Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Sorry, I'm not Lara Croft
Angelina Jolie, not VMFA's Dr. Jennifer Foley, stars in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Beginning in June of 2000, I spent two and a half years conducting field research in Southeast Asian art history. It was a wonderful time, an incredible opportunity, and I am grateful for every day.
Which is not to say that my time there was without frustrations – from a fruit-bat infestation in my house to an “invitation” to visit the immigration office about my visa. The most pressing frustration was the perpetual reassessments and readjustments to my dissertation topic. What had seemed fabulous back in Ithaca was less so when I was knee deep in a rice paddy. Changes included a country shift from Vietnam to Cambodia.
Soon after arriving in Vietnam, I realized that I would need a rugged form of transportation to deal with my off-road visits to temples. I settled on a Minsk, a Belarusian motorcycle with a design that hadn’t changed since Stalin was in power. And it was cheap. But … Minsks are workhorses, used almost exclusively by farmers to haul things to market. The guy who sold me the bike asked if I wanted one-pig shocks or two-pig shocks. That’s right: the shocks were measured by how many pigs one could carry to market.
I am also a woman. In Vietnam, women drive small scooters with automatic transmissions. Motorcycles that require manual shifting are masculine; automatic transmissions are feminine. Motorcycles are, in fact, gendered on the registration. One line reads loai xe, meaning type of vehicle. The options were nu (female) or nam (male). My Minsk was listed as being a boy.
After more than a year of researching, I decided to move to Phnom Penh. I had grown very attached to my Minsk, and since Cambodia had far fewer paved roads, I decided to bring the motorcycle. There were no Minsks in Cambodia, so I thought it might be good to learn about maintenance from my mechanic in Danang, Anh Dan. The day before I started my drive to Phnom Penh, I stopped by Anh Dan’s shop to pick up my motorcycle, which he had been giving a final tune-up. When I arrived, he was very excited.
“I saw you! I saw you last night!”
He said he’d seen a movie about me. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he ran into his house behind the shop and returned with a (pirated) DVD. On the cover was a picture of Angelina Jolie in shorts and a tank top with a gun strapped to her leg.
“You’re Tomb Raider! You’re Tomb Raider!”
I thought he’d lost his mind. Angelina Jolie I am not. But, he explained, the movie was clearly about me.
“Look! She is a Tay (Westerner), she has a braid like you, she drives a boy motorcycle like you, and she goes to Cambodia! For art and sculptures and temples! Just like you!”
His logic was impeccable. How could I argue?
Jennifer Foley, Ph.D.
VMFA Paul Mellon Collection Educator
Dr. Foley will speak on the topic “Walking the Royal Road: the Ancient Cambodian Kingdom of Angkor” May 14 at 6 p.m.