Ah, old war, best war –
Where else did the words flow with an ease that came from centuries of practice? How else would the spirit of your father, your grandfather, rise from the dead?
This war was not, after all, satisfying; it could never go deep enough, the crick was never cracked, the itch was never scratched; the irritation built on itself and the combatants itched all the more.
– The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
It really happened. This week the world bore witness to a shamefully powerful display of democracy when the majority of America found ways of looking past misogyny, racism, xenophobia, hate, and fear-mongering when they hired a new president. As a quick preface, nowhere in this post will I attempt to extol Hillary Clinton as a preferable alternative. Not one praise-worthy aspect of this presidential election comes to mind. But here is what was going on in Takeo Province, Cambodia.
Most of us volunteers were relieved of work obligations on election day given that it was a Cambodian holiday. Independence Day, ironically. As votes were being tallied long into the night on the Eastern hemisphere, volunteers here spent their waking hours glued to the unfolding results, watching America hemorrhage in real time, communicating fervently with our loved ones at home who were unable to sleep through the nightmare.
Even here, where most of the members of my village have never been more than an hour’s ride by motorbike away from their homes and may have only ever known my singular, bewildered American face in their lives, were hanging on to the creeping results. Despite being the only American in my community, and perhaps the most avid to avoid the news coverage and concomitant hopelessness, conversation about the election was inescapable. It seemed as though Cambodian news stations did not broach a single other topic all day. Every television was tuned in. Everyone with a smartphone, namely the middle-aged men in my village, were eager to talk to me, a real! live! American! about the big day. The typical greeting of, “Have you eaten rice yet?” on that day became, “Today is the election!”
Recently, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen endorsed Trump. With respect to the Peace Corps mandate that discussion about host-country politics nationals be avoided, I will refrain from editorializing about Hun Sen. I will let the fact that the same endorsement was also made by renowned and benevolent leaders Vladmir Putin and Kim Jong-Un speak for itself. Before Hun Sen’s endorsement, my conversations with locals about the election were some of the most complex I’ve had to date. After the endorsement, it seemed that everyone was suddenly either in Trump’s camp or had no opinion whatsoever. Everyone became terribly reticent.
That is, everyone except my host-dad.
Pa has spent countless hours these past few weeks watching the Cambodian news coverage with me and attempting to translate the salient points, as shown in the photo above. The language barrier makes it next to impossible to fully understand what the publicized opinion of Trump is here, but certain things speak fairly loudly. The other night, a popular news station did a laudatory spotlight about Trump featuring many clips of his universally aggressive moments with Hillary and footage of his countless casinos and enterprises, all set to the strident theme of Game of Thrones – a popular television show about merciless regicide. No such spotlight was given to Clinton. This election has made it more apparent than ever that we are living inside of houses of mirrors, reflecting back to us only what is familiar and agreeable. This age of connectivity helped transform the election from a diplomatic venture to the world’s most successful marketing campaign on the part of Trump. Cambodians may not speak Trump’s language and therefore might never truly understand his policy or falsehood, but his posturing, swagger, and dominant tone echoes comfortably in the ears of many local officials and fellow villagers whose culture rewards such a demeanor.
“He understood well that Prestige was all. He was used to these nebulous conflicts in which suspicion counts for more than proof, and reputation for more than a thousand witnesses.”
– Burmese Days by George Orwell
That’s not to say that there weren’t a brave few who wanted to have deeper and therefore more risky conversations about this. My weekly tutoring session was spent brushing up on a few key words for these very discussions – corruption, terrorism, racism, warfare, violence, civil rights, overpowering, divisive, hopeless. My younger friends here were mostly appalled by what they had already seen on social media. Pa was seemingly more clear-sighted about it than most Americans, casually confirming with me, “Trump is a wealthy man with no government or military experience, no?” My middle-aged counterparts would ask questions of me and listen intently in turn, but ultimately couldn’t seem to fathom how every single person in America was given a voice and yet there are still so many who were shocked and outraged by the results. Democracy is still largely unfathomable here.
My uncle here said, “Elections are not for people to make change, it is to remind them of their government’s power.”
Of course I couldn’t manage to communicate that this truly was the people’s choice and in fact it is currently Americans who terrify and perplex me. I often look around me and wonder what it must feel like to grow up as a Khmer individual with an inherent sense of violation, a collective understanding that in the not too distant past, your fellow-countrymen or those of your mother, brother, etc. detonated one day under prolonged pressure and disenfranchisement, rose up, and began killing one another. What was it like to live inside of each year leading up to the first onslaught? Was it anything like this creeping coldness in my spine?
“… He had a feeling of history being wrought, of it churning under him, for the men where behaving as if they were being featured for a documentary of war… the very mingling of his own voice with largeness and lustiness seem to create a relevancy, an affirmation he’d never felt before…”
– The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The job description of a Peace Corps Volunteer specifically details our collective responsibility to share American culture with our host country. Never did I believe there would come a time, especially so soon in my service, when it would be so suddenly complicated and painful to be American. Here in a developing nation no larger than Oklahoma, halfway across the world, countless volunteers still managed to submit their ballots. We told our neighbors and friends, eager to share about our democratic duty. It now feels like we’ve been cut loose from the anchor and are drifting, drifting. For now, the best each of us can do is continue to build our own private identity for America in our villages, one built on kindness, gratitude, and acceptance.
As a final note: nearly everywhere that I bike, I am greeted by at least one throng of kids on the side of the road who hail me as “Barang, Barang!” which literally means “French person, French person,” and more colloquially means, “foreigner, foreigner.” Normally, I double-back to introduce myself, taking advantage of a teachable moment about such pillars of American culture as tolerance and interracial cooperation. This week I welcomed a brief severance from my identity and rode on in anonymity. It was not long before I accepted with a tired heart that now, more than ever, is it crucial to stop, smile, and reclaim that most enigmatic assertion:
I am an American.
Your wannabe patriotic granddaughter,
I love you so much, Grampa,