Some people go to mass on Christmas. If I were a good Catholic girl, perhaps, I would have gone too. Some of my Jewish friends pay a visit to Joe’s Shanghai in Queens for some delicious soup dumplings. Often, Christmas evenings are filled with stuffing one’s face with an absurd amount of turkey, Beef Wellington, lobster dipped in hot butter, eggnog crème brulee, apple pie and the awful brown brick we call fruit cake. I was not gluttonous this Christmas, but perhaps, I was unholy (but only by association).
My favorite Tuk-Tuk driver, Rinda, shuttled me, two girl friends, and Tuckerman at about 10 p.m. to Rock, a club on Monivong (the main road I live off of). This is past the hour of decency for women to venture into the dark, but I’ve come to terms with my supposed indecency.
A girl who is fourteen going on twenty-four wears red knee-high socks, chunky platforms, a midriff top, and Santa hat. She straddles her boyfriend who thrusts his pelvis in the air, perhaps trying to outline imaginary clouds in the sky with his mini-erection. He sticks his tongue out like a lizard, air caressing the girl’s thighs and more. Thank you, Jesus, for her Elf underwear. The two are one of the five couples who joined a competition on stage, in which each couple must produce the big “O” sound, and afterwards, have a sexy dance on stage. I don’t know what was more irksome—the noises or the dancing. The girls were shy when it came to making the “O,” but when it came to the dancing part of the competition, they had no problem getting down. Literally.
This Christmas, I’d hoped for a little dancing to some Jay-Z. Maybe some Akon. Instead, I found myself staring down at my Jack and Coke, watching the brown liquid disappear all too quickly through my straw. Jack could not drown out the noises or take my mind off the sexy-time dancing by the teenagers on stage (many of which are the spoiled kids of politicians and uppity city folk).
Or, maybe I should’ve just stayed at home with the girls. Earlier that evening, I had a holiday party at the dormitory. Originally, my plan was to cook spaghetti and bake a cake and cookies. As Christmas approached and I was still planning the party, the idea of cooking for sixty some people became less and less appealing. My cooking skills are somewhat limited to omelets and fruit salad. For fear of disappointing sixty hungry people, I had the party catered. Yes, I took the easy way out, but maybe this was for the better.
The girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves, finishing what Chakrya, friend and manager of the dormitory, described as a “mountain of spaghetti.” Truly, it was. The girls indulged in Khmer dancing, and also taught me the dances. There are different ones that correspond to certain kinds of music. For example, there’s the Madison, which is a faster, electric-slide-esq dance, and then there’s Roum Voung, which is full of delicate hand gestures and slow stepping. Although I usually lack grace and coordination, my bellydancing years at Colgate proved quite useful (Thank you, Ursula Embers).
The girls not only love dancing (Khmer dancing, not sexy-time dancing), but they also love singing. Limheang fearlessly belts out both Khmer and English songs. At the party, she led the group in singing Old MacDonald and the chicken-dance song, among other ones. These girls are full of vitality and vigor, and it’s contagious. It is impossible not to smile around them. They often say to me, “Older Sister, you smile too much. Doing so will give you wrinkles.” I tell them that it’s okay, and I’d rather have wrinkles later and be happy now. They laugh in their light voices. The sense of humor here is interesting. It’s kind of like a spoken stichomythia, in which one person has to outwit the other.
The girls call me thevada, angel, because I eat so much fruit and so little rice (Rice is a staple. No matter how much you eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you’re still starving if you haven’t eaten rice yet). On Christmas, each of the girls fed me a bite of cake, trying to fatten me up. Here, being plump is a sign that you are healthy and well fed. Being thin is a sign of being underfed, perhaps, because you are the daughter of a farmer. By the end of the party, I felt like I had eaten an entire sheet of cake. As full as I was, I didn’t want to be rude and refuse a bite from any of the girls because giving me a bite of their food was their way of giving me a blessing. Never refuse blessings. Naturally, I did not feel like a thevada afterwards, but rather like what I imagine Santa might feel like after eating millions of cookies on Christmas Eve. A correction to what I said earlier: Never refuse blessings or cookies. Also, second correction: I guess I was gluttonous on Christmas.
So, Christmas in Cambodia was full of surprises—some good, others unexpected. The girls told me that this was their first Christmas celebration at the dormitory. For once, I didn’t feel guilty for asking for some extravagant gift on Christmas, followed by momentary happiness. These girls reminded me of the true spirit of Christmas. My little extravaganza at Rock reminded me that there are other girls who aren’t complete saints in this city of Phnom Penh. Maybe fate brought me to Rock, and Buddha, God, baby Jesus, whomever was sending me a message saying, “It’s okay, Kanitha. Chill out and enjoy yourself.”