The following is an excerpt from THE CORRECTIONS by National Book Award Winner Jonathan Franzen, in which the archetypal Middle American Mother, frustrated by her own elderly husband's lack of ambition, lack of mobility, compares him to a friend of theirs in a similar position who retains the zest and pep of life:
...He can't write anymore but he sent us an 'audio letter' on a cassette tape, really thoughtful, where he talks about each of his grandchildren in detail, because he knows his grandkids and takes an interest in them, and about how he started to teach himself Cambodian, which he calls Khmer, from listening to a tape and watching the Cambodian (or Khmer, I guess) TV channel in Fort Wayne, because their youngest son is married to a Cambodian woman, or Khmer, I guess, and her parents don't speak any English and Gene wants to talk to them a little.
It's a funny little passage, don't get me wrong. Provides some nice insight into the mind of the mother. It's clever and rings true.
(You can sense the 'but' coming can't you? Get ready for it...)
But here's the deal.
From a North American perspective, the word 'Cambodia' probably conjures up little more than vague, slightly cloudy and refracted images of THE KILLING FIELDS and Richard Nixon on TV announcing that he's going to bomb the hell out of it, and little else. That's fine. Nothing wrong with that. There are a lot of countries in the world that I know jacksquat about (Bhutan, anyone?), and we can't expect everyone to know everything about every little place on the planet.
When you live in a place for a long time, though, that vague and unknown place becomes real. It exists. It has a tangible reality to it, defined by roads and weather and the greeter at the Wal-Mart who seems not to realize that she has a moustache, and a full one, too. If you live in the small town of Dildo, Newfoundland, then that poorly-named place is not just the butt of a million jokes -- it's real, with roads and schools and undertakers and children dying young and elders dying old and letter carriers carrying their letters.
(That's a real place, by the way -- Dildo, Newfoundland. I swear. You think I could make that up? Google it and prove me wrong.)
Cambodia is a place, too. A real place. The people here have their own language. They have a history. A civilization.
So the rational part of my brain applauds Franzen for constructing a witty little conversation. He chose Cambodia, I'm sure, because it's relatively obscure, Cambodia is, and so the fact that this particular character in Indiana is learning the Cambodian language acquires an even more potent comic charge.
But of course, Cambodia isn't obscure at all. Cambodia's been around for thousands and thousands of years -- longer than America, or Canada, or even EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Because of its poverty and relative isolation from the world community, Cambodia has a culture that is as rich and as dense as any I've ever come across.
To see the country I've lived in for two years reduced to a punch-line in a book doesn't really offend me, or sadden me; I felt the same way after watching LOST IN TRANSLATION, admiring the writing and directing and acting, completely and totally empathizing with the main character because I, too, had felt her exact same emotions in those exact same places in Tokyo, but frustrated, nevertheless, because it reduced Japanese culture to this kitschy, cutesy, incomprehensible glob whose whole purpose was simply to accentuate how lonely and distant these two overseas Americans felt.
For cultures as fascinating and multifaceted as Japan and Cambodia are, to see them serve only as glittery comedic backdrops for Bill Murray's mopy face (as much as I love that face)or Franzen's jab at America's zest for obscure hobbies, well, it simply makes me even more aware of how bizarre and cloistered humans can sometimes behave, thinking 'this' place, the one we're in now, the one we're born into, is the barometer by which humanity (and empathy, and comedy) should be judged.
It's a funny feeling, that's all, to be sitting in a car in Cambodia, reading the quintessential modern American novel, and find this reference to Cambodia used so sparsely and humorously. It definitely works, that reference, in that context. It's funny. It's slight. It's somewhat absurd.
Everything the country itself is not.