Country: Vietnam


Thanksgiving: A Time to Celebrate Rampant Consumerism and Genocide Memorials

January 13, 2014

Thanksgiving. The beginning of the (American) holiday season: a time to join hands with family and friends, stuff yourself with loads of crap food and give thanks that you were born in the first world, all while ignoring the fact that this holiday does, basically, celebrate a genocide. Not nearly as bad as Columbus Day, but it’s probably up there in terms of blatantly insensitive American revisionist history. To add insult to injury, I don’t like most of the food served at Thanksgiving, which is why I have successfully evaded traditional Tgiving celebrations for the last 3 years, a streak I do not wish to break anytime soon.

Having spent 4th of July 2011 in Phnom Penh, I was eager to celebrate yet another American holiday in perhaps the second most ironic place (Vietnam being number one, obviously) in the world.  Armed with the smartest philosopher I know (recall the presence of my former professor, Kory), I was eager to make lots of puns and join in some intelligent/pretentious conversation, for which I had been virtually starved of since graduation, in honor of the Great American Turkey Day.


But then we kept forgetting it was Thanksgiving.

The day began with Kory heading out for the American Embassy to try to sort out some confusing visa issues, and me jumping into a tuk-tuk headed for the Russian Market.  Despite the fact that I’d been in Phnom Penh two and a halfish years earlier, I’d managed to completely miss each and every interesting thing in the city (besides S-21 and the Killing Fields) and was stoked to be venturing out alone.  Similarly starved of shopping, I went into the labyrinth of the market, carefully guarding my bag and person as I slowly oozed through the endless onslaught of shoppers.

The first stall I stopped at, to buy some wallets and various Christmas prezzies for my beloved friends and fans, was operated by a hard bargaining mother/daughter duo. BOTH OF WHOM SPOKE IMPECCABLE ENGLISH. I was flabbergasted. Stunned. Overjoyed. Shocked and amazed!! This was the beginning of a trend. Nearly every shopkeeper I interacted with spoke better English than my university students. Possibly better than the English teachers at AGU. I am still confused, and now eagerly looking for jobs in Cambodia.


Anyways. I shopped for ages, bought fabric to get a fabulous dress made, lived the dream and had a blast. I met up with Kory, exhausted and looking somewhat like a pack mule, and we returned to our hotel for lunch.

Though I’d promised myself I would never return to the Killing Fields, (I may have some emotionally masochistic tendencies, but I’d thought returning to the most horrific genocide sites was beyond even me) I found myself being cajoled into a tuk-tuk alongside Gandalf the White aka Kory Schaff and we set off towards the Killing Fields.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Khmer Rouge/Cambodian Genocide, I will give you a brief summary.  Yet another extremely important event generally left out of the American education system, the Khmer Rouge communist party formed in 1968, and ruled Cambodia for 1975-1979.  Within these 4 years, they managed to evacuate every major city in Cambodia, completely close Cambodia off to the outside world, and directly/indirectly killing 1.7-2.5 million Cambodians.  Under the guise of complete self-sufficiency, the Khmer Rouge created agricultural communities throughout rural Cambodia, worked by persons of all ages.  There were an endless number of reasons one could be killed by the Khmer Rouge, including: speaking French or English, being associated with the former government, wearing eyeglasses, having soft hands, being suspected of anti-government sentiments or being well-educated.  This is possibly one of the least talked about and most horrific periods of humanity. 

The Killing Fields are a series of mass graves, where prisoners from “re-education camps” were sent to die.  It is the single most depressing place I have ever been in my entire life.  An estimated 9,000 Cambodians were killed and buried by their own countrymen at Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields.  Even thinking about being there makes me want to cry.

There are skulls and bones and clothes in boxes around the memorial, and during the rainy season new remains are brought to the surface. It is a never-ending sea of the dead.

Upon entering, visitors are given a headset to listen to an informative narration, accompanied by first-hand accounts and a variety of stories, as they walk around the site.  It is almost completely silent.  It is an awful place. Beautiful, and important, but awful.


Around certain fenced burial pits, travelers have left bracelets and notes.  I do not know why we do this.  Perhaps to try and give recognition that we are remembering what happened, or to try and include ourselves in a part of history the west has no interest in remembering, or maybe just to do something when there is nothing that can be done.  Whatever the reason, it is slightly overwhelming, leaving a bracelet and being connected to every other visitor who has felt helplessly compelled to leave behind a part of themselves.

After we had circled the memorial, we took off our headsets with a sigh.

“An appropriate way to celebrate Thanksgiving, I guess. Shopping followed by thinking about a genocide,” I half-joked as we walked towards our tuk-tuk.


Traffic was terrible, as usual.


Suddenly, however, traffic came to a standstill.  We groaned about just wanting to lay down or eat or do something that people do when confronted with incomprehensible evidence of mass human suffering as traffic inched along.


And then we saw the reason for the jam.


A motorist had gotten into a collision with another motorist, flipped over his handlebars and had his jaw split as his head spun round the wrong way.  The hysterical survivor was flailing his blood sodden arms around as a crowd of onlookers took photos and made a generally inappropriate fuss.


I closed my eyes and moaned, trying to move away from the bloody man as we became unnervingly close to his being.  We passed through the traffic jam, silently thanking the universe that we hadn’t seen the accident itself, and wishing to erase the last few hours from our memories.


After showering and trying to chatter about anything other than what we’d seen, we set off into Phnom Penh in search of a Thanksgiving burger.

And so I celebrated Thanksgiving in the tropics by buying presents and thanking whatever there is to thank that I’d been born where I was born, in the time I was born, before gorging on a burger and fries. Not so different from what happened in America, I’d imagine.