down just enough to not ram the hell out of the moto and went just fast enough not to be rammed like hell by the blue minivan. I turned to Sara and said,

“I, like my uncle, am praying to make it out of Southeast Asia alive.”

(My uncle served in the Vietnam War)

This is typical Cambodian driving. Flirting with death. Speeding along the highways. Most people don’t wear helmets when they ride motos or bicycles. In fact, last week an IRD staff member was killed in a northern province because he was in a moto accident and wasn’t wearing a helmet. Because there aren’t enough good hospitals in Cambodia – and only ONE brain surgeon in the whole country – he was transported to Vietnam. He died on the border as they tried to get him to the hospital. IRD has since taken a VERY strict policy of requiring all staff to wear helmets whenever they’re on a moto. It was required before – and he died while on a personal trip – but they have taken a very stern stance about employees wearing helmets always, not just at work.

But still, culture remains. And now every time I get into a truck for a long car ride, I will imagine myself as a frightened and helpless frog, clutching the curb and praying a little froggy prayer.

Race, privilege and why I’m glad I’m not “Brangenlina”

White people are scarce in Cambodia. Outside of the Capitol at Phnom Penh and the two major tourist hot spots – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Shionkville (beaches) – Anglos are few and far between.  Ex Pat communities thrive in tourist areas precisely because tourists, after a few days reveling in the “strangeness” of a new country, long for a little bit of home. So, here in Kampong Chhnang, Sara and I are two of three Anglos (the third being a mysterious Peace Corps volunteer named Greg who we haven’t met yet). So you can imagine that we stand out. Sara, if she wears sunglasses and doesn’t say anything, could probably pass as just a fair skinned Cambodian. But not I. My blonde hair has drawn more curious looks than I can count. We are obviously new in town (and way better equipped to adjust than Renee Zellwiger in that terrible Romantic Comedy).

But, everyone is kind to us. A little distant, but friendly. They return our smiles, sneak looks at us as they ride by on bikes and allow their little children to unabashedly wave and call to us. It’s a bit like being a celebrity, and reminds me of a visiting a school in Guatemala where the students wanted our autographs because we were American. But, for all that this seems harmless, it really points to much bigger issues – race and privilege.
I can’t make many astute comments on the racial dynamics at work in this former French colony that has only in the past 20 years come out of a terrible genocide (which wiped out all of the intellectual class, but more on that in a future post). But I can speak about what I’ve observed – that to be fair skinned and western is to be the most respected and most coveted. It’s a little uncomfortable to know that the children that wave to us and say “hello” – a word that is not used too often in everyday Khemer – are doing so because to them, being Western makes us quasi-celebrities. I don’t like the feeling of privilege, which in many ways I feel is undeserved on my part – that comes from merely being blond haired and blue eyed.  What does it mean to have to learn English in order to hold a non-tourist related job? What does it mean to have to learn someone else’s language in order to host an intern in your own country? I recognize that being a white American woman has given me HUGE advantages, but I also feel that from my place of privilege comes huge responsibilities. But how do I honor the dignity of the precious Cambodians that I meet every day while not seeming to condescend or patronize?

It’s difficult. It’s certainly a journey. I am reminded why I never want to be famous. I don’t want people constantly watching where I’m going, intruding on my personal life and being fascinated with every single thing I do from what I eat from breakfast to when I have my first bathroom break! No, leave the fame for the Bennifers and Brangelina’s of the world, and give me a good, honest Cambodian smile.