Siem Reap – where I left a part of my heart

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Recently, I spent three months as a volunteer ESOL teacher in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I’ve left a part of my heart behind. Some people said, before I left, what a grubby little tourist town Siem Reap was and that I wouldn’t like it. How wrong could they be? I loved it. I love the red dusty roads that erupt whenever the rain falls; the smell of the Monsoon and dust, the sound of motos, the choreography of traffic, tuk-tuks, motos, cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional big black Lexus.

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I love the resilient spirit of the people of Siem Reap, their optimism, in the face of endless rejection – from the girls on massage lane to the tuk-tuk drivers – always hopeful, up for a chat, and the cries of ‘teacher-teacher’. Where else could I possibly find so much (possibly undeserved) affirmation and respect? I can’t imagine being embraced so affectionately at my local coffee bar back home, nor having my eyes wiped by an attentive waitress (who just happens also to be my student), when I choke on a chilli over dinner. Or to go out alone, and find each time I enter a café, that one of my students is waiting tables there and I’m suddenly the most important customer.

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I loved the one dollar out-door foot massage where I watched endless reruns of the story of Angkor Wat on a large open-air screen… the foot scrub for two dollars, the pedicure that ended up a brighter pink than I chose, and the nail polish that was very poor quality, so the finish was less than smooth, but the effort and focus gone into painting my toes far outweighed the less than perfect outcome.

The people of Siem Reap put their hearts on the line for the tourists. They offer up a piece of themselves for a small price. They work long hours for little return and the tuk-tuk drivers spend more time waiting for customers than they do actually driving anywhere. In the heat of the mid afternoon they sling their hammocks and rest. They are waiting for the balmy evening when the tourists will begin swarming down to Pub Street and maybe they can nab a newcomer and sell them a trip to the temples tomorrow… always tomorrow … the locals here believe in tomorrow in a way that is heart-warming and admirable.

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Madame, you want tuk-tuk, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the temples, not today Madame, but tomorrow maybe, you call me, you have my card, tomorrow, tomorrow, I take you to the temples, Madame, Madame…

It’s one sentence, because they anticipate your rejection and already they’re moving with a smile to the next potential customer.

I loved the Old Market, the Night Market (there are several Night Markets) and the food – the food loved me too. I ate the juiciest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, sweet pineapple, longans, dragon fruit, and I never tired of the Khmer vegetable curries and the chilled 50 cent Angkor beers, not to mention the one dollar Margaritas on Soksan Road.

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I found French pastries at the Blue Pumpkin, a designer cupcake café and the New Leaf Book Café where they make the most delicious banana blossom salad while selling second-hand books. And too, minus the food, D’s bookshop (both second-hand and new).

D's Bookshop, Siem Reap

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I admired the ‘flower girl’ as I christened her. The same girl every night, plying her flowers along Pub Street, her witty patter, her sassy street-smarts and who knows, she looked fifteen, but perhaps she was older. I admired too, the young man (whom I decided ran away from the circus), who ran his own one-man-band sort of circus, swallowing fire, and juggling outside the cafés in the balmy evenings, his shiny naked skinny torso and the young boy who made the chocolate banana pancakes with such flair, one hand wiping, the other hand swiping, cooking and cleaning at the same time.

And yes, I stood with all the hundreds of other tourists at dawn, waiting for the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

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But it wasn’t so much about the temples for me, as the local people. I enjoyed a cycling alone to the temples on the school bicycle. The first time I’ve ever cycled close to an elephant or a monkey for that matter. I tried to imagine a quieter time, when the temples were abandoned and overgrown but not with tourists, the eerie mix of nature and man-made stone grandeur, uninhabited.

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One of the highlights for me wasn’t the temples, but the evening I rode pillion on a student’s moto into the balmy late afternoon-straight-into-evening – along the canal to Road 60 for a Khmer-style picnic with one of my classes (barbecued chicken with yummy seasonings from the local roadside stalls) and being one of only a handful of barangs.

As for the circus. If you never do anything else in Siem Reap, go to the Phare Cambodian Circus which describes itself as uniquely Cambodian, daringly modern. Be startled and astonished by the amazing acrobatics, the sheer energy, talent and something else… delight at its best, in its best form – delight from the performers and delight from the audience. This is what I found in Cambodia – you think you’re giving when mostly you are receiving.

But most of all I loved waking at 5.00 am to chase the frogs from the kitchen after the Monsoon and once too, a cheeky rat ran out from behind the portable gas hob. I would make porridge and drink black tea in the make-shift outside dining room. I’d feed the school cat in the hopes she would keep the rat at bay. And then, after gathering my lesson plans, at around 5.50 am each morning, I would pull the shiny yellow curtains in my bedroom open and see my always-early student Phanna, on his moto heading towards the school gates. He never failed me. And soon after, the rest of the class. At 6.00 am the Elementary One class would begin, with the fans going and the doors wide open. I would watch the dawn break as I taught. That moment between dawn and morning, the shifts in colour. Magic. But more than that, the amazing energy and affection that my students rewarded me with. There was no ‘class management’ required, I had rapt attention from hard-working, motivated, interesting and hugely admirable young adults. What more could a teacher ask for?

What I most admired is the extraordinary spirit of my students and all their golden hopes for tomorrow. I felt humbled by their resilience, their hard work, their generosity and their humour. It is hard to imagine a country with such a recent tragic history, where there is such a spirit of optimism.

I’m not forgetting though, there is much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and my students. I saw the poverty between Siem Reap and Phnom Phen when I took the Giant Ibis bus journey between the two cities the weekend of the water festival. The way people live with their rice crops drying at the side of the road, no fresh running water or electricity, relying on oxen and water buffalo instead of modern-day farming methods. I was reminded of Cuba. I know the Government is corrupt, the recent elections weren’t fair and that people live in abject poverty. I read Joel Brinkley’s ‘Cambodia’s Curse’ before I left for Siem Reap and while I was there. It is without doubt a very sobering account of Cambodia’s history. I know it’s time for Hun Sen to go and democracy to have a fair chance. But somewhere in my heart, I have great hope, if the young people I taught, are an example of what lies ahead.

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The Comfort Women

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The title is of course an oxymoron of the cruelest kind.   Comfort for whom?  It reminds me of the title of Julian Barne’s book ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, it all depends entirely where you put the emphasis. Until recently, I had not realised the number, the territory, the vast canvas of this henious crime.   It was on a recent visit to Seoul to be with family, that I came face to face with the history of sexual slavery during the Second World War.  According to Wikipedia a majority of the women were from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, although women from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for the Japanese military “comfort stations.” Many of these women have gone to the grave carrying their secret.     And now, a few, very old, very brave, live on as long as they can, hoping that by holding out, at some point, the Japanese Government will hear them, will see them, will give them all that they want… recognition, by way of an ‘official’ apology.

It is with pride that I write of my encounter with some of the still living sexual slave survivors at the House of Sharing in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, about a two-hour bus ride from the centre of Seoul.   Pride because they are resilient old women with dignity, courage, and often a surprising sense of humour.   Many of them survived the horrors of sexual slavery and because of the shame, married, raised families and did not ‘come out’ until later in life.    Even now, in this quiet rural setting, they are not entirely welcome.   Some of their neighbours would prefer them to be elsewhere, and believe they bring shame upon the district.   So, instead of the overdue compassion, they still carry both inwardly and outwardly, the stigma imposed brutally upon them, their dignity so tragically stolen by a Japanese Government at war.     Simply put, many people, the Japanese Government included, would like that these women would just die quietly, their secrets buried with them.

We were taken on a tour of the House of Sharing by my son and his Korean wife who actively campaign for and support the cause of the Comfort Women. On this particular day, they were the tour guides for a group of around sixty international tourists from Japan, America, China as well as local Koreans, and my husband and I, from New Zealand.   The tour is advertised in the Lonely Planet Guide for the socially conscious tourist who wants to know more about Korea than just the LCD screens, amazing restaurants and famous palaces.

Every Wednesday, a protest is held outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (near Insadong) and whenever they can, my son and his wife, join the protestors, and too, some of these elderly women (in their late eighties now and failing) will travel the two hours or more by van from their rural home at the House of Sharing to join the protest.   Why?   Because, the one thing they still demand from the Japanese government is a formal apology.    The Japanese have admitted that these events took place, have even given funds to support the women, but the most important step they seem unable to take, to offer the women the one thing money cannot buy, an official apology.   An apology will mean that this barbarous act against these women will finally be acknowledged as a a war crime, and not just some collateral damage to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.                 Alas, these women are dying now, one by one, every few months, another survivor dies without the dignity of an official apology.

                  Take a look at the photograph of the map I have posted and see for yourself the shocking geography of it, scan the map, look at the colour, trace for yourself the transportation of young Korean women, some as young as sixteen, as mere bodies to satisfy the Japanese invading troops.   Imagine yourself as one of those women, taken from your family, to serve as a sexual object for not just one, but hundreds of soldier’s gratification.   Imagine that now in your last years, all you long for is recognition, a piece of your dignity restored and all that it requires is a public apology, so that it is known officially, noted in the history books, a dark stain on the maps of Asia, that you and hundreds of other women were sexual slaves of the Japanese Government.   And although you have great dignity as a survivor, maybe something else, maybe but a piece, a small shining piece of something will be yours, before you die.   That small piece of something will be a light that shines on this crime, so that it may never be repeated.

And yet, as I write, and as you read, we all know that around the world in scenes of conflict both within and between national borders, women are still, often, the first victims of violence in acts of aggression by the state, or the soldier.

I am posting some of the poignant and eloquently tragic paintings by some of the women from the House of Sharing.  Unable to put into words the dramatic degradation they experienced as young  girls and women, they have taken to painting to express their pain.   Words are not necessary.

I met some of these women.  I sat with them in the afternoon, after a tour of the House of Sharing that unveiled the history and horrific details of their experiences.   What a contrast.   From the museum part of the settlement, we moved with a swarm of delightful young tourists, to the home where these elderly women are feted like famous movie stars.     These young people come regularly on the bus and the women, to be their friends, to love and to show support for them.   There is much laughter, affection and ordinary conversation.

It might have been any small residential home for the elderly – under-floor heating, spacious rooms, quite luxurious toilets with heated seats, and smiling older women, some more stylish than others, one knitting herself a pair of woollen trousers, one holding my hand with humorous affection and telling me what a wonderful son I have.   My son laughing and teasing her because he said that normally, when he visits, she tells him he is not good enough to be married to our beautiful daughter in law.   The humour is good-natured and the women can be just as cantankerous and difficult as any elderly people might be.   Except they are not ordinary elderly women – they are extraordinary and their story ought to be told, over and over, that it may never happen again.

The systematic rounding up of young women, their transportation to the battle fronts, moved like livestock from camp to camp from Korea to Japan and as far south as Indonesia across vast areas of Asia, to serve as sexual slaves for soldiers – some young women servicing up to sixty men in a day.  Records were kept to ensure the sexual health of the soldiers; prophylactics provided but with no concern for the health of the women….waiting in the small room……listening for the footsteps….   We entered a small wooden hut at the museum restored to the dimensions of the huts used, where the young women lay like objects, listening for the footsteps…   the dark, repetitive, footsteps.

I met two dedicated women volunteers from Japan, living in at the House of Sharing and caring for the elderly women.  Indeed it is common for Japanese volunteers to come and stay for weeks at a time, and through their caring to do what their government refuses to do – acknowledge what has happened. I found meeting these Japanese women a very emotional experience as it highlighted the common decency of the average person and how most of us at any level abhor what war brings, especially to women.  I was very moved by their dedication, generosity and obvious loving affection for the women they cared for.   But too, even this, a small house in the middle of almost nowhere, is not without cultural politics, disagreements, and differing ideals within the groups of people who care and support the women at the House of Sharing.   The Korean’s demand an apology from the Japanese and I hear whispers from the Japanese as to why the Korean Government has not looked after its own women better, with the money given to them by the Japanese.   And so, seventy years on, politics still blur the lines of compassion.

If no-one listens, (and you almost feel this is what the Japanese Government is hoping for), these women will go to their graves, all of them, without ever having had their dignity upheld, their story acknowledged, officially, that they were brutally and repeatedly raped, as part of an official Japanese government programme.   No amount of money or reparation is as important as this official apology.     An official apology will not take away the past, but it will highlight the stain, focus the forensic eye, so that this crime enters the history books and so that it can never be repeated.

I’m adding to this blog from 2011, and including a link to a newly released short film (sub-titles in English) about the recent agreement between the Japanese and Korean Governments which includes a commitment to removing the beautiful and most poignant bronze statue across the road from the Japanese Embassy. http://newstapa.org/31980