The Rabbit and the Earthquake. A Cambodian folk tale.

NERVOUS RABBIT

While many Cambodian folk tales feature Judge Rabbit as the smart wise-guy, other tales portray the rabbit as a nervous, less intelligent animal. In this story, rabbit’s nervousness leads to mass hysteria and an encounter with a creature I never expected in Cambodian folklore: the lordly Lion.  I don’t know how this creature from Africa ever popped up in Cambodian folklore, but I guess these tales travelled at some stage along the silk road a thousand years ago.

The other thing that fascinates me about this story is the reference to an earthquake. There have not been many earthquakes in Cambodia, yet everyone knows they can be frightening.

This is my retelling of the story.

THE NERVOUS RABBIT AND THE PALM FRUIT

A nervous rabbit lived under a palm tree near a forest. Like most rabbits he was always listening out for danger.

On this hot afternoon he was sound asleep, when a ripe palm fruit fell down on the ground nearby. The crackling sound as the palm fruit fell on the dried palm leaves woke the rabbit with a start!

palmfruitAlarmed, the nervous rabbit jumped up: “It’s an earthquake!” Without looking behind he began running. There was no time for a backward glance, he had to escape the danger!

The herd of oxen saw him running past at high speed and, chewing on grass, one of them called out: “Rabbit! Why are you running so fast? What’s the matter?” Even the oxen were feeling jumpy now, after all, the rabbit looked totally frightened.

The Rabbit shouted in haste “Brother Oxen! It’s an earthquake! There’s no time to chew! Run for your lives!”

The Oxen began to run too. An earthquake? This could be dangerous!

The oxen and the rabbit soon met the Pigs and Deer. Startled, they too began running, joining the Oxen and the Rabbit. The Pigs heaved themselves forward and put on a burst of speed. No earthquake was going to catch these fat pigs!

When the Elephants saw them running, they too, asked “Why are you running? What is the matter?”

The Oxen told them “Haven’t you heard? The earthquake is coming!” Hearing this story, the Elephants joined them. When they all reached the Lion’s den, the clever Lion, seeing all the panic-stricken animals, stretched his paws and casually asked the Elephants, “What’s up? Why are you running?”

The Elephants were out of breath. “We don’t exactly know for sure. We saw the Oxen running. We heard something about an earthquake.”

So the Lion, lazily shook his mane and asked the Oxen, “Did you guys actually feel the earthquake?”

The Oxen confessed, “Well not directly, no.  We saw the Rabbit running, so we ran after him. He looked very frightened.”

The Lion asked the Deer and the Pigs, and they answered likewise.

“Hmmmn,” said the Lion. And he turned to face the Rabbit. “This earthquake.  Just how serious was it?” All the animals looked at the rabbit. They waited for his reply.

“I’m not too sure, myself. While I was sound asleep under a palm tree, I heard the sound of the earth breaking up.  It was a sharp crackling sound. I was afraid and began to run.”

“So you heard something but didn’t actually feel anything?” asked the Lion. “You didn’t feel the ground move beneath you?”

“No,” admitted the rabbit. “But the sound I heard; it was pretty terrifying.”

Arching his back and standing up, the Lion spoke: “All of you, come with me.” And slowly, swinging his tail, he led all the panicky animals to Rabbit’s palm tree. He showed them the cracked palm fruit lying on the ground. “There’s your earthquake,” said the Lion.

The embarrassed animals gave the Rabbit a sound rebuke and slowly went back to their own places.

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An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

New Year – 2009, an emotional memory

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The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.

New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.

At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is  two senior friends of Savong’s father.  One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.

So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.

I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.

At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”

But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.

Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”

Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”

It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.

This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.

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Crackle and Pop. Restoring Cambodia’s precious vinyl history.

I collect vinyl myself and know how hard it is to track down pop 45s from the 1960s. But I’m blow away by the music restoration process happening in Cambodia thanks to the courage of collectors (under Pol Pot music was banned) and the dedication of new curators. An excellent video.

Book Review – Destination Cambodia

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Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.

Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’

Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.

He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”

Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.

The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.

That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”

For two more book reviews:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia

Cultural differences – Americans and Cambodians

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A recent post about the cow/grass/chicken test got a big response and got me thinking about more of the differences between Khmer culture and western culture. A web search took me to a good American educational website (The Language Minority Assessment Project ) which explores cultural differences but in so doing puts the very sensible disclaimer that this is not an effort to over simplify or stereotype people, and that above all students in the classroom must still be treated and respected as individuals.

Their website is the outcome of the Language Minority Assessment Project, a Lesley University Center for Special Education action research initiative developed with teachers from the Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts, and one of the objectives of the project was to enable teachers to distinguish between culturally driven behaviours versus what might be perceived as learning difficulties.

For example in the western, or particularly American tradition, verbal disagreement and debate is actively encouraged whereas in Cambodia as student might choose to remain silent rather than to disagree with a teacher.

The list of different cultural emphases above explains why group learning activities are popular in Cambodia – where the class is split into teams and students share the successes and challenges, rather than get singled out.

One way around some of these differences in outlook is to lace the school lessons with a lot of humour and laughter. When I tell tall-stories that are patently false (did I tell you how I swam all the way from New Zealand to Siem Reap?) the students are given license to park their respect for the teacher to one side. “You’re lying!” they’d jeer. And no matter how I embellished the story (the final swim across Tonle Sap lake, fending off the crocodiles,) the students knew they had permission to ‘rubbish’ the teacher. In this case the quest for social harmony trumps the rule of deference and respect.

Perhaps readers have other examples they would like to share.

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!