Friday, April 6, 2012

Must love karaoke

Photo by Will Koenig.
Mao pei na? Funkytown.   Photo by Will Koenig.
Roth Meas, of the Phnom Penh Post, interviews Frédéric Amat, a journalist who is offended by the cultural elitism on display in Cambodia. Apparently, foreigners aren't experiencing the real Cambodia.
“They don’t really open the window to Cambodia. They don’t try to speak the language. They are not interested in the culture. When they finish their job, they just go to the foreign bars, have beers with friends. They live in Cambodia, but they don’t really live with Cambodians.”
This is quite shocking, until one remembers that this kind of self-segregation happens everywhere. While partly the result of racist zoning policies, "ghettoes" like New York City's Chinatown and the banlieues of Paris are attractive to immigrants. You might know some people there, you can communicate easily, you can find comfort food and there's probably an appropriate house of worship. (Of course, bad things happen when discrimination and poverty are pervasive.)

While proponents of assimilation are aghast at this kind of purposeful separation, in time it becomes a local selling point. No one says "Hey, let's go over to that neighborhood that's exactly like every other neighborhood in town and eat at that diner that's like every other diner." Instead, people say "let's eat a whole lamb in Soi Arab" or "let's take the train to Leavenworth and buy some strudel." Because people enjoy experiencing new and exciting things in carefully measured doses.

Photo by David Morgan-Mar
Lederhosen cleanup on Aisle Sieben! Ja wohl!  Photo by David Morgan-Mar.

Faine Greenwood offers a bevy of useful suggestions about how to befriend Cambodia, but I'm going to unfairly condense one of her main points as love it or leave it (emphasis hers):
And by the way – I’m just plain offended if your excuse is “Khmer is a small language, and this is a really small country, and I’m probably not going to be here long anyway so why bother?”

This is just a duplicitous way to say “This country and its language are crap. Why am I even here?”

Which begs the question, do Khmer people want to be friends with you?
Most of the educated Westerners in Cambodia do not plan to settle down along the Mekong. They're climbing the ladder of an organization, or trying to finish a thesis, or spending a year working for (relatively) little so they can feel better about themselves when they go back home and work for a firm that builds coal-fired power plants on sacred burial sites that once provided habitat to a now-extinct species of cute, fluffy mammal.

Most Cambodians who emigrate to the United States are certainly intent on staying. Long Beach's Cambodia Town is the sparkling heart of Khmerness in North America. It doesn't mean that every Cambodian-American learns much English or that Khmer karaoke parties in the U.S. have many white faces.

The only real advice I have is this: If you want to have Khmer friends, you must love karaoke. Because that's what Khmer people truly love. (And durian.)

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