Monthly Archives: September 2012

It’s Chinese Thanksgiving

Today is Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong. I miss it. Mid Autumn Festival is the Chinese version of Thanksgiving. 

Families picnic by candlelight during Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong’s Ma on Shan Park

Originally the festival marked the end of the rice harvest and families went to the mountains to have picnics. Today it celebrates the beauty of the autumn moon and is also called the Lunar Holiday. In Hong Kong families and friends gather in parks or go down to the ocean after dark. They carry lanterns or glow sticks. They light candles and spread out blankets for picnics. 

The food associated with Mid Autumn Festival is mooncakes and the school I taught at in Hong Kong distributed them to all the students’ families along with a request for donations to our school. Mooncakes are sold everywhere during Mid Autumn season and in some shops all year round.  I received dozens as gifts from my students. There are many different kinds. Traditional ones are filled with egg yolk, lotus seed paste and coconut. Some have a red bean filling. They are very rich. I was told  one mooncake has the same number of calories as five bowls of rice. I tried several different kinds but admit they weren’t my favorite.  I think it was around 2007 when I noticed how popular icecream mooncakes were becoming. Hagen Daz made them and during Mid Autumn Festival week there would be huge line-ups at their stores. 

Mooncakes have a historical significance. Apparently when China was under Mongol rule an army commander sent the citizens of several towns mooncakes the evening before the festival. Tucked inside them were notes telling the people to rise up at midnight and kill the Mongols.  The surprise attack was a success and with the help of the rebel army the Mongols were chased out of the country. 

I’ll never forget my first Mid Autumn Festival in Hong Kong.

The night before the Mid Autumn Festival our doorbell rang at 10:00. There at the door stood one of my students and his father. They brought us a huge basket of fruit and stayed to visit for about half an hour. 

For our first Mid Autumn Festival evening a teacher from our school invited us to his home near the Hong Kong harbor. Upon our arrival we were warmly welcomed by the friends and family who had gathered together to celebrate. We had a  potluck supper and then headed down to the beach. Our hosts provided us each with a candle-lit paper lantern to carry.   The children were waving light sticks and had on phosphorescent necklaces and bracelets. Hundreds of families were heading down to the water carrying lanterns. Even the dogs we saw were wearing “glow in the dark” collars.   At the beach, we picked a spot to sit down and put dozens of small red candles in the sand. We lit them and sat around our burning circle of light visiting and singing.  The moon was gorgeous and the beach was full of families, each with their own little candle fire enjoying the lunar magic and one another’s company. Apparently some would stay near the water for most of the night. We left around eleven thirty.

Girls hanging lanterns in trees in a Ma On Shan Park during Mid Autumn Festival

When we arrived home the children in our apartment block were still outside enjoying a penny carnival the building management had set up in the courtyard. The gates and walls were decorated with lights. Lanterns were strung up everywhere. We heard the kids talking and laughing long after we went to bed.

In subsequent years we continued to celebrate with friends. Here we are in Ma On Shan Park with colleagues on Mid Autumn Festival night. 

This year I’m hosting my extended family for a Thanksgiving meal a week before Canadian Thanksgiving, because of family travel plans, so we will be celebrating exactly on the Mid Autumn Festival Day.  We’ll have our own little Chinese Thanksgiving here in Winnipeg. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Holidays, Hong Kong

Six Things Jane Austen Movies and Books Have in Common

My husband was gone for four days on a golf trip so I decided to indulge in a Jane Austen film festival in his absence. I watched six movies– Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. I had reread all these Austen books during the last year or so; but watching the stories one after the other, I observed new things they had in common. 

1. Jane Austen movies almost all have dancing. I liked watching the elegant English Country dancing in almost all of the films. Their patterns are lovely but complicated. The many different steps must have been hard to master. How many hours did they practice? Key scenes in many of the films take place at dances. 

Jonny Lee Miller plays Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park

2. I noted that clergymen figured prominently in most of the novels. Three of them Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey are admirable, intelligent and of good character even though they are not perfect. Two of them Mr Elton in Emma and Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice are foolish and vain. 

3. All of Jane’s main characters have an independent, assertive streak that is admirable. In Northanger Abbey Catherine is brave enough to want to explore the mysteries of the Tilney family.

Fanny in Mansfield Park refuses to marry Mr Crawford despite the fact that everyone else seems to think she should.

Emma Thompson plays Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility

It is Elinor in Sense and Sensibility who takes charge and organizes things for her family when her stepbrother and his wife fail to support them.

Elizabeth is not afraid to tell Mr Darcy exactly what she thinks of him in Pride and Prejudice.

Despite the noteworthy confidence of the Austen women, watching the films made me realize again how lucky I am to live in a time when women are not dependent on men and marriage to make their way in the world, as was the case in the time of the Austen novels.

4. I am also struck by how both men and women in the Austen novels were being forced to marry for money. It seemed a key consideration. Perhaps it is still an important factor in many marriages. 

Watching all those movies in such short order got me thinking about what Jane Austen is trying to tell us about marriage. She does think we should marry for love and not for wealth or appearance.  However, she does warn us not to be so taken in by flashy, passionate romance that we fail to notice if the object of our affection is not a person of character, worthy of respect.

Marianne marries Colonel Brandon

Marianne Dashwood for example in Sense and Sensibility falls for the dashing Mr Willoughby and is sick at heart when he rejects her, but in the end, discovers that Colonel Brandon’s love is much more worthy and dependable and perhaps every bit as passionate. 

5. We never get to know any of the servants in the stories. Sure some of them have a few words to say, but they are never treated as real characters and the main protagonists in the films don’t develop close relationships with them.

Mr Darcy writes a letter

6. I noticed how many letters Austen characters received and sent and what an important role they played in the films.  In Pride and Prejudice Mr Darcy writes a letter to Elizabeth to explain why he treated Mr Wickham as he did. In Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood receives her final rejection from Willoughby by letter. In Northanger Abbey Catherine’s brother, James sends her a letter to let her know his engagement to Isabella has been broken off. While Fanny is away from Mansfield Park she receives letters keeping her abreast of what is going on there. 

There is a website where you can answer 40 questions and find out which of Jane Austen’s heroines you most resemble. Supposedly I am most like Emma Woodhouse from Emma. The survey notwithstanding I am drawn to Elinor Dashwood for some reason, especially the way Emma Thompson portrays her in the film version of Sense and Sensibility

Pride and Prejudice, however, remains my favourite novel. I recently read PD James Death Comes to Pemberley just so I could revisit the characters. 

Why would you need to read the passionate Fifty Shades trilogy at the top of the bestseller lists these days when you can have the gentle romance of Jane Austen? 


Filed under Books, Movies

Bamboo Gorge Boat Tracker

The most interesting person I met on our trip down the Yangtze River was Zhuo de Li a 68-year-old boat tracker.

Bamboo tracker who steered our boat

Two or three times a week he and his crew of six men paddle groups of visitors through the Bamboo Gorge. The narrow waterway is a branch of the Shenong River in China’s Hubei province. I was lucky enough to be a passenger on Mr. Zhou de Li’s boat. I say lucky because Mr. Li has been plying the sometimes-turbulent waters of the Bamboo Gorge for the last forty years. I couldn’t have been in the hands of a more experienced oarsman.

The vessels built by Zhou and his fellow Tujia tribesmen are called pea pod boats. Originally they were used to carry supplies, produce and local folks to and from their villages along the tributaries of the Yangtze River.  Recently however they have also become available as a means of transportation for tourists who want to explore the narrower chasms in China’s scenic Three Gorges region.

The local interpreter who accompanied us obligingly relayed my questions to Mr. Li when I told her I wanted to interview the hardworking man maneuvering our boat. As the guide translated I found out boat tracking is a career that requires years of practice. Mr. Li learned how to build pea pod boats and their unique paddles from his father. Other Tujia tribesmen taught him to make the strong ropes that are used by the trackers to guide the boats when necessary. At certain spots where the Shenong River becomes just a narrow, shallow stream the trackers wrap the ropes around their bodies, jump overboard and head for the rocky shore. Here they pull the boat forward in a display of strength and endurance that is truly amazing. Just as Mr. Li learned to be a boat tracker from his father so he has taught his own three sons the skills required. They are now part of his crew.                

 Guiding a boat down the Bamboo Gorge is no easy task. The paddlers sing together as they work. Mr. Li said the songs help keep their oar strokes evenly matched and provide encouragement for the difficult task. He joked saying Tujia women find men who are good singers very attractive. According to Mr. Li, the best singers get the best wives.

 It was very cold the day I traveled the Shenong Stream. Yet Mr. Li and his fellow trackers wore shorts. When they were required to jump into the water, bare legs were more convenient. Apparently, the trackers used to make these trips without any clothes on at all, but in deference to tourists have begun to wear them.

I was most intrigued by the Tujia men’s’ shoes. They are thin sandals of knotted rope, which protect their feet from the sharp rocks on the shoreline. Mr. Li said his wife makes his shoes. She also cares for their farm while her husband and sons are out on boat trips. The tourists provide a welcome addition to the Li family finances. The thirty men from Mr. Li’s village who work on the boats each make about $12 (Canadian) a week.  This provides a real boost to the economy of the local Tujia tribes.       

Before we left Shenong Stream I had the guide ask Mr. Li how long he thought he’d continue being a tracker. He laughed and said he knew of a man who had worked on the boats until age 78. Who knows?  Maybe by now Mr. Li is not only paddling the Bamboo Gorge with his sons but with one of his grandsons as well. 

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Travel

Thin Air Writers Festival

I’ve had an enjoyable time at the Thin Air Writers Festival. You can read all about it on my blog Destination Winnipeg. 

Thin Air’s mastermind Charlene Diehl introducing authors at The Forks on Sunday night

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Winnipeg

Three Gorges Project Yangtze River

Dave and I stand outside a temple on the Yangtze River in 2004. Dave is pointing to a mark by the temple door. We were told the waters of the river would reach that height on the temple when the Three Gorges Dam project was complete. The project was finally declared complete this past July according to this Reuters article. The Chinese government built the dam to provide hydro-electric power and to control the flooding of the Yangtze.

I was reminded of our trip down the Yangtze River by a photo taken by Edward Burtynsky called Feng Ji #9. It is on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and I often point it out to visitors on the tours I give at the gallery. It is one of a series of photographs taken by Burtynsky to show the effects of the Three Gorges Project. Burtynsky is a photographer who specializes in capturing the landscapes created by what he calls the ‘plunder of the earth.’ You can see Burtynsky’s Three Gorges images,  on his website.

Over a million people lost their homes as the Three Gorges Dam was built and the Yangtze River rose.

Four hundred year old houses and eight hundred year old bridges were demolished.Terraced fields that represented centuries of hard labor by local farmers were washed away along with palm trees, lush vegetation, factories, schools and apartment buildings. Winding mountain access roads which communities worked together for generations to build with pick axes and shovels are gone.

Also tragic is the loss of thousands of cultural and historical relics. Temples, statues and monuments disappeared under the rising waters. We saw White Crane Ridge a rocky outcrop near the city of Fuling. It contains twenty carved pictures and over 300,000 Chinese characters which record the history of the river beginning in the year 763.  It is now underwater although the Chinese government has turned it into an underwater museum. 

At one point our river guide pointed to writing on the cliff walls. These are recently painted versions of original poems which have already been submerged by the flooding. Each Chinese emperor penned some literary verse after observing the beauty of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges. Artists then carved their words into the rock. All this poetry dating back thousands of years, now lies under the water, to be viewed only by fish and the occasional fool hardy scuba diver.

   In the city of Chongqing we met artist, Lui Zuo Zhong. For twenty years he hiked the regions that were to be flooded taking thousands of photographs and doing hundreds of sketches of the people, scenery and landmarks. Mr. Zhong has worked tirelessly to create a painting as long as a football field which depicts the riverbank of the Yangtze before the flooding began. Although he does not have the proper funding to display the mural in a climate controlled setting, he has opened a small outdoor museum where his work of art hangs under a tin roof.

He autographs and sells printed reproductions to fund his fight to preserve the unique beauty and culture of the rapidly disappearing Yangtze Three Gorges Region.

Here I’m standing at the Three Gorges Dam with some of our traveling companions. 

This art piece is said to show the Chinese people fighting with the Yangtze. Over the years the river has caused flooding and destruction. In building the Three Gorges Dam China believes that at last they have conquered the Yangtze, harnessing its power to provide electricity to a nation. But at what cost? 

Other posts about our Yangtze River Experience………

Bamboo Gorge Boat Trackers

Stick Stick Men

Leave a comment

Filed under China, History, Hong Kong, Nature, Travel

A Listening Love

“The first duty of love is to listen” said theologian Paul Tillich.  I was reminded of those wise words by two speakers at the September 13 TED talks event in Winnipeg.

Dr. Zahra Moussavi has discovered new techniques for early detection of Alzheimer’s and has created a series of brain exercises that can slow its debilitating effects. The inspiration for Ms. Moussavi’s work was her own mother’s Alzheimer’s. Her mother lived in Iran and every year when she visited Zahra in Winnipeg her daughter noticed some mental deterioation in her lively, intelligent mother, yet doctors could detect nothing wrong and had no suggestions for therapy. Although Dr. Moussavi’s ground breaking research came too late to help her own mother she is hoping it can help other people. Dr. Moussavi said that once her mother’s memory loss was advanced she realized the one gift she could give her was to LISTEN.  Her mother told the same stories over and over again and instead of getting frustrated Zahra tried to listen with respect and interest. Her careful attention to each retelling of her mother’s stories was an act of love. 

Karyn Gagnon, a Winnipeg middle school teacher and another TED Talk speaker gave a moving address about the revolutionary changes that could happen in society if only we would listen to one another with patience and respect. She began by telling us a story her Polish grandmother told her many times. As a young woman her grandmother was doing cleaning work in a church and in the process accidentally spilled a container of holy water. Karyn was such a great storyteller that we listened with avid interest. She said her grandmother would tell that story repeatedly almost everytime Karyn saw her. Karyn tried to LISTEN to the story with new ears and active attention each time. It was her gift of love to her grandmother. To make her point Karyn retold the exact same story at the end of her talk and honestly it was every bit as engaging the second time. Retelling the story was a very effective way for her to make the point that having the right attitude can make you an active listener no matter how many times you’ve heard a story. 

My mother is an excellent listener.  She takes time to listen to everyone, but in particular her children. Growing up we knew we would have her full attention when we wanted to share things with her. During the busiest part of my life when I was teaching, parenting and doing all kinds of free lance writing and community service, Mom and I used to go on early morning walks for an hour or so five days a week. It was such a joy to have that time to talk to her, because she really listened and I could tell her about the myriad of things going on in my life. It helped me stay grounded and sane.  I remember once a sibling of mine had something great happen to them and they said, “I didn’t believe it was true till I had talked to Mom about it.”  I think my Mom personifies the listening kind of love Paul Tillich talks about.  Although I’m not nearly as good at it as my Mom, I’m trying hard to return the favor of her listening love by listening to her, and to the other people in my life. Since I LOVE to talk it’s definitely something I need to work at.  

The first duty of love is to listen. 

1 Comment

Filed under Health, Retirement, Winnipeg

Liar, Liar

“We all lie at least once or twice a day. People lie for personal or financial gain and to protect themselves.” Jeff Hancock, a Cornell University professor was one of the eight speakers at the September 13th Winnipeg TED Talks.  He told us lying is pervasive in society. Jeff first became interested in why and how people lie when he worked as a Canadian customs agent. 

Jeff told us people are more likely to be honest when they are writing something on the internet because there is a permanent record of it which can be checked.  While tracking communication for seven days between a sample group of people and their friends and family; researchers found that 40% of personal phone conversations contained lies; 20% of face to face conversations involved lying, but only 18% of personal e-mails contained lies. 

We tend to be honest on our Facebook pages as well. Jeff said research shows that people who have studied an unknown individual’s Facebook profile and people who meet that same individual face to face will come to pretty much identical conclusions about  their personality and character.  Even on dating websites people are basically honest. Men do tend to round-up their height to a higher number while women tend to round down their weight to a lower number, but only by a little bit. Jeff says they know eventually they will have to meet dates face to face and that possibility forces them to be truthful. We also learned that people’s Linked In professional profiles tend to be more honest than the paper resumes they send to prospective employers.

Jeff claims one advantage to the fact that online communication leaves an extensive written record behind, is that experts have so much more material to study and thus are better able to discern those qualities of online messages that are tell-tale signs of deception. 

In the past most words people said disappeared. In the future virtually everything  we say and do will be recorded. Jeff stated that in just one day in 2012, 200 average North American people leave a larger written record behind them than did all the people born  before Gutenberg invented the printing press. Jeff urged us to remember we all have detailed written trails of our lives in our e-mail accounts. 

Jeff  described three kinds of lies to us that are prevalent in modern social media.  All these terms were new to me. 

Butler Lies- These are the tiny white lies we use to save face or protect the feelings of others. Examples of butler lies are text messages and chat session responses like “I’m on my way” when really you haven’t left home, or “Got to go because the phone’s ringing” -when it really isn’t.  They are called butler lies because in the past people’s butlers served as a kind of buffer between them and their guests. Unwelcome guests who arrived at the front door would be met by the butler would make excuses about why their master couldn’t see them.  Nowadays we let technology make excuses for why we need to go offline or can’t talk. 

Sock Puppet Lies- These are fake reviews and recommendations for books, hotels, restaurants and movies made by people with a vested interest in the product or place being reviewed. They are often made by the creator or owner of the product or place or by their friends and relatives.

Chinese Water Army Lies- Begun in China this is the practice of project managers hiring hundreds of soldiers to flood websites, chatrooms and blogs with positive recommendations for products. 

Jeff Hancock gave his audience some good things to think about.  How and when do we lie? How does internet communication influence our honesty?  Will the fact our lies are now recorded online impact our future?

His lies were so exquisite I almost wept–  from What is the What by David Eggers

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture

Playing The Mennonite Game

I think you went to college with my son.  Aren’t you the girl that just got married to my good friend’s nephew? If I’m not mistaken you played volleyball with my cousin’s daughter. Isn’t your aunt the principal at the high school where my son is a teacher?

That’s a quick excerpt from a conversation I had last week when I went to a Winnipeg school to meet the university education students I am supervising there. As I chatted on the front steps with one of my students a female staff member came out the door. We introduced ourselves and within a minute found we had four or five connections with each other. My student teacher stood there with this quizzical look on her face. You could tell she was thinking, “You two women have never met each other before and in sixty seconds you’ve found all these connections?” 

 I tried to explain.  “As soon as we introduced ourselves we knew from one another’s last names we were both Mennonite and so we started trying to find people we might both know. It’s called playing The Mennonite Game

      The Mennonite Game must seem strange to those who aren’t part of the Mennonite milieu. It is much like the popular six degrees of separation theory. This is the idea that everyone is on average six personal connections away from any other person on earth either by acquaintance or kinship or some common experience.  In the past Mennonites have tended to live in fairly isolated communities and have often married within their own cultural circle. Many have studied at Mennonite private institutions of higher learning, gone to a Mennonite summer camp or done service with a Mennonite charitable organization. These commonalities mean people with Mennonite names usually have plenty of easy to find connections with one another.

 Traveling and living abroad for six years my husband Dave and I discovered even when we met Mennonites in places as far flung as Australia and Hong Kong we were still able to play The Mennonite Game and make connections.

Bruno Dyck in his paper Exploring Congregational Clans: Playing the Mennonite Game in Winnipeg explains it well.

The goal of this game is to see how quickly two Mennonites, meeting each other for the first time can get to know each other’s family ancestry and establish how many of each other’s relatives they know. While some participants may play this game reluctantly due to peer pressure, others seem to play for the sheer fun and challenge of it. In any case participants likely believe that knowing something of another person’s familial ancestry helps to understand that person better.

A You Tube singer named BLT has made a recording of a song called The Mennonite GameThe chorus goes like this……..

Isn’t your brother Cornie related to my brother-in-law Abe

And doesn’t your sister Stella have a nephew by the name of Toews

Come on everybody play the Mennonite Game, you’ll like it you will see

Just open up your mind and if you try real hard, you’ll discover you’re related to me.

The Mennonite Game is becoming harder to play since the majority of North American Mennonites now live in a variety of neighborhoods in urban multi-cultural settings. Most Mennonites are attending public high schools and universities, and many Mennonite young adults are marrying non-Mennonites and gaining last names that aren’t instantly recognizable as Mennonite.  The Mennonite church is expanding at the greatest rate in African countries so there are thousands of new Mennonites who don’t have traditional Mennonite names. It may be that in a generation or two it will be almost impossible to play The Mennonite Game.  Depending on your point of view that might not be such a bad thing. 

This post has been updated here. 


Filed under Culture, Introductions, Religion

Landmines Museum- Second Visit

I made my second visit to a Cambodian landmines museum in May of 2011 with a group of my Hong Kong high school students. Two other teachers and I were chaperoning a service and learning trip. Here is my journal entry about that visit.

After a six-hour drive from Phnom Penh along a national Cambodian highway that was sometimes reduced to one lane and was always bumpy and full of potholes, we arrived at the Siem Reap landmines museum. I had visited this museum in 2004. The museum moved to a new location in 2007. This new one is much more organized and professional looking but I missed the rustic simplicity of the old one.

The cage in the photo holds some of the thousands of land mines that have been discovered and detonated by Aki Ra, a Cambodian man whose parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was raised in an army camp with other children, given his first weapon at age 10, and during his career as a Khmer Rouge soldier planted thousands of land mines himself.  

When the United Nations came to Cambodia in the 1990s to try to help restore order in the country Aki Ra began helping them with the removal of land mines.  He continued to do this as a personal crusade for many years until the Cambodian government stopped him by saying he wasn’t properly trained for removing land mines.

 Aki Ra went to England and got three certificates in land mines removal even though he had to learn to speak English first to do it. Now he continues with his work.  He was one of the top ten CNN heroes of the year in 2010.  On the CNN website, you can read a lot more about Aki Ra.

These photos which are on display in the museum show Aki Ra and his wife at work discovering and detonating land mines.


He and his wife also started an orphanage for children who had been orphaned or maimed by landmines.  There are 35 children living there now but a new dormitory has been built and soon there will be 50 children living there.  Aki Ra and his non-profit organization provide food, shelter, education and medical care for these children.

One of my students is standing beside one of the most common kinds of land mines. There are also many dangerous unexploded bombs in Cambodia. The United States began bombing Cambodia in 1969 saying they needed to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail on its border that was supplying the North Vietnamese with weapons and supplies. By 1975 the US was flying 900 missions a day over Cambodia dropping a bomb every four minutes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 30% of these bombs did not explode on impact and are still buried in Cambodia.

Two pieces of artwork at the land mines museum really caught my attention. This simplistic but colorful and disturbing image of two children who are playing and accidentally step on a land mine.

This sculpture was made by a Phnom Penh artist and was created out of materials given to the artist by Aki Ra. Many kinds of land mines, as well as the tools a person who removes land mines would use, are welded into the sculpture which stood in the lobby of the United Nations for six months on display. 

Here our tour guide Jill Morse is telling us about some of the children who live at the orphanage at the land mines museum. Jill has a very interesting story herself. She and her husband Bill are from Palm Springs, California. They heard about Aki Ra through a friend and decided to visit him in Cambodia to learn more about what he was doing. They were so impressed they began sending him $300 a month to support his work and helping him in other ways. Eventually, they decided to move to Siem Reap to help him full-time. Jill who is a teacher, teaches the children at the orphanage. She’d just finished four hours of classes when she gave us our tour. You can read more about Jill and Bill Morse here. 

It is sad that despite the best efforts of dedicated people like Aki Ra and Jill and Bill Morse children continue to be the victims of landmines left in Cambodian soil. As yesterday’s article in the Washington Post reports 

“An estimated 4 to 6 million land mines and other unexploded ordnance from more than three decades of armed conflict continue to maim or kill Cambodians each year.”

Leave a comment

Filed under cambodia, History, Travel

Landmines Museum – The First Visit

The news story yesterday morning about three Cambodian boys aged eight and nine who were killed when a landmine exploded brought back vivid memories of my two visits to landmine museums in Cambodia. The first was in 2004. Here’s what I journaled about then. 

 Khom acted as our tour guide at a war museum in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “Museum” might be a bit of a misnomer for the collection of old weapons, faded photographs and rusting military vehicles that have been amassed in a bumpy grassy field surrounded by a concrete fence. Khom is proud of this ragtag display however because it provides a way of informing interested tourists about the devastation that has been caused in his country by land mines.

At age five Khom was traveling to the market with his parents when their ox cart hit a land mine. His mother and father were killed and he lost his arm. Some Buddhist monks took in little Khom and raised him. He was too young to remember his parents’ real names and in a country whose infrastructure had been completely destroyed by years of war and government corruption, there was no way to find his relatives. Khom became an orphan in every sense of the word.

Khom is only one sad statistic when it comes to land mines in Cambodia. Experts estimate that more than 60,000 people have died in Cambodia in the last fifteen years because of them. 30,000 of these were young children playing or working in their family’s fields. After the bloody reign of Pol Pot ended in 1979 there were some 12 million landmines left in Cambodian soil. Initiatives by the international community have resulted in the removal of 6 million of those landmines. Not a day goes by however when three or four people aren’t killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia.

Khom showed me samples of the more than fifty kinds of landmines that lie buried in his country’s soil. Attempts have been made to place warning signs in areas known to be dangerous, however since over half the population of Cambodia is illiterate these signs are not always effective. Most of Cambodia’s educational institutions were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime and 90% of its teachers were murdered. It will be a long time before illiteracy statistics improve in this impoverished country where the majority of children work to support their families rather than attend school.

I asked Khom how he feels about Americans. It was as a backlash to the carpet bombing of Cambodia ordered by Richard Nixon that Pol Phot’s Khmer Rouge army was able to gain strength and overthrow the Cambodian monarchy. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many kind Americans have come to Cambodia to try to help us since the war ended.”

I asked Khom how he felt about his fellow countrymen who had joined the Pol Phot forces and participated in the massacre they carried out. “I don’t hate them”, he said. “Many were forced to become part of the Khmer Rouge at gunpoint. Some were starving and had to join the army to eat. I don’t blame them.”

I marveled at how Khom could forgive those who created the conditions in his country that were responsible for his parent’s death and the loss of his arm.  I marveled at his hope for the future.

“I am studying English at the college,” he told me. “I want to be a teacher and open up a school for all the orphan children of Siem Reap. I would also like to become a writer and write books about the civil war in the Khmer language to help school children understand what has happened in their country.”

I hope Khom’s dreams come true.

Leave a comment

Filed under cambodia, History, Politics, Travel