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Letter from Phnom Penh

Editor’s note: Arianne Cohen ’03, a former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow, spent the last academic year in Cambodia. Now, while working for a healthcare consulting firm in New York City, she is writing a book about her time overseas.

In August 2003, I found myself in a spacious Phnom Penh apartment owned by an entrepreneurial Chinese family, surrounded by daytime family shops and nighttime brothels. Four strong security gates and a rare Western toilet compensated for the one-burner kitchen, bucket baths, and lack of hot water, as well as the predictable visits from tropical rats and oversized flying cockroaches.

I can tell you only that my building was bright yellow, because there are no addresses in Cambodia. The street numbers are out of order, no one reads maps, and the postal system is dysfunctional, so my address was superfluous. Instead, I learned to describe the colors of the buildings and brothel signs near my apartment; when that failed, people just asked where the "big white girl" lived and the neighbors pointed.

The landlords, who slept like sardines downstairs with their 12 hired restaurant workers, regularly came to investigate what I might be doing with all my space. In the evening, as I read a book on my couch, the aunts would let themselves in, observe my activities, point at me and talk in Chinese, and then look through the contents of my refrigerator, opening and shutting drawers all the way. Nothing I did in a year assuaged the mystery.

 

Nine months earlier, amidst the turmoil of senior year, I had applied for a Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. Rockefeller disappeared off New Guinea in 1961, less than 18 months after graduating from the College; in his memory, a few Harvard seniors are chosen annually to expand their horizons with a year of nonpreprofessional activity in the country of their choice. The application requires an essay explaining the candidate’s simultaneous indecision about his or her professional path and certainty that a year of sheepherding in Mongolia or baking bread in Guatemala will provide future clarity.

I began my essay about Cambodia: "They say that before you can become a writer, something has to happen." I had no trouble arguing that nothing had happened yet. I went on to explain that I had never visited Asia or a third-world country and thought that Cambodia’s combination of equatorial culture, general post-war wreckage, dependence on international aid groups, and upcoming World Trade Organization membership would provide an effective education in the ways of the world beyond Cambridge. Something had to happen.

Something did happen: an intense interview with the Rockefeller board members, which I thought I bombed. I moped home and made a pile of all the other fellowships and graduate programs I could apply for. The next evening, they called to tell me that I was going to Cambodia.

 

Life in Cambodia is both calm and chaotic. It is easier than the United States in its complete lack of paperwork: there is no tax system and the locals don’t have birth certificates, so on paper, much of the country doesn’t exist. There are no insurance statements, application forms, receipts, or any other paperwork. After a senior year featuring piles of applications, I appreciated this—except for the frequent days when it was above 110 degrees and too hot to sleep the night before, and I had no water or electricity and the traffic was unusually psychotic and someone had stolen my motorbike battery yet again and all I wanted was paperwork and an address and an international complaint form to remind others that I did exist and that I was very, very hot. Red tape and the ability to complain, it seems, go hand in hand—at Harvard and abroad.

I began my time in Phnom Penh reporting for the Cambodia Daily, the newspaper of choice for the 8,000 expatriates living in the country, most of whom work at local aid organizations. Reporting is like a crash course in local culture and politics, particularly when it’s done without benefit of technology. The Daily office had no e-mail, and because the Cambodian phone system is both expensive and lacks basic infrastructure—the telephone book is published every two to three years, and many businesses don’t have phones—an average day required three hours of navigating through potholes and afternoon monsoon rains on my moto to find interview subjects at unnumbered business addresses. My job involved constant interaction with the locals, from getting directions at the side of the road, to talking to shantytown members after devastating fires, to interviewing the police chief after his officers killed two unarmed men on motos "by accident."

Much of my reporting revolved around the most head-turning occurrence in Cambodia this year, a stretched-out and more violent version of what happened after the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The continuing deadlock following the national-assembly elections in July 2003 meant that during my entire Cambodian stay there was no parliament and no official government. Each day the newspaper reported on the political talks and the many vacant major government posts, such as minister of health.

There was also a spate of political killings. In January, labor union head Chea Vichea was reading the Cambodia Daily next to my favorite coffee shop when a man jumped off a moto, shot him dead, and drove away. The next week, the police made a series of seemingly unrelated arrests, which are commonplace in Cambodia. One colleague interviewed a suspect’s lawyer, who made helpful comments such as, "He is my client. If he admits guilt, he admits guilt."

 

With political chaos dominating the headlines and triggering threats against journalists who covered the labor killings, I decided that I had had my fill of motorbiking the streets of Phnom Penh before deadlines and left the newspaper to volunteer as a teacher at a local high school for poor students.

My class consisted of the smartest students in a preprofessional curriculum for office work: if they succeeded in life, they would be secretaries. This was a big step up from the impoverished childhoods as garbage pickers that many of them had shared. They were bright and talkative, but between English and Khmer, I quickly realized that all the education in the world would not make up for their first 16 years, spent staring at rice paddies and rubbish. The school administration consisted of a 25-year-old volunteer from France and little oversight, so rather than catch my students up on the foundation they had missed, I decided that their best chance lay in their ability to acquire knowledge quickly and respond intelligently. We spent much of our time talking about ideas past and present, learning how to hold discussions, reading the newspaper, and developing opinions on recent national and international events.

Frequently, my students taught me more than I taught them. One day I called on a student for the definition of an election campaign.

"It’s when the parties give you stuff."

"What kind of stuff?"

"Hats, clothes, motos, money…lots of stuff."

"Hey, there’s no money!"

This comment sparked a classwide debate over whether parties give money. After five minutes, the students decided that sometimes you get money and sometimes you don’t.

"Okay, so political campaigns give you stuff, sometimes money. What else do they do?"

"They threaten you."

"How do they do that?"

"They collect all the national identity cards in your entire village, and then tell you that if you don’t vote for them, they won’t give you your card back."

"Okay. So political parties give you stuff and threaten you. Anything else?"

"They drive big trucks through the street and play loud music."

"Anything else?"

"Nope."

"No, that’s it."

The trouble was, of course, that they were unaware of alternatives to the abysmal systems of their own country (if a system existed at all). They didn’t know that stealing identification cards is not considered a fair voting strategy. They didn’t know that in many countries, people don’t get killed for promoting union rights, and that in other places, when policemen kill poor people "by accident," there is a consequence. They only knew the way things were in Cambodia. Most days, my blackboard turned into a list of Alternatives: Alternative Political Systems. Alternative Food Distribution Ideas. Alternative Rules for Police. Alternative Education Plans.

Slowly, they began to get it. They made suggestions for water removal and road improvements in their own communities. They made their own reading lists and government diagrams. They came up to the board and made suggestions for how their school should work. And they began to ask questions, lots of intelligent questions, questions besides the ever-popular, "Do you have a boyfriend?"

And just as the lists grew longer and overflowed with class ideas, it was time for me to leave. They told me that I was the best teacher that they had ever had—a believable accusation given the woefully inadequate education of my colleagues and the strict "I talk, you listen" methodology to which Cambodian education subscribes. When I missed school for three weeks because of dengue fever, students got on their bikes and rode through four miles of mudslides and potholes to visit me, carting along six cases of condensed milk to make sure that I "ate healthy food" so that I could "stay in Cambodia forever." And they begged that I stay through their graduation next year, to help them at least have a chance of supporting their families on their own in the future, to avoid the very foreseeable realities of eventually returning to garbage picking.

 

But I had to come back. It was time to move on, to begin some semblance of a career, to live near friends, to have a social life and access to books. What my students didn’t see was that their education was a stopping point in my own, and that because of them, I had reached my goal. Something had happened. And now it was time to write about it. In America.

This week one of my students e-mailed me. He said, "To my most beautiful and very good teacher. I and my friends miss you very much. We need you to teach us because the way you teach is good and makes us understand well."

I haven’t responded yet. What do you say to that from your New York City apartment?