Shade Talk

Chatting with Venerable Nhork Penh and his high school mate - Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh

Chatting with Venerable Nhork Penh and his high school mate – Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh

A version of this post is on the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website here. I issue heaps of thanks on hands and knees to Cambodian filmmaker Tom Som, for taking an hour of his time to click away with his camera at Wat Ounalom with Venerable Nhork Penh during a clandestine conversation about the food one may find themselves stuffing their mouths with for Cambodian New Year. Despite the heat, inescapable even under the shade, the talk made for a most pleasant morning.

From the steaming alcoves of villa-lined streets, to the roasting hubs of tightly-packed market stalls, I stalk shade, all over Phnom Penh ….

  • Below a tarp, where a woman makes me a street side shake: ripe mango, fresh coconut, and a hint of lime
  • Underneath a tree, where a familiar motorbike driver waves hello, as I stroll through my old neighborhood
  • Along the foot of a white fence, where a bird battalion flocks to collect the grains of rice my aunt lays out for them come dawn

This is just a sample of the shade I came across in Phnom Penh, where I have been based in Cambodia during the course of my Fulbright grant to research local genocide memorials. I have observed even more shade while doing my fieldwork outside the capital city, and in addition to providing respite from the sun, I have found that the shade is an excellent host for conversation.

The initial objective of my Fulbright project was to document the largely unknown local memorials in order to balance the scholarly work done on Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, two national memorials in Phnom Penh widely recognized by both foreigners and Cambodians. In time though, I recognized the initial objective had to be refocused and refined.

While collecting images and writing reports for the project, I realized a purely material study of the memorials would produce incomplete findings. The memorials – many physically deteriorating – did not speak. So my project added a new objective: to construct an intimate history for one memorial site, but more importantly, to interview the people in the community. From my research, I discovered that abandoned public memorials do not suggest that the locals have forgotten the history of the genocide. Rather, they indicate that individual remembrance is often a private matter, most accessible by developing relationships with people and starting candid conversations. I have had these conversations, and they flourish, in the shade:

  • Cast over a ceramic-tiled terrace, where a monk sitting in a hammock tells me about the places he wandered in the 1980s
  • Below an aged bougainvillea, where old men lounge and offer me tea and grapefruit, while they point out the exhumed mass graves behind the local temple
  • Inside a commune hall, where 12 village chiefs around a long table listen to me name the places where my family was during the genocide, and then tell me how to get there

Shade is typically where I am too, hiding from the heat, having my own conversations – dialogue laced with other voices in Cambodia: stray dogs, engines, children, geckos, street sweepers, monks chanting from loudspeakers, fan blades whirling from ceilings, and Khmer lullabies and love songs, traveling through my bedroom window in the morning, courtesy of the mechanic next door, unashamedly crooning, in a tin-roofed garage with magical acoustics.

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