Back at It, (Almost) Post-Applications

One of the many windows near I camped out near for hours, working on applications - Cafe Living Room, Phnom Penh

One of the many windows near I camped out near for hours, working on applications – Cafe Living Room, Phnom Penh

An infectious bout of restlessness and whining over finishing graduate school applications plagued me for the last month, resulting in my neglect of this site. (If it’s a legitimate excuse, a healthy amount of guilt accompanied this neglect.) I ashamedly blame my failure to nurture and care for this blog on:

  1. Graduate school applications becoming the center of my life
  2. My inability to maintain balance in the tasks I devote my daily business to – instead I “single-task binge,” which results in things like graduate school applications becoming the center of my life

I threw many a fits of internal frustration with the applications, either because I nursed seeds of doubt as to whether I wanted to go through with it or because it was standing between me and getting on with research, but now, almost near the end of the process, I am, a Better Person. I feel as if I have sojourned through an arduous yet holy intellectual sanctification. I am a little more one with my brain. I think I am.

So, here’s a dose of professional accountability and personal vulnerability: I present to you my application essay (well, a modified version of it). It has gone through several transformations since the beginning, and will most likely be tweaked here and there. (Take into account the tone of the essay. Yes, I am selling myself as high-class intellectual human capital. In reality though, I assure you, I am but a lowly, humble student, in the pursuit of truth – and a lucky break.)

Channary is exceptionally pleased in September. The tree in the courtyard of her cloistered Phnom Penh residence bears a new crop of baby mangos. She lovingly gazes at each wildly hanging chandelier, clusters of a cloudy jade hue. Some of their ripened siblings are in the kitchen, she says. Immediately she sweeps my uncle and me out of the heat, into the sitting room, and starts extracting the firm green flesh from beneath its freckled skin.

This was my first visit to Channary’s home. I had been in Cambodia for two weeks then, just starting a Fulbright grant to research genocide memorials. Now, approximately 96 days and 70 mosquito bites into this Southeast Asian scholastic sabbatical, I have on my hands a project whose contours are changing, and moments akin to late afternoons spent within the intimate space of a welcoming host have much to do with the repurposing of this research.

When I wrote the proposal for this Fulbright project over a year ago, I envisioned it as an extension of the undergraduate thesis I completed on genocide memorialization in Khmer art and visual culture. Among the forms of memorialization I looked at were the Tuol Sleng museum and the Choeung Ek monument, two well-known sites in Cambodia commemorating the genocide. To my surprise, I learned in a study by Rachel Hughes that there were at least 80 smaller, lesser-known memorials scattered throughout the Cambodian provinces. I looked for more detail on these local memorials but found scholarly work was nonexistent – well, at least relatively trifling compared to the massive body of literature on Holocaust memorialization. Despite the lack of information, I had a hypothesis. While Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were physical, permanent, and highly political in nature, I conjectured that the local memorials would be organic, grassroots, and apolitical in nature – a “spontaneous shrine,” as Erika Doss terms it in Memorial Mania. [1]

In fieldwork thus far, I have found that the memorials come in a variety of styles, sizes, and states of condition. Yet regardless of physical appearance, each memorial was evidence of an individual or community’s attempt to create a space for invitation, encounter, and relationship. Whether or not the attempt was successful is another conversation. If we look at the memorials as this type of space, then suddenly they are not so different from Channary’s home. Like her tucked-away haven, the memorials are sites of hospitality that illustrate the story of human invitation, encounter, and relationship.

So what started as a comparative historical study between national and local genocide memorials in Cambodia is now a reading of genocide memorialization as a form of hospitality, that is, an analysis of the ways in which Cambodians chose to publicly and privately invite the stranger across boundaries into a cultivated space of relief, refuge, and respite for understanding the past. This shift in research, in addition to the experiences I am privileged to have with Cambodians on a daily basis, has turned what was once just my simple appreciation of an amiable meet and greet into an insatiable curiosity about hospitality, what I see as a more intimate form of diplomacy across cultural borders. I am now asking, which ideas drove the universal human impulse to give and receive hospitality, and what types of cultural practices in hospitality arose from that impulse?

As a result of this questioning, my research interest for graduate studies is an intellectual and cultural literary history of hospitality. Here is an abstract of the setting and approach for the study I would like to pursue:

Setting: Ever since I wrote my first of three essays on Chinua Achebe’s Things Falls Apart when I was 13 years old (the novel decided to grace class syllabi two more times before I finished college), I have been drawn to the narrative of empire, colonialism, and post-colonialism. Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things – these novels are lovely as literary works, but they are also exceedingly rich as historical sources for empire studies. They hearken on the events of European imperialism and colonialism in the 19th century, the anti-colonial sentiments throughout and after World War I and II, and the contemporary issues of humanitarian aid and the development work sector that arose in the territories-turned-nation-states after colonial emancipation. Because I have academic and family roots in Cambodia and Vietnam, I intend to use the French empire as my setting for a history of hospitality, however as I am partial towards international history, I want to look at hospitality in French colonial territories outside Indochina as well, such as the South Pacific or North and West Africa.

Approach: I am using intellectual and cultural historical methods to read hospitality in Cambodian genocide memorialization, and I am interested in using the same approach to read hospitality in the French empire. First, with the method of an intellectual historian, I am keen to examine how the texts of French writers reflected and influenced colonial and post-colonial meeting and exchange. We may ask questions such as: What did notions of French republicanism or la mission civilisatrice in academic or popular literature of the era say about the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized? Or, how did the works of travel writers such as Pierre Loti or Roland Dorgelès portray the colonial spaces they sojourned? And second, with the method of a cultural historian, I am specifically interested in noting the material goods which changed hands, specifically food, shelter, and clothing, since those items have remained staple products of trade, from the days of early colonial establishments, to today’s humanitarian relief efforts in refugee camps. I have a fascination with material culture – which explains why my Fulbright research also considers the physicality of the local memorials – so I am always looking to combine a study of tangible materials with intangible concepts, as I believe artifact is as telling of a historical source as text.

This leads me to introduce my principal reason for applying – my well-being. That sounds like a selfish reason, but let me explain. If there is anything I have become more aware of while being in Cambodia so far, it is this: I thrive in a community of thoughtful conversation. It gets me through the days here, which are not always idyllic and romantic: I am a helpless wimp when it comes to bearing with tropical insects and humidity, I have frequent identity crises as an American returning to a land her Khmer mother and Vietnamese father left in desperation, and I am sometimes frustrated with the difficulty of being a young and independent woman while living with a traditional Khmer family. However, all this is bearable and worth it, just to be able to join in the heartening moments of human conversation, like:

  • making a second trip to Tuol Sleng with Sarah Lischer, and afterwards exchanging our analyses on the site (following a failed attempt to locate mango sticky rice);
  • chatting with monks (who were snacking on a batch of freshly steamed snails) at Wat Kesaram about the rickety wooden genocide memorial tucked away under a durian tree next to the pagoda; or
  • being randomly counseled on my groundstroke swing by an adorably frail, amazingly agile, nearly toothless Khmer man (who I later learned was one of the few national tennis legends who survived the Khmer Rouge!*).

For me, these experiences are moments of hospitality. They have also been the most fulfilling moments for me in Cambodia so far. Knowing this makes me confident that graduate study and a career as a professor or in publishing – able to teach, research, write, edit, and travel – would be the right environment for me, where I could practice a vocation I feel very much convicted to carry out: a life of hospitality, much like this image Henri Nouwen paints:

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines…. [2]

As an undergraduate student, I never saw my history professors simply dish out stiff talking points in class. Rather, I watched them invite, encounter, and relat­e. They welcomed us into a space to think freely. I hope that this image will shape both my experience as a graduate student, and after that, in my profession, to be as gracious and noble of a host as Channary.

*This statement is deserving of an exclamation mark.

[1] Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) 67.
[2] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Image, 1986) 71-72.

4 applications down, 3 more to go. Then I’ll be back at it with memorials, research, writing, and all that.

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