Cambodian Weed

How a small village outside Houston influences the Asian restaurants of Little Saigon, Long Beach and beyond

Bopho says he lost $40,000. It's unclear if that's true, but what is true is that he should never have tried to fix prices. Not because such collusion is illegal—though it is—but because the plan was so obviously a terrible one. It doesn't take long to figure out that residents like the Village the way it is—chaotic and inefficient. They want to get rich, sure, but they want to do it as Cambodians.

"Asian economics," Tila calls that mind-set. In Cambodia, it's common for individual shops, all of which sell the same thing, to amass in a dense cluster and compete. Everyone's in it for themselves, and everyone mimics everyone else. Bopho's scheme necessitated an abandonment of that ethos. At some level, cooperation means sacrificing independence, which, even if it does lend greater prosperity, would be anathema to most villagers.

It's a mistake Bopho hasn't forgotten or forgiven. On a recent Friday morning, he was in a dark mood and didn't want to talk. He had turned his phone off; no one knew where he was. When he finally arrived at his house at 9:30 a.m., drinking Miller Lite, his black tank top was matted with sweat. He'd been in the fields and greenhouses since daybreak, threshing and boxing water spinach. He said he didn't have time for disruptions, especially questions about his relationship with other villagers. He's through with them, he says—they do their thing; he does his. "They can kiss my ass," he said, later adding, "I don' care what they say. I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to get rich."

One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
Daniel Kramer
One of the dozens of greenhouses that grow the prized weed
Yin Vuth takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago
Daniel Kramer
Yin Vuth takes hundreds of pounds of the crop into Houston on Thursdays but says he makes substantially less money today than he did years ago

But watching Bopho rage and perspire, it became clear that he, just as everyone else here, probably never will. There are countless frustrations in selling water spinach. It takes hours to clean, prepare and package. Knuckles bloat and split open under the strain. Then, after all that, a pound of the crop gets barely 70 cents in Texas. The cost of a Coke. It's insulting. Most families make far less than $100 per day, and sometimes, they can't even get that. The crop spoils, or the wholesaler, for whatever reason, doesn't want the haul anymore, and hundreds of pounds get burned. Because the crop's not a regulated or publicly traded commodity—such as wheat or cotton—there's no insurance or speculation to assuage risk or buffer losses. Every family in every way is on its own.

On days such as today, though, it's better not to think like that. Bopho has sunk everything into his water spinach business. So he contemplates possibilities. If he could funnel water spinach up north somehow, or build more greenhouses, or find some way to control the price, then he'd make real money. He could retire before his body fails. On days such as today, when he already feels beaten and tired and has a long drive and uncertain prospects ahead, it's better to entertain fantasy. So he loads up his white van, slams the door and creaks down the moonscape dirt road, alone and Dallas-bound.

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1 comments
omegapoint7
omegapoint7

I like how the idiotic author describes free market competition without government oversight as a "dystopia". Madness.

 
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