Friday, April 17, 2009

Smiling at tragedy

April 17

We Jews are well known for our sense of humor — wry, ironic, self-deprecating. Except for when it comes to the Holocaust. The Holocaust isn’t funny, and we know very well to be somber when it’s mentioned. Once someone says “Treblinka,” you can’t joke anymore.
In the West that seems obvious and self-evident, but many people do laugh at tragedy. Go to China and watch movies that have scenes from the Cultural Revolution, the period from 1966 to around 1972 when chaos reigned. Schools were closed, precious artifacts were destroyed, people were tortured, humiliated, exiled to the countryside, driven to suicide, and society in general was in the grip of a combination of personality worship, paranoia, mass hysteria and other things that I don't understand.
But watch those movies with a Chinese audience, and they will laugh uproariously.
When I was a student in China, I asked one of my professors about that and she said that it just all seemed so absurd and ridiculous. Even though she was there and remembers it well, she laughed about it.
“Oh, silly, silly us, torturing and humiliating each other. Ha ha ha ha ha."
I was reminded of that last night at the 2nd Annual Taste of Southeast Asia, a celebration of the Therevada Buddhist New Year (celebrated in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar — and presumably in the Xishaungbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Yunnan province) and a fundraiser for Khmer Legacies, an organization whose mission is to remember the 1975-79 genocide in Cambodia, when it was estimated that between one million and two million people were killed.
That was in a country of around eight million people.
Khmer Legacies is doing that by videotaping the younger generation of Cambodians interviewing their parents about the genocide, with the goal of collecting thousands of stories that bear witness to the atrocities of that period.
It was a fun party. Cedric Tovar, former chef of Peacock Alley, was there helping out. He says he’s negotiating a lease for his own restaurant and hopes the ink will be dry in a few weeks. If all goes as planned, it will be a relatively small, neighborhood place featuring the sort of French-influenced modern American cuisine de chef that you’d expect from him. Singha beer from Thailand (it’s pronounced “Sing”; the “ha” is silent — just trust me on this) was being poured on the ground flour while Beer Lao was available in the basement, along with really hard-core authentic Southeast Asian food, including a sort of Thai/Lao beef jerky called neua taet tio (which basically means sun-dried beef), a chile-and-lime marinated shrimp, green curry with tofu (tofu is not a traditional protein in green curry, but you have to give the vegetarians something to eat, and one of the sponsors sells a lot of tofu), curry puffs and assorted steamed and pan-fried dumplings, as well as a pre-packaged dessert that was simply unsweetened coconut and coconut jelly frozen and served in coconut shells.
Upstairs with the Singha were Vietnamese spring rolls, a hamburger served with hoisin sauce and mango, and assorted other goodies. I also sampled the first carbonated green tea I’d ever seen. It was flavored with jasmine and sweetened with sugar cane syrup. It was tasty and refreshing.
I met American film makers who had lived in Cambodia for four years, talked about opium with a young Jewish lawyer, and otherwise mingled with an interesting cosmopolitan crowd.
The emcee for the evening was my friend Jamie Tiampo, who you’d probably like, because he’s a sweet guy.
When it was time for the evening’s presentation, he bounded on-stage, all smiles, welcomed everyone and talked cheerily about Khmer Legacies and how it was appropriate to have a fundraiser for it during the Buddhist New Year because it was during that period that the Khmer Rouge marched into Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Pehn, in 1975, completing its takeover of the country and (he didn’t say this) beginning its ruthless extermination of intellectuals, people who wore glasses, anyone who spoke a foreign language and basically anyone who they felt like killing.
I thought his ebullient, good-natured approach to the whole thing was a tad inappropriate until he introduced Khmer Legacies founder Socheata Poeuv, who showed a video of one of the interviews she was collecting.
A woman spoke of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh and its inhabitants' forced march into the countryside. She said even the hospitals were emptied, and invalids were crawling on the ground until they couldn’t go on. She said everyone just expected to die.
Then the video switched to the daughter of the woman who had been interviewed, who was all smiles and just delighted that she’d had a chance to learn about all of those things from her mother.
What can I say? People deal with tragedy differently.
I went downstairs for more Beer Lao and met a young Thai-American NYU student who had formed an organization to encourage Asian women to be more expressive — to speak their minds more and stop second-guessing themselves.
That’s a worthy cause. I’ve met plenty of East Asian women both in North America and in East Asia who are whip-smart but who hesitate to express their opinions in public. It’s a cultural thing, but I think it can be a hindrance in these women achieving their full potential. She wanted to meet Jamie, so I took her upstairs to introduce them, and we both met a young Sino-Indonesian who worked for an advertising agency but who also was an independent film maker.
I asked if he were Hokkien, and he acted impressed that I knew that most of the Chinese in Indonesia (and Malaysia and the Philippines, for that matter) were Hokkien. It turns out that he’s half Hokkien and half Taechiew. The latter make up the bulk of the Chinese population in Thailand’s central plains, while the Hokkien are the dominant group in southern Thailand. That country also has plenty of Hainanese and Hakkas.
Anyway, one thing led to another and for some reason I talked about the cultural divide that splits Southeast Asia into two regions, the Buddhist north and the Muslim south. The border actually runs through Thailand, which has a population that’s something like 95 percent Buddhist, but its five southernmost provinces are majority-Muslim.
The young Thai-American woman was about to say something but then stopped. I chastised her and asked if her entire organization wasn’t about getting Asian women to speak their mind, so she said she was going to joke that that cultural divide was why everyone in Muslim Southeast Asia should be killed.
“Nice,” I said (sarcastically, obviously). “Nice joke at a genocide party.”
Sometimes self-censorship is a good thing.


Rachel Laudan said...

What can I say Bret? I'll think about this tonight. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

i was very psyched to see neua taet tio make an appearance in your blog, I think it could actually deserve an entire entry. For the record, I always pictured it spelled as neua dad dio, but I bet I never wrote it down, so I think since you've gone first you get squatters rights.