I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon browsing around Monument Books, checking out the handful of new books written regarding Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge era, and an even better part of the evening trying to teach my teenage students what, exactly, a 'tanning salon' is, and why, precisely, Coca-Cola is so popular with westerners.
The books look interesting, well-written, informative and insightful; they always are. A few are psychological examinations of why the Khmer Rouge killed the way they did; others are personal memoirs of growing up under, and after, that horrific era. The tenured academics and political pundits continue to pump out the books, and people like me continue to read them, intrigued, mortified, and, ultimately, fascinated by what this country has been through, and why, and for what ultimate purpose.
The young people, though, don't necessarily give a shit.
You can see this as a positive or a negative. I see it as a little bit of both. (As I see most things in life, come to think of it.)
The poor young Khmers are not concerned with the past; they are concerned with getting something to eat and finding a job to feed their family. The rich young Khmers are also not concerned with the past; they are concerned with learning English and trying to figure out, in a few years time, how to find some kind of a job, any kind of a job, in corrupt, scandal-ridden Phnom Penh.
I don't know the inner workings of the average Cambodian family. I've never talked, one on one, face to face, in any great detail, about Pol Pot's regime with any specific Cambodian individual. But I do know, from talking with others who have, that the older generation doesn't talk much, if at all, about what they went through. They keep it inside: bottled up, wound tight.
Think about it. We're talking about people who saw family members slaughtered and killed. People who worked for years under the hot unforgiving sun harvesting rice, their only reward another day of life. People who, quite possibly, were in the Khmer Rouge themselves, who murdered children, who betrayed colleagues. When genocide is less than a generation old, the people who lived through it are, well, still living through it. It goes on, underneath, but it's too painful to articulate, so they just go on living. What else can they do?
The young people are not a literate people. They don't read much, and the TV they watch is usually composed of karaoke-type talent shows, and the websites they frequent centre on chatrooms. They are smart people, however, and I know that they do have questions, many questions, about what their parents went through, and why, and for what final end. These are the questions that the academics are pursuing, and people like me are intrigued by.
The students, though, are interested in, well, life. The future. In wondering why white westerners want dark tans, and spend substantial amounts of money laying under artificial light in order to achieve such an odd and unusual look. And Coca-Cola -- what's the deal with that? I mean, the shit tastes good, sure, but westerners lap that stuff up like it's the elixir of life. They ask these questions, and hang with their friends, and make jokes in class, and do what young people do.
A generation ago, their parents were wondering if they would live to see the sunrise the following week, or the week after that; these kids wonder if the English lesson will be as boring as yesterday.
The books will still be written, the questions will still be asked, the memories will still lay buried. The country may still be poor, yes, but for some, perhaps only a privileged few, the questions regarding tomorrow centre upon what shirt to wear with what skirt. And, in this country, that kind of incremental progress, however incidental and frivolous, is something to applaud.