Sua s’dei!!

I love the feeling of taking one’s first steps out of the airport. It’s a moment of beginnings, to be savored and sentimentalized. I imagine myself gallantly shielding my eyes as I stop to survey the sights of a city yet to be discovered. I breathe in my first whiff of that foreign air, getting a foretaste of possible culinary delights to come. I… Well, of course this is completely romanticized, as any airport goer or leaver will testify.

My case, I suppose, is pretty representative of the experience of most travelers. A rather jet-lagged me wanders off the plane, following a trail of people who I assume are more informed than I am. I blink at the signs displaying a beautiful, but completely unintelligible script (see footnote 1) and am secretly thankful for the world-domination of the English language as I read the English translations underneath. I make my way to the immigration counters, and smile meekly, trying to look as pleasant and innocuous as possible, as the immigration officer stares me down, ruffles through my passport, inspects my visa (2), and stamps it. Then comes jostling about at baggage claim and then trying not to catch the eye of the officials as I slink through the green custom’s “NOTHING TO DECLARE” line.

I get stopped, of course. However, I don’t think it’s because I look particularly suspicious, but more so because I think the guy is curious about my nationality. He asks for my passport, peers at it, squints at me (yes, I know I have a hideous passport picture), and then asks me what my nationality is (a bit of a redundant question, given the fact he is holding my blue passport blatantly emblazoned in gold with an eagle and “The United States of America” on it). He finds my response acceptable and chuckles as I pass.

I shuffle toward the exit to make my way through a crowd of bright-eyed onlookers, crowding in, craning heads, and searching for just-arrived loved ones. Some people are holding up crisp white signs: “MR JOHNSON FROM AMERICA”, “WELCOME MISS SUSAN SOMETHINGOROTHER.” I look to them hopefully, but alas, a “JULIA” is not to be seen.

And so I wait. Humidity kisses my lungs hello. The shouts and bellows of a very different language form curious new strings of sounds to my Anglophone ears. I survey the faces of people swarming around me. Will I know you? Are you here to pick me up? Hi there! Sua s’dei! Pick me, pick me!

And then I see them. Two men walk up holding a sign with my name on it! I spot them before they notice me and rush over to greet them. We say our “hellos” and “bonjours” (3) and I finally get to put a face to the guy I’ve been corresponding with through email (always an interesting comparison of expectations to make.) Then we’re off and driving the 7-or-so km into the center of Phnom Penh. Awkward, introductory small-talk ensues, but my eyes are mainly glued to the new world whizzing past: the lush greenery of a country’s monsoon season, the cramped buildings, the dusty shop fronts next door to gleaming temples and ornate stupas, flip-flopped people on motorcycles weaving through and whipping past, stray dogs trailing after their noses. It’s a whole new vocabulary of people, of architecture, of city. But, more of this later.

I suppose I should actually clarify why I am going to be in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for two months. It’s not exactly the typical summer destination for an Arizonan is it? This past semester I took a wonderful class on French documentaries in which we watched a film by the celebrated Cambodian director, Rithy Panh. He has done a lot of work responding to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot. His film S21 was a horrifying and powerful account of the interrogation and torture center of the Khmer Rouge. I learned from my prof that a Scripps alum had interned with him in 2006 for the Audiovisual Resource Center he helped found, Bophana. I wrote to him, not particularly sure I’d even get a response, and then could do nothing but get on with the busyness of the end of the semester. I didn’t hear back from the Center until the last week of school, so it was in quite a flurry that my summer plans changed. Within two weeks of the email I had a plane ticket and now, less than a month later, I find myself here.

I will be interning at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center (4), which was created in response to the fact that, after decades of wars and the horrors of the genocide, much of its audiovisual heritage had been destroyed. Its project is to collect that Cambodian audiovisual heritage (gleaning much of this from sources abroad) and to make it accessible to a wider Cambodian public. It’s a project about restoring memory, rebuilding a cultural heritage and identity, and transmitting this memory to future generations. I think it’s a really important cause.

So this is where I’m going to be this summer! I’ll probably be working in the archives and helping with some translating/proofreading (I was told my “native English skills” would be a valuable asset.. hahaha) and basically whatever else they find for me to do. We shall see!

***hahaha… I’ve really developed a fondness for footnotes this past year. Pity formatting is sort of a pain…***

  1. In this particular case, it’s the script is of the Khmer language, which has its roots in Sanskrit. I find its calligraphic swirls so much more attractive than our roman script. (Times New Roman?? Boring.) Khmer words, as they twist and flow across the page, are like art to me, worthy of being enshrined on monuments, or framed in museums as works of beauty in and of themselves. (This being said, I am not so sure about how easy it is to write. It would seem to be pretty time-consuming.)
  2. Actually for Cambodia, a tourist can get a month long, “E-Visa.” I applied online 5 days before I left and once approved, printed off my own copy. the whole internet application/ “print your own visa!” dealio seemed much too easy to me, and thus completely suspicious. (My previous experiences with Visa obtention have been tedious, long-drawn out processes.) However, it apparently does work. Legit!
  3. French is still widely spoken in Cambodia today, due to Cambodia’s history as a French protectorate for almost a century, from about the 1860s to the 1950s, I believe.
  4. If you’re interested, you can check out their website: