I wrote this piece for $langin’ a few months ago and am just getting around to posting it now. My task was to share a bit about a day in the office of an English Editor at a Khmer fashion publication. While there had to be some self-imposed censorship- and mind you this was written about 3 months ago- I think it still does capture what I’ve experienced thus far.
The stark contrast between the lives of a fashion magazine editor from the Westernized world to one in Cambodia, while still in the midst of change and evolvement, is knock-you-on-your-ass incredible, to say the least.
In the New York version of my world, one would enter the office to hear the infamous Miranda Priestly so divinely and sardonically drawled,“Details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling. She sent me dirty, tired and paunchy. And R.S.V.P. Yes to Michael Kors’ party, I want the driver to drop me off at 9:30 and pick me up at 9:45 sharp. Call Natalie at Glorious Foods and tell her no for the 40th time. No! I don’t want dacquoise. I want tortes filled with warm rhubarb compote. Then call my ex-husband and remind him that the parent-teacher conference is at Dalton tonight. Then call my husband, ask him to meet me for dinner at that place I went to with Massimo. Tell Richard I saw the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here? Not really. Also, I need to see all the things that Nigel has pulled for Gwyneth’s second cover try. I wonder if she’s lost any of that weight yet.”
In my Phnom Penh setting, I nod hello to my colleagues, wordlessly plunk down into my plastic, gray cushioned office chair- aim a solid dose of Raid under my desk to kill the fleet of mosquitoes hovering hungrily at my ankles, douse my hands with hand sanitizer, smear on whatever imported lip balm I can find in my mess of a handbag, and log into my Dell to write articles on pieces about how Lucite clutches are the new bowler and that getting steamy in the bedroom only takes a few extra stretches and a few extra silk scarves. Once in a while, I’ll attempt to edit an article one of the interviewers has written on some celebrity who’s still in university who has managed to get their hands on the“Khmer Celebrity Handbook to Offending No One and Not Fuck Things Up for Your Ancestors” that doles out every boring, safe, and juiceless answer to an interview question possible. This guide doesn’t really exist in tangible form, but it’s the only way I can wrap my ahead around the mundane, lackluster answers we get from these starlets time and time again. Then, there are days when the weight of trying to assemble a magazine in a country where men walk around with their shirts half way up rubbing their bellies, women think socks with high heeled flip flops are en mode, and that “black tie” consists of piling on as many gemstones and god-awful white makeup as possible and then I lose my mind; walking around the office muttering obscenities, sometimes yelling directly at some moron who decided it would be great to have the model wearing something that looks like it was pulled out of a four year olds costume closet.
It’s difficult to explain that what we, as in the magazines and publishing houses, create and how we deliver can be much more complicated than how many other countries go about pushing out their glossies. Instead of printers bowing to Vogue’s every need or deadline and free products being sent from Marc Jacobs Beauty and Tom Ford- we manage to get through the complexities of a country healing from years of bloody and unjust tragedy, the loss of some of their most competent and intelligent leaders, and seventy five percent of the population being under thirty- and the majority of companies being straight up stingy.
Our procurement team rides their motos around town-sometimes in boiling heat and others during monsoon downpours, scouring the small- I’m talking miniscule- amount of reputable stores in Phnom Penh to find the current trends which at times, is an impossible task. The Creative Director (sometimes) prints dozens of photos for the salons our models go to for a “natural” look, only to see them emerge with full on beauty pageant hair and a Barbie face full of makeup- or let’s just say it- a lady boy. Things are not easy, things are not perfect- yet they get done.
Working in a position that I definitely wouldn’t have fallen into in the world I came from back in the states is something that during the worst of days is a reminder to keep me grounded. Rather than running for coffees and directing calls for years before getting to a position where I would need to function on a 1,000 calories per day diet to fit in- I am allowed the freedom to express myself through writing through some articles, work with a team dedicated to their work no matter how difficult or painstaking it gets. To see a magazine go from previously cut and pasted from the internet and translated to Khmer accompanied with mediocre graphics, fonts, and content ten months ago from when I started to where it is now can be shocking at times; it’s nowhere near perfect, but it’s like a 2 going to a 4. A magazine that along with the fluff and glitter gives advice and support that many women aren’t getting from their Loy9 TV shows or influence from other Asian countries. That skin lightening cream isn’t healthy, for the body or the mind and that yes, you can explore your body and not feel like a piece of soiled, dirty cloth. That contraception is necessary (let’s face it Cambodia- your teens are sexing and they’re going to be sexing and they should at least be smart about it) and that exercise is what is going to help you get to your goal weight rather than sitting in a sauna rubbing baby oil on yourself (no, you’re not going to lose those thunder thighs by laying around a sauna). There is still a lot of work to be done. The improvements that can be made are endless. But it seems that’s the world we live in, not just this particular magazine.
It’s a good place to be-at least for the moment, and more than that- an interesting one.