“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”

Originally sent: 27 June 2005

About this series

I’m in Battambang: which is famous across Indochina for its decrepit colonial French architecture, raunchy statues of garudas having their way with apsaras and a state of sleepiness that gives the lack of English expressions for somnolence a bad name. Since the Khmer Rouge stopped firing rocket-propelled grenades at the public transport on the way to Siem Reap, there is no reason for most people to detour via Battambang on their way to Angkor Wat, unless you’re like me and Ausaid is paying me for it.

My revelation for this week is that people eat the leftovers from our bin. I don’t know what you say to someone when you catch them eating your rotting dinner out the front of your house; my gut reaction is to set the hose on them. I guess it is marginally better that he eats it there than picks it from wherever the garbage truck takes it. I’m starting to wonder if there is anything left there by the time the garbage truck arrives.

Contrary to popular belief, the locals don’t have a stronger gastrointestinal fortitude; they just get sick more often and more severely. Over half the staff where I work have already used up their entire allocation of sick leave for the year and I blame it on their compulsive desire for weird food. While I was in Siem Reap, the two workmates I was with insisted on going to the same Khmer restaurant every day for fermented salty fish salad despite us all being quite ill after the first lunch. From that point on I avoided the fish and watched them both get sicker and sicker as the week progressed. Cambodians are pretty keen on both my favourite and least favourite modes of meat preparation: deep frying and fermenting. I’ll let you guess which is which.

M got sick a few weeks ago from something random and tropical, thankfully nothing egg-laying, flesh-eating or combination thereof. When we consulted our handy Traveler’s Health Guide that came with the kilo of prescription drugs we brought with us, it warned against eating salads, predatory reef fish, crustacea, ice, and dairy produce; all of which we had eaten for the previous lunch on a boat trip. The previous day’s boat tour had been cancelled and so there was speculation aplenty as to how long the barracuda had been sitting in the lukewarm Esky. Obviously, not long enough to be considered fermented.

On the monk front, it turns out that they’re the same as most other Khmer people except as the admin assistant at work lovingly put it,
“They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”. They consequently do seem obscenely interested in my drinking and wooing habits, especially because they’ve found out that firstly, I not only drink beer but I know how to make it; and secondly that I live with someone I’m not married to. I did see one of the monks slap our tea lady/cleaner on the ass the other day but I’m lead to believe that this is acceptable workplace behaviour rather than a misguided attempt at wooing.

My understanding is that being a monk in Cambodia is much closer to doing national service than joining the priesthood: you get to wear an absurd uniform with a large group of other men and if all goes well you’ll be out in a year or so, albeit completely indoctrinated. Despite Buddhist doctrine to the contrary, the monks in Cambodia are not charitable. Practically everything that gets donated to them goes towards building increasingly grandiose gold-plated pagodas rather than say, feeding the poor so they don’t have to eat from our bin.

The pagoda where SCC is located in Siem Reap cost $US1 million to build and is of average size. There are 4000 pagodas in Cambodia, which means that at least US$4 billion of the Cambodian economy has been sunk into infrastructure whose sole purpose is to further drain the pockets of their local constituents. I’m no longer horrified that Phnom Penh’s only casino is located next door to Cambodia’s most important Buddhist training school. I’m sure that some of the pagodas run orphanages or schools simply because the monks lack sufficient armaments to cleanse their pagoda of street kids.

The UN has about US$200,000 set aside per annum to encourage monks to volunteer for charity to try and change this parlous state of affairs. The monks of SCC are using some of it to pay for their Business degrees with the ultimate goal of leaving Cambodia for the West as soon as possible. Non-government organisations call this “capacity building”.

Previously in this series: Ratspotting

“At worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.”

“However good the illusion, would anyone really mistake Moto’s BURGER with cheese for the fast-food familiar? No more than one would confuse an Andy Warhol silk screen of Campbell’s soup cans with Campbell’s soup.”

But it is not 1962, a petit four is not a silk screen, and McDonald’s burgers are not merely a symbol of commercialism. In 2013, fast food and junk food are heavily burdened with class connotations: They have become practically synonymous with poverty and its attendant aesthetic problem, the so-called obesity epidemic. To target them for artistic critique is to take a potshot at the proletariat. To put that “art” on plates and serve it to upper-class foodies is to flatter their sense of deserved social superiority. At best, modernist chefs’ fake fast food is a lazy, meaningless rehashing of pop art tropes; at worst, it’s an ugly manifestation of foodies’ deep-seated disdain for the poor.

From LV Anderson’s review of Alison Pearlman’s book, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America.

Ratspotting

Originally sent: 12 May 2005.

About this series.

I spotted my first rat on the way to work this morning which was the size of a small pony. It was headed in the direction of my house. Things bode ill.

I’ve just finished my first few weeks of work and it has been incredibly hard and exhausting. I’m the only native English speaker and despite the excellent language skills of my compatriots, I’m still not sure if people understand me or are just agreeing with me to save face. In the process, I swear that my ability to speak Khmer and English is rapidly declining. My position description is ill-defined and so I’ve spent most of the time meeting with people in the vain hope that they can tell me what I was hired for.

I seem to have been hired in lieu of getting cash from AusAid to pay for the projects that I should be working on (marketing income generating activities and the organisation generally). So at this stage I’ve got no funding to immediately implement anything at all. I’ve still got to meet with the chief accountant to see what I can squeeze out of the existing budget until the next round of funding in July. On the up side, everybody seems overwhelmingly pleased to have a Westerner to display at meetings and I do get the standard Cambodian two hour lunch break.

SCC, the organisation that I’m advising, is doing some fascinating work using Buddhist monks to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep (near Angkor Wat) and Battambang – so there will be monk stories aplenty in the coming months. I saw a monk smoking a cigar while talking on a mobile phone but didn’t think that it was prudent to take a photo because it was during a staff meeting with him.

To keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve bought myself a mountain bike for the regal sum of $35 so that I can immerse myself in the sheer lunacy of peak hour in Phnom Penh at speed. Rumour has it that you drive on the right hand side of the road but I can neither confirm nor deny this. Right of way is granted to whomever has the heaviest vehicle travelling at the greatest speed, regardless of signage, red lights or any other man-made barricades. Despite driving like the possessed, everyone acts courteously when you cut them off or run them down.

Speaking of barricades, if you have a wedding, you can erect the marquee for your hundred guests across the entire street in front of your house to further mar the flow of traffic. One was built on my way to work complete with separate catering tent, golden stupa, styrofoam Angkorian ruins and traditional Cambodian gamelan band; all scenically located within vomiting distance of the miasmal open sewer. Short of building the marquee directly over the top of the roiling sewer, there wouldn’t be a worse place in Phnom Penh to spend a few days in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the 40 degree heat.

Apart from the catering tent.

180 degrees of housing

M and I moved into our house about two weeks ago. Our landlord lives next door and he is the nicest man in Phnom Penh, possibly because we pay him ten times the monthly Cambodian minimum wage for our house. When we arrived, he had already done about four of the tasks that we thought would be a real hassle with our substandard Khmer, like refilling the gas bottle and getting some spare keys cut. Another expat lives upstairs. The bathroom is a vision in lurid maroon. The whole house is tiled, so we can just hose the place out when the dust gets unbearable.

My two favourite beers at the moment are Love Beer (because let’s face it, who doesn’t? It even tastes like love) and Black Panther Stout (because The Man can’t keep the black beer down!). I’m also a bit partial to ABC Stout because their advertisements feature a Cambodian guy who looks like James Bond pimped out like Snoop Dogg. Confusingly the two top-selling beers here are Anchor and Angkor. Thanks to the infinite wisdom of Khmer pronunciation, “Anchor” rhymes with “ranch or”; and “Angkor” rhymes with “Anchor”. Angkor also means about five different things depending on how you pronounce “or” and thankfully none of them are mortally offensive when you slur drunkenly. You really can’t go too wrong either way, when it costs $9 for a whole slab.

In corruption news, the Cambodian Government just signed a 30 year agreement leasing Choung Ek – the Killing Fields Memorial and grimly popular genocide tourist attraction – to a Japanese company for $15,000 a year. The site is currently clearing a $20,000 per annum profit, not to mention that for better or worse, it is a vital piece of the Khmer peoples’ public heritage. My only guess here is that the Government knows that some sort of tourism apocalypse is headed for Cambodia (like a bird flu outbreak or a Commonwealth Games) because the tourism market has been growing at 100% per annum for the last 4 years. I smell a rat larger than a small pony.

Previous post in this series | Next: “They can’t drink the alcohol or woo the ladies”

Phnomenon

Sent: 10 April 2005

It’s day seven of CNN becoming Pope Channel, and M and I are rapidly settling in the expat Cambodian lifestyle. Fairly unsurprisingly, Phnom Penh is absolutely different to what I thought – I was expecting everything that we need to do to be much harder. Quite embarrassingly, practically everyone that you need to deal with in a meaningful way speaks English, and being able to pay for whatever you need smooths things over a great deal. I also didn’t expect the supermarkets to be so well provisioned with things like ice cream, cheese and fresh milk – I’d steeled myself for going two years without.

The only thing that proved my expectations true is that whole place is filthy with monks. There is a pagoda within spitting distance of wherever you are in Phnom Penh. You can’t go around a corner without seeing one doing something incredibly photogenic. They could be playing soccer with a dead puppy and they’d still look like they could make the cover of National Geographic.

M and I have started learning Khmer (the national language) to little ill effect. There’s about 20 consonants and 40 vowel sounds, most of which are either nasal or sound like “auoue”. I haven’t managed to embarrass myself completely yet, but most khmer people tend to tolerate me speaking to them because most of my interactions involve me paying money for something.

After about four trips to a real estate agent, we’ve secured ourselves a house. This involved a few afternoons cruising Phnom Penh in the agent’s Camry and a 3-phase bargaining period to achieve our aim of the landlord buying us a washing machine and connecting 64-channel cable tv. Phnom Penh is about the size of central Melbourne with Richmond tacked on to it, and we’ll living the bit where Richmond would be (just south of Mao Tse Toung Blvd, if you’ve been to Cambodia). We move into the house after Khmer New Year (which is practically all of next week) on the 20th – I’ll send photos and further description of its manifold foibles then.

We’ve rapidly inveigled ourselves into the expat scene, insofar as we’ve ditched our plush hotel to house-sit for a pair of Australians who are so generously funded by the UN that they have a guarded compound built of solid rainforest teak and a cat that has a higher protein intake than 80% of the Cambodian population. Their cat (“Gimlet”) was desexed last week by a vet that charged 3 months of an average Cambodian’s income for the procedure, so the impetus is now on us to not let it die. They’ve gone home for the Khmer New Year period – apparently everything is going to be closed next week, so I’ll be pretty happy staying in their airconditioned comfort abusing their gigantic pirate DVD collection. In a very odd coincidence, the house that we’re renting is about four doors down from theirs.

Must not let the cat die.

Next post in this series: Ratspotting

I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.

I get this, often.

Writing was more of a priority when I was virtually unemployed in Cambodia with no responsibility whatsoever rather than holding down a full time job that I enjoy and being a somewhat responsible parent. Circumstances have changed a little.

Like anyone who writes, I’ve got a whole lot more unpublished old stuff.

Group emails are what convinced me to publish. It took me almost a year in Cambodia before I was convinced that anyone would care about anything that I wrote on the back of about half my friends saying “you should publish this”. So I’m going to publish the original pre-Phnomenon group emails in weekly increments. The first one, out this afternoon, is from almost exactly eight years ago. It’s where I got the title for my blog from. Most of the early ones make me feel like I was much younger then and worse at stringing words together in a coherent fashion.

If you like my old stuff better than my new stuff, it will be like communing with the dead. Reading back through it makes me realise I’m a completely different person now. Some of that is better, some is much worse. You get to decide which.

Two links on the cult of authenticity

The quest for authenticity is an ugly thing. Will there never be an end to the spectacle of (usually white, middle-class) people draping themselves in exotic tribal fabrics, bribing sherpas to haul them up mountains, spending $15 for turkey-burgers in urban hunting lodges, throwing out perfectly good kitchen tables for expensive new tables made out of old barn doors, and fetishizing people darker and/or poorer than themselves? All of the above, and more, can be summed up under one phrase: fake authenticity.

From Joshua Glenn at HiLoBrow

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

From Sarah Emily Duff at Tangerine and Cinnamon via Tammi Jonas

Goodbye, Rosemary

Goodbye, Rosemary

I pulled out a rosemary hedge that’s been growing down the side of my house for a few decades, in about two hours. Not even the keenest lamb cook can eat that much rosemary and I still have a massive plant in the backyard to attract bees to pollinate more desirable food. It’s somehow emblematic of the life that I’m interested in. Where in the past I was probably more interested in whatever food flowed past the front of my house, over the past months, I have become more absorbed in looking inwards. Staring towards my backyard is more fulfilling than writing about eating outside.

Pulling out the rosemary had nothing to do with food, it was to enable a team of hazmat-suited asbestos removalists to back a truck down the driveway and give the impression that my house was cooking the largest batch of meth in the Western suburbs. If you live in a house built between 1920 and 1960 in Melbourne’s west, there’s asbestos in it, which isn’t a problem until you need to knock out a wall or drill some holes. Asbestos sheets sit dormant under the eaves, surrounds sagging sheds and provide structure for the mid-50s lean-tos that creep across Melbourne’s backyards.

It’s distributed across Melbourne in a map that reflects mid-century poverty. Being a cheap building material, the poorer a suburb was in the postwar era, the more asbestos is in it. Rich people only built their beach house with that cheap grey sheetrock. As the wave of gentrification sweeps across Melbourne’s inner suburbs, so too does asbestos removal. The garage and bungalow in my backyard were reduced to grey rectangles of cracked clay spotted with a veritable trove of zinc roofing nails, construction aggregate and broken shards of glass that my daughter calls “treasures”. A backyard in readiness for architecture.

I think this is why people quit food blogs, not so much because they’re less interested in food, but because their inward lives become more enthralling and less explicable. Work, kids, health, sex, politics: they’re more consuming than what you eat or at least, what you publish about what you eat. There’s bolognaise sauce bubbling on the stove while I’m writing this. As much as I know you want to pin it on Pinterest, nobody pins beige food. I’m not going to take a decent photo of it because people who style their own food aren’t worth knowing. I’d add nothing worthwhile to the world by publishing my vision for the perfect meat sauce but also I’m not at all interested in presenting some perfectly curated version of my new domesticity.

So how do you food blog an imperfectly curated life?

Part of the nostalgia for the blogging days of yore, before food blogs died, is to do with its low fidelity, the technical imperfections that made it seem more authentic. Apart from the dopamine bursts from endless information, this is what draws me more to Twitter and less to blogging. When you follow any group of people, it’s riddled with idiosyncrasy and when you know virtually nobody is paying attention to you most of the time, it gives you freedom to write a sentence about anything. It the past I would have written a few sentences of blog post about an interesting link; now it would be 120 characters of a tweet. Something was lost when this happened.

Like Steve Cumper has decided to embrace lo-fi in his food, I’m going to do the same with my blogging. More paring back to the things that I’d otherwise tweet about, like pulling out hedges and short-form, short-lived criticism, less 600 word missives like this one.