Wednesday, January 16, 2013

January 16, 2012 4:04 P.M.

January 16, 2012 4:04 P.M.

The last two weeks have been incredible. I think I have Hillary Clinton to thank for making this project possible.  I said a little about the program at the beginning of this journey; here’s a bit more. The Professional Fellows Program, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, brings emerging leaders from around the world to the United States for intensive month-long fellowships designed to broaden their professional expertise.

The fall 2012 program brought together 241 young professional fellows from 51 countries representing regions around the world. The fellowship offered participants a chance to build networks with each other as well as with their American colleagues, and creates an opportunity for the next generation of world leaders to develop a deeper understanding of U.S. society. , The University of Montana Mansfield Center coordinated the fellowship for ten SE Asian women in Missoula, matching them with local women in their field so the fellows can learning firsthand how the issues they care about are addressed in the United States.
Bopha was selected as a fellow, and I was matched with her as her fellowship partner. The second part of the exchange brings the fellowship partners to visit the fellows in their countries. Lucky me.

Now that the official fellowship program is complete (I’m writing from the air somewhere between Tokyo and Seattle), I’m reflecting on the Top 10 things about my Cambodian adventure:

      1.      Lunch with Bopha’s family.  Though Bopha’s siblings all live within a few miles of one another, it is not that often that they all have free time at the same time. It was incredible to spend a few hours gathered with Bopha’s family, feasting on the most delicious pork/omelet/salad situation ever. After the lunch I was offered a shower and a nap, which is a very sweet tradition. Following lunch there was a family weigh in, which is a very funny tradition (to me). At first the kids were weighed and everyone was happy at how they were growing, and then one by one the adults took turns on the scale...Bopha’s mother was shocked at how much I weigh. I am very large by Cambodian standards. She took some convincing that I’m really ok with how many stones I weigh (especially since I have no idea what a stone is).
The pork/omelet/salad situation. 
Some family and friends. Bopha's parents are on either side of her.

      2.      Tai Chi traffic[1]. At first glance the road seemed an unorganized jumble of bikes, motos, tuc tuc’s (the open air moto-pulled taxi), cars (there are not many, but every other one is a lexus) and the occasional pedestrian. There are stop lights, but not many. There is a general principle that one should travel on the right side of the road, but it is very loosely followed. For instance, it is quite common to make a left hand turn into the left land and drive among oncoming traffic until you can make your way to the right. After a few days of walking through Phnom Penh I came to think of Cambodians as expert surfers, predicting force and volume of a wave and entering flow through openings imperceptible to my untrained eye. There is a shared agreement that the slow and/or small give way to the powerful and/or large. If you are a pedestrian – even if you are already in the middle of the street – you yield to a bike, bike to tuc tuc, tuc tuc to moto, moto to car, everyone to lexus.

It all happens so seamlessly- people taking their place in the order of things – I wondered whether it was reflective of their Buddhist orientation or years of yielding to someone else’s control. Nonetheless, nobody seems to be really speeding and nobody has to stop for too long. Everybody moves steadily forward, some just more slowly.  There was something beautiful about the gentle organized chaos of it all.

     3.      Moto-travel.  I was ridiculously impressed that Bopha buzzes around on her moto in her business-best, and it was a treat to get to ride along.  It turns out you get a lot of time to engage with other travelers from the back of a moto in all that traffic. Given that I know about four Khmer words, “engage” meant me grinning a lot and Cambodians laughing at me. The moto seems to be the preferred/affordable family wagon. In the mornings I would often see grandfathers driving grandchildren to school, the littlest one in front of him at the handlebars, the middle sandwiched between him and grandma, and the oldest holding onto grandma’s waist from behind. A five person transport. 

      4.      Compact bathroom. I have a lot of appreciation for my little bathroom at the Golden Gate hotel. I ate everything/everywhere I was invited to eat – from people’s kitchens to street vendors to restaurants – and my stomach did just fine but for one long, painful night. On that night it was incredibly helpful to be able to reach the bathtub with the upper half of my body while the lower half remained firmly rooted to the toilet. I will spare you any pictures. Thank you, compactly designed bathroom.

      5.      Make your own barbque. Even though it may have been the cause of my difficult night…I loved our last night in Phnom Penh at the make-your-own barbque place. The food was delicious and fun to make, and it was so good to see Bopha get to be with her husband and Sok Heng (Bopha’s boss) be with his wife. After days of serious work and me wondering what rest looked like for them, it was lovely to watch them let their hair down, laugh hard and be silly. Being motivational speakers to literally hundreds of thousands of Cambodian youth comes at a bit of a price. Part of the price is paid in long hours and time away from family (Bopha and her husband only spend one day a week together these days). Another price is a loss of anonymity, and what at times looked to me like a rigidly maintained performance of “success.” So often under public scrutiny, they work to embody what they see as success in their speech, dress, and overall appearance. On this night, for at least a couple hours, there was no need to impress anyone, earn credibility, or gain legitimacy. Just time for some-low key married-people dirty jokes.

Bopha, Sok Heng and Olivia.

     6.      Girl time. I loved every moment of unstructured pall-around with Mealia, Bopha, and Olivia. It was such an enormous gift to travel with and care for one another, to  talk and share and challenge one another as women, to ask hard questions and stretch to understand across contexts and languages. Our conversations were rich and honest and painful and ridiculous, covering  the politics of skin bleaching to raising girls who know their strength to the best fruits to relieve constipation and/or firm up stool (depending on the needs of the day). And it was a privilege to be asked to type up their family histories as they begin to document their life stories. It is difficult for me to remember exact historical names and dates; these stories I will never forget.

     7.      Olivia. I have loved Olivia for some time from a distance, but this was our first time really being together. Olivia works in Missoula as co-Director of Montana Women Vote, and was the fellowship partner to Mealea. Most of our days were spent apart, but we united on the rooftop of our hotel at sunset to recount our days. As a verbal processor, our time together helped me make more sense of what we were seeing and experiencing and learning. And she brought me electrolytes and crackers when I was sick. I love you now for real.

     8.      Community dance class. There isn’t a lot of greenspace in Phnom Penh, but there are these wide paved boulevards that fill up in the mornings and evenings with people recreating. Public dance classes are all the rage. Most of the teachers are young men, and they bring a little amp and speakers and a Cambodian techno mix and lead a class…very jazzercizey. Olivia and I went to an evening class with Mealea and her husband.  There were at least a dozen classes happening throughout the boulevard; the one we attended appeared to be a local favorite with some 60 people all ages and abilities participating. Three teachers rotated in to teach different sections, and took turns playing DJ. As it grew dark, one guy held a shop-light rigged to a tall pole to illuminate the equipment and instructor.  I started out very strong but quickly tired in the heat. After what felt like hours I asked Mealea how much longer…apparently the instructors stay from 5-9, and people just come and go as they want and make a contribution equivalent to fifty cents. Amazing and funny and a fun way to be in community.
Why am I the only person bouncing around?!

     9.      The Angkor Wat temple complex. These temples are truly stunning and awesome, and an incredible testament to human ingenuity, strength, persistence, and inspiration.  I was especially struck by the connection between the earth and the animal creatures and the human creatures and the spirit. All are represented in the intricate carvings: beautiful trees and birds and monkeys and lions and elephants and humans and gods and Buddha. It took all of those things to build the temples  - the mountains to produce the sandstone for carving and lava rock for building; the elephants to haul the stones over 60 km; humans to set and carve the thousands of stones; and spirit to inspire the creation of such glorious places of ceremony and worship of all that is, was, and will be.

     10.  Hello, Elephant. And, while visiting the complex I got to say hello to an elephant. They still have some wild elephants in Cambodia, but this was a working girl who carries people up a mountain to visit a temple. She was available for a hello as we were walking by, and it was a thrill for me to get to have a little visit. She was beautiful and curious and, it appeared to me, very kind.

       Agent 47, over and out. 

[1] According to Wikipedia, Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art…”characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize, yield, or initiate attacks.

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