“It’s working! It’s WORKING!”
In all the mystery, some familiarity has taken form. A few rhythms we have strummed up for ourselves; most rhythms are those which have thrummed through everything here for a long, long time. We scrub laundry in the evening when the heat breaks but before the mosquitoes are out. We greet our families and extended family (neighbors) at length with questions about their night’s sleep and what they ate for breakfast. In the evenings we lounge with our families and do a lot of healthy nothing, punctuated by slaying mosquitoes and playfully spying on the neighbors down below.
Don’t get me wrong: we still don’t understand what is happening approximately 85% of the time. Often we just have to trust that whatever relative is leading us by the elbow to some unknown destination has only the best intentions. However, I did get a lesson in self-preservation and exercising my right to politely decline enigmatic offers from my family. While lounging before bed with my mom and one of my sisters, I expressed that I had both a headache and a backache. Both women started at me immediately. “Leptnam, leptnam!” I needed to take some medicine. And, as it turned out, they had just the ticket. My sister disappeared and returned promptly with a small jar of tiger balm. “At te akuun!,” I chimed. No, thank you! We had just been given a lecture that day about traditional Khmer healing methods, including coining. The administrator applies tiger balm to the recipient’s back and then fiercely swipes a coin in streaks along their skin, utterly decimating about a trillion tiny blood vessels. Sensing my apprehension, my sister and mom offered reassuring coos, motioning that they wanted only to apply a bit to my back. They were so eager – and my back was killin’ me – so I eventually consented. At the time, it seemed like the lesser of evils considering they were also pushing some unlabeled medication my way. Up in my room I put on a sarong and exposed my lower back where the pain was located. Curiously, my sister yanked it up a bit and began to apply the balm all across my upper back. Then, like lightning, she set in to my flesh with the lid of the balm jar. Numb from the balm and tingling from the rapidity of the process, it was a moment before the pain truly burned. I gently pulled away and said, Thank you, that will do it… but not before asking her to demonstrate the method on my arm where I could see it in action. I shuddered at the purple and bright red contrails along my bicep and had my sister snap a photo of the damage. Kind of a horror, but I bore in mind that she truly was trying to help. To be clear, at no point did I feel frightened our sense any malice from my sister; on the contrary, I felt very cared for in a complicated way. I thanked my sister and slept it off. The next day, things felt a bit different. My family and neighbors all asked me about the coining and seemed impressed that I had tried it. I let them believe it was of my own volition. The practice is very common here for the locals but not popular with foreigners. My back was tender but my reputation was fortified. As my friend Ben put it: I had earned my actual stripes.
Huge leaps were taken in growing closer with my host family. I met my dad this week! Until then, Christy and I had been marveling at the independent and unique nature of our family of women. Where were the elder men? Turns out dad is a police officer and only comes home every now and then. He arrived in his new car and immediately wanted to help me study, calling me “con puk, con puk,” meaning “my daughter, my daughter.” As for the husband of my older sister (Christy’s mom), we knew from a PC staff member that he had passed away some years ago. This was sad news, especially because my sister is so young, barely 30. One morning she helped us to understand that his remains are kept in a spirit box downstairs, a beautiful structure that looks like a tiny pagoda. On that morning, she showed us how she lit some incense for him and always shared with him the first bite of our meals. Soon, she began to cry. It was a powerful moment to sit with her and offer comfort while she experienced the pain. That night, she shared with us her stunning wedding photos. They were so young and beautiful. Most haunting was the resemblance our 10 year old brother bore to his late dad. I would believe it if you told me he sprang from the forehead of this father like Athena from Zeus. Bahng srey shared the photos with pride and seemed touched at our interest. This is a subject which I think will become more clear with time – how he passed and what options there are for a young widow here in Cambodia. According to one of our teachers, women can remarry but there is can be a risk for their daughters. Some new husbands will harm or assault the daughter of a former husband. We wonder about how this complicates the mother’s relationship with her daughter and also how anyone in this world could lay a harmful finger on our sweet, shy little sister. Some things we will never understand.
This week for school we planned and held activities with students of the high school which hosts our training. Each language group would administrate a different PACA activity (Participatory Assessment for Community Action). Our language group would ask the students to draw maps of their community which depicted their school, homes, and all other places/areas which were important to them in their community. After breaking the ice with some good old Hot Potato, we asked the girls and boys to divvy up. We had all planned our language needs to the T and hounded Shanniqua to ensure that her playlist was “appropriate/not too hood,” for the kids despite the fact that most of them wouldn’t speak the language of her musical artists anyway. Thus we could only laugh when our teacher told us that Lian had mispronounced a word and asked the students not to take a seat but rather to “sit down and f**k.” Rolling with the punches, we spoke in turn to limit the distractions of having six goofy Americans bumbling around at the the front of the room and relished in the moments of actual communication between ourselves and the kids. With the activity understood, the students got to work. Well, the girls were the ones who really GOT DOWN. These ladies whipped out protractors and planned amongst themselves. Their map had greater scope and detail. Their comprehension of our Khmer was also greater, thus they consistently offered to help translate when the boys *claimed* they understood the activity. We learned so much: 1) The girls spend most of their free time at the market while the boys prefer to go to the Wat where they are allowed to talk to the monks (the girls are not). 2) If they could have one things added to their community, the girls would have a park while the boys would have a soccer field. It felt like a victory on all parts. The students seemed to have fun and take pride in their maps, we felt successful in our Khmer and for all we learned about the community, and our language instructor was snapping photos like a proud dad. Savin, we really do it all for you, anyway. Please be our teacher forever.
The week was peppered with strokes of intense deja vu which, as my cousin Ivan once taught me, means I’m right where I am supposed to be. Every day brings moments that remind me of the pod-racing scene in Episode I in which Annakin shouts, “It’s working! It’s WORKING!” In the morning I think, How can I possibly do this? And by night I wonder, How could I ever do anything else?