September 18, 2017 – 1 Year at Site
Reading: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
I ventured out of the house very little this weekend and when I did, I regretted it. My usual tailor and her sister asked, presumably as a joke, if I would deliver them some husbands from the U.S. When I laughed and refused I was told in no uncertain terms to find a new tailor. As I turned to leave their aunt accosted me for not attending her recently late husband’s funeral. I made excuses about being back and forth from Phnom Penh for trainings, etc, but in truth I had both heard and seen the funeral fanfare across from my house. In my naivety, I had simply chosen to do my best to avoid this one, particular funeral for no reason other than this family’s history of making me both the butt of their jokes and the centerpiece of their hospitality and splendor amid guests. I asked forgiveness and help peel cucumbers. Amends could be made, she stated, for the price of free private English lessons for her grandchildren and potential sponsorship to study in America. When I reminded her that I only teach large classes and with Khmer co-teachers to avoid the appearance of favoritism, she acted as if I had ceased to exist. I knew one other tailor, across from pa’s school and, downtrodden, began to walk that way. The new tailor immediately announced my fatness but said she would sew my dress. I gave her my bird’s nest of a dress project, a mess of straight pins and chopped up panels of the fabric James and I had found in Takeo market, then hustled home. I escaped to Takeo Town for most of that Saturday where Shelby, Sarah, and I vented for most of the day at Fred’s, insisting on the worth and value of each other and ourselves, in turn. I rented a computer for $0.25/hour and Photoshopped some Khmer wedding photos for Cal and Erin.
That night I languored at the wat for Pchum Ben. I had come with pa but was instantly scooped up by the aunties and grandmothers. Chhenda’s older sister finally told me to sit cross-legged if the traditional postures (legs bent and tucked to the side) was putting my legs to sleep, which it was. The monks delivering the evening’s sermon spoke F.O.R.E.V.E.R., spinning cautionary tales and of virtues by which to live. He noticed several of the aunties playing around on their phones and then saw me rest my head on Chennda’s sister’s shoulder, thus he chuckled and hurried himself up amid noises of assent.
The next morning I began preparing my go-to educational materials for the day in between commiserating with Srey Muel about our head-colds. A soon-to-be mother who I’d counseled last month walked in and we quickly starting gabbing, excited to see one another again. I told/asked my chief about visiting the U.S. and he was cool with it, gave me a fried banana and told me he would invite me to the next village health volunteer-meeting. At the tail-end of the morning, I sat with Vuth who asked me about views on Islamic extremism in America which I did my best to explain. He noted that all the Muslims he had known, especially in the indigenous communities of Mondulkiri Province, were very kind and helpful to one another. When he asked if I like it more than Christianity I said yes but did not add anything about the Bible Belt or his comparison being a rather unfair one. On his way out he told our coworker Makara to ensure that the patient waiting in the next room with a dog-bite understood that we could give them the tetanus immunization they were demanding but it would be useless. They would still need to go to the provincial hospital for a rabies vaccine. After work I biked back to the tailor to check out my dress. I had purchased it cheap in Phnom Penh but hadn’t found it adequately flouncy and had thus split the seams to add triangular panels (“godets,” they are called, so says the internet) for some proper twirl-power and permit my Swedish hips and shoulders some breathing room. Her work blew me away. It was perfect. We beamed at each other and at the dress, in turn. She offered to iron it for me as I watched a Thai show made to look like a Spanish soap opera.
On my way back home I stopped at the Chinese noodle shop which pa always frequents. There is always someone calling me over to hang-out but I’ve never made the time, usually hurrying to or from school. There were two littles girls flitting about in matching dresses, playing with empty – albeit sparkly – Barbie-doll packaging and they gave me some “hellos” as I approached. Their bong (older relative, female in this instance) rose up from her hammock giggling, telling the girls, “Teacher prefers ‘suasadey’ instead of hello, she speaks Khmer.” She and I sat and chatted as we munched on a crackly corn snack: half-popped kernels, crunchy but chewable and seasoned with sugar, salt, lemongrass, and chili. When another young girl appeared from behind the house, the older sister asked, “Oh, what are you up to?” to which the young girl stated, “Just finished doing the ‘big leg-fold,’” at which point we all burst out laughing. To “fold one’s legs” is the Khmer euphemism for using the latrine and/or going to the bathroom and if you’re feeling especially descriptive you can specify the “little leg-fold” or the “big leg-fold.” We finished giggling as the older sister shrieked, “So specific!” and the younger girl walked away grinning, satisfied.
In the afternoon I visited the beautiful lakeside home of Neakkru Mey and her hubby, Lokkru Mithona, both teachers at pa’s school, with the secret goal of floating the idea of co-teaching in between conversation. However it happened, I suddenly found myself demonstrating some bodyweight exercises as Mey filmed me on her iPhone. We ate some unripe guava and then ventured across the way to visit Chhekka, home for the weekend. As soon as she saw me she grabbed my wrist and we scurried down the path to walk around Kong Si, the park-like peninsula where the skeleton of an old rice wine factory stands. As we walked along the meadow that stretches along the water, she asked, “How are things going with your host-family?” As I told her they were the same, the new normal, she nodded and looked off without really listening to me and began replying as soon as she could. “I don’t ever want you to feel like you need to try too hard to make them happy or fit in there, okay? All I want you to do is be sure you feel safe and get enough to eat. Anything more than that, do not worry too much. Their feelings… Your family is difficult and everyone knows it. Do not blame yourself.” She went on to tell me of several huge scandals in which my host-sister – my stoic, unassuming host-sister – and host-brother – less surprising, a real punk – were the culprits, scandals which were ruining the family name as we spoke and left me in the middle of a storm of mak’s vitriol with few defenses. We hugged and she made me promise not to try too hard or worry too much. Sieklin and I made coffee plans for the following morning as we rushed to help Yaay packed up in the approaching storm. At night we ate prahok, stir-fried Chinese Kale and something I suspect to have been dog disguised in curry given the tense side-eye cast my way. I skirted invitations to the wat for nighttime prayer and dove under my bug net.