Sunday, June 28, 2009

SEASSI: Week Two

When I go to Cambodia, I will find this book.

It has been an extremely exciting week, because we are now able to put together words and sentences in Khmer, read some, and we are starting to work on our independent study projects. Whenever I slowly work my way through words I get a thrill of excitement (maybe this is what I felt like in kindergarten when I was learning how to read and write English). Each collection of symbols and characters are a little puzzle I get to decipher. Sometimes when I figure it out it's a word I already know and it's a wonderfully comfortable feeling. Sometimes it's a word I don't know, and I learn. Sometimes, I'm completely off in what I figure out, and I learn even more.

When we first started, the Director of the SEASSI program said it would be an emotional experience. The first chapter of our textbook said this would be an emotional experience. It said Heritage students are carrying "emotional baggage" that non-native speakers are not. I didn't quite believe it then, but perhaps it's true. We watched a movie about the Buddhist Peace March in Cambodia, and seeing the aftermath of the war was hard to handle. I noticed the only people with tears in their eyes were the Khmers or the Khmer-Americans in the room.

We also watched New Year Baby, a documentary about a Khmer-American woman's rediscovery and reconciliation with her family and her family's past. (Once again, probably to be expected, the ones most affected by the movie were the Khmer-Americans in the room.) There were several very awkward moments... points where I would not have wanted to video tape my parents or points that seemed contrived or over-directed. There is critique of how the movie was directed (click on the "aman_1117.pdf" link), suggesting that when Socheata was caught in between being a daughter and being a director, she directed more than she let things unravel as they would naturally unravel. More important than the objectivity of the piece, however (which you could say is arguable in any documentary - especially one where the director is one of the main characters) I think it tells a very important story. It ends with a message of healing, heroism and love, rather than suffering, silence and anger.

The director has a very interesting project in progress right now, similar to StoryCorps, but called Khmer Legacies. Its mission is to begin the difficult dialogue between Khmer-American children and their parents and to document those stories. It is something I've wanted to do with my parents for years. Since I was a child my dad always told me, "One day, you are going to tell my story, but only when you're older."

I feel like that day is coming soon.

Cambodian Dinner and Dance Party at sunset.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

SEASSI: Week One

My Teachers, Nek Kruu, Lok Kruu Frank, Lok Kruu Kheang

The first week is done. The Khmer group is divided into sections, Beginning (those with no or very little background in Khmer), Intermediate Upper Level (those with knowledge of written language, but need practice in speaking), Intermediate Accelerated (namely Heritage Khmer-Americans like me who speak, but have little to no experience in reading or writing Khmer), and Advanced (there is only one student in this section). The teachers rotate to each group, so we all get exposure to different teaching styles and voices.

The four of us Heritage students, practicing the alphabet during break.

I had no knowledge of the Khmer alphabet before starting, but after four and a half days of study and exercise, I am familiar with all the consonants and vowels, but have yet to learn the sounds of the second series vowels and all the grammar and diacritics that go along with written Khmer. I am also quite bad at transcribing spoken Khmer. When I first looked at them all, they looked like pieces of toast and spaghetti. Here is a taste:

Khmer Consonants

As I grew up in New Hampshire, I didn't get the benefit of a strong Khmer culture. Some other students in this program are focusing in Southeast Asian studies, there are white people who speak better than me, and there are other Khmer-Americans who are the presidents of their Khmer-Culture clubs at school, have learned traditional dance since childhood, and have even organized and directed Cambodian plays. Sometimes it feels like I am more American-Khmer than Khmer-American, and in terms of personal culture and heritage, it makes me feel a little embarassed. Then, I remind myself, I am here to learn all this - and so I do.

Learning the stretches for Khmer dance at our Welcome SEASSI 2009 Reception

Lok Kruu Kheang and Gina demonstrating a dance for Culture Hour.
We all danced afterward.

We have two hours of "Culture" where we will learn about music, dance, food, lifestyle, religion, etc. A lot of Cambodian pop songs are about guys trying to pick up girls and failing. I could not find a youtube example for the one we listened to in class, but there is a popular group now called Dengue Fever. We watched "Sleepwalking through the Mekong" - a documentary of their first tour playing in Cambodia. They are a West Coast group, representing a fusion between surfer-rock and older Khmer songs. The singer is Khmer, only having lived in the states for 5 years or so.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Studies: Madison at a Glance

After 20 hours in an Amtrak train and 3 hours on a bus, I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, Wednesday the 10th. With no commitments until Sunday the 14th, every moment has been non-stop adventuring to better know this city I've never been to before. With every new discovery, I realize how amazing the place is.

Within the first mile I walked from campus to home I came across a man commuting on a unicycle and people in the James Madison Park doing Pilobus-style partner-yoga-balancing moves and people walking a tightrope between two trees. Over the next few days I spent an evening with a group of people who spin poi and hula hoops (who taught me some cool tricks), met a guy who used to spin poi and breathe fire at (strip) club, and met a father-son pair who walk on stilts of assorted styles for a living and collects vintage/art bicycles. Also, the father does the German Wheel and the son went to Circus camp (so he juggles, stilt walks, etc. etc.). I know I am in the right place.

Madison looks like a barbell of land (a.k.a. an isthmus) in between two lakes. It's the capital of Wisconsin, and you can get almost anywhere you need to go and beyond via Madison's network of bike lanes and bike paths. There is an incredible bike culture here, racers, recreational riders, hip riders, family riders, commuters, etc. etc. My apartment is across the street from a park that overlooks Lake Mendota, and it's especially stunning at sunset. There are many parks, many rail-trails, and it's very bike/walk friendly. The downtown State St. is reserved for pedestrians, bikes and buses, and there are impressive sight lines to the State Capitol Building.

Bike Paths in Madison: All the green lines are Bike-only, or at least Bike-priority, lanes

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education and UNC-CH, I'll be studing Cambodian this summer (FLAS Grant). It's the equivalent of one year of study in eight weeks, so it promises to be very intense. The Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) is one of the only places in the US that teaches Cambodian, and they also teach Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, Indonesian, Filipino, and Javanese. It's important for my heritage, and it will be important in the future work I do.