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Cultural Expression at Memorials

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On Tuesday we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field just outside of Phnom Penh.  Hannah goes into detail (below) about our experiences but, in short, these memorials are places immensely powerful and telling of the suffering Cambodians went through during the Genocide from 1975 to 1979.

Every day, hundreds of tourists (the majority foreign) travel to these memorials to learn and see firsthand what happened during this terrible piece of history.  As Youk Chhang described to us, the memorials were constructed to instill various meaning in tourists about Cambodian culture.

The foremost discourse at the memorials is to show how the Cambodian people have gravely suffered in the past and show how they have united as a result and begun new lives.  Cambodia has had a tense history between the Khmer (the dominant culture in Cambodia) and other minorities such as the Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese.  After the genocide, the discourse of these memorials is now all people in Cambodia are Cambodians and are working towards improving the nation.  Following this are other discourses such as not repeating the same mistakes again, seeing the importance of good governance, and the value of education.

There are two challenging components of this sort of tourism that I want to understand more about.  One is, what sort of behavior is appropriate at these sites, and, two, how are tourists responding to these discourses present in the landscape of memorials?  Over the trip I hope to work through these ideas and update this post.

Writing on a wall in the stairwell at Tuol Sleng.  Reads "Jesus is mighty to save Cambodia!"

For now I will begin with a few observations.   At Tuol Sleng, a whole stairwell was covered in various writings from tourists about their experiences. Among them, a substantial amount of writing was about God blessing the Cambodian people, how Pol Pot is justly resting in Hell now, and how their experience either affirms their belief in God or that this proves God does not exist.  At Choeung Ek, a photo of Jesus was placed among the skulls of Cambodians who were slain by the Khmer Rouge.  These skulls are currently being held in a stupa, which is a Buddhist religious structure to honor and commemorate the Genocide.

Right or wrong, tourists aren’t just drawing meaning that is related to¬†the Genocide but are weaving new meanings into their own personal narratives. ¬†These¬†personal narratives become expressed in the landscape, not just by people writing in visitor response books but by writings on the wall or by actions like the placing of a photograph.

Some regulation is made to control these sort of responses. ¬†Signs at Tuol Sleng tell tourists not to write on the walls, not to laugh or smile, and to remain silent during their walk around the site. ¬†Yet controlling behavior isn’t so easy, and there is much to say about what is appropriate at these sites.

Cambodia is largely a conservative nation.¬† Outside of night life, Cambodian’s do not often where shorts and short sleeves. ¬†At holy sites, it is still very much a cultural practice to be completely clothed.¬† At some sites, visitors are forbade to enter the religious structure if dress is inappropriate, which sometimes causes some tension because paying a fee should grant anyone full access.

From my observation, tourists going to the memorials either fail to observe this cultural practice, or (and more likely) are simply unaware of these practices.  Women dress in tank tops or short skirts.  Men wear shorts and sleeveless shirts.

In some ways this isn’t unreasonable.¬† Cambodia is hot, even in winter, and traveling constantly can be uncomfortable in pants and long sleeves.¬† For Cambodians, however, covering yourself with clothes is a tradeoff worth taking.¬† Being fully clothed means protection from the sun, most importantly, and other uses like mosquito protection.

My impression, thus, is that there are different ways that cultures interact and different views about practicality and custom.¬† In the case of clothing, this creates conflict which sometimes results in regulations being broken.¬† Writing on the wall evidences that collective memory and meaning in memorials isn’t taken for what it is.¬† Tourists are filtering discourses in memorials into their own personal narratives and imaginations about what the Cambodian Genocide means.


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