Winding down

Over the past ten days I have had highs and lows and things have not gone to plan (do they ever?). Alas, it is my second-to-last day in scorching Phnom Penh before heading to Bali where at least I have some friends. Cue violins. I have spent countless hours scurrying around the streets of central PP, with my mind in a near-constant state of comparison – the city I came to know and love a few years ago and the city as it is now.

The changes are obvious and predictable. They are more or less from my own subjective point of view. Slightly rundown yet charming traditional structures have been bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings and office blocks. The unique Khmer and colonial-inspired architecture is being replaced with slabs of glass, steel and stacco. Cranes line the horizon and everyday at 7am I am woken up incessant banging, crashing, and hammering in the name of progress.

I type this from a brand new Scandinavian-inspired Starbucks, one of only three in the city (all new). It is huge and probably a little neighborhood of family-owned and operated businesses were demolished. I hope, at least, this gentrification of an entire city has some trickle down effect and offers opportunities to those less fortunate.

Unfortunately, there are still the “couples” of old, overweight, unattractive western men and extremely young Cambodian girls seen in bars, restaurants, hotels and just walking around the downtown area and along Riverside. There are beggars and street urchins and I’m ashamed to say I walked right on by one young screaming child that had been abandoned on the street.

As a traveling introvert, it’s hard to meet people, but luckily I did encounter some interesting expats through yoga and capoeira: a Ukrainian architect, a Brazilian NGO consultant, an Australian NGO worker, a yoga teacher who is the daughter of Cambodia’s most revered architect. All seem to be happy enough. And the French. There are so many Frenchies here, not surprising given the colonial connection.

The locals are still kind, sweet, friendly and curious. The groups of men who sit outside cafes compulsively smoking and yelling are not so endearing, however. Neither are the tuk-tuk drivers who are constantly on the lookout for their next passenger. There’s still some kind of racial hierarchy: the lighter, whiter-skinned Cambodians don’t do the dirty work. The darker-skinned Cambodians from the provinces seem to be the ones banging away shirtless at the Chinese-owned construction companies day and night.

This time, I haven’t been out to the slums, where the roads are strewn with trash and people live under tarpaulin tents. I can only hope that some of the development the country is experiencing is being channelled into the areas and people that need it most.

Props: Rachel Faller and KeoK’jay

The Incredible Rachel Faller

The Incredible Rachel Faller

When I was in Cambodia earlier this year, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting American expat Rachel Faller who resides in Cambodia running an ethical, socially responsible fashion business. Her business, which is called KeoK’jay, means fresh or bright green in Khmer. Although I didn’t get a chance to speak with her much that night at a dinner for a mutual acquaintance, I did stop by her boutique in Phnom Penh and buy two eco-friendly dresses which are made from recycled fabrics. I also did some research into the back story of how the business and label came about.

Long story short, Rachel studied Fibers (is that a major?) in the U.S. and went to Cambodia with a friend who was thinking of starting a textile business. That business never materialized but Rachel fell in love with Cambodia, won a Fullbright Scholarship to return and research the textile sector and then moved there permanently to start her business. What is interesting about her approach is that she trains and employs women who have HIV/AIDS to make the clothes and pays them an above average wage so that they can support their families and send their children to school. It is not a charity or an NGO.

As Rachel recently told the Huffington Post:

KeoK’jay is (in some ways) a traditional, sales-supported business that can compete in the international fashion scene, but without all the labor violations and environment trashing. By creating high quality products that resonate with the ever-changing fashion market without sacrificing our principles, we aim to combat the traditional victim mentality that leads to dependency by building a business model that does not rely on charity to sell products.

While I admire Rachel’s business model and her commitment to her chosen community, I am in awe of the fact that she is but a 26 year old whippersnapper who is incredibly mature and ambitious. She has sacrificed a lot to make her vision a reality and has sustained that through hard work and passion. To say that she took the road less traveled is a massive understatement. Because of her drive and courage, hundreds of lives have been transformed. Her commitment to social justice is inspiring. Props to you Miss Faller!

How the Other Half are Educated

My home and work place for the next two weeks

My home and work place for the next two weeks

Six months ago, I was teaching in the slums of Phnom Penh, constantly sweating and dehydrated in 35 degree heat. Today, I am writing this post from what has to be one of the most wealthy international schools in Asia, freezing under the aggressive, ever-present air-conditioning. I am blown-away by the contrast of the two settings.

Some back-story: when my co-worker in Seoul asked if I was interested in spending two weeks on Korea’s Jeju Island teaching children in an intensive summer English program, I said, ‘Is a bean green?’ And so, after an interview, some paperwork, a few painful hours wasted in a Soviet prison, ah, I mean the immigration office, and a short plane ride, I am snuggled up in the single bed of my dorm room on the school’s campus.

But perhaps ‘school’ doesn’t quite capture the setting accurately – maybe five-star international education institution is more appropriate. I don’t know what your elementary, middle and high schools looked like, but I bet they weren’t anywhere near as fancy as this two year old international boarding school. Mine sure as hell weren’t. Holy crap. The facilities are amazing and the students who attend this school, run by a British faculty, are unbelievably privileged – the sons and daughters of Korea’s wealthiest families, as well as  a smattering of children from around the world. The campus is so big that after three days of being here, I still get lost. There’s a fully covered Olympic-sized swimming pool, numerous dance studios, state-of-the-art gyms and auditoriums (yes, plural), all kinds of gadgets in the classrooms, which are more like corporate boardrooms. The students’ residences are bigger and nicer than my tiny place in Seoul (and the staff quarters just made me cry). Everything is so gleaming and modern I don’t want to touch anything. Student art work is displayed as if this is the Museum of Modern Art.

The idealist in me thinks that education should be an equalizer, a place where meritocracy thrives, a way for people to develop themselves and gain opportunities based on their hard work. But the students who attend this school are so privileged and have so many resources and opportunities at their disposal, my Cambodian students wouldn’t stand a chance. They represent two extremes.

What is also absurd is that I will earn twice the salary in my two weeks here that the average Cambodian will earn in a year. I don’t want to sound like a communist, but this fact is further evidence that the world is so unfair and fucked up.

Alas, I have a job to do that involves being energetic, present, and positive. Soon, when the children fly in from all over Korea, I won’t have the time or psychic energy to dwell on what’s wrong with the world. The teachers who have flown in from Washington State in the U.S. will keep me on my toes with their Type-A workaholicism, creativity and dedication.

I’ll save my reflections for my nightly swim in the pool.

Back to Seoul: Week Fucking One

screaming womanI’ll admit it. As my time in Cambodia came to an end, as I began to say my good-byes and sort my clothes, ready to be packed into my suitcase, I felt really sad. I contemplated changing my flight, or missing it altogether. I had spent the last seven weeks developing new relationships with students, staff and other volunteers at the organisation. They would be hard to maintain outside of that context. Also, the princess in me would miss living in a hotel, having a driver and a maid, being able to get a manicure or massage whenever I felt like it, eating out three times a day and being able to afford to go shopping for silk. The anthropologist and humanitarian in me misses meeting random doctors, lawyers, engineers, conservationists, economists, teachers and social workers from all over the world who have come to offer their talents and skills to help build the country. I miss the feeling of being part of something bigger than me – a mission for the greater good.

And so it is with dread and trepidation that I land in icy Seoul – still in the midst of one of the coldest winters in recent history. As I collect my suitcase from the carousel, I somehow also collect all my White Person First World Problems baggage.

I go home to my freezing shoebox ‘apartment’ and go to bed in PJs, a woolen sweater, socks, hat and puffer jacket. The next day, I need to make a trip to the supermarket. Outside it is frigid and grey. I feel like I am in Soviet Russia after the funeral of a much loved leader. Everyone is walking around dressed in black (or the odd grey or brown item), looking to the ground with a sour expression on their pale faces. The chill in the air is not from the cold.

At the supermarket, which is the poshest in the country (but not much more expensive than the ghetto ones) I have my first moment of culture shock, although I don’t know why it surprises me. I’ve witnessed this kind of thing before. An old man who looks dignified in his cap, pinstriped suit and walking cane starts yelling at a woman who is working in the bakery. I don’t know what happened, but it surely doesn’t justify the way he then grabs her by her collar, lifts her ups and tries to shake her. When he sees how scared she is, he lets go. But continues to yell, despite the stares. Of course, nobody intervenes. Then, the woman apologizes profusely and bows to him as he swaggers away. The old person always wins. Old men in Korea have all the power. Young women are nothing but human punching bags who can never fight back, or even if they do, can never win.

At the subway station: damn it, I don’t have enough change to buy a ticket. I am 20 cents short. That means I have to go all the way back up three floors to an ATM to get cash. I really don’t want to do that and am in a hurry. I try to sneak through the ticket gate – sometimes it works when the station is chaotic and crowded. However, the guard sees me. I walk over to him and explain the situation. He is nice about it and gives me the 20 cents I need to get a ticket. A much needed example of a typical Korean random act of kindness.

I had been looking forward to seeing a group of friends since I’d been back. I had expectations in my head about how happy they would be to see me. They are. For one minute. I get a thirty second sound bite to talk about my trip then they are over me. Then there is a misunderstanding and I feel bad. I am premenstrual which makes it ten times worse.

But why not continue on the downward spiral. I find out my best western friend here, my partner in crime, has gone and got herself a boyfriend. I half-jokingly call her a traitor and send her passive-aggressive text messages, hoping that she has a good time ‘hanging out with your new boyfriend.’

Come Thursday, I have to go back to work. I find out that I made a big fuck-up from the last semester with a student’s grade and will have to go begging to management for them to change it.  I will then need to show my penance and undergo public humiliation, putting my incompetence in writing so that the rehiring committee can then decide that I am a liability. They may or may not ask me to commit harikiri in front of them.

It is Thursday night. I get home from having a hair cut. My hairdresser knows that I am an introvert and hate small talk, so he lets me brood in silence. He decides to curl my hair and it looks fabulous. It costs $30 which I still think is so cheap compared to the daylight robbery that is getting a hair cut in NZ. I have a moment where I do not feel like a troll and am excited to go home to try a new Moroccan recipe I found on the Internet. As I chop the onions, I realize I haven’t had much to eat or drink all day but don’t feel hungry. I start getting frustrated when the pieces of onion start falling on the floor because there is no fucking room on my bench. Then the knife drops. Then in sheer frustration I just throw everything onto the floor.

Friday is a public holiday, thank God. I wake up in the morning and don’t feel right. After several dashes to the bathroom, it occurs to me that I have norovirus which has been doing the rounds in Seoul for over a month. I thought it was a bullet I had dodged, and the irony is not lost on me – I spend two months in Cambodia and have no stomach issues, but a few days back here and my intestines are in writhing pain. I had planned to catch up with my aforementioned friend, the traitor, but because I can’t bear to leave the house or hear about how much hot sex she is having in equal measures, I cancel.

The only thing that gives me comfort is downloading memoirs through Kindle about rich, white people in New York and California going through dark times and getting through them – suicide, addiction, infidelity, divorce, death, heart break, mental illness, eating disorders, cutting. Then I call my mother who wants only to talk about 50 Shades of Fucking Grey. I cannot have that conversation with her.

And then I am taken back to Cambodia. I remember the night I went to the German Arthouse Cinema to watch a documentary some of my students had made about an old woman who lived in the community I was working in. She died while I was there and this film honours her life and provides an important window to the past. I remember one scene in particular where she talks about the death of one of her children from disease as they were being forced to resettle by the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers wouldn’t let her bury her daughter properly because they had to keep moving the herds of people. They threatened to kill her if she didn’t follow the others. So she had to leave her three year old daughter half-buried, with her arms and legs still showing.

There is always a new perspective to take.