Monkeys. I’m walking the dirt path that circles around the city’s biggest temple and they’re just there, being silly or fast or slow, maybe a dozen of them playing in the trees or sitting calmly in the grass. They remind me first of squirrels on campus at Northwestern, who were unafraid and not all that curious either, just looking around, well-fed and slow. They’re also the color of squirrels — but the size of raccoons.
I pass a middle-aged tourist crouching down to feed one, which takes the bit of bread slowly, bored — not sure if I’ve imagined this, but it may have rolled its eyes.
It’s weird how un-weird this seems. Somehow I’m not bowled over by the appearance of these monkeys, I’m just relating them to woodland creatures of the Midwest.
But then I look up from the man feeding the monkey and stop. There’s a skinny monkey with a question-mark tail in an old tree, leaning back in the crook of two y-shaped branches and holding a mirror at arms length in front of its fuzzy face, a rectangular mirror piece about as big as the one that came on my 24-color eyeshadow sampler in junior high.
He/she/it is, without question, looking in the mirror. Now this, this is weird.
It got me thinking about mirrors; how there must be some innate attraction; how maybe I was witnessing some crazy evolutionary leap!; how mirrors were a technological innovation at some point; and about a story I wrote once.
I’ve written one book in my whole life, starting when I was eight years old. It took my four years, but by the time I was 12, I had a thick stack of notebooks that told the magical tale of an ordinary girl named Annie who stumbles through a cheval mirror in a furniture store and into an alternate reality.
This concept was a twist on Alice in Wonderland, which I loved, but instead of ending up in a wacky world of whimsy, she’s plunged directly into a war to decide who will live on which side of the mirror. It’s a privilege to be on the side she comes from and a hardship to live on The Other Side, where occupants are tasked with the hard work of creating the energy source for all of Annie’s side.
In telling this synopsis to a new bibliophile friend who was curious about this random childhood writing project, I remembered that I’ve never been able to let that story go. I think about it every few months, have tried many times to revisit the characters or the plot. I always thought it was because it was the only story I’d ever really finished, or been happy with (flaming out at age 12…. sigh).
But being here in Cambodia helped me pinpoint a new crux.
The clothes on our bodies, the sheets that we sleep in, the iPhones that we hold to our faces every day to talk to our most beloved… everything comes from somewhere. And a lot of it comes from here, from factories in Asia. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for almost ten years; I try to consider myself all socially aware and stuff; but I forget about the source of my objects 99.9 percent of the time. Maybe 99.99 percent. Because you can only think back so many layers in the production chain before you lose all of your manufactured, imported marbles.
At Christmas, walking into Wal-Mart in my suburban hometown, I thought about: 1) A gift to buy for my parents, then 2) the creepiness of the Wal-Mart Industrial Complex, only because it’s so overwhelmingly huge, not because I was being particularly smarty-pantsy. I didn’t even think about who stocked the shelves there for minimum wage, but that would’ve been next on the list. Did I think about who staffed the factory to create the product that shipped to these beige metal shelves? No, no I did not. And I’m not sure I could. It’s a paralyzing amount of information.
Our world is now insanely wired. I’m writing with wifi on a Netbook from a porch in Cambodia. But there’s a bigger disconnect, and it’s mental. When something pierces the illusion of where our nice stuff comes from, the message seems piped in from another universe. There was the iPhone girl whose picture was accidentally left on a device during testing and found by a consumer who posted it online. This raw glimpse felt like such a rarity that it inspired bizarre superlatives like “China’s prettiest factory girl”. If we can believe that there’s really just one pretty, fun-looking girl in all of China’s factories, it becomes a lot easier to accept this stray dispatch as a one-off cable from a distant universe.
And in other ways, I am witnessing the actions of the powerful writ onto the bodies and limbs of everyone else. Land mines and wars. Last weekend I went to the beach, and there’s a story I’ll tell someday about how I watched a twenty-something expat in mirrored sunglasses feed a french fry to a stray dog and then turn reflexively to feed a french fry into the open mouth of a man with no legs who’d crawled over the sand to our table to beg.
In my childhood story the mirror was a portal, and the same is true here. Dollar bills that I shoved in my messenger bag in Chicago quadrupled in purchasing power when I stepped off the plane. But this city seems on the verge of something, and maybe that’s why I love it. It’s in the process of becoming, just a decade into real stability, and everything hums with the juxtaposition between yesterday and today and here and there and this side and the other side. I feel the struggle and the battle, and maybe that’s what draws me to that old story, a shiny shard of forgotten truth found again for reflection.