Monday, January 31, 2011

So cute.

Piper Claire, you rock my world.

To boldly go...and try to not screw things up too much in the process.

This is but a mere intro to a much longer dialogue I will be having with myself, hopefully for the rest of my life...

Will and I went on a little date tonight, and on the way to Gaupos (where else, amigas??) we were discussing what a precarious trail we trod as individuals hoping to engage in human rights policy development and legal work. We were talking about trafficking in persons and the complications that arise as a result of Westerners not taking Khmer constructions of femininity into account when trying to implement counter-trafficking policies. (Yes, this is dinner convo- seven years and going strong!) Both of us in our time abroad, him in Arusha dealing with fallout from the Rwanda 1994 genocide and me in Cambodia, saw the problems caused by Western practitioners applying 'fixes' to things we decide are 'problems'. I am in the midst of pursuing work in conflict analysis and resolution, and want to make sure I keep this in the forefront of my mind as I go forward in my coursework.

As with most things Will and I discuss, the conversation quickly came to Star Trek. We both agree that we have a much greater respect for the Prime Directive as a result of our brief but glorious stints abroad. I am not saying that Khmer or Rwandan culture are pre-warp, far from it (although seriously, my Khmer pals, puh-lease, embrace the wonders of cuisine flavored with more than just lemongrass and tarragon). Rather, I am saying that we need to be more respectful of other cultures as we waltz into situations thinking that we can 'improve' them by applying our own definitions of better.

Much more thoughts on this in days, weeks, and light-years to come.

-Number One out

Similar, right?

Friday, January 28, 2011

On the road to Pace, but at a different pace.

I'm zooming up the Jersey turnpike (I generally like to go through this state as fast as absolutely possible) on my way to NY to see Will compete in a moot court competition at Pace University. Watching him prep for this has been so inspiring. He works harder than anyone I have ever met, ever, and pours his absolute all into everything he does. This can have its downsides, no doubt: skimped social life, late nights (for him- I put in ear plugs and eye mask a la Holly Golightly and conch out), and much, much too much time apart. But watching him work as hard as he does is so good for me.

I always want to be good at whatever I do right away- the instant gratification of perfection has yet to fall within my hands, but I still think that I should be able to 'get' anything I undertake instantly. And this has led to some less than fun outcomes, most especially in the procrastination department. One of my first professors once said that procrastination is just the way some people work, that it's their 'process'. I took these words to heart. Oh, how sweet the knowledge that it was just my process, my journey! I would roll over for another 20 minutes (read: 2 hours) of sleep, slumbering soundly in the knowledge that it was all part of my process, that I would be able to pull out whatever project I was working on (or supposed to be, anyway) at the last minute and all would be well. And this generally, for better or for worse, worked. I am fairly bright. Not brilliant, but pretty sharp. And I am a fast worker on many things, most especially writing. But not in-depth, deeply researched writing. And here is where my nasty little habit has kicked me in the ass in recent years. I have embraced my chosen career path of academia with joy and passion- I feel like I have found my calling, and am jumping in wholeheartedly, undertaking projects that I never before would have dreamed of being able to tackle. But this is a different kind of writing, kids. Nuanced research, transcriptions (kill me), detailed, precise formatting. I do declare, Miss Melanie, it's almost more than I can bear!

Well, fiddledeedee to all of that is what I learn every time I watch Will going at it with his work. I see him logging countless hours to make sure that he can be proud of everything he does. His dad always says that the only thing you really have is your reputation, and in my little procrastination game I have put mine on the line a few more times than I care to admit because of waiting until the last second and only barely squeezing out a good product. I could do So. Much. More. If I give myself more time.

And here's the miracle: I'm actually doing this. For the past several weeks, I have been leaving more time for almost everything I do, and my life is immeasurably more pleasurable now that I'm not flying by the seat of my pants. A lot of this has simply been the result of taking on less than I usually do. Leaving the country for the better part of a month meant that people weren't asking me to join in on things, both things fun and not so much fun, and the result is that I am not feeling pressured to do as much. I feel like Cambodia reset my clock a bit. Life is so much slooooowwwweeeerrrr there, due to lack of infrastructure in some part, but also because I think there is a cultural acceptance of the fact that we are but mere mortals, and need not schedule ourselves at a frenetic hamster-wheel pace in order to be worthy humans. I felt like it was ok to be a human being rather than a human doing there. And this worked for me pretty well.

I actually only had one nightmare the whole time I was there, which is nothing short of a miracle for me, Queen of the Night Terrors. I had one last night- a baby one, only a 3 out of 10 on the terror scale. I thought my nightmares had to do with things non-stress related, but now I am questioning if perhaps it has more to do with the pace of life I am leading. We went a million miles a minute in Cambodia, no doubt- every single second was scheduled and structured to the max. However, there were no deadlines, no due dates, no looming bosses or taskmasters, versus right now: Will moved back from Miami last night after eight months of us living apart, I have a MAJOR application due Tuesday on which I have pinned a lot of hopes and dreams, we are looking for an apartment, we are looking for a job for Will, we are looking for a GA position for me, I am editing a paper for a conference in three weeks, and, oh, we live with my family (which is lovely, but still, it’s a lot to juggle a marriage and living in your mommy’s basement).

To pull this meandering thought train into the station, my point is this: I can be an amazing academic, and help influence changes that will lead to a more peaceful and just society. But only if I give myself enough time to really put out work using all of my best mental and emotional faculties. That shit takes time. And energy. And that’s ok. Because this is not going to simply result in better work; it will also yield less stress, as I will not be in wackadoo-hamster mode. And this is a happy thing. Yay.

Since I’m already doing this, I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution or anything like that, so much as be grateful for the fact that I do seem to be living this lack of procrastination out on a daily basis. But I do think I will have to keep working at it. Thank goodness I have a good role model.

When I grow up, I want to be Will Mount.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

John Mayer, I feel you, yo.

I spent a decent chunk of the afternoon Monday restocking on groceries and various accoutrements of Western living (hair-dye, body-wash, oh the luxury!). After schlepping through Costco I ran to Safeway for cereal and eggs that came in less than Duggar-sized quantities. As I was checking out, the cash register and I were chatting about the *shudder* snow storm we are supposed to get today. I mentioned I just left 85 degree Cambodia, and was not looking forward to wintry mix (le sigh). When he handed me my hermetically sealed, plastic wrapped cereal and metal canned goods after I paid he said "Welcome back to the real world!"

His tone was so friendly, but I couldn't help but reply "Fake world" immediately. It wasn't that I was trying to be rude (it just comes naturally sometimes! Seriously though, I'm working on it), but the whole day I had been trying to wrap my brain around the differences I feel and see here vs. in Cambodia,and can't help but think that some of what we consider 'developed' is really far less enlightened than what the 'developing' world has got goin' on.

The two biggest things that have struck me so far:

I had a conversation with my sister Sunday night about my (beautiful, amazing, brilliant) niece, and she was telling me about "attachment parenting"- based on Eastern principles of keeping your children close, not using strollers and swings to occupy your kids and keep them apart, etc. I was thinking about this today as I was stuck behind a minivan in traffic. The license plate said "BZEMOM" and the back window had those stickers where each family member has their own little personality depicted with cute charactatures. Looking at this lady's van, I thought of the Cambodian equivalent: motobike with up to six family members stuffed on the back. The streets are filled with them in Phnom Penh. Everywhere you look there are moms riding sidesaddle with babies tucked in their arms, their husbands driving while a young child- or two- is stuffed between the parents. The other day Beth and Adrienne, two women in the Center for Global Ed program with me, and I were at a cafe and we saw a woman driving with two boys on the back of her motobike. The one in back had his arms around his brother (I'm presuming the relationship) and was holding on to his mom- his brother sandwiched in between them, out cold asleep. I saw countless toddlers crouched between their mother or father's legs as the parent drove, the kid holding onto the handle bars and balancing on the foot post, with other family members sitting behind the driver.

Despite the safety factors that would lead the US Department of Children and Families to apprehend any parent in the US that even attempted to do this, there appeared (from my outsider's perspective) to be an upside to this system. These families are really together- really, really closely together. The "BZEMOM" in front of me today had a whole Honda Odyssey of space between her and her children. This is not really a 'problem', or a negative or anything, but I do think that we have come to value personal space to the point that we have built in large barriers between ourselves and those we love. We have McMansions where each family member can have their own floor. We strive to give our kids a sense of independence and confidence, so we enroll them in a bazillion different sports and extracurriculars, and are so pressed for time that we swing through the drive-thru and skip family dinner, time where we would not only be fostering closeness, but where kids would truly gain the confidence that comes from knowing they are loved, valued and appreciated.

And then there's the food issues where I definitely feel that we are more in a fake, plastic-wrapped world than the developing world. One of my FAVORITE experiences I had on the entire trip was when an employee of Jimmy's uncle ran into us at the market. I was on the prowl for fruit to give as gifts to folks I had interviewed, and Ming (which means aunt in Khmer, Jimmy told me she cares for him as if he's her nephew, and that I should role with the term as well) decided to embrace the mission. No sooner than had Jimmy explained what we were up to, Ming grabbed my arm and started dragging me through Central Market, chatting up friends along the way. We went to a half-dozen fruit stands, where she haggled her way into a great deal on some beautiful baskets filled with fresh yummy produce.

So in the process of getting absolutely-fresh-from-the-tree fruit, we also got to support local, small business owners and interact with a multitude of Ming's friends. It's a rare day when I run into a pal at Safeway (and not because I don't have any friends). Our world is so spaced out here. In the 'burbs where I'm staying with my mom we live in houses where we have to get in the car to go pretty much anywhere. We value 'food safety' over real food- embracing the joys of processed, packaged corn starch concoctions over honest-to-goodness food that doesn't hail from mysterious origins.

My favorite meals while in Cambodia involved fruit purchased from a street stand. They're everywhere, and the fruit is amazing. I would purchase a small pineapple (there's a specific species over there that is a little baby one, so cute and delish!) for 2000 riel, which is exactly $.50. The fruit stand person would peel the pineapple, then cut it with this notched design that made it possible to eat right off the core, corn-cob style. Not only was this amazingly delicious, it also skipped so much of the ridiculous carbon emitting process that we build into our food production here. The fruit guy gets his fruit directly from the farmer, skips the expensive and land filling packaging process, and then sells it to me. Easy.

I bought a pineapple at Costco and was looking at it ripening on my counter this morning. I am sure it had quite a flight from its country of origin, and a few fun trips in a truck to get to Chantilly Costco, then the car ride (it's ultra-low emissions, I promise!) to get to my house. So many steps, and it's still not even ripe because it had to be picked off the tree well before it's time so it wouldn't rot before getting to me. Yikes.

On top of the geographical nuttiness that went into my pineapple procurement, the good people at the Dole fruit company decided that the pineapple on it's own was somehow not enough. Perhaps the beautiful ridges and resplendent fronds were not enough of a selling point that I, an informed, nutritious conscious consumer, would want to partake of their product. So they stuck a tag in it, informing me that the pineapple is a "Super-food!", and "Good for my joints!" (Insert mental image of jazz hands here) I'm really down with Dole doing whatever they feel is best to move their product, and I get that if I, in the midst of a DC winter, want to enjoy the wonders of a tropical pineapple I must embrace the carbon footprint that comes along with my gastrointestinal longings. It's just that all of this makes my pineapple seem less, well, real.

I don't know that what I am feeling right now is culture shock, so much as a deep questioning of the assumptions I have had about what the "real world" is. So, I'm with you, John Mayer. I do feel like I just found out there's no such thing as the real world. And I don't know what that means for me and Will's future, although I am guessing it will involve more transnational flights and anti-malaria pills. What I do know for now is that I am much more skeptical of the idea of aiding 'developing' countries with a particular idea of what that development should look like.

The other thing I do know for certain: If being able to buy a hermetically sealed package of Mott's blueberry-apple sauce and a package of Dunkaroo's to eat in my Honda Odyssey is the epitome of development, count me out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A less than graceful departure and re-entry. As if that's a surprise.

Just a quick post to say "I'm back!" And what an adventure it was to get home. My new Khmer BFF Jimmy, his cousins, and my friend Yeme and I all went out for Indian food prior to me and Yeme heading out, and I had something that did not agree with me. I chicken-tikka'ed the whole way home, vomiting all 22 hours in the air. Fun times. But now I'm back, and my doggy is happy, and I am happy, and I took a hot bath (oh the wonder, oh the glory!).

Speaking of baths... Yeme (who was rooming with me for the last three days we were in Phnom Penh) and I were staying at a guesthouse down on the riverside, a lovely little place that was clean, super friendly staff, everything you could want and more. We planned on showering in the afternoon prior to getting on our plane late Saturday evening, in the hopes that we would not be too grody for the long haul back (ha, little did I know I would be puking my guts out the whole trip home). All was going according to plan. Yeme was packing, and I jumped in the shower. And by shower I mean I got under the detachable shower-head thingie that was installed between the toilet and the sink. The water was lukewarm, which I have learned is 'super luxuriously hot' in Cambodia terms. I was thrilled, you can imagine, when the water grew ever more warm, then hot, then scalding. This was fun! Water that's warm! Yea!

Except then the water slowed to a trickle. Then stopped. This was less fun. I still had shampoo in my hair, and soap all over my body. Less fun indeed.

Yeme called down to the front desk and they explained that the water would be back on in a short thirty minutes. Whoohoo! I wrapped in a towel and got to work packing, figuring that suffering any dry skin resulting from soap drying on my body was better than rinsing in the toilet water. After 30 minutes, no water came on but a knock came at the door. I opened it- wearing my towel- to find two Khmer guys, early 30s-ish, carting a tub of water between the two of them. A brief note on Khmer society and decency: me wearing a tank-top was mildly scandalous. The sight of me in a towel was practically pornographic. The two guy's eyes bugged out, and after a minute of stammering they brought the tub into the bathroom, along with convenient dipper. Good times.

So my last 'shower' in Cambodia was less shower, more 'dunk your head in a bucket Icthus music festival style', but that made it much more fun. Definetly a high note to go out on.

Grandma, if you're reading this from Heaven, thanks for teaching me how take a Polish bath when I was little. I hope you're ok with me changing the name to PhnomPehnPolish bath.

Friday, January 14, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things

So much of this trip has been ‘eye opening’ in the frustrating sense: genocide, gender disparities propagated through crappy policies at the gov. and NGO level, violence towards women that goes ignored, and crippling poverty. However, this trip has also been two of the best weeks of my life. Fun people in our group, amazing views, encounters with local folks that have challenged my world view and a priceless opportunity to test drive some of the methods I have learned in the past two semesters of grad school. In addition to these fantastic things, here’s a quick hit list of what has made this experience so special, in no particular order:

Sleeping in the back of the bus while catching air over some crazy ass bad roads.

Waking up to bizarre music outside my window in Battombong.

Having my own personal chorus of people that make sure my food is “no sugar, right???”
Making friends with people I would never encounter at Mason. Despite the fact that is on the same campus, I never would have met many of the undergrads here, and they are amazing.

Poop jokes with everyone, and Al making veiled comments on diarrhea. Really, how many post-grads can you have in the States making fun of bodily functions without being concerned about job prospects/tenure?

This comment from Chris at dinner tonight: “I wish I had a coffee table book of things you (me) say, you are hilarious!” (Cue Beth’s mental chorus: “They like me, they really like me!”).

The circus training this afternoon: Step 1) Take a bunch of street kids; Step 2) pay them to come train in acrobatics instead of beg on the streets; Step 3) put on a ‘circus’ about the Khmer Rouge regime; Step 4) tour the world; Step 5) change the course of the human race. Wow.

The bravery of the people, especially the women (natch) that I have had the honor- really, an honor- to speak with about their lives in the short time that I have been able to learn from them. Hearing the personal stories of women struggling to raise their children while battling HIV, having to watch their HIV positive kids grow up knowing that they are going to lose their remaining parent, the 18 year old who was brave enough to share with us her struggles to find her mom in Bangkok while raising her younger brother, and the young women that shared with me their brutal fears about the possibility of having to turn tricks to make a living despite the fact that they have received job training (as hairdressers, a mega-oversaturated industry here) from well-meaning NGO programs. I know that many of you (ok, all) will never read this blog, indeed, may never even log onto the internet, but know that my gratitude radiates to you beyond the boundaries of the world wide web. Thank you for your honesty, for your courage in the face of insurmountable odds, and for inspiring me. Your willingness to live life on life’s terms has humbled me. Thank you.

The smile on the face of a man pictured in Tuel Slang, the genocide museum. The man was photographed as he was registered with the Khmer Rouge at one of the prisons they used to ‘reeducate’ (read: torture) people. He had the biggest smile on his face. I pointed it out to one of the women on the trip with me, and she commented that the poor bastard had no idea what was about to happen. I find that unlikely. The events going down during the KR were not secret, and between 1.7-3 mil people died in the span of 4 years. In my mind, this man’s smile came not from ignorance, but from a well-spring of the human spirit that refused to go quietly into the dark night. His smile, to me, was his last ‘fuck you’ to his captures as he went down. They had his body, his family, his life, but they did not have him.

The biggest take away, today, as I write from Siem Reap (SR : Cambodia :: Orlando : United States) is that, no matter what, the human spirit finds a way to continue. Genocides claim millions, children starve, teeth rot in the mouths of grandmothers raising their orphaned grandchildren, men refuse to allow women a seat at the table as they rebuild their country, and do-gooders come in and make scratch off the top while the people they are here to help get tin boxes to live in with the NGO’s name painted on the side. But despite all of that, children play games, people fall in love, mothers hold dreams for their children’s futures, neighbors comfort one and other. And sometimes, if she’s really, really lucky, the occasional dumb, nïave researcher gets the opportunity to be inspired by people a world away in whose lives she has no right to be included, but is.

For all of this, I am grateful.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A long day, Long, long day.

After sicking it up all day yesterday (wheeee!) I was thrilled to roll out in our touristy bus this morning to go to Buddhism for Development in Battombong, Cambodia. After a lovely bumpy bus ride, we pulled into the grounds of the NGO and went into the conference room for the intros' de jur. Here we were, 15ish grad students and staff from the States, surrounded by a dozen or so older males telling us how they are making their country better. And they are. The work they are doing is empowering people to make their lives better, but here's the rub: there are NO women in leadership within the group that we saw. And when I had the audacity to exercise my feminist curiosity (thanks Dr. Dwyer and Cynthia Enloe!) and ask how many women were in leadership roles within the organization, the male in charge said, "Whew, you ask the tough questions!" Really? Because I'm pretty sure that the brochure you handed me, oh former monk, has a big entry about how you are 'empowering' women to engage with the local government. I love that you thought to include it in the brochure, but think that it's a 'tough' question when one asks why there are no women helping guide the organization. The answer, you ask? Because "there are so women educated enough in the provinces, and we would have to bring them in from Phnom Penh." When pressed more, the leaders explained that in Cambodian society women are not traditionally able to leave the home, and therefore there were no women qualified to be in leadership roles within the organization currently.

I certainly have NO right to roll into a foreign country and demand that they change the way that they are leading their organisation, but really, don't sell me a big shiny story about how you are empowering women and educating girls (through micro-scholarships of $.50 per diem for each day of school monthly) and then tell me that you couldn't scrounge up a few movers and shakers to sit on a leadership team. Also, I have met several women- several- that have risen from horrific pasts surviving the Khmer Rouge to step into leadership roles within their community. Again, I have no right to tell a group how to run, but it makes me SUPER sceptical when an organization says they are committed to empowering women thinks that I am challenging them when I ask where all the women are. Well, cue the chorus: "Because it's a patriarchal society!"

After our orientation to BFD, we split into two groups, one group went to see the NGO's Aids Home Care program. This has been my favorite part of the trip so far. We met with a mom who just lost her husband to Aids, and has a positive 7 year old and negative 10 year old. Another mom who lives next door to her is positive. The men go and sleep with prostitutes (about $2 US for local men) and then give HIV to their wives. Lots of fun. I was so moved by this woman and her children. All I could think of as we asked the kids what they hoped for was how abundantly blessed I am, and how much I wish I could change the way their lives are. We did what we could for them financially speaking, but for me the bigger thing that we did was just play with the kids and hang out and listen to the moms.

The afternoon was a powerful visit to see the NGO's scholarship recipients. I'll go into this more later, but for now, let me just express how moved I am by the women that I met today. The hope that they show in just the daily act of living is inspiring. I can't walk away saying, "oh, I'll never complain again, I have it so easy." I know I will go back to the States, and that life will have stress and challenges. But I do hope I can hold onto the feeling of shared humanity that washed over me today, and I hope that when I feel all hell is breaking lose (family plus finals, yea!!) I can go back to this day in my mind and draw on the hope and strength I saw in action today.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My new girlfriend

Will, I like you a lot. A whole bunch. But this elephant and I are in love. Sorry. That's just the way it is.

The space between my ears: Still the most dangerous ‘hood I know.

So I spent the day in bed recuperating from the fun of upset stomach that decided to finally catch me after passing through most of my fellow travelers (believe me, it’s just as sexy as you imagine). So after a day of rushing from bed to bathroom, I had managed to convince myself that I am ‘lazy’; somehow in my wackadoo addict brain I continue to be convinced that if I am not going a 100 mph (or rather 160 kph here in Battombang) I am somehow a slacker. I do this over and over again- if I am not in every club, every academic group, every challenging course, etc, then clearly I am not taking advantage of opportunities available to me. Crazy. And yet I still go there time and time again. I set this out not to further berate myself, but rather to remind myself that (say it with me Stuart Smalley): “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me”.

Traveling with a group of 15 other relative strangers has reminded me once again that I am not a weirdo- only in my head am I deficient socially, and despite the fact that I am indeed a huge nerd, this is not a problem when you are traveling with graduate students rather than say, self-obsessed fourteen year old girls. I am blown away by the quality of friendships I have developed in just the past eight days (diarrhea en masse will do that to you), and am humbled with gratitude at the fact that I have been able to be fully present for each session we have attended, as well as be present simply for the human interaction with my fellow students. So, despite all this kumbaya-hippie realized self-growth, I still am vulnerable to thinking that others are thinking (bad things) about me…oh, what fun!

One of the most helpful things I have learned in my recovery from food addiction is that what other people think of me is none of my business. This is still a challenge for me to grasp on most days, I get wrapped up in my own little dramas and convince myself that I am the most self-centered person on the planet. And then I pause and realize that the self-obsessed thinking is just begetting the self-centeredness. Around and around we go- Wheeee! The trick has been to simply let it go, to the best of my ability I simply open my palms and ask to have the feeling released. And it passes. Today I pushed myself too hard because I was afraid that if I stayed in bed (which was what my body was asking for) and gave my tummy a break, others would think I was wussing out. The end result was fine- I walked to the Buddhist temple we were studying at today and then had to leave (no thank you to Eastern-style squat toilets and, ahem, tummy troubles!). One of our amazing guides, Hout, gave me a ride on her sexy motorbike (ignore this Mom) and I got to see the city from a different perspective. I don’t think I will ever “get over” the self-doubt that nags me from time to time, but at least for today I managed to climb on the back of a bike, crawl back in to bed, and take care of myself one trip to the bathroom at a time. And I’ll take that as progress enough.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Schevitz the superhero

Can I prove that this poster is actually promoting the USAID program that my cousin helps administer? No. Can I tell everyone that my cousin distributes condoms around the world and that this poster may in fact be promoting one of her programs? You bet your ass I can. Keep up the good work, LadySchevSchev, and to all you crazy kids out there- wrap 'em before you pack 'em, Thai size style.

Love you Schevitz!!!

All we are saying is give pants- er, peace- a chance

I love this picture.

And then there's the food.

I just need to put in a plug for food in the 'developing' world real quick. I know that we have better sanitation, etc, but really, the way that Khmer people eat just makes soooo much more sense. Clean, whole foods, prepped quick, and lots of fresh veggies. If you subscribe to the no sugar no flour path that I am trodding, let me assure you that there is a great big world full of peeps that eat very much like we do. Yummy stuff.

My experiences here just confirm for me that the geopolitical crap that goes into our food production- especially the subsidizing of corn- could be rejiggered to subsidize small, organic farmers as a means of creating a more healthy America as well as supporting small business owners (yes, Sarah Palin, we are the backbone of America, thank you very much) in the process. Just food for thought.

Peacebuilding one duckduckgoose at a time

Today I spent the afternoon driving through rural Cambodia from the capital city in Phnom Penh to Battombang Provence, in preparation for a field work project tomorrow in Peace building. Along the way we stopped at a school to use the restroom- a little “unplanned field time” with the local residents. As we were chatting with the teachers I saw how curious the children were about us, and how shy and reticent they were to interact with us. The teacher said we were likely the first Americans they had ever seen. I wanted to draw them out a bit, and I asked the translator if we could teach them an American game. Four minutes and a little Khmer translation later, and we had an intense game of Duck-Duck-Goose in full swing. A dozen American students and thirty or so Khmer students, ages six to thirteen, running around in the dirt laughing and sharing a moment of fun. Despite our vast differences in lifestyles, backgrounds, and experiences, we had found a common ground in which to understand one another as human beings.

I can’t help but hope that perhaps when these children are older and learn about the bombings carried out in their country by the country that I call home, they might think of that strange morning when a group of Americans pulled up in a big bus and played with them. I am not implying (or trying to) that this will somehow sweep away the atrocities committed against them by our government, but I think that the more we can work as individuals to make a connection with each other, the more we will pause to think before applying blanket judgments in the face of propaganda. Not a sermon, just a thought.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

This is not a drill people: We are sleeping out in nature.

Regarding the aforementioned mosquito net, I am currently in a hut (cabin? pagoda? rustic wooden round building sans warm water?) in “Pic Nic”- really, that’s the name- in Koh Kong province of Cambodia. We drove out from Phnom Penh this afternoon after visiting a slum area and the drive here took us past the most disgusting site that I have ever- I mean, hands down, EVER- have seen in my life. As we were driving (on our awesome oh-so-awkward and Western style tour bus) we went through a garment manufacturing district. And Oh. My. God. Never have I ever felt more nauseous in my life. And I say this having had a bout of chronic appendicitis for a five year period.

If you have never thought about where your Gap jeans come from, or felt thrilled about snagging a deal at Macy’s, this is my personal invitation for a wake up call. I am probably the MOST guilty person I know of this- I brag big time when I get a deal on jeans, t-shirts, tanks, shoes, luggage, skirts, (did I mention shoes?), and just about any other clothing item you can imagine. THOUSANDS of women- I say that word loosely, as many of them looked no older than 15- were pouring out of the factories at 5pm, climbing on top of minivans (yes, the same kind we drive at home), at least 20 women stacked on top and 20-30 packed inside. According to the local NGO pros we have with us, the women are paid 40-70 US dollars monthly to work in the factories from 7am-5pm all week (we drove past Saturday and back Sunday, I don’t know if everyone works all seven days, but the factories are open all seven). They pay $15ish US dollars to rent a small room to share with 4-5 other girls, sleeping on 15 inch mats packed together. They send the money home to their families in providences around the country. This may not all sound tooooo horrible, except when you see the factories it’s scary as shit- they are shrouded in secrecy, and apparently the working conditions are terrible from what I am learning from the local guides working on gender issues. The factories are surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards, high walls with spikes on the tops, and many have tree barriers around them so you can’t even see into the factories. NONE of the ones I saw have windows. Nike, Gap, Limited…anything that says Made in Cambodia likely may have come from one of these places. And the workers are ALL women- this is the result of a huge propaganda campaign done in the SE Asia region...usually it is socially unacceptable for women to travel away from home, or even work outside of the home. The gov here spent lots of time and money (I will find the articles I read to support this and link to this blog so you have more details later) to convince families that the 'honorable' thing for their daughters to do is contribute to the home by earning an income. Why the focus on getting the girls? Because most families don't expect their daughters to be able to earn income, so the companies
are able to pay them less then they would have to pay men.

I do think it's worth a debate about whether this practice is empowering women in some ways- getting them out of the house may be a good first step to incremental social change and re-framing the discourse about what women are capable of. HOWEVER I don't think that the way that these women are being treated should be tolerate either. I believe that it's not too much to ask to ensure that these women are treated humanely as they come out of the home. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game- we don't have to shove them back in the home because this is exploitative. Rather, why not work to lobby retail groups to make sure that working conditions are safe and the women have the right to organize. Not too much to ask.
More on my thoughts on this later, but for now let me just say this: I don’t know that I am going to go cold turkey on retail and switch completely to fair trade. Will and I are broke, and to concentrate our resources on purchasing items at 7 times the price of Target may not be as useful to the deconstruction of the industry as getting our butts in and out of grad school and then working to dismantle the system through effective foreign policy. I do know, however, that I am going to be MUCH more mindful as I drool over a new dress, and am going to be much more likely to buy used first at consignment shops, etc. I don’t know that I am ready to fall off the retail map, and I am certainly not advocating that others do so. I am just saying that I’m glad I am going to be more mindful of what I am participating in as I shop for a new pair of perfect jeans.

Um, yeah…about that.

So it’s been a mere seven months since I last (um, and first) posted. And here we are, time having flown by, and rather than trying to make a profound anaylsis about lessons learned from the past four months, I’ll give you a quick update and move on to more exciting things, like what I’m doing right now…
August: started grad school full time. Met the most amazing group of friends that have embraced me in the full woowooness of cackling radical sisterhood. The whole time I have been into meditation, Law of Attraction, et al I have been calling it ‘juju’. As good juju would have it, I feel in with a pack of women that subscribe to the same awesomeness of being in the flow that I do. They happen to term it woowoo instead of juju, which is fun since in rhymes. So woowoojuju goodness abounds.

September: my birthday I threw myself an awesome (if I may say so myself, which I may, since this is my blog…oh, the wonders of self publishing!) birthday party at a farm in No. VA. Most everyone I hang with drinks and birthday parties generally take us to locales of various bar types. As I am not a drinker and also no takey of the birthday cake type food, I went full out nerd and coerced my friends into visiting a pumpkin patch hopped up on steroids for my birthday. Hayrides, haunted hayfields, and GOAT VILLAGE- Best. Thing. Ever. All amazing. Why? Cause I’m a big nerd, and I super like that sort of stuff.
Also, I received the Edith Clark Nalls scholarship from the Zonta Club of Fairfax to conduct research on sex trafficking in persons, which enabled me to come to Cambodia- where I am writing at this very moment under a mosquito net- to gain greater understanding about gender perceptions and constructions of legal policy makers. More on that soon in other blogs… for now: THANK YOU ZONTA!!!!!!!!!

October: My sister’s baby shower!!! So much fun. The only thing better than having my squishybutt niece Piper Claire around (finally!) was the fun we had anticipating her arrival. Loved it.
November: Turkey day was fun, as I got to be reunited (and it feels so good!) with my bugaloo Will. Post Turkey-day was decidedly NOT fun however, as my lovely partner and I spent the rest of our holiday break locked in law school jail- holed up in Will’s dad’s office studying for finals. There is only so long you can write about rape for a sustained number of consecutive hours before you want to throw yourself and others out a window, and I think I can safely say that I have conclusively determined that that number is 14 hours.
December: YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!! Will and my forced time living apart comes to an end. It’s been a LONG nine months (no babies) of time with him in Miami, me in DC, but thank you Santa that time is done. We spent some time celebrating a very merry codependent Christmas with my fam, and then decided to head for the hills and seek refuge with Will’s family in beautiful D-town Ohio.
Other highlight of December- really the highlight of 2010 overall- was the birth of my amazingperfectdeliciouswonderfulbeautifulfantastic neice Piper Claire, born Dec 7 (after a measly 27 hours of labor) at 7 lbs, 11 ounces, 19 inches long. Best Christmas present ever. Thanks MC and B!!!
Whew- now that you (HA! Like anyone is actually reading this!!!) are caught up with the high points, I’m moving on to more present day fun soon. Night night DC people!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hmmm... rethinking my perspectives on "helping" the impoverished.

I'm in Cambodia for a course on conflict resolution and to conduct research on judicial and policy maker's perspectives on sex trafficking for the next few days. Excuse the overused cliche, but this experience in just the past six has been truly life changing. Not so much in that I have changed my path on 'what I want to do when I grow up' or who I am, but the ways in which it has affirmed the path I have chosen for my life (at least this incarnation) and the work that I hope to do. I have been profoundly moved and inspired by the experiences of the Cambodian people in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as disgustingly frustrated with the American and international community response to the genocide under Pol Pot.

My biggest take away so far is how prescriptive the Western perspective is on what needs to be done to help here. I was touring a slum community outside of Phnom Penh earlier this week and was blown away by how some of the NGO investments have actually created further problems in some ways. The example that stuck with me most was a housing project. An NGO (who shall remain nameless but rest assured that their logo was painted prominently on the houses)had built strips of row houses for families living in the area. Problem is, the houses are concrete with no windows, and have tin roofs. This is the cool season here right now, and everyday has been over 80. The heat of the summer cooks these houses. The houses that the community members built themselves are cooler, and ventilated. The NGO was certainly well intentioned (I hope)but it seems to me that the houses the community members built themselves were much more well suited to the way people actually need to live, as apposed to how the West thinks people need to live. It was a great reminder of the fact that just because something has been true in my experience does not mean that it is the same truth for the people I encounter. I so often approach my life thinking that my paradigm is the only perspective out there, and get confused/hurt/upset/angry when others fail to follow the path that I assume is the right one.

The other thing that has struck me was the resilience and the gratitude of the people I encountered. The kids there were just kids, and the women I met where working on NGO funded fair trade projects and seemed to be, if not happy, at least functional despite living in what most of us would consider sub-standard living conditions. I was playing with a few of the kids and was overwhelmed with gratitude to be able to interact with them- here I am, a college educated woman that will most likely bring my children up with the safety and comfort of a Western lifestyle, and three kids playing with a blow up tiger are reminding me that what really matters is having the opportunity to simply live in the moment. So much of my life has been spent planning for how to accomplish the next goal: if I get good grades in jr high I get into honors high school classes to get into a good college to get a good job to get a swanky house to get the right life to get the right people to admire me.

Living in the moment, one day at a time, is my goal for today. That and doing my best to find restaurants and rest stops with Western style toilets. I mean, hey, it's great to be having a paradigm shift and be challenging my assumptions and all, but really, I'm just not there yet with the squat toilets and all.