Saturday, March 10, 2012

Raise Your Kids in Cambodia Versus America?

I was hanging out having drinks with friends a while back. It was sort of a gathering to welcome back for a visit a guy who’d lived in Cambodia a long time but had migrated to the States several months earlier. He remarked that he hadn’t had a chance to get together like that for quite a while. Why is that, I asked. Well, there aren’t many bars around - he’s out in the far burbs of Chicago - and besides the people he might meet in them were all conservative crap-heads. His co-workers were at the same dismal level of consciousness, nobody he’d want to hang out with.
He had two primary reasons for going back. One was a good job opportunity, the other was to better the lives of his children; worthy causes for sure. As to the former most of us, based on necessity, have at times lived in places which we disliked or even desperately wanted to leave, but couldn’t because we were trapped; maybe from the need to stay with a good job; possibly family commitments or limited resources kept us tied down. Many of us also have done jobs we’ve hated or been bored silly by because it was our fate. In my case for most of my early life I had to take the first job offered or else be on the street and hungry a few weeks later. At least he’ll be accumulating a stash in furtherance of long term goals and he’ll have the wherewithal to change his life when he wants to.
Still it seems a bit of a sacrifice to be in a place where you feel isolated, where you have no friends to hang out with… but, who am I to judge. Cambodia has its good points, but would certainly never win a prize in the ‘normal’ department, so maybe he needed a change of pace and even likes the burbs and doesn’t care all that much about hanging out with friends over a few beers .
 As for improving his children’s opportunities in life, if the parents are regressive, narrow-minded crap, then so, most likely, will their children be and if he can’t stand the parents why would he want to subject his children to spending their school time, which is a large part of a kid’s life, with their politically retarded offspring? By the way, a recent study confirmed what many of us have known all along; that conservatives are dumber than average, most likely because that ties in with being selfish, intolerant bigots who lack sympathy or empathy for others.
On the other hand, there’s no question it’s easier to get your kids a basic education in America, especially in a better class suburb. Opportunities for learning are far better in the West. In Cambodia anything but the most expensive international school will be weak or inadequate in teaching the ABC’s and 3 R’s. However, education is a lot more than that rote learning. Personally, while not discounting the value of basic knowledge, I feel that learning from life is more important and, tied in with that, the fundamental part of education can be gained through personal initiative and inspiration from parents.
Another friend has a kid nearing school age. He’s intent on moving back to the states because he finds Cambodian culture lacking and believes his kid will suffer intellectually if left in the hands of her grandmother and other Khmer relatives for much of the time. He’d be moving to a hip part of  Los Angeles so at least she’d be growing up in a more open minded, culturally advanced society compared to the suburban Midwest.
But it’s also a place where the air is unfit to breathe from 50 to 90 days a year. It’s an endless city where you can literally drive for two hours at speed - on 10 to 14 lane freeways with everybody driving at 60 or 70 miles an hour less than a car length apart - and always be in view of a suburban wasteland.
On the other hand, LA does have a lot going for it besides being the home of frou-frou Hollywood. It’s probably the most multi-cultural, multi-racial city in America, if not the world. It’s highly entrepreneurial with every type of industry and commerce represented. It’s got a climate that’s very mild and pleasant almost all year and, if you can get past the traffic, it’s got ocean, mountains and desert within reach.
I have been back only a few times since I left in 1964. One image, one scene most impressed me as the essence of the city. LA is actually very dense in spite of a lot of people living in single family houses and there are endless rows of two or three story apartment buildings. The dry climate makes stucco the preferred construction material and it’s all painted in pastels because it naturally fits the sense of sunny southern California. Nearly every apartment, at least those built since the sixties, has big picture windows or sliding glass doors but in my experience they’re always covered in drapes and the residents live in shady darkness inside. So pastel on the outside, darkness on the inside. The apartments are designed to be light and airy but nobody wants to relate to the outside world so prefer to stay private and cloistered inside. That’s only an impression, and even possibly a dated one, my friend may be thinking of a very different living situation.
As for education in California, it’s one of the states hardest hit by the economic downturn and budget crunch and so public education budgets are constantly being cut. Class sizes are ballooning. All the extras that used to be an essential part of school life - music, the arts, sports - have been cut back. Teachers are treated as greedy and undeserving cheats because they earn enough to survive in very expensive California.
American culture in general? A mixed bag for sure. It’s got a lot going for it if you’re part of a counterculture or subculture but otherwise it’s a failing society run by and operated for the 1%. No matter how much the elite are able to mold the country’s laws to their own benefit they always want more. No matter how crooked the banksters have become or how much they’ve brazenly defrauded the people, they show no remorse, rather they demand and receive bailouts to cover their malfeasance. It’s savage capitalism at its best.
On the other hand, I’d love to be able to catch an art flick on a big screen in Portland Oregon, one of the coolest cities anywhere, get out there and demonstrate with the Occupy Wall Street movement, do some mountain and forest hiking in the Pacific Northwest on well marked and maintained trails, debate the state of the world with life-long friends, etc., but what a price to pay. Outside of a few centers of urbanity and sophistication it’s a plasticized, homogenized, suburbanized, motorized landscape of fast food joints catering to the easily brainwashed and big box stores selling food in bulk to a society of lardasses - 60% of Americans are overweight, 30% obese. (If you’re one of the lardasses referred to, forgive me, no personal slight was intended. We all have our failings and addictions, yours just happen to be weighty and obvious.)
American kids are taught early how to eat an unhealthy diet. There was a study done a while back with 3 to 5-year-olds. They were offered a McDonald’s hamburger in a plain wrapper and another in a corporate wrapper. By a wide margin they thought the one in the McDonald’s wrapper tasted better. They did the same regarding fries and baby carrots, the latter of which McDonald’s doesn’t serve. Loyal junk food customers at an early age.
For breakfast they’ll have a sugar-bomb bowl of cereal consisting of genetically modified corn-syrup sweetened, genetically modified corn flakes, covered in milk from cows fed with genetically modified corn and treated with growth hormones. The hormones, which are actually a fake estrogen, are said to cause breasts to grow on very young girls. As for the GMOs, another recent study in a long line of them showed genetically modified food gave terrible stomach problems to rats that ate it. Maybe some of you remember the Monarch Butterfly GMO experiment of several years back. Monarchs make a very long migration from many parts of America to a small area in central Mexico. They eat only milkweed. Researchers fed Monarchs milkweed that was dusted with GMO corn pollen: half died very quickly the others developed serious digestive problems. The control group fed milkweed dusted with natural corn pollen had no problems whatever.
The US Food and Drug Administration has always accepted Monsanto’s word for the safety of its GMOs regardless of the often glaring evidence to the contrary. Lately, within the last couple of weeks, Obama appointed a lobbyist for Monsanto to an important post in FDA so nothing can possibly change on that score. Nearly all processed foods in America contain soy or corn or canola oil and almost all of those crops are now genetically modified, so virtually all processed foods contain GMOs.
Here in Cambodia I studiously avoid buying processed American food. There is usually a European alternative. There are no GMOs in Europe, not because they aren’t allowed, but because they have to be labeled as such and once that happens nobody will buy them; it’d be like including a skull and crossbones on the package. They aren’t labeled in America, though surveys show the vast majority want GMOs to be identified, because the industry owns the government. The people aren’t allowed to know what they are eating.
Chickens and pigs in America are raised in such terrible conditions they wouldn’t survive without massive doses of antibiotics: they spend their whole lives in cages too small for them to turn around in, where the stench of urine and faeces is overpowering. Some 90% of all antibios used in America are given to animals - with the result that you get a dose every time you eat them. Even the rivers, and thus many people’s drinking water, now contain antibiotics. With so much antibiotics floating around a lot of bacteria are becoming resistant and many people are becoming infected with untreatable strains.
You can avoid those poisons by buying organic, but most people, even those who can well afford clean, untainted food will look at the price differential of twice or three times as much for organics and give them a pass. Why bother, huh? They look and taste the same don’t they? Besides opposition to GMOs is actually a part of a conspiracy of radical, socialist, ecofreaks who also believe in myths like evolution and man-made global warming. It’s a sad, disgusting and demoralizing fact that nearly half of Americans are such whackadoodle morons they don’t believe in evolution. Imagine.
At least in Cambodia, cows eat grass which is real cow food, not the corn they are fed in America, which in fact has led to serious outbreaks of E. Coli. And pigs and chickens are raised somewhat normally and there are no GMOs except those imported as part of processed foods from the US.
An ungodly number of American kids are fed prescription drugs to combat Attention Deficit Disorder. The kids can’t concentrate. They’re restless, nervous and can’t sit still. ADD is a new disease created to help boost drug sales. But what would you expect when they drink super-sugary (a 12 ounce, 350 ml Coke contains the equivalent of 9 spoons of sugar) caffeinated soft drinks all day while they also spend hours in front of the TV where there often are ten images a second screaming by their eyes? It’s no wonder they are unable to sit quietly in class, but instead are jumping out of their skin. Would you feed coffee to a 1 or 2-year-old? Giving them Coke is no different.
There are a fantastic array of the latest gadgets available in America for those who have the money to buy them. There are 500 channels to choose from on the TV but only a handful worth watching (can’t go wrong with the Discovery channel). You certainly can’t expect any real news from corporate broadcasters since their focus is on mind-numbing drivel designed to divert attention from the real challenges of our times. It takes an especially inquisitive and open-minded person to overcome that brainwashing: people who take their kids to the West have the opportunity to counter that deceit and disinformation, but it takes some effort. It can be done which makes you feel good about the protests happening across America, not that I believe anything will come of those demonstrations - the forces of greed there are much too powerful.
Cambodian kids will also watch TV a lot (and drink Coke) but it doesn’t come with the same pressure here and besides, expat-Khmer combo kids raised in Cambodia have two worldviews, two cultures to draw from. Another recent study showed that people who are fluent in two languages get Alzheimer’s five years later on average than people who know only one and seven years later if they know three or more.
American researchers are always looking for mechanistic solutions to mental and physical problems. Instead of trying to understand socially and culturally why people slide into dementia they look for cure-all drugs. Just take this pill and you will magically become whole, whereas the point of the study is that people who keep their minds fresh and open and ever learning will have much less likelihood of Alzheimer’s. People who understand more than one culture have a wider view of life and a better chance at staying healthy.
Living in two cultures, learning two languages is therefore worth as much, in my opinion, as access to better basic education, especially if that education happens in the context of a nation wallowing in regressive right-wingnuttery.
Not saying that Cambodian culture doesn’t leave a lot to be desired. There is, for instance, no Cambodian literature. They hardly ever read books and when they do they’re the equivalent of B grade romance novels. Corruption is rife, Cambo ranks 164 out of 183 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index. Cambodians routinely make up stories and tell outright lies, many times for no apparent reason. The elite act with an impunity even greater than they do in the States. And so on… but we expats here have created, are in the process of creating, our own subculture so whatever negatives our half-Cambo kids get from their home culture can be counterbalanced by the western culture they receive from us.
There are always trade-offs in life, but parents could do worse than raise their kids in Cambodia.

Stan Kahn