Phnom Penh

A little more than a year ago, I traveled to Phnom Penh to visit the UN tribunal to learn about international criminal law and how Cambodia and the international community were prosecuting the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity. I knew about the genocide and read about the awful crimes committed under Pol Pot’s regime. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the crimes until I visited S-21/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields memorial. Certain images were forever seared in my mind. Black and white photographs of the dead staring blankly before their imminent deaths. Fantastical looking trees used for sinister purposes. Blood stains forever inked on the floor. It was haunting, and I remember having difficulty sleeping that night. As depressing as the sites were, I came out of my visit with conviction. I promised myself that if I was ever given the opportunity to go back and help out with the Khmer Rouge trials in some way, then I would do so. It was a fleeting thought, and I didn’t think it was likely to occur. Little ole’ me from a little law school given the chance to intern for the UN tribunal to help prosecute the Khmer Rouge? No way!

And yet, here I am, 14 months later, lying in bed writing this entry from the top floor of my apartment in Phnom Penh. God really does work in mysterious ways. I admit, my perception of Phnom Penh was a bit skewed. While I got a chance to see the nightlife, two days is simply not enough time to know a city. Also, a chunk of my two days in PP was devoted to genocide and international law. Thus, the perception I had of Phnom Penh was one marked by war, destruction, and sadness.

So what are my thoughts now of Phnom Penh? Well, I’ve only been here a week, so I can’t say too much. Nevertheless, my views of PP is gradually changing, even though S-21 is located a block away from my apartment (oi!). Phnom Penh reminds me a lot of Saigon, minus the crowds and noise. I see lots of old, run-down French colonial style buildings. There are no high rises here. The motorbike is king and is the main mode of transportation. However, there’s a decent amount of cars, particularly Lexus SUVs (possibly driven by the Khmer Rich?). Cambodia is less developed compared to Vietnam, but I sense it’s a city that’s on the up-and-up. While it’s not frenetically driving headfirst into the future, it’s no longer shackled by its awful past.

I already have a good impression of the people (gentle, quiet, yet helpful) and the food (similar to Vietnamese but more of an emphasis on condiments). I like that I can go across the street from my apartment and have a delicious bowl of fragrant pho. As I’m eating pho, from the outdoor view of the restaurant, I can see the city wake up before my eyes, with the motorbikes coming out of the woodwork. I also like that I can walk two blocks and visit the porridge lady. Around 6:00am, there’s already a crowd of locals surrounding her, eager to pay $1 for her porridge. Her face is dark and weathered, as if she’s seen great hardship. Yet her presence is indomitable. Wearing her traditional Khmer sarong and a bright orange head wrap, she will order strangers and schoolchildren to hold bags of porridge and other ingredients if necessary. Everyone obeys her commands. I grab my to-go porridge and rush home to my place and slurp with eagerness. The mix of lime, red chili peppers, gelatinous pig blood, and fried rolls elevates her porridge from bland to Cambodian-soul food good.

Finding moments like these, even in daily routines, is what makes Phnom Penh beguiling. Over the next four months, I’m excited as to what I’ll uncover on this intriguing city. 🙂

Note: a revised post with pictures will be featured soon. I promise!

Summer in New York

Life is so incredibly wonderful yet strange.

Nearly three years ago, I was sitting outside of an apartment building in Tribeca on Franklin Street. I was huddled with my cousin, shaking because of the windy, autumn weather. I felt bitter, cold, and downtrodden. I was in a job that was going nowhere. After years of hard work to pursue a career in the State Department, I had the door slammed in my face. I was studying for the LSAT, but at that time, I had no idea if I was capable of making a decent score to get into law school. My parents were struggling since they were laid off because of the Great Recession. Life. Just. Sucked.

My cousin had never seen me in such a state of despair. She was alarmed and did the best she could, even in her trying circumstances, to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. As much as I appreciated her words of comfort, I felt like there was no hope. I felt no matter how hard I tried, I was going to face rejection for the rest of my life. While I had prior dreams of coming to New York, the thought of living in the City was the last thing on my mind.

Three years later, I pass through Franklin Street nearly everyday on my walk to work. I listen to hip hop on my iPod and happily jaunt to my summer internship. Thanks to the PILP stipend through my law school, I’m getting paid to learn about immigration and human trafficking, and take regular trips out to the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx to learn about the local communities while getting a feel for the neighborhoods. I didn’t think about the significance of Franklin Street until recently. It’s astonishing how circular life is, and I feel blessed and grateful that I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to spend a summer in New York.

So much has happened, and yet, all of it seems a blur. It’s going to be a massive undertaking trying to condense two and a half months of whirlwind activity into one entry, but I’ll try my best.

My time here has simply been amazing. It’s not to say it’s been perfect. I went through some heartache this summer, and I’m still recovering, to a certain degree. But if I ever needed reassurance and distraction, New York has provided me with both in abundance. First, I have to say I’ve been incredibly blessed to have my cousin and her fiancé here. They’ve been incredibly gracious and hospitable, and opened their warm, cozy apartment to me with unabashed hospitality.

So how have been spending my time in New York? What have been the highlights? Well, to name a few…

…the deck party in Brooklyn with the glorious sunset views of Manhattan was pretty amazing.

The 1920s lawn party in Governor’s Island was pretty cool too. Certain scenes about the lawn party felt like I had walked onto the set of the Great Gatsby, while other images reminded me of a Seurat or Lautrec painting.

One neat activity I loved going to is attending the free outdoor film screenings. You get to a popular movie whilst getting an awesome view of New York, whether it’s in Bryant Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, or the Intrepid. I saw “ET” by the Brooklyn Bridge Park and seeing a skyline view of Manhattan lit up was almost surreal.

I also got to see  “The Muppets” on the Intrepid, a former naval ship used during World War II and the Vietnam War. It was a neat way to watch a movie outdoors. The walk back towards the City reminded me of a movie set, as if I had walked into the set of Gotham City for Batman.

Watching “The Muppets” on the Intrepid

View of Manhattan from the Intrepid

Of course, no stay in New York wouldn’t be complete without discussing the food. I initially had a list of restaurants I wanted to go, but discarded it soon after my arrival. There’s just way too many good restaurants in this town. Why check out places where all the tourists and food critics go to when I can rely on word of mouth through friends and family? Whether it was eating yakitori-style dishes, chicken crepes with goat cheese and salmon eggs benedict for brunch, lengua (beef tongue) tacos, Cantonese roast duck, or Belgian mussels and frites, I was fortunate to eat terrific meals at affordable prices. New York definitely brought out my low-class foodieness in all the best and worst ways. I have a perpetual pertruding belly that won’t go away despite running everyday, but part of me doesn’t care because I have a happy belly. 🙂

Japanese yakitori food: Supa Tuna Don, tuna tartar with egg, seaweed strips and rice

Belgian mussels dipped in Thai curry sauce with French onion soup

Feasting on mussels and frites with my brother at BXL.

Lasagna from Max. Best lasagna. EVER!

My new favorite Mexican dish: lengua (beef tongue) tacos

Speaking of exercise, it’s been a real treat running around New York. Literally. On the weekdays, I would run between 6-7 am around Queens and run across the Queensboro Bridge. On the weekends, I would trek to Central Park and run around the reservoir. I even got to ride a bike around the entire park, which was pretty cool. Despite the humidity, I loved running around Queens and Central Park. It was a great way to get an early morning workout and burn some calories. If I didn’t run everyday, I’m sure I would’ve turned obese, especially with all the good food I was eating!

Saturday early morning run in Central Park

I tried to run in Central Park as early as possible to avoid the crowds, but sometimes if you run later on in that day, you’ll encounter some unexpected surprises. During my first weekend in New York, I ran in the afternoon. When I got off the subway, I heard festive cheering and yelling. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I followed the noise. I saw all these folks cheering and waving Puerto Rican flags. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon the Puerto Rican parade! Feeling jolted by the festivity, I decided to join the crowd and cheer too. It was so much fun!

Cheering on the crowds during the Puerto Rican parade

One unexpected joy while in New York was exploring the boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn for my internship. The subway commutes were often long, but going to the mom-and-pop grocery delis and seeing the locals talk and hang out made the the trip worth it. I got to check out Brooklyn’s Chinatown, see where the Hasidic Jews live by Fort Hamilton Parkway, and visit the working-class areas of the Northern Bronx. I also got to know how the neighborhoods are handling the influx of recent migrants, and even made some friends in the process. New Yorkers get a rep for their rude behavior, but I’ve find once you get past their blunt exterior, I found the folks to be down-to-earth, warm, and gracious.

Speaking of down-to-earth people, over the course of my internship, I met some really cool peeps. One of them was Joyce. I met her for an interview while I was doing a project for my internship. I initially thought she was going to be helpful in answering my questions. Little did I know, when we met, we hit it off instantly and became immediate friends. I knew I met a kind spirit when she graciously offered me a bag of Chinese fortune cookies. 🙂 She has a sincere heart and does so much for the Southeast Asian community in the Bronx. She’s part of my New York crew now, and I can’t wait to come back and have her delicious Puerto Rican food for dinner.

Me and Joyce

Brownstones in Brooklyn

I’ve had lots of fun eating, watching movies, running, and exploring the boroughs of New York. However, what ultimately defines a place is the people. I’ve always said that my #1 travel rule is: it’s not where you go, but the people you’re with. Despite all the exciting things that go on in New York, it would not have made a difference if it wasn’t for my family and friends. It’s been a pleasure to catch up with my old friends and forging new friendships. At the Asian American Legal Defense Education Fund, I’ve been fortunate to meet a wonderful cohort of legal interns and staff attorneys. Everyone is driven to make a difference and advocate on behalf of Asian-Americans in New York and elsewhere in the United States. I’ve learned a lot about human trafficking, health care, and immigration thanks to AALDEF.

Hirra, Stan (my awesome boss at AALDEF), and me

Spending a summer in New York has also allowed me to catch up with my old friends. While I was traveling around Southeast Asia last summer, I got to meet a great group of individuals and made friends. I last saw them in Cambodia, so it’s fitting since I’m leaving to Cambodia in two weeks, that I got to catch up and see Kate Jordan, Kate Anderson, and Kerry in New York before I left. I hung out with Kate Anderson and Kate Jordan in Long Island, so it was nice to see the suburbia side of New York. Kate A made a healthy and delicious dinner, I got to see her son’s baseball game, and lounge around in a neighbor’s pool.

Hanging out with Kate Jordan (left) and Kate Anderson (right), two lovely, tall ladies

I also go to see Kerry. Kerry was my roommate in Cambodia. She is Jamaican and proud to be Jamaican. Lol. I remember sitting in the backseat of her car while her and her husband were talking in Jamaican Patois. It sounded English to me, but I could not understand a word they were saying! They took me to a Jamaican restaurant in Jamaica Queens. It was so good. I loved their bread pudding and jerk chicken. Ultimately, what made the experience great was catching up and meeting her family.

Kerry and me.

I also got to see my little brother, Hieu from Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t get to see him all that much because I live so far away in Portland, Oregon. It was his first time in New York. Despite walking around everywhere and getting sore feet (I manage to forget that Atlantans don’t walk to get around.), he loved it, and it was nice playing host. It was also nice to spend quality time with him, especially since I don’t see him very often. My happiest moments with him was on his last day when were were in Astoria Queens munching on bagels (I had a bagel lox. Yum.) and hanging out.

Hieu ordering a hotdog

Me and Hieu at the Brooklyn Bridge

My Uncle Dominic also came up to visit. He kept saying for months that he was coming to New York. I didn’t believe it, but lo and behold, several days before my flight back to Atlanta – he came up! I didn’t get to see him all that much because of work, but it was cool to see him again and spend quality time with him. Thanks to his goofy perspective on life,  I can’t look at “my bad,” “yolo,” and “real talk” the same way again. Hee hee.

Me and Dominic goofing off as we wait for to city train to arrive.

I’ll miss New York. Within the two and half months of my stay here, I got to know the city and the boroughs of Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn pretty well. I’ll miss hearing the animated conversations in the corner delis in Brooklyn and the Bronx. I’ll miss eating the awesome food. I’ll miss running in the mornings in Central Park. I’ll miss my weekend grocery store runs to Flushing, Queens (the real Chinatown in my humble opinion). Most importantly, I’ll miss the people. I have a wonderful circle of family and friends here. They come from all walks of life, whether they’re based in the posh suburbs of Long Island, the Jamaican neighborhood of Jamaica Queens, the Dominican dominated neighborhoods of Washington Heights, or Sunnyside Queens. Despite their different backgrounds and upbringing, the common thread is they’re amazing folks filled with decency, compassion, and spunk. I’m grateful and proud to have them in my life. 🙂

I’ll be heading out to Atlanta for several days to see my family. After that it’s LA for the day to see Quyen, and then I’m off to Cambodia for four months to intern at the UN tribunal. I don’t know what’s in store in the future, at least in terms of where I’ll be working after I graduate from law school. New York is definitely a contender for where I would like to ultimately work. However, if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be okay because no matter where I go, I’ll always consider New York to be my second home.