A Letter to My Father

I have an iPad mini. I live online about as much as you do. I read the New York Times, the Guardian, the Los Angeles times, the Phnom Penh Post, and any other thing I can get my hands on. Contrary to what I may have led you to believe, I do not live in the jungle. All of the monkeys, myself included, has instant access to the Internet in he palms of our hands. Some of my students drive Range Rovers and Lexuses. Hell, one of my students even has a Cadillac that I am convinced was stolen of the streets of Long Beach, California! I share every online and learning resource I can with my students. If they choose to use them that’s up to them.

I thank you for your interest in my life and trying to send links to me. But the truth of the matter is until one has lived in the chaos that is Cambodia, there is no simple way for anybody to understand the unique needs of this place. It is an easy mistake to make to compare Cambodia to elsewhere in the developing world. Even Cambodians struggle to grasp the complex reasons, for example, why an Arab Spring will never happen here. Yes, there are undeniable similarities and parallels, but rather than serve as forgone conclusions, they only stand as examples of precisely what we wish to avoid if at all possible.

There are three Cambodia’s. Phnom Penh is one. The jungle is another. And Siem Reap is the third. Where I live is very modern and safe. We have the tourist thing to thank for the relative modernity and safety of this place. That said, nobody who lives in Siem Reap is unaware of the harsh reality of the rest of Cambodia. Tourists, on the other hand, could be forgiven for thinking the whole of Cambodia is a playground that occasionally loses electricity.

Phnom Penh is a wild animal. Cambodians only go there to make money. Nobody wants to live there. Tourists go to the capital city and immediately ask themselves why they didn’t stay in Siem Reap. The Penh is a violent and fearful city where everybody is suspicious of one another. Much like traffic strangled Los Angles, there are blocks of poverty meters from areas of opulence. Narorn and I used to stay in a royal villa surrounded by armed guards, barbed wired, and beggars. (That is a long story, but suffice it to say, my white skin opens doors and high gates.)

The countryside, or jungle as city folk like to call it, is idyllic and despotic. If you are happy living your life working to grow your bowl of rice, then you are in heaven. If however, you need anything more, you are trapped in a lush, verdant, communist controlled hell. The people in the countryside are often portrayed as ignorant, but I am very quick to point out how very keenly aware they are of every injustice and abuse that is happening in a country up for sale by its leaders. At least once a year, my brothers and I visit our relations in the jungle for a bit of provincial quaintness. There is something romantic to be said about walking through muddy fields by day, drinking rice wine and whiskey until sleep, and waking up to the cries of monkeys and elephants. But after 24 hours of mosquito bites, police scrutiny, crotch rot, and a growing layer of grime, my boys always ask me if we can go home. “Brother, can we go home? I want pizza and mayonnaise.”

In a very strange and unplanned way, my city has become a refuge for every queer, intellectual, and renegade in the region. The blatant corruption and cruel inequities of the remaining two-thirds of Cambodia are conspicuously absent from Siem Reap. My city has been designed for the comfort and safety of 2-3 day holiday makers. Fuck, if I transgress from my daily path, Siem Reap looks to me like a sad combination of Orlando and Las Vegas with your odd amputee beggar and transsexual hooker thrown in for flavor.

A problem with most journalists who attempt to convey Cambodian stories to the outside world is that they are so linear and myopic. They come in for a week, set up their cameras against a temple backdrop, and spew their erudite naïveté. The only people who can articulate Cambodia, in the least bit, are western educated Cambodians, many of whom refuse to live here. Anybody else has an often political agenda.

You can easily understand the inaccurate impression anyone would get if they only visited one, or even two, of the three Cambodias. You said you hoped I had avoided getting involved in politics. Oh god! Politics are unavoidable in a country where choosing to leave your house is a political statement. As a teacher, I have learned that I am the most dangerous person in town. Everybody hangs on my every word, and looks to me for instant evaluation of their new ideas and renegade actions. Your career diplomat wife might be pleased to see how I must chose my words with surgical precision.

For the last several months, I have been teaching Introduction to Literature and Comparative Literature courses to second and third year pedagogy students. The experience has been transformative for everyone involved. My classroom has become a safe place to explore otherwise controversial ideas of gender, nationality, politics, and race. More than once, everyone in the class is either screaming or crying. I have no uncertainty that I am where I am supposed to be at a very fragile time. I naturally cannot endorse any political party, but at every turn, I encourage my students to ask questions, form ideas, and support their opinions through objective facts.

This weekend my students must write a 2,000 word response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” I am so excited for next week’s discussions; I am almost crying.

Right now, I am talking to my iPad Mini and it is typing what I say. This ain’t your grandmother’s jungle.


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