Monday, May 5, 2008

Repatriation...sort of

It has now been a little over one week in my temporary repatriation to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the city where I spent 22.95 years of my life before I moved to Cambodia. Cambodia is the country I like to refer to as the first of many this migratory bird will visit as the seasons change.

Phnom Penh is also the first city I have ever lived for a more-than-temporary length of time outside of Toronto. My total length here will be between 1.25-1.5 years. Not only is it outside Canada, but it's not even in the same hemisphere. In fact, it takes a 15 hour flight just to get from Toronto to Hong Kong and another 2 hour flight to travel from Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. In conjunction there is also an 11-12 hour time difference. So you can sort of grasp that Cambodia is a fair bit away from Canada, eh?

That said, I'm having a bit of trouble re-adjusting to life, albeit temporarily, in Canada. I continue to look back to Cambodia and cannot wait to return back to Phnom Penh. My time in Cambodia is most definitely not finished. The goals I set out to achieve are not yet accomplished, the relationships I have with the city, the country, the people and my friends are only germinating. The honeymoon with Cambodia only recently ended and I'm still figuring out where I stand with it.

I should also mention that I was in the midst of enjoying a simpler form of life in Cambodia before my seasonal migration to the west. Here is a summary compiled with a fellow expat recently repatriated from Cambodia back to the US.

1. Dinners which cost $2 vs. $40
2. The ease of getting on a moto, saying "kinyum jong dove psar toul tom pong" vs. getting on the subway, getting off the train, changing tracks, getting back on the train, taking a bus and walking for 10 minutes, or paying $30 for a cab ride of the equivalent distance
3. Wearing merely one layer of clothing vs. several layers, a scarf and the possibility of a toque
4. Going to a variation of perhaps 5 beer gardens/restaurants/clubs vs. navigating a complex social scene based on what just opened, what you're wearing and how much money you happen to have in your bank account.

But the glass is half full and some of my closest friends are based in Toronto, or Tdot as we affectionately refer to it. My life in Toronto in 2008 is just as rich and well-loved as the life I had in 2007. I know that I can return to Toronto anytime and be received with open arms. I suppose this is the knowledge that truly keeps me migrating seasonally. well as the hope that one day, teleportation will be invented.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Oh China

Now this is completely irrelevant to life in Cambodia. Or maybe it is relevant.

I finally learned to say the following

Kinyum chun cheat chien, bontai, kinyum sun cheat Canada.


My ethnicity is Chinese, but my nationality is Canadian.

This helps out in situations where a general annoyance with the nation of China is conveyed. Be it human rights abuses against activists in its own country, discrimination against ethnic minorities or the taking advantage of smaller under-developed countries to its south, there is currently a general local and global dissatisfaction felt towards nouveau riche China. I suppose this post is quite timely with the synergy of the global response to China's national and international policies and the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics.

I say this without any particularly strong knowledge of or experience living in the alleged motherland. My parents are from Hong Kong, and they were raised during its 99 year lease from China to the Great Britain. My mother is both an anglo- and francophile and my father's linkages to HK remain solely with remaining family and friends; most of whom are really really old. I have a workable fluency in Cantonese. It's actually more like my French. In fact, I would have to say that my education in those two languages was limited at best, and ended at too young of an age. So with a number of ethno-cultural, political, familial and social factors, I identify as Canadian, rather than Chinese.

Some would find this a bit tragic. I'm not particularly fond of my ethnic roots at the moment due to its ties to a nation whose present day social, economic and political culture and political strategem do not align with my own. From March 19-20, I attended the UN Systems Workshop on Pandemic Preparedness in the Asia-Pacific Region*. In a presentation given by the World Health Organization representative from China, a Chinese-national, a short call was given to support China for the Olympics despite what we, the audience, had heard in news reports. In another presentation given by UNDP-China, the speaker, once again a Chinese-national, asked for what we, the workshop participants, felt were the biggest problems with China. A very large number of hands rose into the air quickly upon the request. Tibet! Food safety! Human rights! That blind activist! So clearly there's some dissatisfaction with China thus far.

So, I'm being a bit of a bully to the motherland at the moment. Over thousands of years, China was a pretty great kingdom. I really love its food. Noodles are pervasive around the world as a result of their birth in China. However, so are explosive weaponry. I think that Wu Shu is a really beautiful art form cum martial art and I'm sure the list would continue. Perhaps I shouldn't be too quick to dis-align myself from China.

My Cambodian, Chinese-Cambodian, and my Vietnamese-Laotian-Thai-Chinese-Cambodian colleagues and I.

Then again, I also reflect back on how many Chinese-Cambodians with long family histories in Cambodia identify themselves. Many identify as Cambodian. Khmer even. At a recent party that my colleague, Khay threw, I found out that one of my new colleagues, Somnang, that ethnically he was Chinese, but he identified as Khmer. It went beyond the fact that his family had been sent to the workfields during the reign and terror of the Khmer Rouge, or that he spoke only Khmer (as well as English and French). This was the same for Khay, and his wife Pharun, who both have Khmer names. In fact, Khay's family name was changed from Wong (which is Chinese) to Phiev (which is Khmer) during the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge. As with me, identity is a feeling - the accumulation of a number of historical, familial, social and political factors that form one's ethnic and national identities.

I could really go on waxing poetic and confusion about China, Chinese culture, the Chinese in Cambodia, yada yada yada. However, only this remains: 1/5 of the world's population are ethnically Chinese. I'm sure that quite a bit of them have different definitions of their ethno-cultural identity.


* The Asia-Pacific Region is essentially all countries in Asia excluding the Middle-East.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Juxtapositions....or, March Madness

Outside the Banteay Meas restaurant, where I had my breakfast each morning, in Svay Rieng.

By juxtaposition, I do not refer to the truly engaging student-run global health webzine from my alma mater, the University of Toronto (, but to how I have realized the dynamics of development in Southeast Asia, or even much of Asia itself. But first, please do check out Juxtaposition, not because a number of my friends serve as contributors, editors or donor-relations, but because it is a truly well written and insightful publication by future leaders in development.

I also know it's been a while since I've written. I just culminated 3 weeks of travel between and within Thailand and Cambodia. For work, play and work again. It's been a head-rush seeing everything in the past weeks. However, home is where the heart is, and my heart is in Cambodia at the moment. It's nice to be sitting in front of my computer, in my flat in Phnom Penh; not sprawled among my bags in the Suvarnabhumi Int'l Airport in Bangkok, frustrated at a cancelled Air Asia flight back to PP. Although that flight cancellation did allow me to put these thoughts on paper.

Getting back to the subject, I'd first like to quote the insightful writer and anthropological commentator, Suketu Mehta, from his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found,

"The growth of the megacity is an Asian phenomenon:Asia has eleven of the world's fifteen biggest. Why do Asians like to live in cities? Maybe we like people more." - page 17.

Urban growth in Cambodia is stunning, especially in the last 6 months that I have lived here. I believe this is why work in development, here, can be considered particularly unique in its comfort; compared to settings in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. In these regions, I have heard from colleagues that there is less available in general. Simultaneously, I'd also like to quote my friend, Danny, a former fellow Cambodian expat, who recently left for greener pastures in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Cambodia is 5 minutes outside of Phnom Penh" - Danny Whitehead, Jan 15, 2008

Within a nation, you have your rural quiet and your urban sprawl. Or, your rural poverty and your urban wealth. In Cambodia, the difference between the 2 settings could be no greater. For the first time in mid-January, I made my first trek out to a rural village near the Thai border to visit a friend's community-based tourism project. This involved a 7 hour bus ride from PP to Sisophon (in Banteay Meanchey province), and then a 1.5 hour ride in a pick up truck over dusty and bumpy roads that need to be relaid each each after the rainy season. Mid journey, our pick up truck's suspension actually broke; this was likely due to the weight of 12 people and goods riding on the truck bed. So, on the side of the road, serendipitously next to a roadside mechanic, the driver dove into the problem. During this 1 hr blip in my journey, not a single vehicle passed us by on National Road 69, aside from the single remorque.

Jan 19 - roadside mechnical failure on National Road 69.

Cambodia was and is truly 5 minutes outside of Phnom Penh. For the first time I had been in Cambodia, I was in a place where virtually no one spoke English, aside from my barang* friend, who was actually a francophone. I still really enjoy those memories of waking up to the sounds of farm animals outside the house I stayed at.

March 3 - Crossing the Mekong on a ferry in Neak Luong, Prey Veng Province, on my way to Svay Rieng.

I spent March 3-7 in Svay Rieng (SVR). The eastern-most province in Cambodia and bordering Vietnam, SVR is considered one of the poorest. Regular yearly floods, in the wet season, droughts in the dry season, and inset infestion in harvest season, descend upon the province. Income generation methods, once dependent on agriculture, become limited due to low education and skills. As a result, many residents migrate to Phnom Penh, seeking employment as garment workers, and to Vietnam, where they turn to begging as a form of income generation. Two of my developing projects in Cambodia seek to reduce health vulnerabilities faced by these mobile groups, such as poor hygiene and exposure to HIV/AIDS, complementing efforts that seek to reduce the need for migration itself.

One of the nicer homes, in Tuol Ampil village, Chantrea District, Svay Rieng province.

My familiarization with SVR invovlved visits to the villages of Kbal Thnal, Kbal Spean and Tuol Ampil. In Tuol Ampil, the village-based case worker gave me one of those "poverty tours" to familiarize myself with local living conditions. What I saw in these villages shocked me: huts made of dung and hay, not raised from the ground to protect from the rainy season. Some huts didn't have walls, let alone sources of water. The land was also extremely dry.

Access to these villages is limited. Vice versa, the access of villages to resources and health services is limited. Roads are incredibly shoddy and our IOM Land Cruiser even tipped over on the way back from Kbal Spean. Suddenly the malnutrition, gastro-intestinal disease, maternal morbidity and the desire (read: need) to migrate made more sense.

Comparatively, I live and do most work in Phnom Penh, where there are a series of Chinese and Korean structures being build, like the Golden 42 Towers at the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong Blvds. Expats and rich Cambodians find it wonderfully comfortable to live in Phnom Penh. One can purchase all the foreign groceries one needs at Lucky Supermarket: liverwurst for the Germans, cheese for the Italians and French, Kraft Dinner for those few Canadians.

Roads are generally bumpy but still paved and there is constant activity on them. The Karaoke bar next to my flat, while still operating, would continue blaring until the early hours.

Phnom Penh, street 102, near Sharky's

Something that also amazed me was the amount of choice in PP. Down Kampuchea Krom Street (Plav 124), I once counted 30 stores which sold TVs and speakers.

Regionally, you have the juxtaposition of countries like Thailand, with Cambodia. It is also remarkably different. I wrote this post, originally on March 12. I had just spent the weekend beaching on the island of Samet in Thailand. However, just before and after the beach was the drive to and from the port and Bangkok. It was ridiculous how many times I needed to remind myself that I was driving down a Thai highway, and not one in Florida.

The cities are no different.

Bangkok is rife with mall culture. At the Siam Paragon, were temptations like Balenciaga, Zara, Porsche and Lamborghini even! At the more bourgeousie Siam Centre, my friends and I succumbed to home-y comforts of a 6oz cut of prime rib at the Outback Steakhouse.

Instead of a predominance of motos and cheaper toyotas streaming down the bumpy roads, you have a greater selection of cars. And then there are the hotels! Himawari and Hotel Cambodiana - eat your heart out! I should also mention that a purchase of an issue of Vogue or Nylon would have also helped me alleviate feelings of inadequacy concerning not being dressed more a la mode. After that weekend in Thailand, I was more than ready to return to my considerably more limited diet in Phnom Penh.

I expect my year in this region to continue to be full of these strange observations. I often forget that the poorest can be found a 5 minutes drive and not 10 hours away; and that the even richer can be found less than 1 hour's flight away.

To conclude, I'd like to quote Suketu Mehta, from Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found, once again,

"Fifty years ago, if you wanted to see where the action was in India, you went to the villages." - page 17.

I think the same can be said of Cambodia, but the action is in the now. Much of Cambodian culture remains rooted in the rural areas; only slightly injected with Western cultural subjects that development has brought.

* Barang is a colloquial Khmer term that describes a foreigner. It has its roots in French expatriates due to France's former colonial position. It is used as a term which refers to any non-Cambodian expatriate.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

and now for something a little different

Since I live in the anglophone expatriate bubble in Phnom Penh, I felt I needed to expand my horizons and have slightly infiltrated the francophone expatriate bubble.

Compared to my last post, this is not very relevant to anything political, but was a cool experience. To quote a musician who is also irrelevant to this blog, it was "sweet & dandy".

My German friend, Anna, is friends with Manu. Manu works at a French-supported community-based organization (CBO) called Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS). Actually, it was started by youth living in Thai-Cambodian refugee camps in 1986. PPS is now a Battambang-based NGO which seeks to use art as a method of rehabilitation for youth who have undergone experiences in trafficking, drug-abuse, sex work, abuse and the plethora of other traumas which can severely affect a young person. More information can be found at ( On a nice side note, Anna met Manu on a bus to Kratie province. Such is the wonderful world of travelling, no?

We found out this week that the Centre Culturel Francais (ou le French Cultural Centre for those of you who weren't lucky enough to undergo mandatory French education until grade 9) was hosting a performance by PPS this samedi. The CCF ( is a really cool place and has been a nice diversion from my usual night-owl activities for the last month, which I was slowly getting really tired of. Anyways, this wasn't just any was a really unique one.

It was a cine-concert. Music and cinema? How does that work? Don't they already go fairly well together? Well, you need a silent film, a Buster Keaton one for that matter. And you need a band. A Cambodian one, comprised of young people who learned the craft from the wonderful teachers at PPS. I forget to mention that this was all under the the outdoor theater at the CCF. The film was The General....ou Le mécano de la General Création...and because it was a Buster Keaton extravanganza that took place in Civil War Era USA, the combination of local sounds, not only your toots and whistles, but also some nice Cambodian melodies as well, meshed extremely well! BRAVO! I should also mention that it was a live band performing this congruous euphony. I couldn't decide whether I should be watching the screen or the instruments. Of course, the film was a silent one, so watching probably would have been better. The sounds could speak for themselves while the screen couldn't necessarily do that...

And then it started raining.

It had been trickling down on us throughout the cine-concert, but who can't handle a few drops, no? Then it really started coming down....Cambo-style. So alas, I will never find out if Buster wins the war, saves la femme and gets back on his train.

I suppose this is where I end this blog-post.


Friday, February 22, 2008

health care....a la cambodge

Yesterday, shortly after the noon hour, my flatmate Georg had a realization. "Oh right, you're Canadian."

How did this realization come to be? Well, I was really sick. High fever, body aches, some other symptoms I'd rather not talk about in a blog, for about 24 hrs and ongoing at that point. Essentially, I felt miserable, in no mood of going to work or even getting out of bed.

But what really motivated me to not see a physician was paying for one. I lay in bed thinking "why oh why am i not friends with a physician?" Finally, I succumbed to the fact that I was incredibly sick and made my way to the Intenrational SOS Hospital where most ex-pats go to see physicians.

My hospital bill came to:

Physician Visit - $60
Blood Tests - $19
Medication - $40
Total - $119

Being Canadian, I have the right* to free, at the point of visit, medical coverage. The health care I am provided for, as a result of my citizenship, in Canada adheres to the 5 tenets of the Canada Health Act. It is portable: I can use it in whatever province or territory I happen to be in. It is universal: it covers anything that is medically necessary. It is accessible: I can get it regardless of health status, age, gender or any other demographic constraint. It is comprehensive: so it will cover anything under the sun except for my teeth or drugs. Finally, it is publicly administered: the provincial government pays the doctors - I don't.

Cambodia is my first experience residing for a long term outside of Canada. It's been about 5 months now. For the first time working in the health and development sector, I have the experience of associating cost with health care. This is particularly relevant to the subject of migration and health that I am working in.

While there is publicly administered health care in Cambodia, it continues to be viewed with a lack of trust, according to a colleague. Many Cambodians continue to see private health care providers which cost an arm and a leg...or your home and plot of agricultural land. There are also the cost of drugs on top of that. A leading cause of landlessness, and therefore migration, in Cambodia, is indebtedness as a result of health care costs.

What often occurs among many Cambodian families who live in both the middle class and below the poverty line, is that they make the choice to see the pharmacist, rather than the physician. The pharmacist can make an apparently reasonable diagnosis of the affliction and sell the medication thought to be necessary - oftentimes this is paracetamol. This of course, is not a proper way to make a prognosis, diagnosis and treatment.

In fact, in early March, I will be making one of my first site visits to the border province of Svay Rieng, which sits next to the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam. Here, I will be conducting a rapid needs assessment of knowledge, attitudes and practices of sexual and reproductive health care seeking behaviour of repatriated trafficked women who come back to Cambodia having worked in the begging and sex-work industries in Ho Chi Minh City. My provincial counterpart has already alterted me that one of the reasons that few women, trafficked or otherwise, see publicly administered health, if at all, is due to a lack of trust in the system. I am hoping that this project will inform a more in depth study that will eventually help guide provincial health care policy makers to improve systems such that public trust and practice would also rise as well.

The Asian Development Bank estimates that an investment of $4/head in Cambodia to contract health services from private providers would ensure that the poorest in Cambodia would be covered by proper and decent medical care**. While I am against the notion of public-private partnerships in health care provision since the have the ability to drive costs higher, this does appear to be a good step towards a publicly administered health care system for Cambodia. I am also against the notion of contracting with NGOs for the provision of health care, which is also a strategy advocated by the World Bank. Cambodia should be moving towards the freedom to provide health care to its own population by its own practitioners. What I propose is a simultaneous and step-wise system. First contracting for health service provision with both internal and NGO providers, technical assistance to develop a funding and public provision system and then a slow conversion to a publicly administered system with all stakeholders, especially physicians and patients, satisfied monetarily. The provincial base of this system would also satisfy decentralization goals of the Royal Government of Cambodia. The system can be strengthenned while aid is being provided such that when such aid begins to leave, the system will be able to run on its own.

Of course, this sounds a tad daunting, but it did take over 30 years for Canada to get its act right, no?

* I believe that health is a human right that should be afforded to all regardless of status, demographic or any other measurable, definitive characteristic.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I'm Such a Delinquent; Identity

I was supposed to keep this as a log of everything I'm experiencing as a newbie to the field of development in Cambodia. Of course, that excitement stagnated around the months of November and December. One could call it the end of my honeymoon phase with Cambodia. Others would diagnose it as a function of my business with work, which I was. I'm just going to call it sheer neglect and laziness on my part. I should also mention that there were attempts to write. There are currently about 3-4 unfinished drafts sitting in my Blogger account.

However, I find myself a tad bit cash strapped (a result of a recent trip to Bangkok and a recent bout of a strep throat). The introspective self has also re-emerged vis-a-vis a dip in professional confidence (read: competence) in the past weeks. So where to start where to start where to start?

Ah. Before I left Canada, the man overseeing my internship asked me "So what do you think it will be like, as an person of East Asian descent, working in an East Asian country?" As a first post among my resurrection-posts, I want to point out first: I am Canadian first and Chinese second....and yes, I'm Chinese. Neither Khmer, Japanese, Khmer-Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Philipino, Native American, Hungarian nor Russian.

A common conversation:
Tuk Tuk Driver: Where you from?
Me: Canada
TTD: look As-iiiiii-an.
Me: Yah....I am.

Another funny conversation.

TTD: You look Hung(a)ry.
Me: No...I'm fine...thanks.
TTD: Russian?
Me: oh he thinks i'm Hungarian. No. I'm not Russian or Hungarian.
TTD: So what are you?

I started to get mistaken for Russian and Turkish more frequently this past month and I couldn't help but wonder why?

It seems a bit strange that I rarely get asked if I am Chinese. The question of my race comes up quite a bit. A funny moment was during over lunch during a recent workshop I attended. My Dutch colleague, of the National AID Authority, said to me, "the moment you walked in this morning, I couldn't tell what you were. So my guess is Half Khmer, Half Japanese".

When the question of "what are you?" or "where are you from," my immediate reaction is Canadian, as in my first scenario. However, this answer is often not satisfying enough. The other party then goes on to list possibilities. Do I not look that Chinese really? Growing up in Toronto, where we apparently account for 11% of the total population, the subject of what ethnic group I belonged to was never a question. I didn't think it would be uncertain here.

It finally dawned on me one day, walking down good ol' Street 278.

I dress like a Westerner. The East Asian aesthetic didn't really get translated from my DNA. I'm kinda bigger than most Chinese girls that I know. I speak English without any accent, but the Canadian one I am said to exude. I'm also quite tanned. Many people here still shy away from the sun, preferring to keep a lighter skin tone as an indicator of wealth and prosperity, and not having to work in rice fields. I, unfortunately, like to tan, and instead, should be keeping out of the sun to avoid skin cancer.

The Chinese in Cambodia are a large population. Prior to the destruction imposed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, huge numbers of my country-men fled China when Mao Tse Tung imposed the restrictive policies of the Cultural Revolution. Many fled to Southeast Asia, to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Many Chinese were already in these countries as a result of trade and economic growth. By 1964, we numbered nearly 500,000 in Cambodia. After the KR's decimation, however, the population slipped to 5 figures in 1979. In the recent exponential development of the Chinese economy, however, there's a new resurgence in the Chinese population here as trade barriers lift. 5 blocks away from my flat, you can even find Mao Tse Tung Blvd. However, you can definitely tell the difference between la nouveau Chinois and that of the first exodus. There is a difference in ethnicity: China is made of many different ethnic groups reflected in the sheer number of dialects that exist. Chinese diaspora and migration patterns are a function of these ethnic differences. However, there is also a question of identity. A conversation with the Chinese-Cambodian owner of the guesthouse I stayed at when I first arrived revealed that he identified first as Cambodian, and then Chinese. His family spoke both Khmer and Cantonese. I wonder if this is similar among other multi-generational Chinese living in Cambodia. I wonder if its also similar to my own identity as a Chinese Canadian.

Cambodia itself is considered one of the most homogenous in Asia. 90% of Cambodia's population is made up of ethnic Khmer. Yet meeting the Khmer that are both friends and colleagues with reveal that ethnic homogeny may be in how one identifies oneself and cultural membership. I'm sure that closer inspection of family histories and genealogy will reveal inherent migration throughout East and South East Asia, which I see most evidently in Cambodia. What defines a particular ethnicity may not necessarily lie in the genes, but rather identity, language and culture. What is ethnicity therefore? What is national identity? I ask this in the post-colonial, globalized and travel-efficient world we live in now.

I work for the International Organization for Migration. How perfect.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

so what do you do when....

So what do you do when you're a Cambodian-American permanent resident, but you've just been deported back to Cambodia because you've infringed the American "3 Strikes and You're Out" rule and are now being sent back to Cambodia because of a new deportation policy enacted by Homeland Security in the aftermath of 9/11?

Before I get to the answer to this question, let me first explain this is probably one of my more positive and refreshing experiences I've had in Cambodia's NGOland since I've settled into life and work here. I suppose that the overhanging annoyances of the corrosive mixture of race and gender here have been a major theme of my thoughts of late, and I didn't want to necessarily taint my blog with angry typings about post-colonial-subcontinent-fetishizing sexpats.

The answer to the above query:

In the aftermath of 9/11, national security policy sought to be-rid American soil of any possibility of a homegrown terror, be it of the Al-Quaeda sort, or the poverty-born criminal sort. As a result, criminals who were not American citizens and had infringed the "3-strikes and your out" law found in many states, were deported back to their home countries.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the USA was a recipient of many Cambodian refugees. As many of you may, or may not know, the genocide and destructive activities of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime displaced many Cambodians to refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodia border. One of my drivers, whom I like to call good friend as well, Phirath, was raised in such a camp. The UNHCR and IOM mediated much of the sending of these refugees either to be re-patriated to Cambodia, or for resettlement in the USA, mostly in the recipient states of Florida, Kentucky and California. Many of these refugees resettled in the USA were small children, who's would only know the USA as home.

Arrival in the US was tough. Children old enough to remember bore the psychological scars of the genocide and civil war. Those young enough not to remember found lives embedded in poverty as new arrivals with parents who had limited social networks and social or fiscal capital. The combination of rampant poverty, a poorly constructed education and social welfare system in the USA caused many of these kids grew to be adolescents who turned to crime. Being such a youth in the 21st century was clearly not easy. But with 9/11 in the background, things were made tougher.

Approximately 10-15 such youth, between the ages of 18-30 are deported back to their supposed homelands of Cambodia each month. In 2004, several of such youth collected together and formed Korsang.

Korsang is an NGO in Phnom Penh, which seeks to provide harm reduction, HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation services to drug users. They use peer education, skills training, needle exchange and safe injection, and health service provision to accomplish their goals to reduce the risks associated with injection and amphetimine drug use. An exciting program is the use of hip hop (and might I add, Khmer hip hop is awesome) for both skills building and physical strength training for recovering drug users. By teaching music production and lyric development, recovering drug users also build a great foundation for the nascent hip hop scene in Cambodia. By teaching young recovering IDUs the styles of breakdancing and hip hop dance skills, it is not only building up their physiological status, but also bringing in a very cool cultural imprint on a North American cultural phenomenon previously relegated to the urban hip hop scene.

They have been so successful in Phnom Penh, that they now work with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The WHO and UNODC recently worked with Korsang to produce a music video/harm reduction campaign to teach IDUs how to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection by the proper cleaning and use of needles....through a hip hop music video.

Sitting in my Joint UN Team on HIV/AIDS meeting and having just watched the premiere of this video by my venerable colleague at the WHO, team members remarked "well, it's a little fast isn't it? I don't think they'll get it?" To which I thought - "no! the song is still reverberating in my head! it's catchy! and awesome!"

The success of Korsang can also be seen through how much funding they receive and how much they have expanded their activities since their limited beginnings. They are now internationally renowned for their established best practices and I look forward to seeing them at AIDS2008 in Mexico City...spreading the word of rehabilitation and harm reduction in the aftermath of deportation and crime and in the crushing environment of the slums of Phnom Penh.

I was lucky enough to meet the founders and heads of Korsang at a Livelihoods and HIV Knowledge Sharing Meeting at the Hotel Phnom Penh last week. They even had members of their hip hop dance class put on a show. It was amazing and I thought these kids had just hopped out of a KRS-One video.

I don't think I had felt this excited about something since arriving in Phnom Penh 2 months ago, and I'm really happy that I didn't write about the activities of post-colonial-subcontinent-fetishizing sexpats. It would have been a terrible post filled with angry observations made from the club scene here.