Saturday, February 27, 2010

Living up to the Cliche: Watching the Sunset in Koh Kong

During the past few days, I’ve had a dry spell—oh no, not a sexual one, that’s been here for some time now—a writing one. It’s not that I don’t have things to write about, but I know that if I wrote about these things now, they’d be uninteresting to read even though they are in actuality very interesting matters. They would be a bunch of words that aren’t written with the passion and energy behind them that I believe good writing has.

To spare you the boredom of reading a lazily written post, I want to share these photographs with you. They were taken about a week and a half ago when I was in Koh Kong, a southwestern province of Cambodia that lines the Cardamom Mountains.

I snapped these photos as I was driving across the newly built bridge that crosses over to the Thai border. These photographs remind me of when I was in Cinque Terre two years ago. I took photos of my hike along the coast of the Italian Riviera, crossing five villages lined with pastel-colored homes with a sub-par camera, no photography know-how, and a shaky hand. Somehow, every photograph was captivating. A beautiful setting makes this possible. It makes up for what’s lacking on the other end of the lens.

Saying that the sunset in Koh Kong was beautiful would be cliché. Maybe. And an aspiring writer should avoid clichés at all costs, so I’ll skip the talk, and go straight to the photos. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did when I took them.

As a side note, if you enjoy photos of sunrises or sunsets, I invite you to look at Laura Guese’s paintings. She is a painter based in Denver, Colorado and in her artist statement, she writes of sunrises and sunsets saying, “I am captivated by the few seconds when the sky becomes full of infinite color and energy. I believe that the sky is an impermanent, universal landscape, which I find extremely appealing...The sky is ever-changing and never duplicated. The feeling of insignificance is overwhelming when observing the sky. The atmosphere has the power to evoke a full spectrum of true emotion, which I find fascinating.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Catch Me If You Can: My Battle with the Spirits

I’ve devoted hundreds of pages to dead people—people I don’t know other than by name or photograph. But despite the fact that these people are dead, they still talk to me. I began to write years ago because I thought this would stop the noise. I thought that perhaps by writing these spirits would be vanquished by reason. To this day, the act of writing hasn’t vanquished anything. I suppose I have my mother to thank for that.

When I was seven, my mother told me a story that I would never forget. “Buddha was living in Pou Tea, and he kept smiling at me. Smiling. Sitting. Smiling. My eyes became stuck on a candle. I was fifteen at the time. All of a sudden, something came into my stomach like a big lump. You can feel it, rising, rising.” She touched her neck, and it made me nervous. “And I knew something was in my body, and I tried to stop it. I knew what was happening. I kept trying to block it. I tried to close my jaw. I was fighting with the spirit. Since I wouldn’t let it talk, it made me shake my head like a peh, a bad angel. I didn’t let it because I knew if a spirit beat me once, spirits would always be able to come into me.” My mother pulled the bedcovers over me, and I held on to them tightly. “It happened to me – ” she said “ – So it is real. You must believe.”

My mother vouches for these spirits, telling me that they not only exist, but also are in many ways alive. To be alive means that they can hurt you, help you, become a part of your existence. How foolish of me, it seems, to try to kill them with pen and paper. When I was in America, Cambodia was still a place that existed only in books and photographs and stories. There was a separation between me and the land, which included the spirits living there. The spirits couldn’t catch me in America where they’d perish because they had nothing to feed on. No mudfish, or ground-up shrimp. No mounkout, or sai-mai, or lamout or pinkie-sized bananas. In America, they wouldn’t have bowls of rice for every meal. Yes, in America, they’d die. My reasoning that spirits needed physical nourishment may seem peculiar, but in Cambodian culture, spirits still need physical and emotional nourishment. I was successful in ignoring the spirits’ existence for some time, but how strange it is that I’ve now run to their home here in Cambodia.

Maybe they’ve reeled me into their soil because I’ve denied their existence for so long. I think I’m starting to believe my mother about these living spirits. Or, maybe I am starting to admit that I’ve been a believer all along, but feared admitting belief in something that wasn’t accepted by the Western culture I’d always known.

I went to a Kru two days ago, which is a person who has a spirit living in them like Pou Tea, the man in my mother’s story. My aunt took me to see Kru. This Kru lived in a beautiful wooden house that was built for him by one of the people he had helped. He asked for nothing from people who came to see him, but those who he had helped reach great success repaid him with land, villas and cars. This somewhat helped his credibility in my eyes, so I thought why the hell not.

Kru wore dirty white cotton pants and an equally dirty white tank. Otherwise, he looked like a normal man. He didn’t have a strange headdress or long overflowing beard as I’d imagined a Kru might. He spoke casually as we prepared to have what might be called a seeing. I lit five incense sticks as instructed to by my aunt and looked up at the Buddha shrine before me. I closed my eyes and prayed. That’s another thing I’ve found myself doing more since I’ve come to Cambodia. Praying feels less awkward. But I still feel strange and don’t really know what to pray for. I think I end up praying for the same thing—people.

My mother who did her seeing first began asking questions. While I usually divulge her secrets, I think I’ll let her keep these ones. In the middle of asking one of the questions, Kru looked up alarmingly. He pointed to me, and in that moment, I became afraid.

“Your daughter must be careful,” he said. He closed his eyes and listened to Buddha. “Pra-ong says that she must be very careful here in Cambodia. I see a tall man chasing her. A thief in a car. Yes, you must be very careful,” he said looking at my hands. “Give me your jewelry.”

I took off my bangles, watch and ring, and handed them to him. He held them for the next hour we were there, blowing on them and blessing them, so as to keep me out of harm’s way.

“I had a dream ten years ago that my daughter would face danger in Cambodia,” my mother told Kru. “Then I had a dream a week ago and saw I man jump out of a car and try to pull her in. He held a white kerchief and tried to wrap it around her mouth. I screamed and told her to get in the house. And, the day before my daughter came to Cambodia, my husband dropped a frame with her picture in it, and it broke.”

My mother looked at me. “See, Kru sees the same thing. You must be very careful.”

I don’t know how I felt at that moment. Confused, probably. A bit scared. I’ve always thought that I’d only be in danger if I put myself in a position to be harmed, which I don’t think I do. But when Kru looked at me, I felt something. I don’t quite know how to describe it.

Kru later asked me, “Do you get headaches often?”

I thought of the killer one I had a few nights ago, and the ones that never go away. “Yes, yes I do,” I said.

“Does your body hurt?”

My ass was killing me during that moment, but in general, my body aches much more than a twenty-two year old body should I think. I nodded.

“Can you not sleep, and do you see terrible things in your dreams?”

“Yes, a lot.”

Kru closed his eyes again, and listened to Buddha for some time. “You have a peh in you.”

“What?” said my mother with wide eyes. My aunt gasped, covering her mouth.

I looked at my mother. “A what?” I asked, forgetting the meaning of peh.

“An evil spirit.”

Great. I have a fucking evil spirit in me, I thought.

“Well, can you make it leave?” I asked Kru in a slightly irritated voice.

“I can try to chase it out of you,” he said.

“Ok,” I said to Kru. “Get out of me you stupid peh,” I said to the spirit.

Kru laughed, and pulled out a black stone that I’d seen him use earlier when healing a sick child. He placed it on my head as I faced away from him. My scalp began to feel hot and heavy, and I thought Kru had replaced the stone with his hand.

“What is on my head?”

“The black stone. Is it hot?”


“Is it heavy?”


“Not to worry. It will get better. It feels this way because the spirit is angry it must leave you,” he said.

“Here, feel the stone,” he said, bringing my hand to touch the stone atop my head. It was cold, but I felt hot. It was light as my bangle, but felt like a book. I looked at the floor confusedly. How could this be possible?

I decided to stop being so confused for the moment, and just be there. In my head, I chanted Get out evil spirit. Get out. Get out. Get the fuck out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Screw Disneyland, kids. How about some slots?

“Look. Is it beautiful?” Uncle asked me.

I looked up at Naga—Phnom Penh’s casino catering to the Western likes of myself. Red and green lights ran across the front side of the building. A water show was placed before it, shooting spurts to the beats of that 1, 2, 3, 4 song that was overplayed months ago in the States. The building was otherwise a rectangular glass-paneled box.

I curled my lips upward, creating what I thought resembled a smile and looked at Uncle. He stood with his hands on his hips, and looked up at the building, his lower lip jutting out in approval.

“Look,”—my mother said excitedly—“It’s just like Bellagio.” She was referring to the one in Vegas, not the one on Lake Como.

I sighed. Not Vegas again, I thought.

“I shouldn’t come in here. Only neak civilie come here, like you,” Auntie said. Neak civilie are people who are distinctly un-Khmer, who are not modest, who dare to wear shirts that bear their bosoms and pants that shadow their bottoms. I straightened my V-neck dress covering anything that might be showing. Auntie meant this as a compliment, but I suddenly became aware of my un-modestness.

“Come on, Older Sister Kanitha,” piped up Sang, Uncle’s youngest daughter. She grabbed my hand excitedly, pulling me towards Naga’s doors. Uncle’s three other children trailed behind us, each in awe of the world of bright lights and lured by the ching ching ching of slot machines.

A slew of languages echoed through the lobby—mostly Japanese and Chinese. Stepping past an enormous fake flower display into one of the game rooms, I looked up to a dome sky with puffy clouds giving the allusion of day.

“Just like Caesar’s Palace,” mother said.

I rolled my eyes and stifled a groan. She shot me that Don’t you judge me look.

Uncle walked up to a table to observe a white haired fellow with a cig dangling from his lips playing some card game. His face looked distinctly Cambodian. I had heard that Naga didn’t allow Cambodians into the casino, that it was for foreigners. This man wore a gold watch and leather shoes. Maybe he was one of the wealthy Cambodians. Uncle observed the man lose five straight hands before he walked away.

“See. If you’ve got money, it doesn’t matter if you lose. It’s just a way to relax, have fun,” Uncle said.

We came to a slot machine. The kids ran their fingers over the buttons. “Find a chair,” Uncle instructed them. Mei, the twelve-year-old sat in the first chair. Sang to the right of her, and Pich at the end. Uncle pulled out his wallet, feeding each machine five bucks.

I looked over at the dealers in the little black vests. They stood watching us with their hands clasped behind their backs. This isn’t Disneyland. Uncle’s really going to get it, I thought.

“What do we press?” asked Mei.

Uncle motioned for a dealer to come over. “Tell them what to press,” he demanded.

“Wait until the numbers stop rolling, then hit this button,” the dealer said.

The kids pressed the buttons as instructed.

“Aren’t they smart?” Auntie said. “They learn so fast. I don’t even know how to play.”

Sang lost her five bucks in a matter of minutes. Next was Pich who then climbed into Mei’s chair. “No fair. Let me play, too.”

Mei was doing quite well. Fifteen minutes later, her five had turned to twenty-five. “Quit or press it again, Pa?” Everyone crowded around Mei, excited by the prospect of gold coins falling.


Moments later she was down to twenty. “Ok, ok, you can quit,” Uncle said. He motioned for the dealer to mark up Mei’s earnings. “Good job, Mei.” He patted Mei on the head as if she just passed an exam. “Come on, let me show you the rest.”

We walked to an open space where some Khmer girls stood on a stage dressed in Christmas costumes—red velvet and all. Apparently, Christmas runs past December.

“Very nice,”—I said—“What else is there?” We kept moving, and I thought I heard the tune of “Santa Baby” in the background.

Tall Cambodian girls stood in front of every door. I don’t know where the Naga HR office went to find these chicks, but they’re tall-tall. Think 5’11”-ish. One of these women, a slender one with a gnarly face, smiled at us when we passed Lady Bar. “This is where people go to drink,” Uncle said. “And there are girls who dance,” he added with a boyish grin across his face. “Want to go in?”

Mother shook her head. “No, no. That won’t be necessary.”

“Pa, Pa! I want to go in!” Sang piped up. “Let’s go see girls dance. Like this,” she said twisting her body. “Sexy girl,” she whispered to me.

Uncle looked amused, and half-convinced to go in. Auntie looked equally amused.

Mother shook her head again. “It’s not necessary.”

Ooo-ahh they?” Auntie asked me as we exited Naga. I’ve never quite figured out where this phrase comes from, but I wonder if it is from what people say when they are amazed at something—like oooo and ahhh—because that’s what I think this phrase means.

Ooo-ahh,” I said, shuddering as I passed by one of the giant chicks with long flowy hair, an elf-like nose, and crooked teeth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

My Mother's Journey: Re-Discovering Home

The very first home I grew up in had mirrors that stretched from the dining room floor all the way up to the vaulted ceiling—very Alice in Wonderland-esq. These mirrors had panels of some dark wood inserted between them. They had a romantic quality to them, the same romantic quality that one might associate with an old grandfather clock or record player. Whenever I think of the place I first called home, I think of these strange mirrors that I have never seen in any home, other than my first one.

Homes tend to be places of refuge. They are usually places we run to when we are in trouble, and the place we return to when we have no where else to go. But, some people don’t have a place that they can really call home. In a conversation with a friend, she expressed that she never really had a physical or emotional “place” of refuge—a place or person or memory she could associate with as being home. For those who have had troubled childhoods, home is not this romantic place. It is a feared place, a memory that one seeks to dissolve and forget.

Before my mother arrived here in Cambodia, I always hoped that she would take me to see her old home. I didn’t know if she would want to see it, though. I didn’t know if my mother’s old home, which she grew up in would be the same place of refuge that I find in my old home in Denver. It seems to me that the refugee flees from one home to another, but is unable to fully call any place home. If for my mother, her home in Cambodia is a place she fears, then I don’t want her to see it. Something that I’ve had to come to terms with here is that my mother’s journey back to her homeland is her journey, not mine. I cannot prevent her from doing something she desires, nor can I force her to go somewhere or do something against her wishes.

During her first few minutes of being in the city she was born, Phnom Penh, my mother was jarred. “Oh my god,” she exclaimed in English, and then in Khmer, “Are there no driving laws here? How can three people fit on a moto...or four! Are there not garbage men? Do they just let these naked children walk on the street begging? Why don’t they do anything about it? Everything’s just dirty!” Watching my mother react to her surroundings was a bit like re-living my first few days in Phnom Penh. For some reason, I thought that my mother wouldn’t have been as baffled at all these things as I initially was. She’d grown up here, so shouldn’t she be used to all these things?

The city of Phnom Penh was completely transformed beginning in 1975 when city dwellers were forced to leave. The refined urbanites who once inhabited the bustling city were replaced with a diverse mixture of people—a handful of wealthy and mostly corrupt politicians and loads of those struggling—shoeless and dirtied children, old men with ribs exposed and stubs for limbs, women with newborns lain on sidewalks exposed to the heat and dust. This was not the Phnom Penh that my mother grew up in. Somehow, in the past three months I’ve lived here, I have come to know Phnom Penh much better than my mother knows it. “This is not my home,” she tells me.

“Why do you keep mixing English with Khmer, Mom? Oum (Older Aunty) and Ming (Younger Aunty) can’t understand any of the words,” I ask annoyed.

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Because I’m used to it. I left for almost thirty years,” she says, again mixing the two languages. I don’t know why it irritates me, but it does. My mother clings to whatever is American in her, creating the distinction between herself and her relatives who never left Cambodia. Perhaps I am irritated because I’ve also created these levels of distinction, not only between the native-born Khmers and me, but also between my mother and myself. Between her imperfect English, and my English. Between my broken Khmer and her Khmer. Perhaps, I sense my own fear of recognizing myself as being fully Khmer, as if there is something shameful about being so.

On the second day in Phnom Penh, we began heading down Norodom near the Independence Monument. This is an area that I know fairly well, having spent a decent amount of time frequenting the cafes and little boutiques in the area. “That’s Moum’s house!” my mother shouted, slapping my leg and pointing to a home near the corner of the monument. “That means my house is around here. Isn’t it Ming? Isn’t it?” she asked her aunt.

We drove around, and eventually turned down Street 370. “This is it,” my mother said. “This is it.” We parked in front of the home. I remember my mother telling me once that her house had been demolished after the war, and that a new home had been built in its place.

“It’s still here,” she said to no one in particular. The house had been divided into two homes. One of the owners was outside cleaning his moto. She explained to him who she was, and he warmly invited us to look around.

We stood outside gazing upward at the house. “We’ve kept everything the same,” said the man. “We haven’t had money to restore it.” The house was white with square grid-panes along the patio. Large trees shaded the left side of the home, poking into the patio on the second-floor. There was something romantic about the house despite the wornness of it all. There were traces of my mother’s child-self running through it.

“That’s my room,” my mother said, pointing to the room on the second floor, which opens to a balcony. She stared it at it with a loving familiarity, and I turned away. I didn’t want to disrupt her special moment, and I gave her some privacy that I know is so hard to find sometimes, especially in moments when it is really needed.

I stood on the tile of the upstairs patio. “Is it the same floor?” I asked my mother. She said it was. I loved this tile—for its rusted maroon and dirty-whiteness, for its little cracks and scratches. This is my mother’s home, I thought, and snapped a photo, keeping it in my memory.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Leaving Harpswell

I am lying on my bed listening for the night noise that I once despised so much, but there is none. The old man next door is not coughing, or washing, or pissing. The dogs are not at each other’s throats and yelping. Nat, whose bunk is above mine, is sleeping soundly, having remembered for once to turn her radio off. Channa is not up late, hovering under her desk lamp reviewing for a test. Menghoun is passed out, legs sprawled with a book collapsed on her chest. Children are not being spanked. Akon is not blaring. It is quiet tonight, which is rare.

Having complained so long about sleepless nights due to Phnom Penh’s restlessness, I should not complain that tonight’s silence is also keeping me from sleeping. The absence of these sounds, however, reminds me of the many other things that I will miss when I leave the Harpswell dormitory tomorrow. The things that I once found foreign, strange, and at times, uncomfortable.

I’ve gotten very close to the Harpswell girls within the course of the past three months. I remember the first day I introduced myself to them. They insisted that I speak Khmer. I could barely get ten words out. Overtime, my Khmer rapidly improved as the girls conversed with me at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or gossiped during the day. They drew out in me a language that I’d forgotten in my childhood, but it had never really left me. The words were still there. My voice still retained Khmer intonations. Something that I’d thought I’d forgotten, re-emerged. It seems that we so often think we’ve forgotten something, or someone, but it’s only because we haven’t tried to salvage the language, the practice, the knowledge, the memory, the relationship.

I don’t want to forget these girls who are not only incredibly intelligent, but have the kindest hearts and warmest smiles. They care for each other as if they are family. They care for each other in ways that I know I fail to do in certain moments for my own family and friends. What I’ve found here is a selflessness that I hope I can embody one day. A few days ago, my friend bought a silver necklace that she loved. She looked at me later that day, at my silver bangles and rings and earrings. “Silver looks beautiful on you,” she said, taking off the necklace and clasping it around my neck. I tried to refuse, but I also knew it made her happy to give the necklace to me. I’ve never been around so many people whose source of happiness is making others happy.

While I taught the girls English and writing skills, they taught me life ones, and for that, I will always be grateful to them. The things I once rejected about Cambodian culture—the traditional rules of behavior, the modest dress, the need for silence in certain moments—are things that I understand better now and respect.

I’ve learned a lot about respect, respect for one’s parents especially and oneself. It’s always been easy for me to lash out at my parents, for they are the ones closest to me. I never quite minded my manners. After all they would never stop loving me. But here, children do not dare utter a word against their parents. This in part may be out of fear, but moreso, it is out of reverence for the people who gave them life, and for that, they will always show thanks. As my parents get older, I want to make sure I respect them, and I want to start by learning to be silent in certain moments and holding my tongue. As a fully-grown twenty-two year old, when I go home, I want to do my parents’ laundry, wash their dishes, give them a home-cooked meal. These are things that they’ve done since I was born, and have gotten so used to that I still expect it. In Cambodia, children grow up doing all these things to help their parents, so as to make things easier for them, not harder. I want to begin doing this.

Respecting myself is something else I want to work on. In Cambodia, it is looked down upon if a person has had two, maybe three or more boyfriends or girlfriends. These people are said to be sa-vah, fickle when it comes to relationships. Well, I suppose by Cambodian standards I am super sa-vah. Relationships here aren’t all about the moment, the thrill, the sex. It’s about finding someone you care for deeply, and who cares for you. Most Cambodians have one boyfriend or girlfriend, and this is the person they eventually marry. I don’t necessarily agree with the one partner per lifetime rule, but I value the thinking behind it. The physical part of a relationship doesn’t come into play until much later, oftentimes not until marriage. American hook-up culture doesn’t exist. One-night stands are unheard of. Kissing is not just kissing. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to come back to America with a chastity belt strapped on, but I’ve begun to re-evaluate what I want out of my interactions with people. I hope that every guy who reads this doesn’t think I’m going to try to reel him into a relationship then marriage if I show some faint interest in him, though.

I guess the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far is to maintain and foster relationships with whomever it may be, a parent, grandparent, sibling, old friend, new friend. It would be easy for me to leave Cambodia and go back to America and tell these girls that I will always be their friend, that I will never forget them. But being a friend isn’t a passive activity. It’s often easy to forget those who are far away from you, try 8,000 miles. Even if you feel close to them at the moment, it is the remembering part that takes effort. These girls have taught me about friendship, and that is what I want to give them.

To see photos of the Harpswell girls, click here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Arranging My Marriage

It is the second, maybe third time I have met the family. Actually, I should say my family because they are my mother’s cousins and aunts and uncles. I sit on the wooden lounging table that is about the size of two large beds put together. These tables are common in Cambodian households, as are stiff matching wooden chairs. While some may opt for comfort over style, the opposite seems to hold here. Or, maybe Cambodians prefer harder surfaces to softer ones. Now that I think about it, the bed I sleep on feels a little better than a plush yoga mat, so it must be the latter.

The man who sits to the left of me has a soft worn face. He resembles Popeye a bit with his chubby cheeks and wrinkled forehead. He is in his mid-thirties, but has aged ungracefully as teenage acne still plagues him, and his hair has receded so much that he has only a small wisp left to comb over. He holds his thick fingers in his lap and looks almost admiringly at them as he talks.

His wife is also in her thirties and is beautiful with dark brown wavy hair and an oblong face and gentle eyes. She is simple, wearing capris and a loose button up. No jewelry or makeup. I begin to wonder how such an unfortunate looking man ended up with this woman. My first guess is that it is because he’s got money. I want to slap myself once or twice for not thinking it is because he has a good heart. This woman smiles looking at me for a long time, and I don’t know what it is she is looking at exactly. I shift uncomfortably on this wooden contraption, and come off my hind feet and sit bowlegged—the man’s way. My mother turns to me and shakes her head disapprovingly. I shrug.

My mother continues to have small talk with this man as I move around restlessly, still unable to find a comfortable position to relax. The woman’s eyes remain stuck on me, and I am beginning to get tired of curling my lips into this sheepish grin. My mother indulges the man as he explains the various woods of the house. The entertainment center being composed of the most expensive kind. The intricately carved pots are from some Excellency. The small wooden statuette in the middle of the room is “no good” he says, waving his hands in front of him showing disgust. He will rid of it immediately.

I yawn and begin to daydream about the wavy-haired Frenchman who I had a one-minute romance via moto to moto earlier in the day. He pulled up next to my friend who was driving me, and we had a short exchange of words before my friend turned off onto the street we were headed. “Menghoun!” I said jokingly angry, “I just fell in love!”

The room became silent for I’m not sure how long, but it was definitely too long. Each person fidgeted in their own awkward way—my mother admiring her ostentatious ring as she waved her hand back and forth in the sunlight, the man with a tight la-dee-da look on his face as he looked at his beloved wooden belongings, the wife still smiling at me with the same if not greater intensity than before, and me raising my eyebrows and glancing nervously around the room.

“So,” – the man says, breaking the silence and clasping his hands together, “I have something to ask you.” He looks seriously and nervously at my mother.

“Yes?” she says. My mother is not very keen on giving favors. This man’s request better be a small one.

“I’ve heard that many people can go to the US if they marry someone there. Do you remember seeing my younger brother yesterday?”

My mother hesitated for a moment. “Uh huh,” she said, nodding her head assuredly. I knew she was lying because whenever she nods like this she actually has no clue what is going on.

I recall seeing a boy yesterday who looked similar to this man, by no means dashing and younger. He also had one of those Captain Hook mustaches. But still, he was very Popeye-ish, potbelly and all. Yes, it must’ve been him.

“Well, he really wants to go to the US,” the man says. “I know people who have gone over there by marrying an American. Some are real marriages, some fake. But, rich people here” – he says, referring to the likes of himself – “will give good money to anyone who will marry.”

“Uh huh, I know people who’ve done that –” my mother begins.

“Do you know of anyone?”

“Anyone what?”

“Who would help my brother.”

“Oh, no I don’t think – ”

“How much will it cost?”

“Oh, I don’t know maybe $20,000.”

“Done,” he says smiling. “How long – ”

“I don’t know anyone,” my mother repeats with a tinge of annoyance in her voice.

“See, one time, we found someone, and they took our money, $10,000, and disappeared. We need someone we can trust. Like family.”

I interrupt in my broken Khmer, “It’s not that easy these days. People are getting caught and authorities are catching onto these fake marriages. People are deported to their home countries and citizens face major charges.” I don’t know if I am out of place to speak out, but no one is scowling at me, so I take that as a good sign.

“Why doesn’t he visit and find someone he really likes in America that he could possibly marry rather than paying a stranger?” my mom asks.

He shakes his head at the idea and waves his hands in the air disapprovingly.

The wife nudges me playfully, “How about you? You’re perfect, just the right age. And you’re beautiful,” she says batting her eyelashes, almost wooing me for her brother-in-law.

I tried my best to maintain my composure, but I think I went bug-eyed with my eyebrows stretched up on my forehead. “Um, no, no, no,” I stutter. “It’s just not something I would do. Ever.”

Sensing my fear, she says, “Oh, I’m just kidding around.” She sways her body into me, and I shy away. “When he saw you yesterday, he did say that you were pretty. You also look like his ex-girlfriend who he is madly in love with.”

Well, that’s sure convincing me. I think of all the terrible things that could happen. Also, I want to marry someone I actually care for, am in love with, all those marriage requirements. And, someone who I am not related to in any way. And, I don’t want a fake anything, especially a fake husband!

“But, why not?” she prods.

“Don’t be silly,” my mom smartly interrupts, knowing that my next utterance will most likely be improper and rude.

The wife manages to maintain a weak smile.

The husband says, “Think about it.”

Like hell I will. I retire to the bedroom and continue my daydream about the Frenchman. Wavy hair. Not related to me. Tall. No bribery. Marriage material? Not quite, but much more so than my second-uncle’s younger brother.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting Coined

I am one of those people who foolishly take pride in their hardness and feign a tough exterior. I hate it when people see me cry, and so, I avoid doing so at all costs. I fear vulnerability, and I feel that crying exposes a part of me that I like to keep hidden. This past weekend, I was stripped and left shirtless and swollen-faced, spilling enough tears to fill the Tonle Sap. My god was I embarrassed.

It all started when my mother’s side of the family left for Siem Riep. Six people took my Uncle’s beloved Lexus SUV, and the other 12 piled into the rented van. Because I am a guest to this country, I was reserved a seat in the SUV. When I first stepped in, I thought that I was lucky to have gotten a seat in the air-conditioned and leather-seated car. Little did I know, my uncle would barrel his way down the bumpy unpaved roads for six hours to Siem Riep. I am approximating that his hand was on the horn for at least 1/3 of the way there—that’s two hours. I don’t think I am exaggerating. Now, I’d heard about people who drive luxury cars and don’t mind the rules of the road, but I’d never been a passenger of one of these drivers.

“Put your seatbelt on,” my mother whispered to me, as she snapped hers into place. For once, I obeyed her. The road is intended to work just as many roads do: one lane per direction. Our car was always on the opposite side of the road, heading towards on-coming traffic. But we were not in the wrong for we were in the Lexus, and so all other vehicles must navigate their way around us. If you’re on a moto or a bicycle, forget it, you’re doomed. Maybe if you’re in a military car or a newer, shinier, and more intimidating Lexus, then we’ll sway back to our respective lane. I kept silent, recalling my own experience driving and my biggest pet peeve: a backseat driver. I closed my eyes and tried my best not to look at the little motos and carts and ratty cars that might fly into us at any minute.

Along the way, we picked up some food sold by street vendors: ping-peang (tarantula-looking fried insects), ripe mangos with salt and chili dip, sticky rice with black beans stuffed into bamboo stalks, and other freshly made or caught snack foods. The ping-peang had long legs and large heads—quite unappetizing looking things. Oh they’re so good! remarked my 15-year-old cousin. Everyone in the car reached for a handful of these finger-long insects except for me. I learned my lesson with the last insect I ate, chunrut. I had a few slices of mango, skipped the chili and salt dip, and had a little bite of the sticky rice. So far, I wasn’t leaking any unwanted fluids.

When we made it to Siem Riep, we stopped at Banteay Srey Restaurant, a venue that we would frequent for the remainder of our meals during our three-day stay. The food there was decent, not good enough to be the restaurant of choice for every meal of the day for
the entire trip, but alas, I had to be the polite guest who minded her manners.

The next day we went to Phnom Kulen, which required driving up mountainous dirt roads and falling in and out of potholes. I don’t think the Lexus is intended for such driving, and neither is a lead foot. Speed on such roads only lead to bruised heads and arms as bodies crashed into one another and the roof of the car.

After about ten minutes hiking up the steps of Phnom Kulen, I regretted, for the very first time, donning my cowboy boots. They’re just not meant to trek up and down rocky hills. Tripping on a rock and flying face forward, a woman sneered, Som mouk hai, meaning it serves me right. I stumbled around the mountain for about two hours, praying at various Buddha statues and pagodas. The biggest attraction here is a Buddha that was carved from a large stone in the mountain. What caught my attention most were the beggars who lined the steps of the mountain. Most of these people were women, children and cripples. There are many money-exchange kiosks along the way whose sole purpose is to exchange large bills for smaller ones to give to beggars. Siem Riep is a city that is completely geared towards tourists. I exchanged a twenty for two bundles of 100 Riel notes, and walked up and down the steps giving out the bills. Still, I ran short.

By the time we got back to our hotel, I was feeling slightly woozy. We didn’t have time for dinner, so my uncle picked up some street food, consisting of rice, salted eggs, and various meats—including tripe, intestine, and the Cambodian delight, liver. I was a bit starved, so I foolishly indulged in everything.

The stomach pains began. Forgive me if this is too much information, but that night, I might as well have slept in the bathroom with my bum glued to the pot. My body clearly had yet to adapt to Khmer street food.

The next day, I decided to be a trooper and continue exploring Siem Riep. I went to the market and got a fish massage against my will. My little cousins insisted that the feeling of fish eating the soles of your feet is sensational. When I put my feet into the pool of water where ten other people also had soaked their feet, the fish swarmed mine. It was terrifying at first, and when the grey little things bit my feet, it didn’t hurt, but tickled. These fish crowded my feet and left everyone else’s unmassaged, though I wished it were the other way around. My cousins asked, “Why are the fish eating only your feet?” I told them that it was because my feet were the sweetest. My mother countered, “Because her feet are the dirtiest.”

During the next two days, we visited Angkor Wat, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Cambodian Cultural Center. Now, I know Angkor Wat is supposed to be one of the most astonishing places one can visit, but I was too busy running from squat toilet to squat toilet to pay proper attention to my surroundings. Luckily, I’ll be headed back in March to explore it in good health, I hope. The Cambodian Cultural Center features wax figures and a plethora of shows from different Cambodian cultural groups in staged mini-arenas. I mostly found these to be kitschy and artificial. I don’t recommend it.

My seventy-year-old great aunt visited all these places with a big smile on her face and cane-less. My legs increasingly felt like jello, and I sniffed Tiger balm every ten minutes, trying to liven myself up.

When we went to Banteay Srey for dinner after the five hours we spent at the Cultural Center, my first instinct was to hurl. I finished my business in the restroom, and sat down at the table. Exhausted, dizzy, and feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach, I propped my head on my fist. Then the tears started. I don’t know where they came from. Honestly, I was surprised myself and a bit pissed. But they kept coming. The food hadn’t arrived yet, the waiters were freaked out, and the children at the neighboring table looked like they wanted to give me a hug. There I was 22, nearly 23 balling like a little child.

My hungry family shoveled food in their mouths as I sniffled with my eyes shut during dinner and compiled a nice hill of tissues on my plate. When we got back to the hotel, it was coining time. I had no choice in the matter. My three aunts and their maid laid me down on the bed, took off my dress, pulled out their Tiger balm, and began rubbing the thin end of a coin up and down my back. This lasted about an hour until I had dark streaky bruises covering my back, arms, and chest. I imagine I looked like a warrior of sorts. Or maybe this is what an exorcism might feel like. But I actually did feel better. My aunt tells me that coining is an old traditional way of healing that works much faster than medicine. It immediately releases toxins from your body, and so once you are coined, you feel relieved. I think being coined helped me not necessarily physically, but emotionally, which I think is equally important for one’s healing. It’s like having a good cry, and it hurts for a while, but then you feel better.

That is, until the next day when I still felt like shit. I didn’t feel like crying anymore, but my body hurt like hell. I was pining for the medicine I’d brought over from America that I’d foolishly left in Phnom Penh because I thought I was invincible from illnesses. I slept for the remainder of the car ride home in the big van instead of the jet-setting SUV. I popped my American-made pills when I got home, and slept for another fourteen hours.

Today, three days after my coining, a waiter at The Living Room, a cafe I’ve taken a liking to, pointed to the warrior streaks peeking out of my tank top and asked, “Oh, you get coin too?” I thought the bruises would have disappeared by now. Later, one of the Harpswell girls said to me with a big grin on her face, “Older Sister, the mosquitoes have eaten your legs and now they’re full of scars, and now your body is full of bruises. How will you ever find a songsah (boyfriend)?” Fml. I was just thinking the same thing.