Monday, May 23, 2005


'Shock and awe' may be the specific words that the U.S. military has decided to use to designate particular aerial campaigns of destruction in Iraq, but I felt similar emotions while watching the University of Cambodia's talent show last night. (And with less debilitating side-effects, though hopefully as long-lasting.)

'Shock', in the sense that the kids pulled it off. They put on the show, a four-hour show, and it was entertaining and heartfelt and amateurish and wonderful. Khmer traditional dance, Khmer love songs, western rock songs, a fashion show featuring casual and formal clothes -- all were included, to the delight of the Cambodian audience, who showed their appreciation with suitably rambunctious applause and indicated their boredom in another typically Khmer way, by talking incessantly through whoemever happened to be trying to get their attention.

'Awe', in the realization: They're just like me.

This is an emotion I've felt again and again, in Japan and Cambodia, and its resiliency, its ability to sting and prod me, may have something to do with how brainwashed we are back home. Led to believe that other people in other lands are fundamentally different.

Don't get me wrong.

Khmers and Japanese most certainly ARE different from westerners, in ways both comical and profound.

But FUNDAMENTALLY different?

I don't think so.

Watching the exhausted performers after the show, most of them in their late-teens to early twenties, I was struck by how, well, familiar they seemed. Smiling contentedly for celebratory photos. Laughing. Letting off steam. On the radio western pop played, and I heard the familiar refrain of the song that seemed to haunt my final year of high school, 'What's going on'. (You know the one: "I said hey -- what's going on...') While it played, and as I watched the students smile and pose, smile and pose, I felt a weird little inadvertent time-slip take place, as if I was the main character in Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, the one who bops back and forth between various incarnations of himself.

Where was I? St.Catharines or Phnom Penh? How old was I? Eighteen or twenty-nine? Were these Canadians or Cambodians? Did I matter?

Shock and awe. I'm surprised more people haven't piped up about the inappropriateness of using a word like 'awe' to describe an action that decimates people's existences on impact.

If destroying human lives via mechanical means needs a slogan, well, I guess it works as well as any other. But 'awe' should be reserved for sunsets, or the milky way, or Dr.Phil's luminescent dome. It shouldn't be utilized to highlight how well metal can destroy flesh.

I know that war is sometimes necessary. I know that casualties are inevitable. I know that bombs work.

But I also know that those students I watched last night, disciplined in their work then released in their enthusiasm, were part of some kind of small, incremental legacy. For when I was three, four years old, those same students' parents and families were living (or not living) through the Khmer Rouge era. They were a part of a nationwide mass slaugther. And now their kids, only twenty years later, were celebrating after a Sunday afternoon talent show, in the centre of a city that lay deserted only two decades before. They had more in common (in some fundamentally light-hearted and human way) with my Grade 13 Drama class that put on a play than with their dying and imprisoned Cambodian brethren of a generation past.

That means something.

Something worthy of the words 'shock' and 'awe'.


Muktuk said...

Agreed, I'm convinced.

What's with the Dr. Phil obsession?

Scott said...

Aha! You noticed it. I just find Dr.Phil very, very funny for some reason. The way he talks. The way he looks. (I'm convinced he's a puppet. A literal, life-size puppet.) And his whole ethos is just, I don't know, odd: Let's berate people with real problems and chew them up and spit them out on national television, one segment at a time, in between commercials for Viagara and vaginal cream. And if your family DOES have real problems, and you need help, why would you go on a TV show and allow yourself to be a guinea pig for the entertainment of the masses? I'm not saying the guy doesn't give good advice; I just find him slightly ridiculous. And somewhat condescending: "You tell me about your problems for three minutes, and I'll tell you how to change your life. And now on to the next victim!"

I also just find him interesting sociologically, cuz as I probably mentioned before, having lived in Japan and Cambodia, I can see that none of what he says would have any relevance anywhere but in America. (Or even anywhere but white, middle-class America.) Family dynamics and conflict resolution vary from country to country, class to class, race to race. To condense people's problems into two minute sound bites and masquerade it as real therapy is somewhat slick, I think. And if you argue that it's NOT real therapy, just entertainment, then it's even slicker, and sicker, because then it really IS just poking fun at people's problems and providing one-two-three-commercial style advice for an Oprah-size paycheck. (By Oprah-size I mean, of course, the size of Oprah's cheque -- not the size of Oprah.)