Race to the Top

Panic didn’t set in until about two hours after I saw the stairs. I had missed the previous night’s sleep when Jeff and I had arrived in Amsterdam at 6:00AM local time. Packing last minute, I had packed too much and we dragged our heavy suitcases behind us as we looked for our lodgings. Jeff had already determined that the Dutch hate Americans when we had trouble using our Credit card to buy our train tickets to central station. When confronted with a situation that throws us off balance,we often retreat to our defense mood. For Jeff, this is anger, for me it is anxiety.
We got lost. Our lodgings were on Goudbloemstraat but when I asked the concierge at a hotel we passed by, he sent us to Bloemstraat instead. Walking at least a mile in the wrong direction, we found Bloemstraat 130, but didn’t find our lodging. A friendly Dutchman let us use his cellphone (poking holes in my husband’s theory) and we eventually made it to Goudbloemstraat 130 where Peter showed us our lodging for the week. But before we could get to our apartment we had to climb four sets of stairs in the 17th century building. And these were the steepest stairs I have seen since I climbed up the stairs of Bakheng Temple in Cambodia 4 summers ago. Granted, these stairs have a railing and are evenly spaced, but I only had to make one round trip at the temple and I knew I would have to be up and down these stairs multiple times in a day.
We entered the apartment and I didn’t see a bedroom until Peter pointed to a ladder going up to a loft. 4 flights of stairs and a ladder and I could be in bed; it was as simple as that.
Travel pushes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you against your limits, whatever those may be. For some, it might mean climbing K2, for me it is the lack of confidence I experience when confronted with certain types of new challenges. Balance, speaking my few words of French, knowing how to order in a restaurant; each of these pushes me up against myself and my limitations.
In Amsterdam, I soon learned that the race to the top was much easier than the race to the bottom; you had to steady yourself, focus on the task at hand, and not let your anxiety cloud your reason.

It did get easier, although learning that the woman staying in the apartment below us had cracked her tailbone when she slipped on the stairs, sobered my cockiness and kept my anxiety as close as the handrail.


Ely and the Magical Restaurant

Tepthida Restaurant on a Friday afternoon before the dinner hour

People own businesses for many reasons. Ely owns Tepthida Khmer because she has a vision. Her restaurant has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with soul. I surmised that when I met her last year and thanked her for donating a book to the school. She hadn’t known the book would land in my classroom and I’m sure she didn’t know that I teach an elective about Cambodia at the high school, and when I met up with her today she didn’t seem to remember me.

It didn’t matter. I talked to her about my class project and I experienced what I often experience when talking to Khmer adults; assent and silence. I still admit I don’t know what that means. When I’m interested in something or excited, I’m exuberant. But when faced with silence and assent, well, I just begin talking more.

The Khmer adults I know sometimes seem suspicious of me. Perhaps a study should be undertaken of two opposite cultures; Jews and Khmer. I continued talking.

And then Ely opened up. She explained her vision for her restaurant; healthy, carefully prepared traditional food, the sharing of a culture, an introduction to Cambodian cuisine, a tranquil atmosphere, the commencement of dialog and the unspoken vision of healing from a tragic past.

And so we agreed to work together on a small, and unusual experience and project for 33 high school students.

Artwork at Tepthida


After having traveled to Cambodia the past two summers, I began to think it was time to visit a Holocaust site. There are many such trips arranged by many organizations. The JFR sponsors a scholarly two-week trip through Eastern Europe and Germany led by JFR director Stanlee Stahl. I considered that trip and even called Stanlee in the spring to find out if I could still attend. Then I realized I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to visit every concentration camp, I didn’t want to be on the move for two weeks, and I didn’t want a roommate that I didn’t know. So instead I decided to go to Berlin for a program sponsored by the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation.  The program, the Holocaust and Present Day Jewish Life in Germany, will take place in Berlin exclusively, will only last one week, and I’ve paid extra to have a single room. I will also spend one night in Amsterdam on the way home. With luck (meaning a decent internet connection and a working netbook) I will be able to blog a bit about my trip.

Breathing, Language and Remembrance

I notice when I am attending events related to the Khmer Rouge the questions turn into speeches, and the distrust created by trauma comes spilling out in unintended ways. My culture tells me that trauma must be dealt with and expressed in order to move forward. But the lesson I learn over and over is that my culture and Cambodian/Buddhist culture are not the same.

In class, we did an exercise in mindfulness and this involved a discussion about anger and what to do with it. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests you breathe that anger in and out until it is transformed into something else. I look at the prolific works of Holocaust painter Samuel Bak and see anger transformed, but externally on the canvas. I like the idea of breathing stress and anger in and out, but I also like expressing myself with my hands and see how the two of those things do not go together.

Last Sunday, at the forum for Cambodian genocide, I watched grown men whose pain had not been transformed by breathing or by American success, trying to grasp how Khamboly Dy, a young man and scholar of Cambodia could understand what had happened before he was born. He was also asked if he spoke Khmer well, because oral language, memory, and the resultant storytelling are crucial to Cambodian history.  How can a survivor  trust a young man who speaks English so well, who didn’t live during that time, and whose knowledge is based on study and scholarship? What can you do other than express your pain in the form of a 10 minute question?

In the last two weeks, I have had two guest speakers in my classroom. One is a man named Samoueth who told his story which included cannibalism and horror upon horror. The other speaker, told of the loss of more than half of his family including his mother and father. I told my students they had given each man a gift by listening.

I’m unsure how a survivor of unspeakable cruelty heals; but my best guess is through breathing and telling his story.

Young scholar Khamboly Dy (wearing tie) at Cambodia Genocide Forum, the paintings of Bou Meng are in the background

The Cambodians Are Coming!

It has been a long time since I’ve posted on VK-EX. I have been teaching my Holocaust course and so have put Cambodia out of my mind for a bit. OK, not really. I mean I seem to manage to eat Khmer food at least once a week, I still have plenty of Khmer students to teach, and the Cambodian interns are arriving on Wednesday.

The story is this: I went to Phnom Penh in July, felt frustrated with the teacher training, and opened my mouth only to hear these words come out: “You know what would be great? If you (Chamroeun) came to the US and worked with me in my classroom for a couple of months.”  And no sooner had that come out of my mouth, then I invited a second person to come and work with me. Perhaps I was hoping for a reality check from Youk Chhang when I asked him permission to allow his two DC-CAM staffers to come to work with me, but all I got from him was an enthusiastic “When?”

And the when is Wednesday, right in the middle of January.

Chamrouen at the training this summer. She will arrive in Boston on Wednesday!

Thank goodness for Phala! I immediately enlisted her help in my harebrained scheme and she has stepped right in. She is providing housing for both Rasy and Chamrouen, picking them up at the airport and providing for their smooth integration into life in Lowell.

And what will they be doing here? The plan is that they will be working with me in my classroom next semester when I begin teaching my elective Cambodia:Culture and Conflict. They will be observing me teach, learning about methods of genocide education, and also teaching their own lessons. In addition, Rasy and Chamrouen will be my Cambodia experts in residence. It should be a fantastic experience for my students and for me.

Mushrooms and Kindness on a Beautiful Day

I had the day to myself and it was a beautiful day. I went off to the dump near the Laotian monastery to take our usual walk, but it was just me and Cleo. But serendipitously, I came across two ladies who I guessed were Lao. We were traveling in opposite directions the first time we met in the bird sanctuary. Then as I climbed up the hill leading out of the bird sanctuary and back to the main path I caught up with them as they leisurely walked back to the monastery. They were both holding plastic bags, and although I didn’t notice it the first time I saw them, one of them was holding a large knife.  They greeted me warmly, just as they had when I passed them in the bird sanctuary. And so I asked if they were, perhaps, out collecting mushrooms. And they were. The women showed me two bags full of mushrooms and told me they collect them every year. They assured me that they were safe and delicious. They were beautiful and looked like, and maybe were, oyster mushrooms.

Mushroom foraging has become a popular hobby in the US where mushroom clubs are mushrooming like crazy appealing to foodies and natural food lovers alike. According to the San Francisco Tribune, South East Asians are lovers of  mushroom foragers in the United States and unfortunately they also account for about half of the mushroom poisonings reported each year. It seems that a common and safe SE Asian mushroom (paddy-straw) is almost identical to the ‘Death Cap’ mushroom, which I would suppose is appropriately named. Since the death cap mushroom does not exist in SE Asia, foragers are often fooled into thinking the deadly mushroom is safe. The mushrooms the women were collecting were NOT death caps, and although I was not about to eat them, I am almost certain they were safe.

After a bit of conversation with the women, they realized I was the teacher who had visited Wat Bhuddabhavana with my students. They invited me to the Wat and although I demurred, they insisted I come and have some water. Cleo and I walked down the hill, spoke briefly to a monk, got some water and went back to our walk.

I  stopped to sit in the sun while Cleo lounged contentedly nearby.  I read a bit, and took some pictures of the turtles sunning.

A favorite place for turtles and teachers

A favorite place for turtles and teachers

The pond where Cleo and I sat to get some sun

The pond where Cleo and I sat to get some sun

As we walked back to the car, I looked high and low for mushrooms and all I could find was this tree stump with some beginnings of fungi growing.

Can you see the small mushrooms growing?

Can you see the small mushrooms growing?

Check out My New Blog

Please check out my new blog. I decided I needed a blog that I was not going to be assigning to students as homework. Perhaps it was the Goat Days of Summer post that made me realize my blog was no longer about my Vietnam/Cambodian experience.  I don’t mind if my students read my other blog, but I will not be assigning it as homework. If I want to write about goats, or any other animal for that matter, I will now do it on my other blog!