Cambodia: One Snapshot

September 24, 2013 | Kaitlyn, DVM, WUSC, Cambodge, ICC University of Technology

There are so many things I want to tell you about Cambodia, I don’t even know where to begin. Phnom Penh, the locals, the food, the way of life; I could spend hours. I’ve limited this post to what I can deem my most influential experience this far: dinner.

But ‘dinner’ is far more than dinner. It encompasses people, time, ways of life, values and traditions. It makes real everything I’ve experienced, so that in this single photo, in this single moment of time, you can experience it too.

Monday night marked exactly one week that I have been in Cambodia. It feels like a lifetime already; a lifetime I would love to repeat again and again. Monday night was the night I was invited to have dinner with my co-worker, Mr. Chephally.

Mr. Chephally is the person that everyone wants to have when they are alone; alone because they are solitary; alone because they are in a new country 1000 miles away from home; alone because the culture is different. Mr. Chephally is kind; generous; loving. Mr. Chephally has studied in the United States and understands this aloneness. He has experienced it the hard way; Americans do not go very far out of their way to make foreigners feel welcome – after a brief ‘Hello, how do you do?’, they have much more pressing things to attend to. Canadians are the same. Mr. Chephally does not want this for another person; it creates loneliness, and directly contradicts Cambodian society, where family and friendship are vital. Mr. Chephally is patient and welcoming. He laughs at your jokes. He constantly teaches you the local language and the history of Cambodia. He shows you the tourist sites, and even takes you there himself, regardless of how far it is or how much it costs. He is eager to show you the local cuisine, and takes you for lunch to a different restaurant every day. He checks in on how your work is going, how you are feeling, and makes sure you don’t have any problems. Mr. Chephally is equal parts Father, Mother, guardian, friend, co-worker and supervisor. He is the person that everyone needs, especially in turbulent times. He has invited me to play ping-pong and have dinner at his house tonight.

It is unfortunate at this time that my expectations for dinner are reflective of my training as a young woman; broadcasting the idea that going alone to a male stranger’s house is never safe. I am careful to take pre-cautions, even though Mr. Chephally deserves better than my unfounded but deeply rooted suspicions and fears. Of course they are unrealistic, but being safe is an integral part of how Western society has taught me to think.

He goes home early to prepare. A moto is sent for me, even though it is only a block away and I could easily walk. I am dropped off, to my surprise, not at his house, but at his neighbours. He is enthusiastically playing ping-pong with his friend. He eagerly stops and introduces me to everyone: his friend and the entire neighbourhood; at least 5 households. We play ping-pong and I quickly tire due to the humidity. He takes pity on me and sits me down until dinner is ready. He pulls out a bottle of wine; he has gone out and gotten it because he knows I prefer it over beer, even though that’s what he and his friends drink. His neighbour is cooking dinner and he reminds her that I do not handle spicy food well, so please take care to not put too much chilli in it.

As we sit and drink, we wait for his friends to come. I ask him how many are coming. He says he doesn’t know, just whoever shows up. I find this interesting and different from Canadian society. He stops to talk to many people who come through the neighbourhood; would they like to join us for dinner? Dinner invitations here are very casual, and do not need to be texted, emailed or planned. The reason he does not know how many people are coming for dinner is because he does not know how many friends he will see tonight, and how many are busy already. Two people decline and in the next 30 minutes our table fills to 5. I am grateful for their company as I am not yet comfortable being alone with him, lest people get the wrong impression, or I do something very impolite.

As his friends drift in, one by one, they make an effort to include me. I am asked every single time how I like Cambodia, and I tell them it is a beautiful country, the people are very nice and I enjoy my work. They are pleased. After this customary question period, the courtesies are over and they began to joke with me and include me in their friendships. I receive multiple offers to tour guides (even though only Mr. Chephally really speaks English), invitations for future dinners and joking pokes about being Mr. Chephally’s Canadian girlfriend. They are curious to know more about me, and keep refilling my wine glass without asking. They listen attentively, and I am surprisingly pleased with their attention, which I normally shy away from. They notice me smiling at the neighbour’s 2 year old daughter and her Mother happily brings her over so I can hold her. I am pleasantly surprised by her trust and am grateful for her actions. They ask if I have a partner back home, if I want children, when, how many and how soon. I have no real answers for them but tell them that hopefully it’ll all work out.

After this, the conversation turns mostly into Khmer, so I take the next 45 minutes to observe my surroundings. The neighbourhood is average and most people here has moderate incomes. His friends at the table include: a butcher, a government worker, a shop owner and another teacher. The buildings around us are standard, and there is a lack of garbage in the streets. I see small children playing and I worry they will run into the street and be struck by a moto that is going too fast. Small vendors have opened up during the evening and now sell fresh vegetables and meals to go. The temperature is warm and humid, but nice. Laughter erupts from our table frequently and Mr. Chephally translates the jokes for me. There is a tv behind the ping-pong table which plays Cambodian soap operas, the news, and then, to my utter disbelief and horror, Adventure Time with Finn and Jake. The night gets darker and the humidity dissipates a little bit with light rain. I watch in stunned silence as a rat the size of a cat sneaks past the opposite, closed shop door.

As the night draws to a close, I am many things: happy, full, entertained, tipsy, grateful, and most of all, welcomed. I thank Mr. Chephally and his friends for their politeness, patience and friendship. They encourage me to come again. The neighbour’s son gives me a lift back to the University, and I quickly fall asleep, so ecstatic with this country, and the people, that I even let a baby tarantula live; that is, until the morning when I remember it and scramble out of bed in horror to try and find it.

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