Foreign Intrigue: Janelle Retka shares her experience in Cambodia

Janelle Retka

Janelle getting her recording on at an early morning conference with the Minister of Commerce for her first front page story at the Cambodia Daily.

Janelle Retka extended her graduation date in order to participate in the Foreign Intrigue program, where she worked for the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. Majoring in Journalism, she wrote several articles for the education beat and will travel afterward to get the most out of the experience before starting the job hunt.

What surprised you the most about Cambodia?

“What surprised me most about Cambodia was the ease of settling in. I don’t know how it was possible to feel at home so fast. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, the language is fascinating and challenging, there’s always something to go out and see or do (whether it’s the markets or grabbing an avocado shake), and I love the unique buzz of a city that hasn’t been taken over by skyscrapers – just motorcycles and tuk-tuks. Also, while Cambodian culture is untainted by Westernization in many regards, there are hints of Europe form French colonialism strewn throughout Phnom Penh, great coffee to be found that reminds me of home (as opposed to the popular Cambodian coffee that is roasted with scorched corn and soy beans to make it sweet, even when made in a French Press – and of course, I’m a member of the Seattle Coffee Snob Club), and afternoon rainy-season showers that temporarily convince me I’m back in Seattle until I feel the humidity.”

Janelle Retka

Visiting Kampot Pepper fields, the first Cambodian product to benefit from the World Trade Organization status of Protected Geographical Indication, in August.

What is the biggest challenge reporting in a foreign country?

“The biggest challenge of reporting in a foreign country is the language barrier. First, it prevents you from being able to easily access what’s shakin’ around town – you can’t read the news, check Facebook pages of prominent groups, etc. without google translate. Even once you’ve gotten down finding stories, you have to build up a network. It’s hard to start from scratch. And lastly, you often can’t interview a source yourself. Instead, at the Daily, we work in tandem – one westerner will work alongside a Cambodian to split the news gathering. This has been a really enriching experience, as it’s a great opportunity to learn someone else’s best practices and gain skills in team-work journalism and research. That’s something you don’t really learn in school, but it’s definitely prevalent in the industry, even without the language barrier.”

Is there an article that was published that you are especially proud of?

“I’ve had the opportunity to take on the education beat, for the most part. My pride and joy thus far has been a series of stories on the national grade 12 exam, which went through a reform last year to eliminate corruption and drastically impacted passing rates as well as the secondary education approach in general. In this article, the exam results for this year were released, offering the fate for students – if they pass, they’re eligible for university; if not, they fail to complete high school:

“I’m also really happy with how this report about out of school children (kids who never make it through primary school) rates are being combated:

Can you share a favorite anecdote from your trip – cool adventure, funny story, lesson learned?

Janelle and Shirley

Getting spoiled by a visit from Shirley and a trip to Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat, said to be the largest religious monument in the world.

“Being a curly-q’d blonde, it’s pretty common to get comments about how weird/fascinating/nice my hair is. Most of the time this just comes out in random conversation, so it’s nothing to think over. Two occasions stick out for having completely caught me off guard, though.

“The first was in a market during a cooking class that I took to learn the preparation of some traditional Khmer foods. My teacher was leading me through the narrow market path, showing me local herbs and ingredients and their popular use when a women in her 70s or 80s walked right up to me, grabbing me by the arms and softly shaking me as she laughed non-stop. Once she caught her breath, my instructor Linna told me that she could not believe that Elsa from Frozen’s look-alike was in this local Khmer market.

“The second hair-related laugh was during an interview for an article. My Khmer colleague and I were at a family-owned silk production company getting a tour of the property and information on the production process and yield. Silk, before it is dyed, softened and weaved, is bleach-yellow and wavy from having been wound on a spool. The woman showing us around held a loop of silk out for my colleague and I to feel, and mentioned that it looked just like my hair – a fine comparison. The next thing I knew, my colleague was reaching up to feel the texture of my hair in contrast to the silk. I froze, not sure whether to take a step back or laugh.”

What are you looking forward to most as you continue your time abroad? 

“I’m in the last month of my internship, having extended it beyond the original length. I’m excited to continue on with the education beat and becoming more familiar with the education network and the daily’s style. There’s still a lot to learn, and I’m keen to do it.

“After finishing, I’m spoiling myself with a bit of travel before starting the job search, so I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to meet up with some friends from Southeast Asia that I haven’t seen in years and explore places like the Cardamom Mountains during a hiking trip in Cambodia, Hanoi and Singapore, where a friend from community college and studying abroad will host me, respectively, and backpacking through Laos, where western impact is supposed to be even more minimal than in Cambodia.”