I’ve looked at life from both sides now from up and down, and still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall I really don’t know life at all.
July 11th (early morning)
The franchise school in Phnom Penh I teach at pays $11 an hour. The 4th floor is under the top floor and it’s where my high school students from room 10A dwell. We have about 5 hours of class time a week and they have recently explained that the male name Samnang (Lucky) and female name Raksmey (Sun Ray) are the most popular and are modern Khmai style, and for sure these same students all want to be modern—not get left behind even as they swear that they don’t go out on the opposition CNRP demonstration rides:
TOO DANGEROUS… PARENTS SAY TO MEEE!
It is remedial English education and I don’t usually grade homework or implement real lesson plans yet there is a creeping scholastic frustration that everyone at the school experiences during the assessment week: “The Test.” Once a month as inevitable as the full moon the institutional tests are given. It is five or six pages matching vocabulary to definition for words like “intrinsic” or “superfluous,” plus “choose and tick the grammatically correct or incorrect sentence.” The class text book is a remainder I recognized from community center tutoring back in the day. I remember the outmoded text from teaching it point blank to bewildered students in the Bronx 12 years ago. These books must have always been educational surplus–bulk cargo sent from the developed to the developing world. From the South Bronx to Phnom Penh.
During the testing I’m paid to stay on my toes and remind the students they shouldn’t cheat, but I often end up sitting at the front of the classroom and making high school English teacher notes. The students do try to cheat on the test by signaling each other and on most days they leave their assigned homework pages blank, but they also helped to write an in class poem. Yet, not to get too far ahead, for in high schools anytime the teacher is center stage in front of the class the first priority is not having the students turn on you in an unforeseen moment. And really what these ebullient kids demonstrate is the need to anticipate something else in the classroom, something besides assessment or confrontation. Towards the end of the 50 minute blocks I let them pull out their smart phones and play their pop music at an audible level. All of us listen while I ask them about their day by day and it’s an instant connection turning into un-uptight giggles and pure expression. The jokes start about which boy was, “playing pocket-soccer” during the exam then both boy and girl students start asking:
“Teacher, you live in America? Teacher, you write money? Teacher, you have wife Khmai?”
I suppose in most S.E. Asia classrooms the students really want a friend from the outside world and it is a foreigner-teacher’s duty to oblige. And outside in the hall during the break I untangle a bit of their code and some of my students will maneuver past parents to join the CNRP protest ride. They are for sure not on the way to a usual teen hot spot, one of the Phen’s several KFCs. In fact, if the drift was to catch in our dank classroom then aired out, if their teenage minds could be let loose to somewhere else, everywhere else, they would reveal: “today’s test equals gibberish from Mars and this testing game is despicable,” they would shout out to anyone who cared to listen.
The private schools always seems to be letting out for days at a time either from the occasional virus outbreak or the extensive Khmai calendar holidays. I don’t usually get paid for any of this and that can hurt; yet it has led to a meditation ritual of relaxing by the disconsolate Tonle Sap. Somehow this river always seems to move in different directions at the same time and after I make sure there aren’t any rats moving towards me before sitting down next to it, I wonder if this is one of the two times a year when the water’s tide actually changes direction? Looking at different sets of Khmai monsoon clouds boding and then pulling in no decipherable pattern, soon a hole is punched in the sky, which creates an invitation to re-visualize and confront the routines inside our school. At the walk to the 4th floor each hall has two security guards dressed in South-East-Asian rent-a-cop uniforms. As everyone passes they prefer to sit down in the plastic mold chairs. And if you had a rough night with a Codeine cocktail and slept through the bowl of rice with an egg on top breakfast, as you pass them flirting and clowning with the students then flattening their feet hard on the linoleum skinned floor when the homeroom bell rings, you might sign (in good conscience) an affidavit stating that they were kidnappers. The school’s hallways are always too dark and filthy by any standard, and yet they are meant to be bumper car neutral, meaning students shouldn’t gang up on each other, and no tag teams or head-on collisions. This is the student’s playground, and in addition to the predictable hissing coming from their menacing looks, the one task you can count on the guards to accomplish is to make sure the lights are on and the air con works so inside the classroom is the student’s oasis.
Inside the oasis I have to supply a lot of the practical materials myself. For a little more than the price of one full KFC set meal, four board markers, one of each color: red, blue, green and black is available. I write the date, the day of the week and the page number on the board and we get started with the day’s vocabulary, fervor. During break time, I implore the students to come to the front of the board and hang out there with those different colored markers and, “Write pictures on the board”. That doesn’t fly unless I leave the classroom and then on return their bare hands are frantic, erasing what they drew. It’s probably just student declarations about who loves whom or whose head is too big, and it might be a pretentious thing, to consider that they give the emotion inside the facts of their lives, and I assist with the words. It would be a little overwhelming or more so underwhelming to put our finished team work up on the scribbled-scrabbled fading to grey whiteboard, so I’ll do so here:
July 16–KHMAI SCHOOL POEM
Dream clouds quickly pull up the stage curtain, collapsed ceiling someone is chasing everyone.
Overhead dreaming lucid with Pop-stars.
Blasted out mushroom hair, flawless faces circling above criss-crossing our lives, stopping, flirting, inviting in disorienting somersaults.
Samnangs upgrading to newer and expensive bikes, Muay Thai boxing with their rivals, the time to slay dragons.
Raksmeys thrice switching their costumes, dancing at a purple wedding, even changing family members.
Descend Mrs. Ouk Sokun Kanha– Fall in love
Descend Mr. Khemarak Sereymon – You’re lucky to be alive.
Stickers on my face number 7 win. Candy crush my tongue, allow the sweet touching. My eyes are your eyes your toes mine too, Our pride My love, My real first time.
Us 2 pop-stars, not a curfew, boom-boom on a private velvet air-con cloud with a fan. Heartbreak and skinship ok, on our altar. Our Origami in the You Tube worthy sky.
And please the one promise, No knives tonight.
We should video sex it on Facebook and when they scream you don’t love me they lie, they lie, sky blue, they lie.
JULY 17th (late afternoon)
The trance of any AC/DC song-ever-played that was moving through me and Mr. Vuth’s moto is gone and the previous night’s codeine trance breaks live. The pings of holding on to the back of the motodop are returning, the bag of sugar cane juice I’ve been gifted is intact and nothing and no one has spilled. We are still roaring together as the sun settles down with our masses smoldering in daytime whites! Everywhere, the CNRP caps and stick-on tattoos of the 24 sun rays are thick and unbroken like… Well let’s put it this way in the form of a different speculation: It is game 7 of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, no score, no outs, the home team is batting and no one in the stadium is sitting.
Neither of the riders to the left or the right is one of my high school students as they appeared from a distance. We’re riding in-between the two now and I start to extend my fists for a bump but Mr. Vuth sees an opening and steps on his guitar pedal and we blast. They don’t stop smiling divinely until they start bleating out,
“I’ll see you when you see me.”
It’s the second round of circling around cosmic Freedom Park. All is well and organized in donated Korean pick-up trucks cum election caravans. Inside those, the defiant ones are standing then dancing: forever Angelic hues of self- realization, flannel-shirts and Khmai Pop. But not the fire-fly enchantment ballads that couldn’t drive a political demonstration but the older stuff with enough primary funk to be their parent’s music. And they are inventing themselves. They need to dance and can even print their own yellow t-shirts designed on Adobe:
“I think it’s OK to be confident in your self.”
The front of the pack teens, the Greasers with the best looks and the most friends on Facebook have again turned counter clockwise. They’re so hung with style, so allowed to show up the neighbors, stop for no one while cutting out to the center of town, Wat Phnom. Their trip will not be outdone. Not even the saffron robed monks in plastic flip-flops, three on a moto, and a political will not vanishing are part of their perspective. No bald orange monks nor touch of grey allowed. The best of the blue jean babies won’t (for now) be dragged in with anyone else who isn’t young and beautiful.
One very happening group easy to spy in their brightened up confidence are the Pajama Mamas. Here come the Khmai grandmothers; center of their families suited out bright in Dade-County-Florida colored PJ’s. Charmingly, sometimes the tops and bottoms match and sometimes they don’t, and they are always perfectly fine day-by-day wear. If you stare long enough through the heat and floating red dust at the large grabbing germaniums and sunflowers, optical illusions are everywhere. And yet their real duende glows internal and with results. They’ve got this whole part of the world in their ancient hands. Not sophisticated faces, not in need of grace but they carry it anyway. From the Khmer Rouge they have seen the dark and violent in human endeavor and that could be why they don’t look away or frown at foreigners. When you softly return their look in the eye, they plead but don’t beg. They’re beyond both parody and too much sympathy. And they are a long way away from a crowdsourcing campaign to help fund a personal memoir, and for sure in no need of financial portfolio updates. Their investment is more elemental. Sweeping around the dust on the streets and giving general advice to all their youngins: don’t get mixed up with gangsters, study hard at school like the Koreans, don’t live for gambling like the Malaysians. Whether staring at television or watching the street, they keep score of who would or would not fit in their family. They use a communicative jealousy amongst them. On display through those startling colored pajamas you can watch them pantomime at who they would invite or exclude: the strutting Bachelors, in Khmai, brose komlos, and preening Bachelorettes, srey kromom. When a Khmai grandmother comes in to sit with the younger marrying age Khmais, she becomes the grandma for the whole table. And of course by blood she isn’t, so when they get the chance the younger Khmais are particularly proud to talk about how they have a grandmother still in this world, and somewhat surreptitiously, that maybe she is living in the United States now. Incidentally, the more time I spend exterieur the U.S. I realize that it’s an Asian grandmother wedding fantasia equally two parts biology and two parts psychology that is the human terrain of our recycling life. Grandmothers keep loving families reproducing and grand moms are the same all over the world.
We’re turning right on flammable street 13 with the summer breeze. Six of the first eight storefronts are Pharmacies and then all the motorbike chop shops are open and being manned by another small army of young and sinewy but poverty embalmed mechanics. They have to work instead of joining the ride. Or maybe they don’t want to join. Every one of them dressed for the backstreets in filthy generic baseball caps with worn out t-shirts and oil-pressed jeans. All in fading flip flops and proficient at skidding on the street’s intestines through rainbow puddles of gas sometimes joked about as Khmai street piss. They grow up without school and on the contact hits of burning gas and sprayed on car paint.
Their combined chop shop look is that of a slew of forsaken rock ‘n rollers born into the circumstances of only the time and money to listen to 1/2 of the classic LP that could have changed a life. If they ever formed a rock band my guess is they would call it: Heavy Rain.
Many times I have slowly taken to the garages (where they often live in the back) to look for a deal on a used motodop but I have never driven one, so it’s really to watch them. When they are not changing tires, they squat keeping their glazed faces down to stare into and grapple with the wrenches and screws in one of many oversized iron tool boxes. These seemed to be laid out on the sidewalk geometrically like a hopscotch pattern. And by the clang and noise echoing out from inside those jukeboxes, I am convinced that when the young Khmai males look in they can see and point to every constellation in their sky; so why look up?
Yet now everyone is out in front and part of the intensity. Things are moving so fast it’s getting easy to get stuck on the exotic flash and ever-wondering Khmai smile so lacking irony and with the physical quirk of so many indented or extended canine teeth. Half way along Street 13 (Preah Ang Eng) the store front pavements are chock-full with locals, but up above many of the buildings are for sale to those who can afford them–mostly foreigners or Khmais with foreign investment connections. And there are speculators: mostly Chinese, Korean and now Malaysian. You can spot them in dark blue suits as to separate themselves from the casual tourist scene and can hear them at pavement level sharing on any Jackie Chan movies they know. These new Asian hotsteppers are corporately minted with deep pockets probably hand or factory sewn in this part of the world. They’re in Phnom Penh to invest in modern living space, meaning gated and fully serviced apartments. In the daytime they obtusely glide through the heat dreaming of how and where to build on top of the world get-aways. At night they shape shift, their fangs grow sharp and they are ready to be escorted into the VIP booths at the luxury hotel bars and night clubs. The Khmai bouncers are good at what they do to the point they can see who is coming. For the garden variety expat wearing shorts they just point to a sign and you can’t get behind the pulled Crown Royal felt-made curtains and into the elite places. I don’t mind guessing the VIPs probably begin the night by asking each other and the local girls joining them what their blood type is. Actually I’ll double down on that.
As Mr. Vuth is being paced in by a thicket of cyclo-taxis and beggar families, Preah Ang Eng street has stalled and become a lifting fire hazard with the for sale price tag still on. It’s apparent that any eventual buyer will belong to the new rentier class of Cambodia. The financial winners: part condo creeper and full time escapist. They’ll only stay in their townhouses for short bursts of time, but with full blown capacity to create the modern urban palace life including the total victory in the tropics equation for happiness: wild gambling and cheap shopping for the women and wild gambling and cheap sex for the men. They want to clasp hands on underused temples, formal colonial era prisons and any property space yet moldering, though occupied with tenants, squatters or local vendors. In Phnom Penh, unless the grounds are marked as Royal, there is no space not open to commercial development and it’s true what is often said sometimes with pride and sometimes ruefully that here everything is for sale.
Though, back at eye level the barber shop haircut signs proffer $3 for a cut and that means just $2.50, yet, in this Khmai blood-buzz who would stop for a haircut? Instead it occurs to me whenever and wherever all the buy low/sell high choices meet rubber meets the road in the Phnom Penh real estate market, the active smells will always hint of fried pepper and ginger rice spilt on the synthetic flannel jammies that the Pajama Mama Brigade (PMB) rave in. And Holy Fuck lock me in this revolver. The PMB are joining the ride! Thirty meters up on south side of St. 108 still in the domain of Freedom Park three climbed together on one moto. They are covered in buttercups and daises and toting polyurethane bags of sugar drinks with straws on their hips; they’re ready to go the distance. And we venture away from Wat Phnom to the riverside and pass the Cambodiana Hotel then under banners that declare,
“Where ever there is Hardship. The Cambodian Red Cross is there”.
More and more Grande dames shrug off their chores and cruise the ride. It’s a startling unforgettable moment watching matriarchs first primp their hair then hop on motos to spontaneously swipe the dust off each other’s pajamas. Then the smallish engine propels them into the thick of it. And yet the passions of driver Vuth are waning. He is the father of a daughter and of some extended family sons, and must have as much to gain as anyone with any kind of new politics, yet he wants to get rid of me quickly and go make more money. We were permitted voyage in the motorcade jam for about 35 minutes then his 8-year-old red Honda moto ran out of gas on the corner of 55 and 242. As usual he’s put off when we often haggle over fares, he tells me,
“I don’t care about money but I just have to live.”
The price of gas is twice as much in Cambodia as in the U.S., and in the end he always wins the haggle-waggle for his English is passable and he has mad moto skills. Timing the lights he improvs between SUVs and static moto-drivers who look at me then glance down to gawk at his white-painted toes. He calmly breathes in and out with the tune of the traffic pattern pulsing in the Khmai soul. He drives jazz. He knows time. In the high tourist season he clears about $200 per month.
July 18th–THE EVE BEFORE RAINSY RETURNS.
On the day before the exile’s return, finally there is a sort of policy statement from the CNRP via facebook:
Vote CNRP, vote to: lowering gasoline, fertilizer, and electricity prices and higher rice price. Share this information with your rural neighbors today!
And also there was this:
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann could not be reached for comment yesterday but he told the media late last week that about 20,000 supporters are set to greet Rainsy at the airport upon his arrival, and an additional 20,000 will meet him at the Freedom Park rally.
And most bewilderingly:
CNRP spokesman also communicates that the return of Sam Rainsy will not be televised and CPP supporters call him coward leader.
The CPP controls all the possibilities of media here; so the revolution will not be televised. The home coming of the high priest of forward reform for the 77% of Khmais surviving the realities of the Cambodian countryside will not necessarily happen if they can’t see it on TV. It’s a dastardly and controlling wield of power yet something that many familiar with Hun Sen seem to have expected. Once a political sympathizer with western sensibilities gets past the astonishment of the act there comes a dead-flowers-never-smelt, blunt understanding that this is Cambodia and curbing the media happens as naturally as staying out of the sun.
I’ll take in the night before Rainsy’s homecoming at ST 63 Restaurant in BKK1. This is an expat and local spot for the savory and inexpensive full spread that so many travelers have in mind when booking a ticket to S.E Asia and the homespun kind of money jar that Khmers dream of opening. I always locate it by the next store business, which is a hand wash laundromat that also sells Cambodian military insignia to anyone who can afford a uniform to sew it on. A local family operates this and like many store owners in Cambodia, they live in the rear quarters of their shop. This is on the cultivated side of Street 63, walking distance from Independence Monument. This part of BKK1 is nicknamed NGOville and is an appointed nesting zone for some of the 2000 or so active NGOs in Phnom Penh. And as the food is fresh and fusion with exuberant cocktails and 75 cent beers, ST 63 Restaurant is a very come together hot spot for all foreigners, modern Khmais and the NGOers.
This night the usually dim street lights on 63 are flickering and so the shadows of who might be across the street and watching are less discernible. The heat is average as a group of foreign patrons hither and thither in. They go past me right to the owner and can’t notice the other worldly cartoon antics of the next door neighbor’s 7-year-old girl. Only for myself I call her, Haunted Pixie. I’ve bought her a tropical fruit combo ice cream bar a couple of times and have been told she doesn’t go to school as of now because her family can’t regularly afford any of the private English institutes which cost about 80-100 dollars a month.
I’ve started my second beer to anticipate a chat on what tomorrow’s big day will mean. I’m not facing them but I can hear how smarmy the group of patrons are in attitude when greeting each other while avoiding everyone else around them. Three square prime frontal tables are butted together for the eight or so NGOers that the whole front part of street 63 plays audience to. Their talk-show toned clamor tonight emphasizes menu choices, but still no talk about the elections. So far no one is bringing up tomorrow’s return of Sam Rainsy. I’m flummoxed so I try to get a smile from the Haunted Pixie, and her front teeth still haven’t come in yet. Anyone who teaches or has ever taught or has been around groups of children can perceive she’s in the ADHD/Autism spectrum. Still, through the many times I’ve hung out here, she usually keeps on her side of the threshold until the rains come then she gets soaked and loves to dance wildly.
The Khmai owner and host of 63, Virak is in his mid-twenties but looks older. He doesn’t talk much about the start-up cash that was needed but it is he who has made this place happen so I call him sunim, the Korean word for teacher or monk. I try to coach him out of his diffidence and suggest that he greet his patrons less formally and with more causal cheer. He still thinks that style is rude or perhaps unprofitable but we keep the humor and he just calls me, beer o’clock. I never felt at ease with anyone fawning over me, but it sounds like the new guests at the long table seem to dig it. In a few minutes Virak automatically brings the third beer just as the laundromat is shutting. I turn my chair away from the poorly lit empty space and lean in towards the brightness of the restaurant to what’s happening at the banquet table.
The night’s dinner topic is:
“Can you make do with 5 figures?”
And then bursting voices and a quick spin of roundtable advice is declared on living with the poor, like where to get your dresses made and what are the best nights to stay in and watch Animal Planet. They are all on stage and laying it on thick. Not even taking selfies just working up their show time bits, their voices infused by a strange authority that I suppose becomes day-by-day when you’re making 5 figures in Cambodia.
And when the food is served in no particular order the first to eat leads the Darwinian Chorus in agreement:
“Oh yeah. I built my lifestyle to live on 5 figures.”
Farther in the restaurant, about half way to the kitchen, a medium-size screen is hanging center over the bar with the replay of a soccer match on. I pretend to look past them and take a casual interest in that and they don’t stop chewing and mewing at each other in snappy tones that seem passively learned and then mimicked from other popular television type shows: “Survivor.” Any analogy to reality TV shows such as “Survivor” is indispensible while understanding NGO life here in the tropics; for one thing it might be a modern day proof of Darwinism triumphant.
It’s just the way the do-gooders carry on; never talking about a policy or the fates of their clients. Only waiting for their turn to talk and stalk. Arranging everyone on their food chain. Making their routines up as they go. Then, grandstanding in personal relations on who they know. Struggling between mouthfuls to make their finest point: you can’t vote me off the island; if you want something done, I’m the one you have to appreciate around here; I am the queen bee or the lion tamer. More food keeps coming and so does their “Oohing and Aahing” as if trying to convince themselves and maybe the Khmai pixies haunting 63 that S.E. Asia needs a white savior, and one of them is it. Continuously no mention of tomorrow’s history making. Are they shutting it out on purpose? I’m on to beer 4 and wish I could crack a joke. But the Hate Couture food buzz only counts to increase their wails of self-importance. It’s like they’re immune to anything but promoting their selves and the reveling in scents of black pepper lime, turmeric and the zingy taste of lemongrass, is a display that their social standing is superior.
This poverty, race and cuisine farce all comes across in an energetic pageant: part Cambodian-noir, part European Nobelese flare and decorated with frothy Yankee social-media promotion. I should slow down here, make a few blank comments, but it’s real non-stop in S.E. Asia: everyone does the hustle. And yet it wouldn’t be so bad, be an alright day-by-day tableau actually, if any of the square-ass white saviors over here were hip, but always only drinking 1 or 2 fancy-pants cocktails. And always the same pressed look: feet in sandals, then Khaki shorts, golf shirts, or rayon sundresses and dark ballet flats. Sunglasses sit on top of slightly worked or close cropped hair. And then, to really get it right from the feet up, maybe even some little swing bag made of hemp resting at the hip. Always, defining Élan in the grip of a fork or if one does not live in a gated community, knowing what local neighborhoods have a back-up power grid. And always, always the most mawkish taste in music. If you think just bewildered teenagers listen to Beiber and only 20-something backpackers on the banana-milkshake-trail get into Macklemore, well you got that wrong. And chew on this; after the Betas with a heart of gold, these workers for justice, finish a very satisfying meal, for a negligible amount of cash, why do they not tip their servers nor ever push their chairs back either before or after hugging each other goodbye? Anyways, the truest point to realize from this night might come from that wisdom literature adage: The Poor will always be with us.
July 19–Rainsy returns!
On the 19th at 9:15 in the morning Sam Rainsy is returning. Driver Vuth is non-plussed to take me out there but I’m paying. Of course he insists on out-gearing traffic and the heat won’t put anyone in a spell this day. Haunted Pixies are everywhere on the side staying close to their PMB who are not stamped in roses and who are today more sweeping than riding, is it just what they are familiar with? They might feel in their bones that this is a real family homecoming, but is it really safe? The ride to the airport on the National Road is a gleaming blur beyond explanation. It’s just being in a shimmering moment and breathing joy that is incurable—contagious–incorruptible. Or maybe it’s Pope Francis and the Thunderclap playing anywhere in Latin America. Maybe it’s overhearing David Bowie walking along the Berlin wall whistling, “Heroes.” Or perhaps Devaraja and the Khmai fertility gods have snapped to attention. As the descent of Sam Rainsy’s plane can be heard before it is seen, I jot down on paper:
Sam Rainsy is not a coward leader. Elvis is in the Penh. And the airport Burger King is closed.
The airplane cum presidential chariot is flying straight overhead cutting up the blood-wasted tropical skies that have seen it all. It’s all too roaring to talk to with Mr. Vuth. He is nodding his thumb back in the direction towards Freedom Park, like he has a big paying fare and needs to cut out. For once his bug and sun visor is down to hide his regal face. And as Sam Rainsy’s plane is touching down, he really wants to get out quickly. I think he is shouting, “Low gas.” I’m not sure if we are tanking and maybe he is crying. I’m still not sure of the content inside those roadside delivery boxes, and I haven’t acted quickly enough to glimpse what my high school students draw on the board. And who would gamble if the NGO do-gooders I met really have a soul? The one thing is clear: Cambodia is not a kingdom of orphans any more.
Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” sung in Khmai by Dengue Fever.