Holiday in Cambodia

DECEMBER 25, 5:45 PM

The people that have been busying themselves under the metal awning are finally ready for us, and have decked out their standard-issue light blue plastic chairs with elaborate gold sateen covers and politely bagged all the table settings in plastic. They have also prepared no small amount of food. steamed fish in giant kettles; a dish made from local vegetables and tiny unshelled shrimp; chicken; a coconut dessert. Visitors are handed prim bottles of water, a gift just for coming! Already seated are police chiefs and local officials, several major authority figures.

A smartly dressed woman, long hair tied back, with a deep-colored silk kroma perfunctorily positioned around her neck, asks me in English lilted with a slight French accent to sit next to her. We are partway through the meal before I realize that the deference others grant her is due to the vast political power she holds—she is the Deputy District Governor—but by then we have already bonded over not having husbands. Being unmarried in Cambodia as a woman is OK under certain conditions—if you are exemplary, for example, or foreign.

Generally speaking, young women here are expected to have families. So expected, in fact, that women are assumed, without query, to be married already. To my left, for example, the villagers ask Saem about her husband, and what the husbands of the band members are expected to do when their wives travel so frequently.

Saem retorts sharply, but with humor: the women all laugh, and the village official next to me concurs. “What did you say?” I have to ask my friend, as my Khmer is mostly limited to words for baby animals.

“They ask where my husband. I say, if it good enough for your leader to have no husband it good enough for me,” Saem answers.

Still, I know Saem has a partner she misses when she travels. The Messenger Band performs regularly, but Cambodian bands don’t tour like US ones do. In fact, this performance is it for public gigs for the next month or so, and although it will be a late night by Cambodian standards—the concert will end around 9:30 and I’ll get home around 11:30—there’s no drinking, drug abuse, or carousing going on, and I can’t imagine that tours like this take that much of a toll on home life. In fact, some of the band members still hold down jobs in the garment factories.

Yet Cambodian families are also stronger than their US counterparts, and if they hadn’t moved to the big city to work in the factories, all the women in the band would still live at home. In fact, all unmarried women I know in the country still live at home, and return home before dinner, promptly, every night.

For her part, Saem is perfectly content to sit, chatting gaily before her concert. To the group, and on her cell phone. No signs of nervousness, no performance anxiety. I developed a theory when I lived in a dormitory of teenage girls 24-7 at the age of 37: that growing up Cambodian doesn’t give you a lot of space to develop performance anxiety. If you can’t eat, sleep, meditate, sing, and dance in front of other people, you’re sunk.

The table next to us, of trans people loudly flattering each other and laughing with locals, fares equally well. “Is it always so easy for trans people in Cambodia?” I ask Saem.

“Oh no,” she says. “Many times, people will say something negative. It is a very difficult life, also for gay and lesbian people.”

I have spent almost four years traveling to, researching, and writing on Cambodian women’s issues. This is the first time I have heard a Khmer woman use the word, “lesbian.” I look at the table next to us. “They don’t appear to be having a difficult time,” I say.

“Oh, that is because they have one of them here. It is important for trans people to be together, to feel happy and safe,” Saem explains. “Also, the community know already.” Meaning: trans people are already accepted here. I’m pretty sure my Northside neighborhood in Chicago could learn a lot from the Kandal province.


DECEMBER 25, 6:45 PM

The civic leader to my right, who I am at last introduced to as Tes Sopheap, politely invites me, as she says, “to toilet with her.” This is a delightful idea, and not only because I have to piss like a racehorse. I’m always up for a late-night stroll through a dark Cambodian town, and this one does not fail to amuse. There are more stars than I ever remember there being, ever, and the dark serpent-themed temple we pass by in the night peers out from a late-night fog, satisfying my desire to mix terror with my Christmas celebration. We stop at the first well-appointed neighbor’s house we pass, make perfunctory greetings, and use their pit toilet. When the lady of the house returns home a few minutes later, she is surprised to find a white girl sitting on her mahogany bench. She asks if I would like to take a quick shower. It is a respectful thing to ask, and not intended to be, in any way, improper. I’m certain I look like I need it, but decline the invitation.


DECEMBER 25, 7:15 PM

The band rushes off to change into their costumes, and the MCs take the stage and offer rambling greetings to the gathered crowd, slowly slowly pulling them away from the balloon-popping carnival games, a corn vendor, a sugarcane stand. Soon the whole town is crouched, mostly, or seated, in the dry, ridgey field in preparation for the concert. And yet the MCs ramble on.

When The Messenger Band takes the stage, they are decked in traditional Cambodian dress: red or orange sampot, gold-trimmed and elaborately folded; white silk top with lace, elaborate hair styles. Big movements in such outfits are not possible; these women will take small steps, make graceful gestures, never raising their arms above their heads triumphantly or bounding from one side of the stage to another. Gracefulness in Cambodian dance is about attentiveness to detail and extreme, if sometimes awkward and excrutiatingly slow, gestures.

Slowly, then, the band opens with an appropriately introductory song about the town they have traveled from, Phnom Penh. When it was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge, the town stood empty for nearly four years, during which property laws were abandoned. When people began resettling again in the capital city, they simply found a convenient, or nice, place to hang out. Who was going to deny them the right? There was no more paperwork to prove otherwise.

At some point, under the Vietnamese, the still-reforming government had to just acknowledge: wherever you live now, you own it. Establishing any other order would have undone the fragile peace process, and further instilled a mistrust of the foreign, occupying, government. And yet, today, land issues still arise, regularly. There is little order, less work. Construction and garment work form the only cohesive way of making a living for most.

This, I gather, is the gist of the song—although I must ask the young feminist organizer seated beside me for a translation. She is a rare find here, someone who advocates for the rights of women as a class. This is partially because women in Cambodia are still influenced by something called the Chbap Srei, a centuries-old document that translates, literally, into “rules for girls.” It dictates how proper young women dress, behave, and even sound—which is why Cambodian women appear to have higher-pitched voices in films than, say, women from Vietnam or Thailand. This is called “sweet voice.” And the physical counterpart to this rule is, “not rustling your skirt when you walk.” More extreme rules include: accepting the beating of your husband.

Wife-beating is thus deeply embedded in Cambodian notions of gender normativity and, indeed, a few players get up and perform a skit about domestic violence and alcohol abuse. It is a typically didactic Cambodian performance, but perhaps most frustrating is that it is also typically representative of far too many relationships. Some sources estimate that around one in five women here is a victim of spousal abuse.

But in this skit, played for laughs, the man of the family—his wide moustache a giveaway for province drunk—fights with his wife. She needs money for health care, so she goes to the town moneylender—usually a woman, who lends freely, but at very high interest rates. When a payment comes due, she asks her no-good husband for it, but, he says, this is not his problem. He threatens her, physically. Although comedic, this scene is common enough that it’s not necessarily taken as such. A small boy in the front row cries, real tears. Why does that woman have such a hard life, he asks?

The answer is the purpose of The Messenger Band’s skit, but also the thing they cannot say outright. The answer is that a deeply corrupt, generations-old system has allowed for no safety net for the majority of Cambodians, leaving them without options under duress, save burrowing deeper into financial insolvency and taking their frustrations out on each other.



Really, though, Khmer concerts are weird, even those held indoors. Everyone sits, patiently. There is no crowding the stage, no stage diving, no mad dash to touch the performers. Occasional expressions of affection do occur: a fan will approach the stage, formally, to hand a bouquet to the singer, who will pose patiently with it and/or the giver while pictures are taken. A wide berth stands always between the edge of the stage and the audience.

Many celebrities have made the transition from the Western world to Cambodia: Britney Spears can be heard regularly in the streets, pictures of Angelina Jolie decorate makeup stores and bars alike. But the American notion of hounding celebrities and getting all up in their grill until they have to punch you? Hasn’t travelled this far yet.


DECEMBER 25, 8:30 PM

One of the labor organizers had asked me earlier what I was doing in Phnom Penh. Basically, I’m teaching, but they already know I am also a writer.

“What do you teach?” She asked.

“Well,” I said, “I teach in media and communications—but here in Cambodia it’s mostly about implementing critical thinking skills around advertising and marketing.”

“Oh,” she said, clearly preparing her next query, which was this loaded one: “And when you teach, do you have an agenda, or do you allow the students to share their own idea?”

Usually, what this means is: are you promoting an ideology, or creating a space for open, creative dialogue? But as I look at the stage, watch the performances, piece together what I can of what is being said, it’s clear that there is an agenda here: it’s just not the one you see in newspapers, on the TV, or hear on the radio. In Cambodia there is, officially, Leadership. And then there is, less visibly, the Opposition. And what an agenda means is: promoting the Leadership party line. It is not seen as promoting an agenda to counter Leadership.

This, in Cambodia, is the meaning of democracy. That you have the right to counter leadership: occasionally, ineffectively, and predictably. Which is not the way that I understand the term, at all.

It is not unlike the performance now on the stage: trans people, dressed to the hilt in makeup, heels, short skirts, prancing like women in the worst of the 1980s music videos. If the performers weren’t trans women, or situated in one of the most impoverished, corrupt, and cruel environments I’d ever been in, likely taking their lives in their hands by publicly outing themselves as srey sros—if, in other words, I was sitting in a field in the provinces of Cambodia watching tarts parade around on stage as tarts and not as a statement about who is and is not allowed to participate in tart culture and why, I would be furious to be here.

But the parading is having an effect, and to my far left a policeman is swinging his foot in time to the throbbing dance number. His government-official pal, seated on his right, makes an appreciative comment—I catch the word for “beautiful”. What is going on here, right here and right now, is a destabilization of attraction, and not a destabilization of gender roles. Which, given Cambodia’s love of beauty, may be far more powerful.


DECEMBER 25, 8:45 PM

Some local youth are called up on stage in sort of a quiz-show style game. It mimics the way lessons are taught in grade schools here, taught in grade schools everywhere: it’s the “fun” “interactive” “educational” part of the show, where we really get to test whether or not the lesson has sunk in. They answer questions about safe sex, about the number of women employed in the garment industry, about access to health care. A trans woman hands out the prizes—gift bags, school supplies. Another lesson: put local youth in direct physical contact with trans people.

To underscore the point, members of public health organizations pass through the audience handing out brightly printed flyers with further information.


DECEMBER 25, 9:00 PM

To be honest, I growing annoyed by the endless preaching. I acknowledge that I understand very, very little of it, but the tone is clear, and others are fidgeting too. Also: the fog machine is set way too high. Sometimes I cannot see the stage.

I understand with every fiber of my being that polemics, here, are necessary: that promoting even the existence of opposition is a nearly impossible task. It must first be made clear that there exist more than one approach to daily life, social interactions, and politics-as-usual. Later, down the road, this can be softened. Various camps can stake claims over various skirmishes in various battles. Yet social change in Cambodia hinges on the necessity that everyone first become aware that change is possible—and might even be necessary.

But I am not Cambodian. I am becoming bored. The feeling is dangerous, I know; a condition of my privilege. Acting on it could well destroy the progress being made here. Getting up and walking away is not an act of solidarity. Neither proposing and implementing solutions borne of my experience as a white woman from the United States. It’s weird, but the most radical thing I can do at this moment is sit here and smile pleasantly.

I had earlier recorded an interview with Saem about The Messenger Band. “Why would garment factory workers start a band?” I’d asked her.

“I think it’s really important because first, myself, I can really speak out about the situation when I was working in the factory and I saw a lot of problems with the workers in the factory.” Saem had worked full time in the factories for five years. Since then, she’s been full time with the band. “I think that it’s good if we write a song that’s educate to the people. And also do advocacy through the song.”

“Advocacy toward what change?” I asked her.

“Oh, that’s a good question. First, I want to see the change, like the garment worker respect by the law and support by the government and the investors. It’s important for investment, they have to follow the law in Cambodia and they have to respect worker’s rights.”

“How is the law not being followed in Cambodia?”

“A lot of ways, like the forced overtime and the low wage. And have to ask permission for when they have to take leave or when they get sick. It’s really difficult to take leave. And sometimes, they were dismissed by the company because they cannot go to work, like when they got sick, they have to go to the hospital. But the factory owners, they don’t allow them to go. Some factories, they are warning that the workers have to make some print, I don’t know how to say, when they cannot work and they, I dunno—” she broke off to ask someone for an English translation “—Unconscious. When the workers fall unconscious in the factory, when they awake from unconsciousness, they tell the worker that, ‘you have to promise that you will not unconscious again, otherwise, you lose the job.’”

I was surprised by this. I spend a lot of time being surprised in Cambodia.

“So, if people faint,” I asked not hiding my incredulity, “they have to promise that they won’t faint again?”

“Yes,” Saem told me. “They have to promise. They cannot unconscious again. Otherwise you will lose the job. And the workers are so scared, so they just promise to the leaders.”

“Are you nervous being an activist in Cambodia?” I asked her. Workers here are scared to agitate for their rights, because they have jobs to lose. Activists in Cambodia put much more on the line. Many are threatened, some are harmed, occasionally someone goes into hiding. Murders also happen.

“Hmmm, a little bit. Because, you already know about here. Right? But if we don’t stand up, no one hear the story. And that’s why we have to stand up and share some information about the poor people in Cambodia. We have to stand up and speak out, otherwise we die. I don’t want to be a famous person, but I want my song, I want my information to become recognized by the big people, and be respected. And provide the rights to those people. For me, I don’t want to be famous, but I want our people here to get enough rice, enough food to eat, and they have the right to demand their rights.”

“Why the songs about HIV rates and karaoke bars?” I asked.

“When the factories close down, some girls will go to become entertainment workers, and HIV will spread out around.” She was frustrated, however, that NGOs only seemed to care about Cambodians when they became a statistic. “Why don’t they care about their living life? Why they don’t care about their family? Why they don’t care about the security of those people? Why they care only HIV?”

She started to cry, while I was taping her. “I don’t know, I don’t understand. We care about HIV,” she said. “But you have to think about the lives of the people, not only HIV. If the people don’t have enough food to eat, if they don’t have enough education, if they don’t have good health, how can they prevent themselves from the HIV? They don’t have time to think about HIV, they only have time to think, I need food, I need food. All the time.”


DECEMBER 25, 9:15 PM

Another presentation has the audience pondering various forms of violence: physical, emotional, economic, and reproductive. The Messenger Band does a final number about subcontracts, the primary means by which the normally well-monitored garment factories commit worker abuses under the radar. Then the concert closes with a fashion show of sorts—here, fashion is not on display, only the performers themselves, and the lessons we’re supposed to receive are clear: you can be desirable to men, physically, as well as any number of other things too: a biological male, politically vocal. The models—members of the band and trans people—all hold up signs I cannot read. When I later get my hands on a translation of the signs, they read exactly as I imagined they would: “Owner richest, worker poorest,” one says, and “Cambodia LGBT Pride.” “Real men don’t hit women” and “We are part of the solution” are equally self-explanatory. For sure, this isn’t the Subtlety Band.


DECEMBER 25, 9:30 PM

Things are wrapping up. Public thank-yous are given from the stage, and pictures with local officials snapped on a variety of cameras. The roadies strike the stage while the band, labor organizers, trans people, and hangers-on like me pile into two massive vans—one has been re-branded with Mercedes-Benz paraphernalia, the other has lost its shocks.  A foreigner, I am shuttled into the re-jiggered Mercedes van with a kind respect I feel is unnecessary. Members of The Messenger Band cannot possibly understand that in my mind, going on tour pretty much means you wake up with cat poop in your hair and a smelly man with stringy hair and a drug problem trying to talk you into premarital sex.

On the way home, the trans women twitter and flirt, the band calls husbands, loud cell phones ring—pop songs, all—food is shared. Lychee. Bananas. Bread. Lots of questions, lots of stories. We spend the next two hours redelivering everyone back home.

I’m in bed by midnight. My presents stay unwrapped until Boxing Day.

On what is locally called American New Years Eve, a few days later, I get a call from the band. They want to know if I enjoyed the show. But mostly, they want to wish me a Happy New Year.

The second in a series. Audience, activist and fashion show photographs courtesy of Anne Elizabeth Moore. Transperson photo by lecercle. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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