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.



Conversations in Cambodia

speech bubbleIn which I recall some intriguing conversations I had with the fascinating people I met in Cambodia.


It’s Saturday night and I venture into the expat bar across from the guesthouse I’m staying at. I prop myself up at the bar. I make eye contact with the man next to me. We start to talk. For the next hour, he tells me his wife’s story and about the organisation she founded and which they currently run (albeit from abroad). Only in Cambodia can you walk into a bar and sit next to the husband of a CNN Hero. His wife has such a hard luck story it’s almost tempting to believe he made it up: she loses all her family during the Khmer Rouge reign, apart from her mother who then dies from cancer when she is a teenager. She takes care of herself, gets an education by sticking to a grueling schedule that leaves little time for sleep, learns English, finds work with various international NGOs and aid organisations who are, at that time, flooding into the country. She earns good money. Buys a house and a car. Takes care of distant relatives and puts them through school. She enjoys a degree of independence and wealth she never dreamed possible. And one day she is having lunch at Phnom Penh’s upmarket riverside with her friend. She eats her roast chicken then throws away the bones. She watches in horror as the street urchins, the begging children run into the trash and retrieve the bones and suck them. This is the moment of transformation for her. She sets up her foundation in the slums. It’s a school/boarding house for kids too poor to go to school. She wins awards and makes headlines. “It’s all about women and children now. That’s where all the money from donors is going,” my new friend tells me. I pick his brain on Cambodia – but why do these people – those in the slums with no house, no job, no money, reproduce if they are in such dire circumstances? “It’s survival,” he tells me. “They are living for today, they don’t even think about tomorrow. Surviving another day is the only priority. They’re not educated. They don’t think ahead. They’re almost like animals who do what they need to just to survive.”


It’s happy hour at the Italian pizza place and we are slugging back two-for-one mojitos. It’s me, another volunteer from New York and Alice, a former-volunteer-turned-staff-member of the organisation I volunteer with. Alice just got back from L.A. where she returned to sell up and move back to Phnom Penh to take on her new role – as a kind of innovator and leadership coach. She is in her 50s, petite and attractive and dresses in expensive cotton with long, flowing scarves and pure silver jewellery. She used to live “in Europe” and it shows. I never would’ve expected to meet such a cosmopolitan person here, with properties around the world, a resume sprinkled with Fortune 500 companies, several authored books and a rolodex of all the wealthiest people on the west coast. Since I have very little face-to-face contact with the western staff members of the organisation, who beaver away in an office in a different neighbourhood from the centers I work at, I take this opportunity to fire questions at her.

“But what about kids with special needs, does the organisation take them?,” I ask.

“I’ve never met any. I don’t know. It seems that it’s survival of the fittest out there and if there’s something wrong with you, you won’t survive. These kids we have, their immune systems are so strong. They never get sick.”

“And what about psychological services and support for the kids? Is there any?”

“I’m not sure, but they seem to heal so quickly when they become part of a center. It’s one big family. In the States, we have such a therapy culture – we psychologize everything. We hold onto everything. We can’t get over things. We can’t let go and move on. My nephew’s parents died in an accident, over fifteen years ago. He can’t get over it. HE CAN’T GET OVER IT!”

She is exasperated and finishing her fourth mojito. I look her in the eyes. They are watery. She is crying. “If you saw behind the scenes, if you knew what some of these kids have been through. It would break your heart. I have slept on the floor of their homes as we negotiate for a child’s life. If you knew, it would break your fucking heart.”


It’s 34 degrees outside and 3.30 in the afternoon on a weekday. I am being driven back to my guesthouse by the driver. I have company today – one of my students is going back to the central center where she lives. We make small talk in the back as we bump along. I love this student – she is the youngest in the class of freshman but so much wiser and more mature than the others. She’s 18 and a little bit like Lisa Simpson, with sensible clothes and glasses. She has made documentaries and short films that have won awards. Because I am nosy, I broach her on her life story:

“We lived in the riverside slums before the government made us leave. I went to school during the day, but at night I worked in a restaurant for tourists as a traditional Khmer dancer. I had to make some money for my family. Then, one night, I met the founder of the organisation. He arranged for me and about eight other children to be the first ones in the foundation. He wanted to help up. Now, I live at the center during the week and I go home to stay with my mother on weekends. She lives near the center. She doesn’t go outside. She is 60 years old and gave birth to 12 children, but five died during the Pol Pot regime. I’m the youngest.”

And then I ask her what all annoying teachers ask their students, what she wants to do with her life.

“I’m going to be a producer and director of films. Hopefully I can get a scholarship to attend the animation school here and then study abroad later. I want to tell the stories of Cambodia.”

I have seen some of her work. She will go places. And then, we talk about her time in the States, meeting Tony Robbins at his Leadership Summit, with youth from all over the world. It is incredible to think that just 7 years ago, she was working as a dancer to help her family and now she is taking on the world and being a trailblazer.



The Day I am Finally Shocked

silenceIt finally happened. Up until this point, I had experienced varying degrees of surprise, anger, disgust, horror, outrage, depression, hopelessness and a sense of injustice when being confronted with daily reminders of Cambodia’s dark side: her tragic past and poverty-stricken present. Call me jaded, but I hadn’t experienced outright shock.

I mean, I had visited The Killing Fields and felt depressed and somber at being surrounded by the mass graves of some 8,000 men, women and children and cringed when I saw the blood on the bark of a tree that babies’ heads were smashed against. I felt the same kind of emotions at Tuol Sleng Prison (now a museum) where 18,000 people had been tortured and executed.

I was horrified when I saw one of the little girls at one of the centers I teach at – her father threw acid on her face and body and now all her skin is burnt, melted away and she has disfigurement, severe scarring and must wear a hat at all times. Then there is another little one, a new recruit who is so malnourished you can count her ribs and who is suffering from myriad diseases. If the organisation hadn’t found her, she would’ve been dead in weeks.

Then there was the news that my fellow volunteer, a banker from Paris was attacked when riding her bike out in the provinces. The young men threw her off her bike and stole her money and passport, leaving her stranded, bleeding with nothing. That was close to home. As was the news several days ago that a French woman had been found floating in a river, dead and naked with severe head injuries in a location that I was in only a week prior. These incidences were disturbing, but not shocking.

So, here I am teaching my class of eight first-year university students. We are talking about Valentine’s Day and its significance in Cambodia. We read an article written by a Cambodian about how the special day has been misinterpreted by young Cambodians as a day to be ‘promiscuous’ and have sex (on the surface, Cambodians are supposed to wait until marriage, but it seems the reality is different), rather than a time to show your appreciation and love for your friends and family.

There is a line in the article about how a significant percentage of young men want to engage in Bauk, or gang rape. I asked my students about this notion. One of the girls then says, “It’s when the man takes his girlfriend or another girl to a hotel and then other men are there too, his friends, and they rape the woman. It’s so common. And they tell her that if she tells anyone, he will kill her.” The other students nod, confirming her explanation.

I proceed to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The drive home is grim and then I make matters worse by googling ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Rape’. I learn about this disconcertingly common practice of Bauk in which a man buys a prostitute for a night, takes her to a hotel or elsewhere where his friends are waiting to attack her and then proceed to gang rape her for as long as she is conscious. He pays her the same rate as he would if it was just him, then all the friends split the cost (the woman would cost about $15 for one night).

It happens with ordinary young women too – some tricked into going to a hotel with a guy they meet at a club and then ambushed by up to 10 of his friends, some girls are grabbed off the street, and some even do it to their girlfriends.

The BBC, CNN and various human rights groups have reported on the shockingly common instances of rape in Cambodia and tried to pry the lid off this taboo subject. I feel a degree of denial – I mean, these guys, they’re so physically small, timid, shy, passive and sweet. But then again, this is a culture that killed over a million of their own in one of the most brutal genocides the world has ever seen. Still, there is a disconnect.

The really terrifying part in all of this is that the victims HAVE NO RIGHTS. Even with evidence, the police are generally corrupt and lazy and don’t really care, especially in a society where men rule and the law is subjective and never enforced. Anecdotal reports state that they’re in on it too. It’s a growing trend amongst the new middle class and the rich – if you have money to pay off authorities, you can bribe your way out of anything, even really violent recreational activities that involve destroying the lives of others.

Now I understand why some of the older students at the organisation are making a documentary about incest and fathers raping daughters. Now I understand why women never go out alone after dark. It’s the ever-present threat nobody wants to acknowledge. Victims from villages in the provinces have to leave as they are shamed and ostracized. Victims fear for their lives if they ever speak out. And even if they do, who in a position of authority or power is going to care?

And then, there is outrage over Valentine’s Day and an effort curb ‘teenage lust.’ As stated in the Phnom Penh Post:

Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.

“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”

One token day a year to consider violence against women and girls is really a drop in the ocean. A culture that values and promotes chastity yet tolerates rape is in dire need of more than some half-assed policing of teenagers on Valentine’s Day. As long as the justice and legal system remain broken, as long as corruption reigns, and as long as women are silenced, rape will remain a fact of life for females in Cambodia.


A Day in the Life of a Humble Volunteer

girl in hatIt’s a strange thing, this volunteer gig. I mean, who wants to go and work their ass off for free. For Free. Actually, for more than free, since I’m paying for everything out of my own pocket (“self-sustaining” in NGOese), except for transportation and the occasional free lunch of rice and watery soup (when I have time to eat).

But this experience is so interesting and valuable in so many ways that I’m kinda over feeling bitter about having to use my own money to pay for photocopying etc. There is never a dull moment, with everyday bringing new surprises (some welcome, some not so much).

If I could pin down a typical day, it might go something like this:

One of my four drivers will meet me at my guesthouse. We drive through throngs of motorcycles and tuk-tuks to get to one of the three centres that I work at, two of which are deep in the slums, or ‘the community’ as the organisation calls it. Depending on the driver and his English language skills, I may or may not get a lecture/rant about the lack of opportunities available to the average Cambodian.

Yesterday’s rant went something like this: “Itisveryhardforpeopoleinthecountryside.Theyhavenochanceforopportunityandteacher




I teach on average for 4-5 hours everyday. During the course of the day, there will be endless clusterfuckery with any kind of technology – the speakers don’t work, the printer is out of ink, the photocopier is dead, the Internet gets cut off, there are power cuts  – I mean, who needs electricity anyway – and there are a million other things happening at the same time, so students might not even be present in class. Often, I will get cornered by one of the Cambodian teachers (80% of whom are male) and be lectured at (again) along the lines of: “PolPotverybadnowCambodiahasmanycorruption


Temperatures hover around 35 degrees and the simple fans don’t do much to stop the beads of sweat from dribbling down one’s face. Doors and walls are a beautiful thing and in these large, 4-storied-houses-turned-into-classrooms, there aren’t enough of them.

The happiest moments are the minutes spent between classes playing with the little girls who may be five or six or seven but look about three. Their energy and adorableness is infinite. Then there are the older students who are so innocent and pure – who, at 17, want to learn about trees and who are scared of worms. Yesterday, one student introduced me to his pet hamster. I imagined most 17 year olds to be into heavy metal and experimenting with drugs, but no, here they are developing bonds with furry creatures. I love it.

These students are not allowed to date, or dye their hair. They can’t have much of a social life outside of the organisation (for good reason), yet they spend their free time making documentaries about the dying grandmothers in the slums, or interviewing those who have been displaced by government development and finding the neediest cases to support. They write essays for global leadership contests and write letters to their sponsors. Always courteous and sincere, and so willing to contribute, they are the reason I have not gone crazy working in a ‘low resource setting.’

Moving between centers, floors and rooms, there are always a few interesting white people to bump into: groups from international organisations who are touring the facilities with their cameras, semi-famous entrepreneurs from California (the last one I recognised was a dude who invented some kind of best-selling pogo stick), and philanthropists with serious money whose last names we lowly teachers speculate about (affiliated with famous universities, newspapers, companies, shops).

Then there are the high-flyers from Australia (so many Australians here) or the States who have come for a month or two, taking a break from their job at Apple or Google, or relinquishing their position as the CEO of this business or that institution in order to contribute their expertise to the organisation and help build, influence and shape it. I guess they are more ‘consultants’, who sit in offices with laptops, a bit different from the teachers who are working, ‘hands-on’, in the field.

Nights, dark and balmy, are spent with a few hours work in preparation for the next day, often with a trip to the copy shop where more clusterfuckery ensues (Internet not working, power cut, printer out of ink, photocopier jammed, no-one speaks English). There is little time or energy for a social life during the week. Dinner is usually eaten alone in one of the dozen or so restaurants that dot the relatively posh area I have called home for the past six weeks.

Two things have not escaped my attention about the other volunteers here teaching (there are only a handful of us): first, we are all women, and second, we are all ‘older’. In fact, I am the youngest which makes me infinitely happy, as these days, I’m never the youngest of anything. These women are accomplished, in their 40s to their 60s. They come from Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and bring with them all their acumen in finance, health, education, manufacturing, technology and have resumes that would make even the most zealous overachiever green with envy. We are all well-educated and well-traveled. We are all (with the exception of one nurse) single and childless. It is an interesting phenomena.

Of course, I am still processing this experience as a volunteer here in a beautiful land ravaged by genocide and poverty. When I write about it again, my perspective will probably be different and my understanding deepened with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.