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Self-obsessed travel update #3 : Racist Olympic Butterflies

I. I, racist

It was pointed out to me that the major theme of the last letter was the issue of identity. What am I and what do I want to be, an ex-pat, a neo-native, something else? Having looked back at what I wrote in light of the comments I now realize how easy it is to fall into the trap of oversimplifying, objectifying and denigrating the other. I was also, not without justification, accused of racism.

Looking back on my experiences here my first realization was that, from my perspective, the objectification was mutual, though not symmetric due to the power difference. In most of my interactions with Cambodians I sense that I am seen, not unreasonably, as a hostile force, the beneficiary of undeserved privilege and hence a target for exploitation in my moments of vulnerability. In the extreme cases I am left feeling dehumanized, and sense that I am being perceived as an object actions towards whom have no moral or emotional weight for the perpetrator. But this sense of dehumanization, while it is sparked by the behavior and reactions of many of the guest-house staff, waiters, drivers, shop-keepers etc. and thrives in the empty gulf of our mutual incomprehension (GOMI) -the exchanges rarely extend beyond the immediate and material- it is primarily fed and perpetuated by the projection of my own guilt. Without that guilt it would barely last a moment. There are increasing moments where across the GOMI thin ropes are thrown. This happens most often with drivers because the transaction involves more open time for it. It is amazing how little conversation outside the immediate and material it takes to humanize the other and make me feel humanized to him, make me feel that I am seen as a being hostile action towards whom carries moral weight. Then I feel safe. Thus far this process has invariably been initiated by the other. I have considered initiating it but I feel held back by that same guilt. Any question I want to ask feels superficial, insincere, besides the point: ignoring the elephant in the tuk-tuk (4-seater box car pulled by a motorcycle): that no merit separates us. It is only accidents of birth and fortune that have me, not you, pondering whether I, not you, should give you, not me, $1 for this trip (the "going rate") or $2 (nothing to me but, I think, a big deal to you) and since we have talked and since I no longer see you seeing me as a thing simply to be exploited, I feel human and my Humanity!, my Love!, my Charity! flow to you in the form of that extra $1 which for the briefest moment, and with complete lack of perspective, creates some illusion of absolution for me. Often this happens at the end of a night of greater outpourings of "love and charity". There was no thought given in ordering an over-priced $25 bottle of wine or an equally over-priced $6 meal. No guilt, no sense of dehumanization. I know that I am being fleeced but there is none of the sudden-rising indignation that I feel when bargaining with a moto driver or salesman. This somehow feels like seduction not molestation though on reflection I am really no more consenting.

The most precise comparison is the case of the fruitshake. I know that it costs around 25 cents to make an awesome fruitshake here. Most local khmer restaurants charge 50, most khmer hotels $1 and expat joints $2-2.50. If I go to a fruit stand and ask for one and they tell me, after a bit of waffling which I now know is the time it takes them to foreigner adjust the normal price (sometimes this involves consulting others, even if the whole transaction is taking place in Khmer so there is no need for an interpreter), if after this they say something like $1 or 6000 riels ($1.50) I get upset. Azad gets upset. But Azad has no problem ordering a much lower quality shake for $2 off a menu. This is because he has been taught that certain manifestations of covetousness and greed, such as those mediated by menus and price tags, are socially acceptable, whereas others, even on a much smaller scale, are vulgar. When I am haggling I see greed in the flesh. There is a kind of honesty here which I am not used to. Had the fruit stand had a sign that said "Fruitshake $2" I would have probably bought one and felt satisfied with myself for having paid what I pay at the restaurant but gotten a much better, fruitier, thicker, colder more satisfying shake for it.

Day in, day out, dollar for dollar I am exploited and ripped off far more (orders of magnitude more) by foreigners and the well-dressed English-speaking cream of Khmer society than by drivers and saleswomen. There is little law enforcement here, but what there is far harsher on the poor. The perpetrators of the gang-rape I described in the last email were all well-dressed on fast new bikes, as are the couple of purse-snatchers I've had described to me. But it's the poor we (I) seem to instinctively fear. The fear of the rich has to be taught, and here it doesn't take very long.

Neither the state of siege that I described a lot of foreigners living in, or my own fear about my laptop and equipment are based on any evidence. There is probably more crime here than in the average developed country simply because there is virtually no law enforcement but the statistics never come into the conversation. I wonder if the thinking process is the same for the other foreigners as it is for me, that is, that the fear is, largely, a projection of guilt.

II. Cities Dreaming

I don't know how it came to be, who dreamed it, who bought the dream, who gave it its current concrete form. But the dreamers must have been numerous, powerful, or both. Originally built in the 1960s (when the hope of hosting the games was perhaps more realistic) my guess would be that it was one the more successful harebrained visions of the then king. Like all dreams that aren't nightmares, there is something sweet, almost touching about its mix of idealism and naive worldliness. It seems to be part of some scuttled dream of empire. Much worse has come of such dreams.

Located fairly centrally in Phnom Penh, a pleasant (in the afternoon that is) walk from the Royal Palace neighborhood, and about the same distance from the central market, it is unusual in several respects. First it's name is a fairly accurate description of what it is, unlike many other things here whose name is a more accurate reflection of what they are not (e.g. Cambodian People's Party). To be precise the Olympics have never actually been held here and, to put it politely, Phnom Penh is some distance away from putting together an Olympic bid for next few 4-year cycles. It might even be said that most of Phnom Penh occupies a different plane of reality that the Olympic games. But the stadium is, in every other respect, Olympic. It has an Olympic sized pool, diving pool, and facilities for boxing, gymnastics and more. The people who keep the grounds (groundskeepers :) wear orange overalls with 5 white interlocked rings on the back.

And there is the stadium itself. I couldn't tell you how many it would seat but it's pretty big. It's not huge like modern Western Stadiums, you can still, with a large enough funnel, yell at someone across the top row of bleachers and be heard. It's physical scale is essential to its genius. It is a living space the way few such public spaces are, specially ones conceived with such obvious dissociation from earthly reality. Except for the rare times where the is a sporting event at the Stadium (so far we have seen only one soccer game on TV that was taking place at there) it is freely open to the public (the pool costs $1 which is more designed to keep out "the rabble" than anything else). As the air cools down in the late afternoon the track and the surrounding grounds gradually fill up and by sunset it's quite the sight.

A dozen soccer games start up on the grounds around the stadium (oddly I have not seen anyone actually play on the pitch itself) organized by social hierarchy: from the shoe and jersey-wearing games, to the some shoes some sandals games (with some player having combinations), the some sandals some bare feet, to the full barefoot games. Unlike most other situations where the appearance of a white face tends to interrupt the proceeding by suddenly grabbing the group's attention like a loud fart, in soccer outsiders are barely noticed. Walking by or standing on the lines watching the games I have often felt like a socially awkward five year old dying to be asked to join the game. But there is a certain dignity in soccer like a religious ritual, you are welcome to watch, but if you want to play you better know the rules and show up at the beginning. It helps if you show up with balls.

The pitch is surrounded by a track which is surrounded by an outer ring of grass and dust, in turned surrounded by a spiky metal fence angled towards the pitch. Beyond that is a narrow but deep moat and then the stands begin. It's modest but well designed barrier. I have never seen anyone even try to go over it and there is plenty of motivation since the alternate way to get from the stand down to the tracks is a 300 meter walk. On the track, people and dogs, some more serious than others walk and run with far more order than you would ever see in street traffic. Occasionally you see somebody running in the opposite direction, but you never see them come around again. There are little kids with kites, people stretching, playing badminton; little food and drink stalls.

There are few buildings in Phnom Penh with more than 4-5 stories and none of these is anywhere close to the Stadium. As a result, standing in the bowl, on the track, you see the gray steps of the stands ringing the stadium and leading straight up to the sky. You can imagine the whole rest of the world away here. All along the top rim of the stadium starting around 4:30 until sunset are groups doing aerobic dancing to loud music. It's mostly a middle class urban crowd, wide range of ages and it seems to be organized fairly randomly by people showing up with ghetto blasters and leading the dance and others joining in. There are also martial arts and Tai Chi groups but they usually are set further back. Sometime, at sunset, almost the entire edge of the stadium is covered by silhouettes dancing against the sky.

III. Butterflies and Windshields

I heard this joke recently and I really liked it (mostly at a sadistic 5 year old level, but my therapist says there is nothing wrong with that)

"What is the last thing that goes through a butterfly's mind as it smashes into a windshield?"

"Its ass."


IV. Mundane stuff

I start working at the Pediatric hospital this week. I have only done one week of clinical work so far here, the rest of time being spend on formal and informal research. I have little concrete product to show for it so I occasionally get a bit depressed about it. But mostly I am doing well, surrounded by Australians (I am in fact considering a 2 week trip to Adelaide in March which might lead me to extend my stay here until June which will allow me to see the wet season), which is a double-edged sword since I have learned more about Vegemite and Koalas than Khmer language and culture. After my 3-4 weeks at the pediatric hospital I'll be heading to the provinces for my research, or so goes the plan now.

If you manage to read all this and are still awake enough to have thoughts about it please do let me what they are.



You're right, the disparity of wealth is dehumanizing for people on both sides of the divide. I had similarly confused feelings while in India, Egypt and the Occupied Territories.

It is hard to know how best to deal with it--- in fact, I don't think there are any perfect solutions, and guilt and irritation are common consequences.

Grasp at small acts of kindness when you can.

Before I went to India, virtually everyone who advised me told me not to give money to beggars. I tried to rigidly adhere to the advice.

To some extent, there advice was based on wise and principled reasoning. Begging in India is generally a criminal operation. 'Begging rings' are similar to the relationship between a prostitute and his pimps. Beggars are forced to beg, they're exploited by the 'protector,' and they see little in return. What's more, because children are able to obtain incomes through begging, they are often forced on to the street by their parents (if they have parents), rather than allowed to go to school (if they can go to school).

The problem was that saying no to these children transformed them, in my eyes, from sad little children, into abstract nuisances.

By the end of the trip, however, I finally discovered a way to break down the divide. I was on a train platform purchasing food. A young boy came up to me to beg for money. I didn't want to give him money, because I knew virtually all of it would be taken from him, so I gave him my food.

I felt a bit better for not being so cold-hearted. A few minutes later, I saw the boy with one of his friends. They were walking with arms wrapped around each other, and they were happily sharing the food. That boy had next to nothing, but what he did have he chose to share with his friend. In my eyes, he was no longer an abstract nuisance, he was a full-fledged human-being. That one act reminded me that, in many ways, he was probably superior to myself, and most other Western travellers. (In the face of such dire circumstances, he still had a strong sense of compassion).

I went back to the food stall and purchase some more food, tracked them down, and handed it to them.

In short, if you have the chance, try and find creative ways that you can reach out and better the lives of those around you. Small acts of kindness can go a long way.

Just try and be thoughtful about how you chose to do it, because some acts that we regard as helpful can be harmful or patronising.

Food for thought: in Judaism, giving to the poor is an obligation. You're supposed to be grateful to those you 'help', because they're actually helping you, by allowing you to carry out your duty.

Stay safe.