South Of Houston, A Cambodian Village And A People Who Have Rejected Modernity

On March 13, 2011, I took out my journal and wrote an entry that I still sometimes go back and read when life in the United States -- the buzzing of social media, the vitriol of partisanship -- becomes too much and I need to remember the life I once lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in provincial Cambodia.

The diary entry is just one of the hundreds I entered into my tattered, dirt-smudged journal over my two years in Kampong Thom among the plains of central Cambodia. But, in some ways, it embodied so much of what I did while there, watching, learning, wondering at all the wrongs on this earth and how helpless I was to do anything about it. It was the story of a woman named Srey Mom who I talked with every day while sitting in a park watching the River Sen wend through the center of my village. Her smile was cracked and brown and her hands were cracked and arthritic. She was beautiful.

One day, after I pedaled my bike home from the park, I wrote this:

Srey Mom, who tends the park, would be a midget in America. She's 4-foot-six, weighs 80 pounds, and looks 45 though she's only 32. Every day she gathers the trash and detritus left behind in the park and burns it, the smoke billowing black over the river. Every now and then, I see her sitting on a bench, this bemused and faraway look on her face. I don't know what she thinks in those moments, probably about her exhaustion, probably about nothing at all. But sometimes, when I see her sitting there, I lie to myself and say there's more.

Srey Mom makes around $25 per month. This, for work that brings her to the park every day at 7 a.m. and doesn't release her until 6 that night. Work that has her stooped the entire day, and broken her body so badly there's no hope for marriage or children. Work that will, in all likelihood, end her life short.

"In the mornings we eat rice," she said today underneath a straw hat and between grins. "Just rice. Sometimes, with some prahok (fermented fish paste), sometimes with salt. At night we eat rice. And if we have some extra money we'll buy vegetables. Never meat. Too expensive."

I asked about lunch.

She laughed. "I don't eat lunch. I only eat two times a day. I don't have enough money for enough food."

This is how a significant portion of Cambodia lives. Roughly 90 percent of the county's population works in rice-paddy muck as farmers -- and that's partly why I found it so confounding when I discovered a community of rural farmers just 30 miles south of Houston, which we explore in this week's cover story, "Cambodian Weed."

Cambodian refugees account for almost all the families in this village, dispelling any misguided notion I'd had that most of the Khmer immigrants had come here for a different life, an American life. Why eschew the modernity of American life for life in the fields? But that doesn't fully get at the pull that agrarianism -- the inherent decency to working with one's hands -- has on most Cambodians. What to me seemed like a path of human folly and regression, to them was freedom.

The Cambodians have come from all over the nation to farm this land near Houston, and for a simpler existence. And after spending weeks talking with them, at times I swore I was back in Cambodia, talking to Srey Mom. in those moments, I would think of her along the River Sen, smiling. She was poor, yes. But her life, for all the problems and tragedy, was beautiful.

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