America Idol(ized)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to become a co-facilitator of the American Club at the American Corner here in Kampong Cham. The American Club, for the curious, is funded by the American Embassy* and has the unabashed goal of trying to bring American culture to teenage Cambodians. Students get access to the American Corner — internet-connected computers, an extensive library of books, magazines and videos in English — as well as funds for field trips and a qualified youth coordinator (my friend Kosal) in exchange for their rapt attention to all things American.

Needless to say, I was skeptical, but my curiosity and concern outweighed the qualms and I showed up on a Sunday to figure out what this was all about.

My first Sunday in attendance, the students were frantically working on presentations for a special visit from a representative from the American embassy the next week. The 40+ students were divided into 4 groups, and each had chosen a topic of special interest related to American culture: the elections, the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and the top 10 solo artists in the US. Kosal asked me to visit each group as the so-called “expert” on all things American, so I got busy chatting with each group and answering their questions best I could.

The total disconnect between these kids’ reality and their imagined concept of America is stunning, and only exacerbated by these activities promoted by the club. America, for them, seems to be a homogeneous mass of folks** interested in pop music, beautiful outdoors scenery and freedom.

The next week, Kosal gave me an hour and I organized an activity that compared Cambodia and the US in ways that I hoped would challenge and broaden their concept of both my country and their own. The game show questions included things like:

– Approximately how many children are born per woman in the US? How about in Cambodia? a) 1 and 3.5 b) 0.5 and 4 c) 2 and 3 d) 1.5 and 5***
– True or False. The US is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.
– Approximately what percent of people work in agriculture in the US and Cambodia? a) 10% and 60% b) 5% and 79% c) 3% and 90% d) 0.6% and 80%
– What place did the US 15-year-olds rank in math out of a study of 30 developed countries?
– What is the growth rate of the Cambodian economy? What is the growth rate of the US economy?

Anyway, I think it was somewhat successful because the kids were surprised, but it didn’t even scratch the surface of the strange uninformed relationship of most Cambodians to the west.

Cambodians’ insistence (at least in the NGO sector) on making the westerner into God, and their seeming rejection of their own culture is supremely sad to me and it seems closely married to the rampant materialism I’ve seen here. Western countries have more — more tall buildings, bigger cars, better celebrities, more TVs and cell phones and computers**** — and this makes their ideas and values and culture somehow superior.

One good thing that comes of this: the shame in this seemingly undue adulation has pushed me to be especially critical of how we in the States do certain things (in education, in environmental sustainability, taking care of the poor in our own communities, etc.), which in turn has fostered a powerful urge to get on home right quick and help to clean up my own country’s act before coming to another country to help them with theirs.

* Interestingly, I visited the embassy the other day and it’s no surprise that this clean, huge, imposing, impossible to penetrate building was the face of America in foreign countries.
**Speaking to this point — some of the students didn’t believe I was American at all, given that I’m half-Asian and have black hair and all
*** Do you know?
**** I purposely omit better access to medicine, better schools, etc. because I honestly believe that it isn’t these symbols of prosperity that impress — why don’t the Cambodians idolize the Scandics?

1 comment

1 Anjali Khurana { 09.19.08 at 11:59 am }

that's incredible. and i can't get over the 4 topics being the elections, solo artists, grand canyons and the statue of liberty! just..wow.

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