Ethnic Identity

I've never been confused about my ethnic identity. That's not a slam against people who have been... there's just nothing to be confused about. I am as white as they come; blue eyed, brown haired, susceptible to sunburns. So lately, I've been getting some confusing feedback from people in Cambodia about my ethnicity.

First, after I pierced my nose, one of our staff members told me I looked Indian. Even with some funky earrings, I'm not sure how that's possible.

Then, when I had my hair pulled back with a scarf, someone said I looked very French. Also that I should be driving down the road in a convertible. That's not really an ethnic thing, but still... odd.

When I took a group of volunteers to Siem Reap, a seller at the market asked me if one of them was my mother. That's a pretty normal question, except in this case, the volunteer in question was Korean. A very nice woman, lots of fun, but, um, no, that's not my mom.

Today, when I walked into the office after being gone for a week, modeling a new haircut, I was only slightly surprised by my latest ethnic identity. Grace, our office manager, looked at me and said, "You look like a Thai girl." She proceeded to tell me that so many Thai girls look beautiful because they have a Thai mother and white father. I think there was a compliment in there somewhere...

It's not that I mind being mistaken for some other ethnic group. Most often, these comments stem from some change in style, and usually follow after some statement about how beautiful I am (good for the self-esteem, these Cambodians). My absolute favorite comment, however, happened recently, and is not at all related to my ethnicity, but my humanity.

I took part in a training course in Bangkok last week. One of the trainers was a man from Nepal (bearing a strong resemblance to Tom Cruise, not in an attractive way) who seemed to think that my colleague and I were hilarious and great fun (very astute, this man). The trainings ended around 5, and we used the evenings to shop and explore Bangkok. However, he seemed to think that we should be spending a bit more time with the other students. "It is very hard to find some people after the trainings," he said one morning, "They are like angels, flitting off to someplace else."

It seems that not only am I Thai, Korean, French, and Indian, I am also a celestial being. Or, perhaps, he just mistook me for one of the women on Charlie's Angels. Wasn't one of them named Kate, too?


Making Headlines

Cambodia is not a well-known country, geographically speaking. Some people think Cambodia is in Africa (Cameroon?), South America (Columbia?), and one college-educated young woman asked me if it was in Orange County, California (um, nope). Lately, however, little, lost Cambodia is making big world news. There are a couple of reasons for this: elections and war. You know, everybody's favorite newsmakers.


I'm not a terribly political person when in the US, but here in Cambodia, I'm not sure how anyone can have any kind of political fervency. Two weeks ago, Cambodians voted parties into seats in the National Assembly (kind of like the House of Representatives). The party with the majority of votes would rule the country outright (as opposed to forming a coalition government; in the last election, it took 3 years to iron out what "coalition" meant, and even then it wasn't really fair). Since the Vietnamese occupation in 1980, Cambodia's Prime Minister has nearly always been Hun Sen, the dominant force behind the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), and a man who controls nearly everything that happens (politically anyway) in Cambo. In the last election, CPP was forced into the coalition government with other parties, but somehow came out (through lots of underhanded means, I'm guessing) as the ruling party. This year, they weren't leaving anything to chance; they wanted to win outright.

The elections took place on July 27th, and were relatively peaceful. The campaigns leading up to the big day, however, were crazy! Trucks of people cruised up and down the streets, blaring campaign songs and speeches, waving flags, and stopping traffic. Many of these people are volunteers for the party, but sometimes they are paid to campaign (around $2.50 per day for some parties). Plus, they got a free t-shirt and a hat. I nearly signed up (no, not really). By the day of the election, despite careful monitoring by lots of foreign agencies, there were still problems. Many people's names were spelled incorrectly on the voting register, or someone had already voted in their place. In the end, it seems that Hun Sen and his CPP comrades have won again, garnering about 90% of the vote. It must be nice to be unbeatable.


Cambodians are not exceptionally fond of their nearest neighbors for lots of reasons-- land stealing, hostile takeover, and historical border disputes, to name a few-- but recently things have gotten pretty interesting in our little corner of the world. Not to worry, I am miles from any "conflict zones," but circulating amongst the Cambodians are rumors of impending war and poisoned fruit (seriously. Cambodians are notorious gossips, and there is a tale going around that fruit from Thailand--and possibly Vietnam-- is poisoned). The issue is this: an ancient temple (called Preah Vihear Temple) was the site of a border dispute. The land was given to Cambodia (reluctantly, on the part of the Thais), and then the temple was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it a tourist destination, and fairly economically valuable.

The Thai people weren't happy, Cambodian riot police were sent to protect the temple, Thai soldiers went to face off, and Cambodian troops were dispatched. At one point, a few Thai soldiers crossed the border, and this resulted in their capture. Since then, soldiers have been stationed at the border, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and waiting for peace to be brokered. Recently, a second temple (Ta Moan Thom) has been the site of conflict, but it seems to be easing. Some have said the land borders are closed, but I'm not entirely sure. Things seem to be de-escalating, and some have suggested that the conflict was really due mainly to provoking strong nationalist sentiment on the eve of the election (a good threat; one CPP slogan was, "A vote for CPP is a vote for peace"-- which could be indicative of impeding war, or prevailing peace as a result of the voting). Either way, the tension doesn't help the ever-present anti-Thai sentiment, and also isn't a huge help to Cambodia's burgeoning economy.

As an outsider watching these things, it's hard to know what to suggest. War over a temple certainly seems funny, in fact war at all doesn't make a lot of sense to me (call me anti-American, but I'm not a huge fan of widespread violence). There's nationalist pride to consider, land ownership issues, economic benefits, and let's not forget political posturing. In the case of the elections, there's lots to be said for freedom and fairness, and also for stability and a climate open to the work of NGOs (as in, work I help with on a daily basis). The biggest problem I have is that I can't understand some of these things. I grew up during a time of peace, in a place where we believe (typically) in the fairness of our voting process. A history of war and genocide, unfamiliarity with a democratic system, and a lack of education that leave me susceptible to propaganda and flimsy arguments are not my back story. So I've been sitting on the sidelines, wondering what to think, watching and waiting, and trying to understand. At the end of the day, think what Cambodia has truly gained is an international audience. Hopefully, now that people know more about this place, they will pay more attention to what's going on--and cry out against things like senseless war and injustice. Perhaps that is the secret to helping things change.