After two years of dating, Ryun Patterson’s girlfriend sat him down for The Talk.
“She took me to a restaurant, a very serious conversation, like ‘What is going on?’ And that’s when she told me that her dad has nine wives and is a sorcerer,” Patterson told me over pho soup in Little Vietnam.
He was a Western journalist working at the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He was serious about his girlfriend Sopanya, so much so that she’s now his wife, but had always wondered why she would demur when he asked about meeting her family.
Not only was her father a prominent sorcerer, but her aunt was a spirit medium who channeled a dead monk named Lok Ta Soc. High-status in Cambodian society, but she worried her American boyfriend would freak.
“Once I knew that, I went back to the newsroom like, ‘Do you guys know who this guy is?’ and it was like ‘Oh yeah, he has lots of wives.’ ‘He’s really strong magic. How else could you get eight women to live together?’” Patterson said. “Then they were sure he cast a spell on me so his daughter would get to marry a foreigner.”
This was Ryun Patterson’s first encounter with Cambodian magic. Today, he’s a former journalist living back in the States and the author of “Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic.”
The book is a multimedia look at how Cambodia’s traditional folk magic is disappearing or, at the very least, changing. People tell fortunes with Western playing cards and divine over cell phones to Cambodian expats calling from Long Beach. Traveling one long dirt path to meet a rural sorcerer for an interview, Patterson noticed a little Cambodian girl snuggled in her mother’s arms, watching ‘Frozen’ on an iPhone.
This is the story about how Ryun Patterson sought magic.
The Glass Menagerie
“’Do you have any money I have for a plane ticket?’” Patterson asked his parents in 1999. “’Because I think I’m moving to Cambodia.’”
He was in his mid-20s, a copy editor who had spent the three years since graduation frustrated at various small newspapers across the Midwest. A job ad in Editor & Publisher magazine for a job in Cambodia had been taunting him the whole time.
It looked, well, great. The largest English-language paper in the country. Little pay, but free housing, adventure and a chance to make a real difference in a country struggling with poverty and corruption. He interviewed at O’Hare airport while the boss was transferring planes — you could do that pre-9/11 — and he got the job.
“As an idealist journalist, it was one of the purest expression of journalism you’ll come across, working at the Daily. You never will write a feature story about a lady who collects glass animals that has the headline ‘The Glass Menagerie’ on it.”
He loved the job, loved Cambodia and loved Sopanya. But he could only bring one of the three back home. In 2003, they came to the States and got married, settling in Uptown. Patterson returned to his old job as night copy editor for a suburban newspaper.
“I lived in this pure world, right? All of a sudden, I’m writing The Glass Menagerie as a headline. Because that’s what’s expected. ‘I don’t think this headline has enough pop.’ ’What about The Glass Menagerie? What about A River Runs Through It? What about If You Build It, They Will Come?’ So I wasn’t going to last very long.”
In 2004, he quit journalism and got a job at an investment research firm. He had nights off for the first time in his life. He and Sopanya had a daughter.
“By that point, I sort of had a moment where I realized, you know what? Maybe the thing in my life, maybe I’ve done it. Maybe I’ve done The Thing people are supposed to do with their life, the one thing. And I was OK with it.”
Patterson had always entertained the notion of getting a traditional Cambodian protective tattoo, one of the ones that covers the entire back. In 2011, on one of their trips back, Ryun and Sopanya found a monk outside Phnom Penh willing to give him one.
“I’m getting this tattoo, for three and a half hours in 100 degree heat on a stone floor of this temple,” Patterson said. “The guy had a tattoo needle that he plugged into the wall, just a cord attached to a tattoo needle, complaining about how much I bled, ‘White people bleed so much.’ All these novice monks come and sit around me, ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ Finally, the tattoo guy is like ‘It’s nice to see someone getting these tattoos.’”
That led to a conversation about how no one likes the traditional bamboo method because the results don’t look crisp enough. Then the tattooist said something that stuck in Patterson’s head.
“’I’ve got no one to teach this to, so when I go, no one else is going to be doing the tattoos that I do,’” Patterson recalls the monk saying.
Patterson found a new The Thing.
Come back Monday for Patterson’s stories of collecting Cambodian magic.