Flying into Phnom Penh, the official Cambodian arrival form had a spelling error. I politely informed the officials that my “lenght of stay” would be ten months. After I’d grabbed my luggage, Adam, my new flatemate, picked me up from the airport bearing bbqed bananas on a stick. On the short ride to my new home, cars were driving on the wrong side of the road, and we saw members of the “Professional” Security Company rough-housing in front of their own office.
When we reached home, I was wowed. Our apartment has crown molding and incandescent lights. The land-lady used to run an Irish pub with her husband, and our apartment is decked out with furniture and decorations from her old bar. We also have four bathrooms. Four.
But after a bit more than a week in Cambodia, Cambodia is seeming more normal and my apartment a bit less impressive. These days, I barely notice someone driving the wrong way on a busy street, and my apartment, though still quite nice, has revealed some flaws. We have ant armies, and a possum-sized rat we’ve named him Splinter. It turns out only one bathroom has hot water, and Splinter has chosen that bathroom’s drain for his home. We can hear every word that’s said in the apartments above and below us, and within the apartment, I can hear Adam turn pages in his bedroom.
Oh, and the person living above us was shot in the leg last week for dancing with the wrong girl.
Phnom Penh is not the seedy city it once was, but it’s clear that even these days, just beneath the surface lies remains of its sketchy past—even if that surface has crown molding.
I was listening to music and watching Chinese countryside whiz by when a nine-year-old girl with her hair tied up in buns with pink ribbons approached me. After I communicated with her all I could—which was mostly the fact that I couldn’t speak Chinese—I offered her one of my headphones. I played for her every genre I had on my iPod, and it was clear that she found everything from The Blow to Beethoven boring. Resigned to the fact that she just might not like my music, I played one last artist: Townes Van Zandt.
The moment I put on the Texas troubador the girl shot me an enthusiastic smile and gave me a thumbs up. Though famous in Texas and in country music circles, I’d never heard of Townes Van Zandt until recently. I had no idea which songs the young girl might like so the two of us listened to every song of his on my iPod—forty in all. At times the girls would move her arms and shake her head to the beat, and at other moments, she would concentrate intensely trying to decipher what the song might be about. Townes’ music humorously touches on the usual country music themes—love, loss, and alcohol—but without understanding the lyrics, it was clearly Townes’ cracking, bending voice that fascinated the young Chinese girl. Perhaps it’s microtonal wavering was reminiscent of traditional Chinese music.
Growing up in Portland, I hated country music. After all, I only knew the likes of Shania, Garth, and Kenny Chesney, and it was easy to feel superior to the places where people listened to country. During the Cold War, the US sent out musicians—most famously jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—to counter Soviet propaganda depicting the US as a cultural wasteland, and throughout the world, people found something to like about the US. With the American election coming, the US doesn’t just need international ambassadors but also domestic cultural ambassadors to bridge the divide between people who wear trucker hats in earnest and in irony. Now that the America is in the middle of a so-called “Culture War,” the red states should send their best country musicians to places like Portland to counter the Country Music Channel’s portrayal. In return, Portland will issue a public apology for Courtney Love. After eight years of George W. Bush, the US needs some real post-partisan rhetoric from a Texan, and the tunes of Townes Van Zandt are a good place to start.
On my first morning on the train back to Hong Kong, I woke up to sound of a virtuosic accordion player. I rolled out of my hard sleeper and walked down the train car searching for the source. I imagined a wizened Slavic man playing the Russian folk tunes he learned long ago. But when I turned the corner and peered into the cabin, I saw a Han Chinese boy—eight years old, at most—playing Eastern European dance music with a stern face. After his song, he passed the accordion to a girl a couple of years his elder, slouched, and frowned. The young boy was clearly disappointed with his performance, but I was rapt. I had no idea the accordion could sound like that. His nimble fingers were as quick and accurate as any concert pianist. Then, the young girl who grabbed the accordion from him preceded to play an even more technically challenging song. When she was finished she passed the accordion on to another person who played a darker tune, full of sadness and loss—this musician who played so emotionally must have been ten years old. The accordion was then passed on to three other people. Even though most of the songs were joyful dance tunes, not a single musician smiled while playing; accordion music was serious business. I lucked out—for almost forty-eight hours, my train carried an accordion troupe of six intense children aged about eight to thirteen.
While I was watching and listening to these kids—moreso than any other moment on my trip—I wanted to drop all my plans and devote myself to learning Chinese. No one in my car spoke English so I couldn’t get anything translated. I wanted to know about these immensely talented children. Where did they come from? Where were they going? Why the accordion? Who was training them? How were other random people on the train familiar with the songs written for the accordion? To kill time on the train, I imagined elaborate and sometimes fantastical answers to these questions, but one thing I’m certain about: there’s a huge underground accordion scene in China, and if I spoke Chinese, I would be able tell you about it.