December 10th, 2017 – 1 Year and 3 Months at Site
Reading: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Brought to you from/by The Village Void
I’ve been at a guesthouse in Takeo Town since last night following a breakdown concerning my host-mom.
My program manager, Sedtha, visited on Thursday. She was doing check-up visits with the new volunteers in Takeo and she made time toward the end of her day to come and see me. She’s always known about the impossible dynamic within my host-family and she supports and affirms me whenever she can. When she arrived at the house in the early evening, mak and pa were getting gussied up to leave for a cousin’s wedding. Mak emerged from behind the house in full make-up and hair, stunning us both and leaving Sedtha laughing about how she hadn’t quite recognized mak at first. Pa approached and hurriedly whispered to Sedtha between shaving strokes. “At the last district meeting I attended with all of the other school directors, the district police asked us all to act as honorary policemen and monitor, follow, and report on the activity of any foreigners we see in the community, to watch for suspicious behavior. You can’t tell anyone I told you but you have to know, ma’am,” and he cracked a smile, went back to shaving. Sedtha made sure I had understood and reiterated the intensity of the political situation lately. With the latest visa sanctions that the U.S. had placed upon Cambodian travelers, the tensions would only grow. I needed to be especially careful around people I didn’t know.
Sedtha and I ran through our usual exchange about my host-family. Was I feeling safe? Had anything improved? Gotten worse? Did I want to move? Yes, no, no, no. Sedtha nodded, okay, and hugged me. She approached mak to say goodbye and mak clutched her arm. “You have to make her understand, ma’am, that she CAN’T just run around on her own anymore. All these young men getting into drugs in the area, it’s not safe. Every day on the news – rape, murder, rape, murder. But she doesn’t listen, she doesn’t care. One of the village chiefs caught her running through the rice fields the other day, alone! I am her mother and I don’t do a good job, I am too busy, never looking out for her enough. That is why she doesn’t know how much I worry. I ask everyone in the village to help me, to help keep her safe, because I don’t have the time I need to protect her.”
Sedtha soothed her, said it had been months since I had run through the fields and now only ran on the paved road where there were plenty of neighbors to keep me safe. I was touched. Just because mak doesn’t say these things every day, I thought, doesn’t mean they aren’t true. We all love in different ways and my very presence in her life is a total anomaly. Just because her very best is still pretty cold and harsh doesn’t mean it’s not her honest best. A certain relief took root in me as mak and pa moto’d off to the wedding and Sedtha waved goodbye. I locked the gate for safety, ready to luxuriate in my first ever evening home alone. After a sesame cake and carrot dinner, I slept like an angel.
I never sleep in but the next morning I did, rolling out of bed at 6 AM. As my feet hit the floor there was a knock. “One second!” I shouted as I scrambled to wrap a sarong around myself. No one ever knocks on my door. It seemed to have become some type of taboo among my host-family to disturb me while I am in my room, as if I was ever doing anything aside from reading or watching a movie. But there stood mak, stock-still as she does whenever she speaks to me. “Leave the house. Mak is going to the market, locking the gate.” I nodded but was sure I had misunderstood. Every morning for the past… forever, Leakhana and I do our tutoring as pa gets ready for work, then he leaves for school. As the last one to leave the house, I lock the gate behind me. If people show up looking to buy machine parts from pa or fish from mak, I ask them to come back later or to go look for them at the school or market, respectively. Thus, I was sure mak meant, “Lock the gate when you leave the house, I’m leaving now.”
When I went downstairs, however, mak was perched on her moto and staring at me.
“Mak’s late, hurry up! Leave the house, locking the gate!” mak shrieked.
“Right now? Where’s pa?” I asked, confused.
“Pa went to Phnom Penh, no one else at the house. Hurry!”
My heart pounding, I walked, baffled, out the front gate and paused. Mak parked her moto outside the gate and then went back to shoo the dog out. She locked the gate and moto’d toward the market. The dog and I stared at each other for less than an instant before he bolted and I suddenly felt the stares of several neighbors gaping my way. I leaned forward and broke into what I thought was a natural stride. I made my way vaguely toward the wat when I realized it was the general course on which my legs had decided.
I smiled and told everyone who inquired on the way that I was just walking, relaxing before work, but their words were like rain on porcelain. At the wat I sat in the quiet corner by the water’s edge, the half-wall abutting the lake on the edge of our village world, and I caught my breath. I acknowledged my thirst and the absence of contentment from my morning coffee, then reached into my bag. No water, no money. I hadn’t thought to properly pack my bag because I hadn’t realized I was being shoo’d out of the house like a dog. I had never been given a key to the house and mak wouldn’t be home until noon. What a fresh new problem to solve, I thought. Then I burst into tears. Just because broken glass sinks doesn’t mean your foot won’t eventually find it in the muddy depths.
After a barely intelligible call to Sedtha in which she told me to head to my health center, that she was on her way and would call the chief to let him know what was up, I meandered back toward the intersection in front of my house. Though I tried to hide my face under the brim of my hat, several neighbors (including Om Heng, Srey Heng’s aunt) and friends had seen mak lock the gate behind me and they rushed up and shocked me with their words. “We know what you’re dealing with, Kelsey… She’s a joyless woman, she knows only how to scream. You just have to endure, you only have a few more months. Don’t cry, don’t embarrass your family, don’t let them know we know.”
I had marginally cleaned myself up by the time I reached the health center but I waited out back. Sedtha arrived and quickly suggested we meet in a private room where she sat down and told the chief everything: about my host-mom’s difficult personality, how I had put up with it for a long time but couldn’t any more, how I had only stayed because I couldn’t leave my health center family. I had started crying again, to my dismay. The chief look concerned and was made terribly uncomfortable by my tears but busied himself by dutifully taking notes as Sedtha spoke. Vuth had been pacing outside the door and finally stuck his head in. The chief walked toward him and they conferred for a second in hushed tones. “Is she leaving?” Vuth asked. “I don’t know yet,” replied the chief. We waved Vuth in and he was brought up to speed. “We’ve always known about Kelsey’s mom,” said the chief, astonishing us both, “but after a certain point we could tell Kelsey was just going to endure, to make it work. That family has so many problems that they think the rest of us don’t see. Their daughter’s a bit of a floozy and their son is an idiot, always drinking and hanging out with gangsters. None of this is Kelsey’s fault but it makes that house a terrible place to be. We’ve tried to make sure she knows she can always come here to the health center and we will take care of her, at whatever hour.” It was time for a change, though, said Sedtha, and did they know of anywhere else I could live. They conferred. Vuth suggested Mak Yaay’s house, then said if she didn’t have room that I should stay with him. I dared to hope. We agreed that I would ask Yaay and if she couldn’t take me in, that I would find Vuth, suss his house out. Then, on Monday, we would all meet again, this time with my host-dad to bring him up to speed, and make the transition as quick as possible. I felt a pang of despair at the thought of my host-dad, pa who has tried so hard to make me feel welcome and included despite the tyranny of his wife. Sedtha hugged me, departed.
The staff knew only vaguely what was afoot, chiefly that I was sad. Everyone kept me busy and feeling useful, found problems with their smartphones to have me solve. At eleven I made my way to the market to help Yaay and fill her in. I was nervous as I told her the situation, begged her not to tell anyone. She listened in silence, asked a few corroborative questions, looked solemn. “Yaay doesn’t have an extra room, I’m so sorry.. But when you move, will you still visit me? Still help with the vegetables? You can, you know, or you don’t have to help at all, you can just visit, just for fun.” I promised I would always, always visit with her and help. No matter what. We put the veggies away per usual. Srey Muel, the pharmacist, motioned me over to her house, and I approached with trepidation. She’s an infamous gossip and I knew I was about to be pumped for information. She surprised me, too. “Look, you can’t worry about the village gossip,” she said, “Everyone here knows how difficult your mom is. We don’t know how you’ve lasted so long. I know Yaay wants to take you in, she probably has room, but the bad-blood between her and you mom, her niece, would become intolerable. If you want to live at Vuth’s, live at Vuth’s! Whatever you have to do to stay for the rest of your term. No one is going to blame you.”
From there I headed to Vuth’s and on the way noted that the house-gate was still locked up. He hadn’t come home yet so I sat with his wife and youngest son, Mien. We watched a kung fu show and she and I chatted about the new chickens she was raising, that she’d feed me lunch in a few minutes. Vuth’s third son, Chiou, started frying up some fish and Vuth’s wife went to move the pigs. Vuth rolled up. “Oh hey, what’d Yaay say?” he asked as he walked in. I told him. “Have you talked to your wife yet?” I whispered. He turned toward the kitchen and back door where he saw her moving about. “Hey,” he shouted, “Kelsey’s gonna sleep here now.” Of course I could take a nap, she shouted back, but lunch first. “No,” Vuth clarified as he approached her, “like permanently.” I saw her freeze with the pig-whip midair as they talked quietly. Chiou flashed me a smile between flipping fish. Eventually Vuth’s wife came and reclined in the hammock beside me, nervously laughing. I asked her, timidly, what she thought. “Well!” she began, “The spare bedroom is pretty disgusting! Both boys live up there and they never clean! Neither Vuth nor I have been up there in years since they moved upstairs.” Chiou and Mien nodded and shrugged in confirmation. “I can’t cook delicious food like your host-mom, she makes pretty exotic stuff. But it’s rice! It’ll keep you alive. The room is above the pigsty if you care about that. But if you want to move in, come then.”
We sat and chatted for some time. What if it could be like this everyday, I mused. I’d never had a conversation with anyone in my host-family aside from pa, that and no one ever even looked at me if they could help it. Vuth broke me from my reverie. “I’m pretty full up on Cambodia and Cambodians,” he said, “I lived with a family in Kampong Cham Province, once, lived with them for years. I helped them harvest from the tallest palms, dug the foundation for their house, did everything I could to be useful. Still they never treated me like a person.” I reminded him that he didn’t need to do this, that I would only be here for a few months but that he and his family would have to manage any bad-blood that arose with my host-family for years to come, for his whole life. “No one really likes me, anyhow!” exclaimed his wife. We laughed as Chiou walked up with the lunch tray, set it on the table. “Eat,” commanded Vuth and he ladled me the smallest spoonful of rice, knowing my aversion. “Head to Takeo Town for a few nights. Relax and sleep. On Monday we’ll have the meeting with your host-dad and move your things,” he said.
I snuck into the house as mak napped and packed my bags. In my room I felt that empty sense of loss one feels when you’re in a place to which you have already said goodbye in your heart, a place to which you once belonged but from which you’ve amputated yourself. For the past year and a half I’d whittled this dusty cupboard into a restful sanctuary. While it was mak’s house, I had made it my home. But if I had done it once I could do it again, and would. I got on my bike and got the hell out of there.