An American Abroad

Archives for April 2014

Ready for Vacation

Today was our last day of work at Shane English Yuxi before the May Day vacation.


JJ (left), Silas (right) and I are in our professional vacation attire and ready to go. JJ is heading to Beijing. Silas is heading to Guangzhou. And I’m heading to Cambodia and Laos.


This is NOT a new pair of shoes.

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They are actually about 18 months old and have seen much use. They were stained with mud, tar, road dirt, and food (from where I cleverly dropped a bowl of greasy noodles on my feet).

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I was on the verge of getting rid of them and shopping for a new pair when a friend told me about a hole-in-the-wall store near Yuxi People’s Hospital where an old woman worked magic on old shoes. So I gave it a try. This is the result.

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The cost? ¥3, or about $0.54. Sure beats laying out 100 times that for a new pair!

Cineprepping for Cambodia

I’ll be traveling to Cambodia and Laos at the end of this month. To get ready, I’ve held my own private film festival; call it cineprepping.

There aren’t very many movies about Laos. Fittingly, the only one I could find is called The Most Secret Place on Earth. There are, however, enough films about Cambodia to give me a sense of how that country is viewed in the Anglo-American pop cultural imagination. And now there are some native Cambodian entries in the genre which, naturally, have different foci.

The Cambodia movies focus primarily on the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979; secondly on the role of the American government in paving the way for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power; and thirdly on the failure of America and the European powers to provide humanitarian aid once Vietnam finally drove the Khmer Rouge from power. In short, it’s grim viewing and I’m going to need a vat of Zoloft and some Marx Brothers comedies to recover my usual good humor. “The feel-good movie of the year” has yet to be made about Cambodia.

All three of these aspects of recent Cambodian history are presented in Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, which was made by Anglo-Australian journalist John Pilger in 1978. Pilger makes no secret of where the responsibility for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million Cambodians lies. In describing his movie, he writes:

Year Zero not only revealed the horror of the Pol Pot years, it showed how Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s ‘secret’ bombing of that country had provided a critical catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. It also exposed how the West, led by the United States and Britain, was imposing an embargo, like a medieval siege, on the most stricken country on earth. This was a reaction to the fact that Cambodia’s liberator was Vietnam – a country that had come from the wrong side of the Cold War and that had recently defeated the US. Cambodia’s suffering was a willful revenge. Britain and the US even backed Pol Pot’s demand that his man continue to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN, while Margaret Thatcher stopped children’s milk going to the survivors of his nightmare regime.

Pilger’s documentary was never shown in the US, but after it aired in the UK, viewers there sent over ₤45 million in aid to Cambodian relief efforts. The film was later cited by the British Film Institute as one of the ten most influential documentary films of the twentieth century.

Swimming to Cambodia (1987) is a Jonathan Demme film of a Spalding Gray monologue performance.
It’s quirky and amusing on the surface, as Gray recounts his experience playing a small role in another Cambodia movie, The Killing Fields. But beneath Gray’s charming bemusement runs a real current of anger. He says:

This [American] bombing [of Cambodia] went on for five years. The Supreme Court never passed any judgment on it and the military speaks with pride today that five years of the bombing of Cambodia killed 16,000 of the so-called enemy. That’s 25% killed, and there’s a military ruling that says you cannot kill more than 10% of the enemy without causing irreversible psychological damage. So, five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime — including, perhaps, an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America — set the Khmer Rouge out to carry out the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.

No wonder, perhaps, that Gray committed suicide in 2004.

The movie that Gray played small role in, The Killing Fields (1984), is probably the most well-known of the Cambodian atrocity genre, but it hasn’t aged well. Perhaps we’re all inured to genocide and killing on an industrial scale by now.
But I think there’s more to it. The movie tries to use an interracial buddy story about American journalist Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian photographer Dith Pran as a framing device for the tale of how Dith Pran survived in and escaped from a Khmer Rouge concentration camp. Perhaps the Schanberg part of the story was put in to sell the movie at the box office; a film with an unknown Asian hero and no American good guy would’ve been a tough sell in 1984 (and still would be today). But the two stories don’t mesh well and the lack of chemistry between the Schanberg character (played by Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) is painful.

The most well-known Cambodia movies has to be Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s usually thought of as a Vietnam movie, but Cambodia is the protagonist’s destination, the location of the very heart of darkness. Click to play my favorite lines:

The story revolves around Colonel Kurtz, a highly decorated but unorthodox American soldier who, after years of combat in Vietnam, goes both AWOL and crazy and sets himself up as the ruler of a tribe of murderous fanatics in the Cambodian jungle, where they live as if they were back in the stone age.
After watching all the other movies in the Cambodian genre, it’s hard not to see Kurtz as a stand-in for the Khmer Rouge itself.

There are five common themes running through these four films which I think sum up how Westerners view Cambodia today.

(1) Cambodia is a secret, mysterious, and bizarre place. (2) Its people are unfathomably brutal. (3) Westerners aren’t supposed to be there. (4) Westerners bring war with them when they arrive and (5) leave destruction and starvation behind when they leave.

Western filmmakers seem to have lost interest in Cambodia in the 21st century and have moved on to other atrocity stories. One Cambodian filmmaker, however, has started to explore his country’s recent history and social psychology.

L’Image Manquante (2013) (English title: The Missing Picture) reflects on the fact that there are few existing photos of life in the Khmer Rouge labor camps. A visual history of the most traumatic event in the country’s history is absent. There are, of course, officially produced pictures, such as films of Pol Pot addressing a gathering of nervous Khmer Rouge officials or visiting an artificially enthusiastic group of Cambodian people. These clips, which are included in the film, are at least a start in the process of trying to explain how and why the Khmer Rouge exterminated between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.

To compensate for the missing pictures of life under the Khmer Rouge, filmmaker Rithy Panh illustrates his personal narrative with oddly empathic clay figurines, which are sculpted and painted in great detail and set into elaborate dioramas.
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The effect simultaneously distances the view from the literal horrors of the atrocities of the time while forcefully driving home their emotional effects. The process of carefully creating these figurines seems to give the filmmakers and the viewers some way to comprehend and make peace with the past.

The other native Cambodian film, S-21: La Machine de Mort de Khmère Rouge (2003), is also directed by Rithy Panh. It uses a technique I first saw used in The Act of Killing (2012), a documentary about the Indonesian death squads of the 1960s. In both movies, the filmmaker coaxes the murderers, torturers, thugs, and jailers of years ago to re-enact their actions for the camera. Surprisingly, the war criminals seem very eager to perform.

In this documentary, Rithy Panh brings two survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison — a former high school that was used as a detention and torture facility by the Khmer Rouge — back to the premises, which is now a genocide museum.
S21 - regulations
There they confront some of their guards and torturers. It’s a good set-up, but viewers who are seeking explanation, catharsis, understanding, or remorse will come away disappointed. The former Khmer Rouge jailers appear to have walled themselves off, psychologically and morally, from the atrocities committed by their younger selves, and Rithy Panh cannot penetrate their defenses. I was left with little doubt that if a 21st century version of the Khmer Rouge ever came to power, they would find plenty of willing partners among some of the people I saw in this film.

(By the way, I’d love to get my eyes on Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2012), which sounds a little more upbeat than all the movies with Death, Killing and Apocalypse in their titles, but I can’t find a copy to download. Would any of my readers care to shoot me a copy?)

Nighttime at Yuxi Beach

There is a large park in Yuxi called Nie Er Square which features, among other things, a small lake with a sandy beach. I went there two nights ago and met up with my colleagues David and Daniel, David’s girlfriend Xulu, and our mutual friend Emi. Emi was shooting black and white photos in the fading evening light and captured these images, which she thoughtfully sent me:



David brought a Frisbee his mother had sent him, and we had a great time playing on the beach. It reminded me of when I went backpacking in Europe many years ago and packed a Frisbee. Bringing it out often helped me to meet people. I think I’ll take one to Tunisia.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2

[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1.]

Further along the canal was a beautiful wooded park with a few pavilion-type buildings.

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There were some temples and shrines there dedicated to a god I couldn’t identify.

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By this time it was mid-afternoon and we were all hungry. We found a lakeside restaurant that was devoid of customers; the tourist season here opens with May Day. The lake was window-clear, though the skies were hazy there due to the numbers of field fires that the local farmers had set to clear their land.

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After a delicious lunch of fish and pork, we saddled up and headed back to Yuxi.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1

I had such a good time last week motorcycling out to Fuxian Lake that I thought I’d do it again.

This time, I narrowly managed to avoid going to the hospital and going to jail.

And I took photos at some of the villages that are built on canals that run into the lake. It was another great day.

My colleagues Paul Rushton and Daniel Dugger accompanied me. Our first stop was a motorcycle supply shop here in Yuxi to get Daniel a helmet. This proved to be a wise investment.

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It was a beautiful windy day. We got out of Yuxi quickly and zig-zagged our way up and down the switchbacks and into the countryside. The villages we passed were alive with people drying straw on the roadways, with families breaking up huge slabs of coal into usable-sized pieces, with farmers tending their fields, and with trucks hauling produce, boulders, coal, building supplies and foodstuffs along the narrow village roads.

We were going through the second village, me driving and Daniel riding bitch, when two trucks converged on us from both directions. I was forced to the side of the road where there was a lot of loose gravel and sand. Once I’d cleared the trucks, I pointed Zippy back toward the center of the road.

At that moment, the rear wheel slipped out from under us and down we went. Daniel jumped clear, landing in a crouching position. I fell onto my right side with the bike on top of me and slid across the gravel, picking up some pretty road rash, a few nice bruises, and a severe blow to my pride.

Daniel was uninjured. (Of course, he’s thirty years younger than me. He bounces.)

Zippy broke a front turn signal and had his crash bars bent a little. We hurriedly remounted, anxious to be away from the big trucks on narrow village streets. We stopped at the next village and I cleaned up my boo-boos with a bandana and a bottle of water and took a few pictures.

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At Fuxian Lake, we got onto the divided highway that runs around its perimeter. We hadn’t gone more than two kilometers when a cop at a police checkpoint motioned us over to the side of the road. There was much discussion about motorcycles not being allowed on this road because it “wasn’t safe.”

We were also concerned about potential and multiple irregularities in our licenses and motorcycle registrations. In such cases, the police have been known to impound motorcycles, which would have been pretty bad for us, being 50 kilometers from home. I found myself wondering if Chinese jails have cable.

After getting a stern talking-to by the head cop about how we were in China now and the rules were different, Paul abruptly changed the subject to lunch (a favorite subject for many Chinese). Suddenly, he and the cop were talking about local restaurants instead of local jails, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We were let go with a warning and told to get off the divided roadway as soon as we could.

Soon we were riding along a canal that first went through a small village with both a road bridge and a foot bridge over the waterway.

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[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2.]

Who’s she? She’s my sister.

The assignment given to my students after they finished their final exam at Shane English Yuxi was to draw a picture and write an English sentence or two on it. One of my nine-year-olds, Vicky, is a bit of an over-achiever who loves to draw. Instead of doing just one picture, she drew ten. I think her artwork and design sense is amazing, especially considering her age.

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Jissbon Condoms

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I guess the name “Cumgood” was already taken.

By Motorcycle to Jiangchuan

On the map, the town of Jiangchuan looks to be only about 20 kilometers east of Yuxi via the Yujiang Expressway.

But when you avoid the expressway and follow the back roads through a dozen villages, ride up and down mountains, and savor the twisties of rural Yunnan, the distance is easily twice that. I rode there yesterday with my Shane English Yuxi colleague and boss Paul Rushton, who after seven years here knows the geography of the region in great detail.

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Zippy struggled up the hills and topped out at 70 km/h on the straightaways (and makes disturbing noises at that speed), but he floated over ruts and potholes and was very sure-footed on sand and loose gravel.

Out in the countryside, farmers worked their land by hand, oxen grazed in the wetlands, and rural graveyards stood silent on the mountainsides.

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In one village we discovered an ancient outdoor theater that’s been converted to a restaurant and junked up by more recent additions — but I can still imagine what it must have looked like back when it was the only source of entertainment for miles around.

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At another hamlet, we were welcomed by a group of older men who here hanging out outside what looked to be an old temple. They were friendly and curious; I doubt they see many laowais (foreigners) there.

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Jiangchaun stands on the shores of Xingyun Lake, a pretty body of water that’s being developed into a tourist area. We skirted Jiangchuan itself and opted instead to loop around the lake. Some of the villages that dot the shore have old canals running through them, with houses built right to the edges.

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We passed by steeply arced stone footbridges faced with dragon gargoyles, but by that time we were headed back to Yuxi for dinner, so we didn’t stop. I hope to explore these at a more leisurely pace next time.


Although Beicheng is a village just 20 minutes north of Yuxi, I’d never been there before yesterday. I now regret not seeing it earlier.

The buildings there are lower and older than those in Yuxi. Apparently the Chinese mania for tearing down their architectural history has not made it there yet.
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There is a large pagoda in the center of town. It was originally built in the Ming Dynasty, but was rebuilt more recently during the Qing Dynasty and it now bears the colorful excesses of that period.
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That large sign on the second level with three Chinese characters helpfully identifies the structure as “old tall building.”

I climbed up into the pagoda and was struck by the Escheresque internal views.
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Other details, such as the wood carvings on the shutters and the temple bell, made this pagoda one of the more interesting ones I’ve been to.
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