Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Obsession with fair skin

If you drive on the roads of Phnom Penh, you will notice women on bicycles and moto bikes wearing gloves, socks with sandals and a hoodie on top of their regular outfit. No, it’s not because they are cold and they are not protecting their skin from the sun (intentionally anyway). It is to prevent their skin from getting darker. I first noticed the makeup. Women here wear foundation about 2-3 shades lighter than their complexion. Most Cambodians have naturally beautiful skin and are gorgeous so this was strange for me to witness as an observer. But I soon realized this was the culture.

I grew up with this in Pakistan and then saw the same thing in India. I remember the fair and lovely ads where a dark skinned girl would go for a job interview and get rejected. She  would then go back for the same position with the same qualifications after using Fair and Lovely for 8 weeks and would land the job. It was infuriating.  Just like in South Asia, Cambodians consider light skinned women more beautiful than the rest. It is difficult to find a picture of a regular woman around the city. Instead, you will find photoshopped models on billboards, on tv, and in photo studios. It is believed to be easier for a light skinned girl to find a husband. They are also treated with more respect. Ah Khmao is a frequently used derogatory nick name and it means “little darky”.  I wont go in to racism and discrimination but it definitely exists towards Africans and African Americans. Skin whitening creams are everywhere. Some salons offer bleaching treatments with powders they cannot name. When I asked a woman about it, she said it burns her face but the results are worth it!

A lot of tourists get Cambodian costume photos done during their stay. These are similar to the Cambodian wedding & family portraits. Even though these are great souvenirs, they also demonstrate the culture’s obsession with skin color. Everyone is lighter and no one looks like themselves. That is part of the charm for tourists, to see the transformation for themselves.

On Friday, I attended Phnom Penh Designers Week and was hoping the progressive modern group of designers would set the right example. But I was wrong. All of the designers only used light skinned Khmer models and one even used white cakey makeup to make the faces whiter. The venue was packed with Phnom Penh’s elite and the media and this would have been a great place to make a statement.

I am not sure why this disturbs me as much as it does considering the bigger problems of the world. But I hate that young girls will grow up believing they are second class because of their skin color. They won’t even try to be the best because they do not see the point. A social order has been created for them and they know where they stand. To me, the saddest thing in life is wasted potential.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Turning Point

I have officially been a resident of Phnom Penh for two months now and it has finally started to feel like home. I remember the uncertainty I felt during the first few weeks. I remember asking myself questions like- Do I really want to stay for six months? Should I leave in three months? What is the point of all of this? And now I can’t imagine leaving early. I look at everyday as an opportunity to learn something new, to explore, to discover. 

I started French class on Monday and after a few tries, I finally found the right class for me.  I was supposed to be in an expat class for beginners but there weren’t enough of us and  I got bumped in to the next level but it was too advanced for me so I switched to the Khmer beginners class. This class has 15 Khmer students, 2 Canadians and me. Aside from learning French, I also get to learn about Khmer culture. On Thursday, I learned that the color brown is considered skin color here. You are either white or you are not and anything that is not is considered black. We were going over colors and the teacher pointed at me and said brown but the class was confused. So he explained the concept to them and then apologized and explained it in English to the 3 of us that don’t understand Khmer. Can you believe that? It so sad but yet so fascinating. Hearing anecdotes like these is my favorite part of traveling, when you actually learn about the culture by experiencing it. 

On Thursday, I also dropped my phone 3 stories down from my class balcony. I was admiring a mural across the street and wanted to take a picture when it fell out of my hands. Everyone watched it fall and I was hopeful someone would try to catch it and also hoping that someone wasn’t a thief. When I finally heard the sound of my phone hitting the ground, I ran down to retrieve it. At least a hundred people were watching in silence. When I picked up my case (it did not have a single crack) and my phone, everyone just had a look of sadness on their faces. It felt like I was in a movie..lol. I made my way back up and all my classmates asked if it was ok and if I was ok. I was surprisingly calm. I think if I was home, I would have immediately called Asghar to probably complain while feeling sorry for myself. But here, I sat in class and started repeating phrases after my teacher. I didn’t dwell on it any further because my new surroundings have taught me that this was actually nothing in the grand scheme of things. 

I also love my class because it is the one of the few places I am seen as an equal to my Khmer neighbor. No one is viewed as smarter or better. It gets tiring to be seen as a foreigner that can be exploited or as someone that is superior because of where they are from. Getting a tuk tuk or moto or going shopping requires a certain level of stamina because you have to mentally prepare yourself to bargain. The price for foreigners is usually at least 50% more than the price for locals.

I did want to get my phone fixed but I also did not want to pay $200 so I asked Gareth’s girl friend, Sokunthea, if she could join me for a few hours of shopping at the Russian Market. Russian Market is about 5 minutes from my apartment and a place where you can literally find anything and everything. We went on Saturday morning and it was such a different experience for me because I was accompanied by a local. No one was asking me to buy anything or pushing me to stop at their shop.  It was refreshing to be able to shop in peace. I was finally comfortable amongst the people. I went to the tailor and ordered some linen pants, I bought a dress and I found someone that could fix my phone. Because of Sokunthea, the asking price was fair and there was no need to haggle. She also showed me parts of the markets I had never seen before. I even found the famous ice coffee shop!  Mr. Bunnareth has been making ice coffee in the same market for 30 years and his coffee is considered one of the best in Phnom Penh. I was so excited that later in the afternoon, I came back to the market with a few friends to show them all the new places I had discovered because of Sokunthea.

I finally have a sense of assurance here I have not had since I left Jacksonville. I finally feel comfortable. I love the work I am doing but now I am enjoying the city too. Coincidentally, Our City festival is in town this week. It is Cambodia's first and only public festival to bring together creative ideas from Cambodian citizens. It is inspiring to be here to experience this wave of change, to see innovative ideas from locals that want to change their city and country for the better.  And I am eager to experience Phnom Penh through many different perspectives over the next four months. So much so that I even joined a crowd sourcing site for travelers to make sure I do not run out of money while volunteering. If you are interested in learning more you can do so at http://www.trevolta.com/travels/Volunteering-for-6-months-in-Cambodia-15132

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Weekend in Singapore

I visited my 29th country over the weekend, Singapore. My cousin, Saima, moved there a year and a half ago with her husband and I have wanted to visit ever since. Once I arrived to Cambodia, she quickly and generously booked my ticket. It is great having awesome older siblings. I took a half day on Friday and arrived in Singapore around 6pm. I had one goal for the trip, to eat as much as I comfortably could while seeing Singapore’s sights.

Saima met me at Changi airport and we took the MRT straight home to drop off my bag. I was so happy to use public transportation again! It was refreshing to be independent and not worry about bargaining techniques or language barriers. Our first stop was Satay Street near Lau Pa Sat market. This little street had about a dozen vendors comprising of Malaysian satay stalls, side dish stalls and beer vendors. We got a dozen sticks of chicken and beef satay. They were absolutely delicious and were a perfect introduction to my foodie weekend.  When most people think of street food stalls, they think of rodents and they assume their stomach will have a reaction. Singapore hawker markets are different. The country prides itself on its cleanliness and that is evident in the food stalls. Each stall displays their grade openly.  I didn’t see anything below a B during my trip.

Our next stop was to Maxwell house hawker center for Tian Tian’s Hianese Chicken rice. Unfortunately for me, it was closed and I did not get to try Singapore’s official dish. I will just have to go back for it. We explored Chinatown en route to our next destination and It was filled with people shopping for Chinese New Year. They streets were beautifully decorated and there were red lanterns everywhere. We walked through Mosque street and its beautiful red and white buildings followed by Pagoda street with Jamae Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple. We made our way into the night market and walked in and out of all the little side streets before stopping at our next destination, a restaurant within the market known for its Szechuan cuisine. We ordered shrimp fried rice and a beef pepper dish. Both were absolutely delicious. I even tried some coconut water but don’t really understand why people love it. Our last stop for the evening was Club Street, a street filled with bars and restaurants which is closed to traffic after 7pm.  I loved the energy and atmosphere here because it reminded me so much of nights out in New York or London with friends.

In the morning, we  headed downstairs in our pajamas for one of the best roti paratha stalls. This was a very simple meal of fried paratha stuffed with onions and eggs and it came with a side of daal. This was a quick meal because we wanted to get ready and start exploring. Since there are no public parks in Phnom Penh, I was desperately craving some park time so naturally we headed to the Botanical gardens for a lazy morning. The grounds are huge and free. There are beautiful sculptures everywhere. They also have an orchid garden and its costs $5. I left Arzi and Saima in the main lawn and went to see the orchids. They were beautiful and the garden had lots of great photo opportunities. Once I had my fill, I met up with my hosts and enjoyed lying on the grass and staring at the sky. Sometimes, you miss the simple things the most. 

Our next stop was Arab Street. This colorful neighborhood is home to some of the best Middle Eastern food and Sultan Mosque. We came here for Usman’s nihari and kebabs. Our lunch was a great balance of spice and flavor and fulfilled my craving of mom’s nihari. The area also houses lots of cute boutiques and gift shops. I loved all the street art in this neighborhood, especially with the mosque as a backdrop. We were tired and decided to head home for a quick nap and wardrobe change for the evening. 

After maybe sleeping a little too much, we got ready to head to Marina Bay Sands to catch the sunset. We went up to Ke De Ta for nice views of the water and Gardens by the Bay as well as the Singapore Skyline. It was beautiful! The bar gets very crowded so we headed back down pretty quickly. Maria Bay Sands has three towers and a mall. The mall reminded me of the malls in Vegas- huge, beautiful and expensive. We had to walk through most of it to get to the water show. Every day at 8:00pm and 9:30pm, the hotel treats its visitors to a free show which involves fire, music and projections on the water. It is about 20 minutes long and not quite as elaborate as the Bellagio but a good show nonetheless.

Next, we walked over Helix bridge and headed to dinner at Gluttons Bay. This is probably the best hawker center in the city because of its waterfront location and amazing food stalls. We opted for some chili crab, fried rice and carrot cake. Carrot cake was not our dessert. It is a radish dish with eggs, garlic, spring onions and turnip. You can also get it blackened which is with soy sauce. It was indeed a gluttonous meal but totally worth it.

Gluttons Bay is conveniently located next to Esplanade, an outdoor entertainment space. We met my friends Priya and Paul here to catch a free performance. The band wasn't the best so we decided to head to Clarke Quay instead. It was nice to walk along the river and take in the skyline and views of Merlion park, which houses Singapore’s official mascot the Merlion. The Merlion is a half merman and half lion creature and is probably the oddest thing I saw in Singapore. Clark Quay is a nice waterfront area of shops and restaurants and it reminded me very much of Birmingham’s waterfront area. We sat and enjoyed good conversation by the riverfront before calling it a night.

We started pretty late in the morning and headed straight to Shiraz for some Shawarma. I had the lamb and it was comparable to the cart guy in NYC. I think I covered almost every type of protein during this trip. After our brunch, we headed to the shops on Orchard street in search of some linen pants for me. I could not find a single pair in the massive shopping district. I finally gave up after an hour and requested to leave the neighborhood. I felt like I was running out of time in Singapore and didn’t want to waste my remaining time in a mall. 

I was curious about Tiang Baru and since Saima and Arzi had never been I wanted them to explore something new with me. It is considered one of the oldest and hippest neighborhoods in Singapore.  We headed to its bakery for probably the best coffee I have had since moving to Asia. The baked goods were equally amazing. My blondie was so good, I was picking the crumbs off of my plate. We walked around the neighborhood and discovered an independent bookstore called Books Actually where I got some reading material for the trip back to Cambodia. I want to come back and spend a day exploring this neighborhood.

I loved everything about Singapore! I am a big city girl at heart and it was great to experience a large city with great infrastructure, public parks and public transportation. I ate to my heart’s content and was thoroughly spoiled by my lovely hosts. I know I will be back!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Protests in Phnom Penh

Cambodia has been in the news over the weekend after a week of protests.  These protests turned deadly on Friday when 23 protesters were injured and 4 were killed. A mass rally and march were scheduled for today but they never took place because the government banned all public gatherings and evicted the protesters from Freedom Park. These workers are demanding higher wages. There are over 800 garment and shoe factories in Cambodia and they employ 600,000 people, mostly women. Currently, the monthly salary is $80 per month and the government just raised it to $100 per month. However, factory owners don’t recognize this raise. Factories have been shut down and GMAC (Garment Manufactures Association in Cambodia) refuses to reopen until their safety is guaranteed. Workers are demanding a minimum of $160 a month. This salary often covers a household in Phnom Penh as well as family in the provinces.

Many of us view Southeast Asia as a cheap travel destination. When I decided to move here I thought I could make it work on my $300 monthly stipend. But I was wrong. My rent with utilities alone comes close to $200. Food and transportation are well above $100 a month.  I have to supplement my income with at least $200 from my own savings each month. And trust me when I say I try to spend the bare minimum. I can’t even begin to imagine how anyone can survive on just $80 and send money back home. Here is a great chart showing the difference in minimum wage vs. living wage http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage/living-wage-versus-minimum-wage

Garment factory workers work long hours in poor conditions to create products they can never afford.  After the events this week, I have really started to think about my shopping habits and the clothes I wear. I only brought a fraction of my clothes to Cambodia, things I don’t really mind ruining and leaving behind.  But after living here for 6 weeks, I have come to realize that I really don’t need everything I have and can easily live with less. Asghar has always pushed for this way of thinking but I always found an excuse to buy a new top or new skirt. Now I see a human life attached to each item of clothing. I see it as something that was made with someone else's sweat and blood.

Why don’t we care? The garment industry and its sweat shops have been in the news for years. Bangladesh alone has received extensive coverage after the factory fires. But nothing has changed. The working conditions are still poor and the wages are still low. We have the power as consumers to demand more. We support this industry blindly and willingly and it is not ok, at least for me and I hope for you too. 

COVID Reflections

It's surreal to think we are entering nine weeks of COVID quarantine. I am one of the lucky ones, I still have my job, health and fami...