By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly
Yellow sun cooks the layers of dust off the edges of the curbs. So many curbs, so few sidewalks. Bits of brick and paper and cane juice plastic cups (biked over, ripped) compete for attention. They poke up from the dirt, insist themselves into the light.
Plastic. In a place where there is no recycling.
I am one of those people who would bring my own glass along to a place if I know they’re going to have plastic cups. Pet peeve, you could say.
But I’m distracted, biking up Monivong. Startled. By the light. There is so much light. And warmth. It’s December, but still, the city of Phnom Penh is a kiln.
Holiday season, paper snowflakes and tinsel, and things like seasonal music mixes. But it’s so hot, it doesn’t connect in my brain. I grew up in Michigan. December meant snow boots, cocoa with marshmallows, and mittens that clip to your sleeves.
No snow here. No flurries. Just a quiet getting-ready for 2015. NGO people are wrapping their projects. They’ve put in for their next year’s budgets and have been granted (or not granted) the funds for work to do. Things to see through, or revisit, or start again. International development. People who’ve worked in Geneva and D.C. and come to Cambodia because they’re the best at academics, Hall of Famers already in their careers. Now, they can say, “Did x in Cambodia.”
Sustainability. Tech. Stopping human trafficking. *Fighting the system.*
Young, many of them. Or silver-haired, and hiding in the speakeasies I’m sure are somewhere off Street 63, in compartments of houses or backs of bars, where the real conversations can pour forward into cups uncensored. No fear, here. Not, at least, for a few hours. Bubbly, shiny, getting caught up in the story. They will vent and shed the anguish of being in a far-off Asian country, away from clean streets and ex-lovers and hot showers, and hoping like heck that their work will have mattered.
“And what do you do in Phnom Penh?” A young woman. High-heels. Glitter in her eye shadow.
Opening night. A new contemporary art gallery at the Asia Foundation. In their… foyer? Front office? I can’t tell. It’s so packed, and the mosquitoes are out, and I’m baking. The organizers are speechmaking, in Khmer. I can’t understand the jokes, but I get the gist. New artists. All Cambodian.
Art history was about French and Italian painters back in the day, but I’ve always felt like there was something cool about Asian art and aesthetics. (Is this why I went to Kyoto in the 1990s, pre-digital, with my Minolta? Maybe.)
But *that’s* what I do in Phnom Penh. Study the Khmer aesthetic, which, after nine months learning by osmosis (the only way), I’m just starting to get.
The woman gets it, too. After the icebreaking, the predictable what-do-you-do. The expats here can’t help it. They want to appraise you.
Maybe she’ll move on, I’d thought, not worried. There’s a blonde, a guy, somewhere near, not sure, exactly.But I feel a kinship with him because he’ll go through the same test. We’re like doubles partners.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m… well. I can tell you what I’m *not.* I’m definitely not here to ‘help Cambodia.’”
A flicker of interest. We hit around. Now I’m up, 15-love.
Both of us are used to the NGO people. Who come to pin a star on their CV, already flooding a Milky Way of awards and degrees.
But this woman is an artist. A photographer. Fifteen all.
“I make conversation space,” I say.
She sips white wine. Shifts her weight. I blink.
“You mean, you don’t work as a journalist?”
“I used to,” I reply.
It’s hard to do, but later, I will try. To share the way this happened. The shift to first-person. Not *he-said, she-said,* but personal stories.
Conversations make room for play, chance, delight, and inspiration. At their best, they are music. Words are the notes. We, the team, all of us in that shared space together, *we* are the lead sheet.
Did I get out of journalism for the same reason some who’ve lived here get out of international development? Do they also feel like it’s gotten out of whack? Like something’s missing… but what?
Wish I could fix this. But, of course, I’m only here for the evening. I’m only just passing through. Putting aside what I can’t control, I dive into a story about “uncertainty,” my absolute favorite beat.
Game, set, match.
Can she get me some wine? Red or white?
Red. Beet-red, the color of heart.
After, things are going well. We speak jazz. We’re in flow. I’ll do my best to ignore one thing.
It’s plastic. (end)
Dipika Kohli can be reached at email@example.com.