I awake to a deep hacking sound. Another hack follows—a big mucousy one. I open my eyes and see the dark begin to disappear. My body tells me it’s not quite six o’clock. Time here is measured not by my watch or clock, but my body in sync with that around me. The vendors who clang pots and pans advertising bowls of steamy cathew. The sounds of dogs barking at motos whizzing by. An old Khmer song playing on someone’s radio. My neighbors running water, washing themselves, all twelve of them. A rooster crowing. The hacking old man whose room is separated from mine by a mere alleyway, perhaps an arms distance away.
A few nights ago, I closed my eyes attempting to fall asleep. I was physically and mentally exhausted having taught for several hours and worked at the literary journal as well. A boy next door began to gag himself. Perhaps he had the flu, or was drunk, or had eaten rotten food. This gagging sound is one of those sounds that invoke the same instinct in you. It’s kind of like when someone yawns, and you yawn. I hoped that the boy would finally throw up so that he would stop gagging. Who knew such an awful sound could lull you to sleep?
There is no such thing as privacy here. Your most private moments—bathing, talking, urinating, sleeping, crying, lovemaking—become public. They are always shared, just as I’ve learned to share everything I have here with the girls. If I have a bundle of jeak pong moun, finger-sized bananas, which I absolutely love, I take one, and give the rest to the girls. I’ve learned to live in a shared place where nothing is my own. What I believed to be areas of close proximity in America, for example homes in the booming suburbs of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, is luxurious in comparison to here. Here, you breathe the same air your neighbors breathe, you smell their dinner, you hear them spanking their crying child. Here, you know the comings and goings of your neighbors who are strangers only by face, but their secrets are yours though you’ll never dare to speak them. Your secrets are also theirs, and fearing that they can hear you, you live self-consciously.
I’ve become semi-used to living in a shared space—hearing the screech of a chair dragged across the floor, the opening of a wooden desk drawer, the clink of spoons being put away. But, living in close quarters also invites others to judge your habits as you judge theirs.
I failed to mention earlier that some of my neighbors are prostitutes (according to what the girls have told me). I don’t talk to these neighbors, and I probably unconsciously look at them with scorn when I see them. But, I’ve also felt that they look at me in the same way, as if I am in someway a loose woman.
I have a friend here who I see quite often since I don’t have many friends as I’ve been here for only about two weeks. We sometimes grab a coffee, go to lunch or dinner, hang out. Normal, right? If only, let’s call him Tuckerman, was a girl. Tuckerman is from America. He’s tall with dirty-blonde hair and hazel eyes. He picks me up on his dirt-bike that roars, making coming and going discreetly impossible. I don’t know if it is me being self-conscious, or if the neighbors truly think that I am a loose girl. It is improper here for a girl to go out with a man alone. Even when the sun is shining brightly. Even when you sit at opposite ends of the table, hands folded nicely in your lap. How I have come to hate the word proper. Since I teach a class from seven o’clock in the evening to eight o’clock, I sometimes leave afterwards to unwind from a long day. Proper girls don’t leave the house past eight. When I return around eleven or so, the neighbors can hear the roar of my arrival through the wooden shades of their windows. The security guard awakes from his slumber to let me in. Bad American girl, he thinks. Or is it, Bad Cambodian girl? If people associate me more as a foreigner than a Cambodian, then I feel a bit more at ease.
I went through a little crisis, thinking that I should perhaps quarantine myself in the dorm and follow proper rules of Cambodian etiquette. For now, I’ve made a compromise, and have a self-imposed curfew at eleven-thirty. I won’t galavant around the city until four in the morning as I might do in America, but I will still allow myself the pleasure of enjoying this new city.
It’s nice to find familiar things in foreign places. But not all familiar things are nice. K.F.C. is one of those places in America I refuse to set foot in. I will not swallow that greasy, oil-drenched, deliciously-crunchy, artery-clogging, piece of chicken. Somehow, the smiling, adoring faces of these girls drew me into K.F.C. here for dinner. I treated the girls to dinner, and for these girls who have very little, this was quite the treat. I felt their excitement as they ordered a family bucket of fried chicken. Sreyhak, who did the ordering, was especially particular about the quality of the food. A thom cheang nung, she told the server, indicating that she wanted bigger pieces of chicken thighs. The girls savored the chicken, sucking all the meat off the bones, leaving empty trays and satisfied bellies, smiles all around. This was a special time for the girls, and I was happy to share this time with them, even if the chicken I had eaten clogged my arteries. Afterwards, we got some doughnuts and chatted about boys and movie stars. When I began to clear the trays, Sreyhak stopped me, taking the containers and placing them in a plastic bag. She rinsed off our utensils telling me we can use these again. I looked at the empty paper cup I had crushed in my hands. Soumthouh, I said, apologizing to her. I suddenly became aware of my own excessive nature. The girls come from farming villages where everything is used and re-used, where things are never wasted, and each object can serve some kind of purpose. Although I advocate recycling and being energy-efficient, I am far more wasteful than these girls who use everything they have to the fullest potential.
When we came back to the dormitory after dinner, Menghoun who stayed home to prepare dinner for other girls asked Sreyhak, “How was dinner?” Sreyhak smiled, holding up a plastic K.F.C. takeaway bag full of empty containers, “Nam ay chyang thoultha lut dai.” Finger-lickin’ good, she said.