MY PHNOM PENH: Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Fulbright scholar

Erin Moriarty Harrelson
Erin Moriarty Harrelson

MY PHNOM PENH: Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Fulbright scholar

As part of the prestigious Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, Erin has spent the past nine months in Cambodia learning about the country’s deaf community and sharing their stories. Erin, who is herself deaf, has just come to the end of her research and flew back to the US on Wednesday. For this week’s My Phnom Penh, she took a look back at the things she’ll miss most about life in the capital.

Orussey Market

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Someday I want to write an ethnography about the pulsating life at Orussey. Everyone knows everyone else.

There is just so much life in the market. Every few weeks, my friends Sreytouch and Sreythom, who are twins, will arrange an expedition to Orussey with a few of our girlfriends.

I’m often assigned to ride with Sreytouch, who will power up the steep ramp on the side of the market with me hanging on to the back of her motorcycle for dear life.

We make our way through the narrow paths to the food area where we buy grilled fish and chive cakes, then we settle down on the floor by the sewing machine in their mother’s shop, surrounded by lacy fabric hanging from the walls.

Their mother, who treats me like a daughter, will sit there, speaking in rapid-fire Khmer and signing in the family’s shared sign language that I need to hurry up and have babies before I’m too old. One of the best moments for me was when she, after I tried on the wedding outfit she made for me, told me I needed to go buy padded underwear to better show off her beautiful sewing because what I had on my backside just wasn’t cutting it.

There’s nothing like having a Cambodian mother.

National Archives

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The National Archives is a magical place for me. I love nosing through yellowing epistles from long-gone people. To call it research isn’t quite accurate – for me, it’s more like being able to vicariously experience a different time and place through someone else’s writing.

I first went there with my friend Cheryl, another Fulbrighter working in Cambodia.

Her project is about hierarchy in Khmer and how the Khmer Rouge changed language with their ideology.

She traces these changes through the reading of newspapers at the archives. Our first time there, Cheryl told me that the Khmer Rouge used the archives as a pigsty, and that was horrifying to me.

The cardboard boxes full of letters and memos may just be crumbling paper to most people, but to me it is the evidence of the vibrancy of life before the Khmer Rouge.

Some people make claims that there was nothing before 1997 for deaf people, but it is not true. For instance, I found letters from colonial administrators about deaf people, evidence that there were deaf people and sign language before 1997.


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Youk Chhang was one of my first interviews when I arrived in Cambodia for my Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship. I first met him in his office at DC-Cam, located in an architecturally interesting building across the street from the Independence Monument.

Visual reminders of the Pol Pot regime are scattered throughout the building, but somehow Youk has created a gorgeous space, despite the tragic history contained within the building.

His office is filled with books, warm wood and natural light.

I love sitting in his office, surrounded by such warmth, especially from Youk himself.

Recently, he added some new paintings of urns, inspired by his experience while mourning his deaf sister’s passing.

When I first saw these paintings, it was a poignant reminder of not only his personal loss but also of the immeasurable losses of the people who brought their family members’ urns to the pagoda to store until the end of the war but then were unable to retrieve them, most likely because they became victims themselves.

Iced sweet coffee from Ueda

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Over the years, I’ve conducted many interviews over iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk at Ueda Cafe on Street 101.

I love slipping out of the Deaf Development Programme (DDP) offices – one of the NGOs where I conduct participant-observation – in the mid-morning for a quick coffee and peek at Facebook.

Ueda Cafe makes a wonderful iced coffee for only 3,000 riel. My friends from DDP tell me that I could get iced coffee for much cheaper at a place a block down, but Ueda is so convenient.

I enjoy walking by the tuk-tuk drivers parked on the sides of the street, playing chess with piles of pink and blue riel in front of them.

They always give me a big smile and say: “Hello, hello, Erin!” I will stop and ask them who’s winning, and watch for a bit, holding the sweating plastic cup of iced coffee away from my body so it doesn’t drip all over me.

Bamboo spirit houses

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The huge concrete spirit houses are a little hard to miss – they’re so flamboyant in their golden splendour that I actually didn’t notice the small bamboo houses in baskets until after I had been here for a few months.

I like the sweet little bamboo spirit houses so much better than the huge concrete ones.

I love standing on my tip-toes, peering into the baskets to see how each household or shop appeases the spirits.

One of my favorite shrines is in a hairdressing booth in the wedding clothes section at Orussey.

It is full of cigarette stubs stuck on incense sticks and shot glasses of amber liquid.

I would love to know more about that particular spirit.


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