Friday, September 19, 2008

America Idol(ized)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to become a co-facilitator of the American Club at the American Corner here in Kampong Cham. The American Club, for the curious, is funded by the American Embassy* and has the unabashed goal of trying to bring American culture to teenage Cambodians. Students get access to the American Corner -- internet-connected computers, an extensive library of books, magazines and videos in English -- as well as funds for field trips and a qualified youth coordinator (my friend Kosal) in exchange for their rapt attention to all things American.

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but my curiosity and concern outweighed the qualms and I showed up on a Sunday to figure out what this was all about.

My first Sunday in attendance, the students were frantically working on presentations for a special visit from a representative from the American embassy the next week. The 40+ students were divided into 4 groups, and each had chosen a topic of special interest related to American culture: the elections, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and the top 10 solo artists in the US. Kosal asked me to visit each group as the so-called "expert" on all things American, so I got busy chatting with each group and answering their questions best I could.

The total disconnect between these kids' reality and their imagined concept of America is stunning, and only exacerbated by these activities promoted by the club. America, for them, seems to be a homogeneous mass of folks** interested in pop music, beautiful outdoors scenery and freedom.

The next week, Kosal gave me an hour and I organized an activity that compared Cambodia and the US in ways that I hoped would challenge and broaden their concept of both my country and their own. The game show questions included things like:

-- Approximately how many children are born per woman in the US? How about in Cambodia? a) 1 and 3.5 b) 0.5 and 4 c) 2 and 3 d) 1.5 and 5***
-- True or False. The US is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.
-- Approximately what percent of people work in agriculture in the US and Cambodia? a) 10% and 60% b) 5% and 79% c) 3% and 90% d) 0.6% and 80%
-- What place did the US 15-year-olds rank in math out of a study of 30 developed countries?
-- What is the growth rate of the Cambodian economy? What is the growth rate of the US economy?

Anyway, I think it was somewhat successful because the kids were surprised, but it didn't even scratch the surface of the strange uninformed relationship of most Cambodians to the west.

Cambodians' insistence (at least in the NGO sector) on making the westerner into God, and their seeming rejection of their own culture is supremely sad to me and it seems closely married to the rampant materialism I've seen here. Western countries have more -- more tall buildings, bigger cars, better celebrities, more TVs and cell phones and computers**** -- and this makes their ideas and values and culture somehow superior.

One good thing that comes of this: the shame in this seemingly undue adulation has pushed me to be especially critical of how we in the States do certain things (in education, in environmental sustainability, taking care of the poor in our own communities, etc.), which in turn has fostered a powerful urge to get on home right quick and help to clean up my own country's act before coming to another country to help them with theirs.

* Interestingly, I visited the embassy the other day and it's no surprise that this clean, huge, imposing, impossible to penetrate building was the face of America in foreign countries.
**Speaking to this point -- some of the students didn't believe I was American at all, given that I'm half-Asian and have black hair and all
*** Do you know?
**** I purposely omit better access to medicine, better schools, etc. because I honestly believe that it isn't these symbols of prosperity that impress -- why don't the Cambodians idolize the Scandics?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Little Two-Burner

This is my little two-burner miracle stove.

Cooking over the past 6 months has been such a stretch of the imagination and such a joy. Here are a few of the things that the stove and I have turned out:

Creamy Lentil Soup With Caramelized Onions

Thai Green Fish Curry

Mexican Tofu Stir Fry with Fresh Avocado and Spanish Rice

-- Vegetarian Coconut Curry Soup
-- Pan-fried White Fish with Tumeric
-- Spicy Beer-Soaked Meatballs with Dark Greens
-- Red Beans, Ham and Rice
-- Sweet Soya & Ginger Beef Stew
-- Shredded Mango & Peanut Salad
-- Vietnamese Fresh Mint Noodle Salad
-- Crepes with Yogurt and Caramelized Bananas
-- Scallop Noodles with Fried Egg and Chinese Broccoli
-- Deep Fried Battered Bananas
-- Sesame Rice Porridge with Fish
-- Handmade Paratha
-- Lemongrass Pork Patties
-- Spaghetti with roasted tomato & garlic sauce

And more.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Interweb Braindump

It's been 17 days since I got the internet in my apartment.

Less than 2 weeks after the new JICA volunteer Fukimi told me that she had wireless in her apartment, Voila, I'm connected once again to the world. Specifically, now I'm able to do things like video-chat with my favorite people at a mutually convenient hour -- something that was difficult to do previously since most of my friends & family are 14 hours away, and though local internet cafe advertises 7am to 9pm, the reality's a bit more limited.

I went to visit Kizuna Internet, the local Online reseller, where the sweet young guy walked me through all the details in Khmer-nglish while his mother and sister undertook a friendly interrogation about the purpose and the probable duration of my sojourn here in Kampong Cham. A week later, I was back in the office handing over a couple of crisp Jeffersons (in exchange for a receipt and a bag of those good-quality rambutans). Two days after that, Kizuna boy and his moto trailed me and my bicycle back up to the apartment where he efficiently clipped the telephone wire to attach the DSL line and configured my modem all within the lunch hour.

My Family DSL package, compliments of the Online company entitles me to unlimited hi-speed access from 7pm to 7am on weekdays and all weekend. Surprise surprise, I've noticed myself slowly start to mold my schedule around the new presence in my life. Each night around 7, I plug in my router, and first start up the iTunes downloads for the night -- an episode of Grey's Anatomy (don't judge), 3 new Ted Talks, NPR's Most Emailed Stories, and some foodie podcasts. Then it's straight to Gmail, then to Blogger, then on to the tasklist I've compiled for the evening, which looks something like this:

-- respond to all emails
-- post new blog post + pix
-- upload new fbook pix
-- get picture of urban cambodian school, CD-rom, and "rural Cambodia" (creative commons)
-- research green school architecture
-- look into Global Giving commission for KAPE
-- d/l examples of good local NGO websites for Channa
-- add new reviews to goodreads

My internet tasklist is a new invention of mine that came of having to ration my online time when hitting up the local internet shop in the old pre-DSL-at-home days. And as much as I love the new flexibility of having internet in my house, I'm happy I spent those first 5 months without because it helped me to internalize some things that I only halfway intuited before:

1) The internet's a tool -- amazing for some tasks, of negative value for others. (Think: distraction, distorted perception of the world)
2) Internet use, like a lot of things, is subject to diminishing rate of return.
3) Growing up with the internet really has changed the way I think and work, in many very good ways and in some that seem not so good.

The first two ideas are pretty straightforward and not so controversial (unless of course you find yourself in a certain cult of tech-worshippers). The last also seems obvious at face-value, but it was the most surprising for me when I actually started considering just how much information access affects the way I personally think and work. For example...

3a) Easy access to data all-the-time, any-time means that I tend to undervalue the importance of actually filing facts away in my mind. This includes both personal facts -- what day is my best friend's birthday? check Facebook! -- and general trivia. This second lacuna is constantly brought to my attention here in Cambodia; for example, when a group of high school students asked me questions like -- How deep is the Grand Canyon? What year was the Statue of Liberty built? What percentage of people in your country live in urban areas? I find my fingers itching to reach out to a keyboard and perform a simple search. And it simply baffles them when I shrug helplessly and more than a little ashamedly and admit that I just don't know.

I think this is the same condition that makes it so rare for any of us these days to memorize or recite poetry, or to remember famous quotes. Why remember when Google can remember for you? When the internet is for all intents and purposes, a repository of facts that plugs in to your brain, your brain itself can dedicate itself to being something less like an encyclopedia and more like a supremely complex computer that takes random facts and (in the best cases) fits them together into something new.

What (if anything) do we lose in this relationship, though? There seems to be something hollow about this kind of mind -- one's put in mind of these competing images: a giant pulsing cerebrum hooked up to an IV drip of information versus a glowing green brain sprouting from the ground, an organic product nurtured by sun and soil and all that other nice stuff.

3b) An obsession with what's been done means learning from what's coming before, but also possibly relying too much on past models and dampening innovation. With every new idea I have -- a business idea, an opinion of a book, a philosophy -- I find myself compelled to find out what other people have done and what other people think. This has a couple of effects. First it reduces the number of times I have to "reinvent the wheel," which seems more efficient (e.g. finding a checklist on how to perform an energy audit to "green a school" means that I don't have to make one myself). But it also happens to reduce the number of times I have to "reinvent the wheel," which often makes for a superficial understanding of the wheel in question (e.g. energy use at schools) and also might make me lazy and likely to settle for what's out there rather than innovate.

3c) Related to 3b, a depressing (and I believe, incorrect) feeling that everything worthwhile in the world has been done already and it's a lost cause trying to have a new idea AND the conflicting feeling that the world is full of so many opportunities that it is impossible to choose which one to pursue (check out Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, or the recent NY Times article "The Benefits of Closing a Few Doors")

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Neon Lichens and French Ghosts

When we set off to Kampot last weekend to trek up Bokor Mountain, the footage in my head played back a gently sloping dirt path through luscious (but just-so neatly pruned) jungle -- the occasional whoop of a monkey, the busy chirp of cicadas, the far-off trickling of a waterfall. The word "trek," in fact, seemed to be a romanticized overstatement, for marketing purposes only. Though it wasn't the soul-scraping, test-of-will adventure of the kind I imagine you get in Nepal or those other countries where rosy-cheeked sherpas laugh behind your back at you and your shiny Patagonia gear, it required more sweat than I anticipated.

We set off from Sen Monorom guest house at 7am, bellies full of pork rice, doused in 97% DEET, hanging on for dear life as we perched on the sides in the back of the pick-up truck. The core crew consisted of

1) Lauren - lover of trees and of the French and my first friend in Cambodia;
2) Tom - Lauren's new boyfriend, a younger man, interested in knowing things about current events;
3) Chris - Lauren's easy-going ex-high school boyfriend, randomly in Cambodia;
4) Matt - a pescatarian designer who likes beer and is training for a marathon with Lauren;
5) moi

L&T were nearest the cabin and Chris and I were directly across. Matt hung precariously off the left-back corner next to Lauren.First we stopped to collect Alps Man, a solitary, broody, slightly greasy figure, who (despite our well meaning attempts at friendliness) sat down next to me, then got busy ignoring everyone and focusing his dark energies on strategies to conquer the mountain. At the next stop, a couple hopped up into the cab, an attractive Puma employee and a very German German Finance man, who I only later realized were emphatically just friends. Next, at a guesthouse called Orchid (or something similarly tropical) some familiar faces from drinks the night before -- Ricky and Mandy -- a cheery, young and thin British pair, clean and pretty like a soap ad. Last in were our Khmer guides and so we were off.

The ranger and his gun who were scheduled to accompany us up the mountain had apparently had too much to drink the night before, so after waiting 30 minutes, we decided to brave the wilderness sans automatic rifle and headed towards the trailhead.

At first the going was easy. Then, we began to hit sections where the trail wound up and up so that I often bent my smallish legs at 90-degree angles to take the next step and found myself flailing at smooth saplings to pull myself up and over the next slippery obstacle. We stopped at a waterfall and sighed at the hugeish multicolored pile of plastic & styrofoam (miraculously absent previously on the trail) and did our best to snap artsy shots of the huge and diverse lepidoptera. While some folks showered off the sweat, our camo-clad ranger and his gun snuck up on us, his posture an awkward mix of sheepish and don't-give-a-damn.

It's not clear whether everyone else was simply a powerhouse, or if they, too, were shamed by our wiry nearing-50 guide who leapt blithely up the hill; a man in comparison to whom we (graceful Mandy included) could be nothing but large clunky white folks. But despite the slight shame, I felt good. I'm sure any and all toxins that lurked in me oozed out with all that sweat; the rests were sufficient, and I had an extra bottle of water. And best of all, two hours in, we met a group coming down who exclaimed (not a little jealously) over our breakneck speed.

So we put our chins down and puffed our chests out and continued up the hill, and at the point where our jungle trail intersected dirt road, we refused the offer to wait awhile for a lift from a truck.

Eventually, we hit the summit and the King's Concubines' retreat. (In fact, it only took about 3.5 hours for the 3000ft ascent -- not bad at all). We rested and at lunch -- a sort of potato, veggie fried rice concoction with an egg a-top that made all of the boys ill later that evening. Then we started off on the last 8 or so miles of mercifully flat dirt road.

Unmercifully, the flat dirt road turned out to be nothing much more than advertised -- and flat dirt gets a bit boring after awhile, so around mile 6, I flailed my arms at a huge yellow dump truck, and to my great delight, I saw that the guide's son had beat us to it and already made arrangements and motioned for us to clamber on in.

Hair blowing in the wind, feet sinking in construction clay, we made our way over the last few miles to the ranger station where we'd spend the night.

The sky was clear around the town, despite previous reports and expectations, so after a brief sit-down on the steps of the ranger station, a few of us broke off and went to explore the concrete ruins up on the cliff's edge. We skirted the massive hole where construction of the new casino was underway. Scampering up between two buildings, past a huge concrete umbrella (or mushroom?) we headed towards the old casino. As we made our way up, the mist dropped silently in around us.

The hotel-casino was covered in moss and emergency-orange lichen, dripping and disintegrating and now shrouded in dense grey.

We explored the building basement to rooftop ceiling, thoroughly spooking ourselves considering the ghosts of the lavish parties of the haute monde that must have boogied down in the decaying ballroom.

We walked over to the edge where cloud dripped off the high plateau onto the thick forest cover below. Up beyond the construction site, the compound was completely silent, but approaching the edge of the cliff, the sounds of the jungle rushed up to envelop us in a sort of acrophobic, one-with-nature trance.

We tucked into bed by 9pm, only that late by extreme exercise of will. I got lost for an hour or two with a German, but the hike down the next morning was otherwise uneventful. By 1pm, we were in Kampot eating fried rotis and drinking piping hot masala tea.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Les Frenchies

Once upon a time, there was a crew of four friends who went on a journey to far-away Kampong Cham.

Marie, Clara, Yann and Raphael (better known to some as Les Frenchies) came from the same medical school in Caen and decided one day that they'd had it with all the camembert, brioche, and apple tarts and flew away on a plane to far-off Cambodia.

Yann was older by a bit, and serious. Marie was level-headed, authentic and had a beautiful smile that surprised you when you didn't expect it. Rafael was energy and craziness -- a marvel on the dancefloor, and Clara was the sparkle, a beauty who looked right at you when you spoke, who loved acting and could tame wild horses.

When they arrived in their new home in Kampong Cham town, they had no idea that just upstairs lived a solitary, shaggy headed American girl and her Cambodian cat. And so, for a full month, the Frenchies lived and worked in the town went about their business, working at the local hospital, meeting cute children, looking out for river dolphins in Kratie; while the girl upstairs went about hers, writing reports, playing with her cat and cooking spicy curry on her two burner stove.

One day, the shaggy headed girl had a visitor, A. Her friend, like her, loved food, so they hatched a plan for an elaborate feast. Since it didn't make sense to have a feast for two, the girl decided to invite her downstairs neighbors up. At eight-o-clock sharp, they knocked politely on the door with cold Angkor beer and Pringles, and so began their friendship.

The Frenchies, the girl, and their friend A had many adventures together -- dancing until dawn on a ship moored in the river, watching a frog fisherman near the abandoned airstrip, eating beef soup and eels, presenting to a room of monks in saffron robes, playing & cooking for a weekend-straight. They got to meet each others' sweethearts and talk a little about dreams. They called the girl ma Jess because she helped them out with some little things, but in exchange she had the time of her life, and an education in key French phrases: "Truc de Oeuf!"

Sadly, Les Frenchies were not to stay forever, and eventually, one-by-one, they hugged her goodbye as they headed off on other adventures. They told ma Jess to come visit in Caen and they would feed her Boeuf Bourguignon and good red wine and teach her more cool things to say in French.

After a trip back to her own country, ma Jess moved into their old flat. Many mornings, when she heads to the kitchen to make her morning coffee, she thinks about Les Frenchies and what they're doing now.

Good Advice, Good Mentors

Lisa -- educational consultant extraordinaire
Lisa and I have actually never met in person, but she's been a fantastic sounding board over the past few months as I've been adjusting, coping, learning here.
"No matter what you do, I am certain that you will be contributing, so become an advocate for yourself. If there is something else you want to do within the organization, ask them how you can make that happen. [...] Maybe it's time to be a little selfish and think about your own I said, I am certain that when you are doing what you want to be doing, you will probably be contributing even more."
Chris -- brilliant education innovator & co-founder of the African Leadership Academy
Chris and I met in 2005 working on a project with Linda Darling-Hammond in the Stanford School of Education. A personal hero.
"If it makes you feel any better, I spent 5 years after college with basically no idea what I was going to do and chalking up random experiences – and then all of the sudden it came together and made sense and I have relied on each of those experiences in my current capacity. So. . . I think you will be fine."
Yoli -- passionate advocate of youth and overall awesome person
Yoli took me on as an assistant in 2005-06 on a project called ADAPT at McClymond's High School in West Oakland. Beautiful, authentic and passionate and completely inspiring.

Diana -- social entrepreneur in Cambodia; founder of Bloom Bags
I've never met Diana, but my half-Singaporean self feels a strange kinship :) My dream is to start a social enterprise as well, but back in the States, and I love her ideas and her passion.
first 7 tenets of her Bloom Manifesto:
"1. We believe in the right of all people to a decent life, free of poverty and with access to education
2. We believe you will be enriched helping the poor
3. We believe workers should always be paid a fair wage
4. We believe if you knew the truth, you would not be an accessory to the exploitation of workers
5. We believe exploitation is evil
6. We believe in the power of good over evil
7. We believe in the power of the individual to bring about change..."
Barbara -- Kingsolver, that is. Author of (among other things) Small Wonder
Perhaps it's just the case that my open mind's just the perfect size and shape at the moment, but her essays struck a timbre in me and shook me down in a way that will definitely shape the next few steps in my life. Oh, to write like that.

Raja Grows Up -- a Photoessay

Baby Raja in the drawer at the FCC, the morning after rescue in May

Momma Mayumi feeding Raja with the syringe back in Kampong Cham

Looking less than gleeful post bath

Her baby nose is peeling

Getting her scratch on

Raja meets pappa Jaime for the first time

Still an alien cat

Playing it cool on the balcony

Getting more love from Les Frenchies

Sitting pretty on the bed spread

Chowing down