The first Christmas I have ever spent away from my family (My blood family, the ridiculously large American one) was both bizarre and monumental. Bizarre because my friends on social media posted pictures of ice, snow, and stocking caps (did I just say stocking caps? Who am I becoming?!) while I sweat profusely in the 8 am Cambodian heat. Bizarre because Christmas would also be the day I would have to say goodbye to my training host family in Takeo Province. My family uncomfortably giggled as I cried a lot, attempting to stifle the urge to reach in for a long hug which would surely have not been received well as hugs are, in general, not a common way to show affection in Cambodian culture. Despite the cultural differences that weaved their ways into our goodbye, I could still feel my family’s sadness and excitement at watching me leave and my heart ached as they said over and over again in Khmer, “We will miss you”. This Christmas was monumental because it meant I was closing the door on pre-service training in Takeo Province and I was headed off to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to complete a few more days of training and finally swear-in as an official Peace Corps volunteer. To induce myself with a good old-fashioned shot of nostalgia and Christmas-fueled homesickness, I watched Home Alone with a friend on the van ride to Phnom Penh and dreamed about a lovely cheese pizza, just for me.
My first visit to Phnom Penh felt like summer vacation at the end of the school year. Although we still had training all day everyday, we were free in the evenings to explore the city. No longer were we met with the expectation to be home to our host family’s house for dinner at 5:30 pm. We could wear sleeveless shirts and legless pants…I mean, shorts… and eat MEXICAN FOOD at a hip restaurant with mason jar drinks and an edgy mural towering over us as we gorged on homemade salsa. Was I in Portland?! On our second day in Phnom Penh, they brought us to an event to meet our new Khmer families. These were the families we would be spending the next two years with. A week or so before, we had received a packet of information about our site placement, our future school, and our future host family. It contained a few photos of the home we would be living in as well as the names, ages, and occupations of the family members living there. Peace Corps organized an event for us to meet our families and get to know them over lunch. They called each of us individually and we met a family member at the front of the room while everyone clapped in excitement and awkwardness. When they called my name, a short statured older man came forth to bow to me in greeting. This was my host dad, Vandy, who I have come to know as Pu (uncle in Khmer). The thing that drew my attention was his smile. It’s been almost a year now since this moment, and I can still see the calming elation his smile showed when we first crossed paths.
After swearing in the next day, we started our journey “home” to Stung Treng Province on the other end of the country. Myself and Eric, a fellow volunteer who shares the same site placement as me, enjoyed the scenery while our family members got to know each other and the driver. Although Eric and I were completely lost as to the specifics of the conversation, Pu’s laugh made us feel included. He seemed to laugh with everything in him, smile open and eyes wrinkled. It was the kind of belly laugh that made you feel like you were dancing, even if you were sitting still.
Next thing I knew, there I was: the van drove off with Eric, the only person I knew, in it, and I was standing in the driveway of my new home with more luggage than I would care to admit. I marveled at the gardens around the house, growing in shades of green I didn’t even know existed. An older woman with a cute bob haircut and a flowing sundress came out to greet us. I learned this was Sophanny, my host mom, who I would soon begin to refer to as Ming (aunt in Khmer). She took me to my bedroom, a small area on the upper level of the house that opens out into a large wooden deck. Sophanny seemed flustered that they had forgotten to dust and mop it prior. I assured her it was “At panyaha” (No problem), but she had completely revamped the room in under 10 minutes, crawling down on the floor to dust even the unseen recesses underneath the bed. After help getting my luggage settled in, they gave me some time alone to make the space my own. It was time to unpack. After all, I was gonna be there a while.
With five children, my host family is considered large by American standards. However, as they are all grown and mostly living away from home, my house is a lot quieter these days. Currently in the house are my parents, their niece Thida, and my host sister Thavarin. To be honest, it was a lot easier and less overwhelming in the beginning for me to have been placed in such a small, quiet family. On my first full day at home, Thida took me to the market to help me find a fan. This was, of course, essential and was one of the first things I did. In the words of our medical nurse, Linda, who was basically our no-nonsense-mom-away-from-home, “You’re gonna need to go buy yourself a fan, first thing. And don’t skimp and buy something cheap. You need to get a HITARI brand fan because this will be one of your most important possessions.” Looking back now, I can say God bless Linda for speaking truth and proselytizing Hitari, the machine for which I now have a deep bond and appreciation. I soon learned that Thida was studying to be a primary school teacher at the school where I would be working. How I discerned this from our talk during our walk to the market is beyond me. It turns out, just as I had been warned, the “standard” khmer language which we learned during training would only get us so far in our new sites where we would encounter regional accents, varying vocabulary, and unfamiliar cadence (good times). It felt like starting over again from zero, but Thida was so patient with me and did her best to help me through, all the while helping me to find a fan so perfect, it was love at first sight.
In addition to a change in language, the first few weeks in my new home were a struggle for other reasons as well. At first, it was jarring to adjust to the different ways my family communicated and showed affection. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m definitely eager to please people and find their approval. This can very easily become a charged and fragile motivation when all semblance of a comfort zone become dissipated (as is pretty much the entire life of a PCV during service). I worried, What if they don’t like me? Could I really be a stranger in someone else’s house for 2 years? What if they become annoyed with the way I speak Khmer like a four-year-old with short-term memory loss? These worries intensified during mealtime as my family and I waded through perceptual mismatches around food.
My family did their best to show me hospitality and care through food by piling my plate full of rice and fried fish and fruit and fried veggies and sour soup and rice and rice and -you guessed it- more rice. Knowing that sharing large amounts of food was a significant part of Khmer culture, I did my best to gobble up what I was given. It seemed that no matter how much I ate or how overly full I said I was, my family became distressed and wanted me to eat more. My host mom would pace around the dining room table mumbling about what I was or wasn’t eating with a furrowed brow that I took for anger. I knew it was simply a cultural misunderstanding, but in the moment, it felt like I was failing at the most important “people pleasing” I would encounter during service. Over time, this issue changed and soon became almost non-existent. I grew to understand my family better and the ways that they communicate, not just from the perspective of khmer language, but also their family dynamics and motivations. The furrowed brow that I took for anger, I realized, seemed to instead be a sign of my host mom’s own worries over “people pleasing”. Because of the language barrier, the chance for her to nurture me and feel approval from me may have been inextricably linked to the rice that she had boiled, the herbs she had picked, and the chicken she had chopped and sauteed.
The understanding of this took time, and I remember feeling especially out of place and like a burden those first few days. I had been there about a week when I went on an outing with Pu to the local police station where I would need to introduce myself and give them my passport and other information. Because Peace Corps doesn’t allow us to ride motorbikes, I followed behind on my bike. After meeting the immigration officers, my host dad climbed on his motorbike and said to me, “Do you want to go on a ride?” After saying yes, he led the way with his motorbike up a hill to a side of town I had never been before. I did my best to keep up, red face, heaving like a cat with a furball. We followed a road back around to the Mekong River where we headed North back up to the town center along the conjoining Sekong River in one giant loop. Pu would pull over occasionally to pick wildflowers and attempt to explain different plant names to me. When we finally made it back up to the town center, we made one last stop at a street vendor overlooking the river. We sat at the table and Pu ordered us two fresh coconuts. The vendor used the corner of a large meat cleaver to open the fruit, letting the natural light shine into the darkness of the coconut husk. I have always been captivated by coconuts, this idea that untouched, uncontaminated life-giving liquid and flesh exists hidden away from the light of day so protected by its shell. Pu and I exchanged a few words. I asked him about the family and his life, and we enjoyed the view of the Sekong and the refreshing coconut water together. The stress of fitting in to a new family faded away leaving so much more room for gratitude. I felt that I had made a friend in this once stranger that took time out of his day to make me feel more at ease in this unfamiliar river town. We sat for a while in silence and when slurping sounds came from our straws indicating our life-giving liquid was no more, Pu looked at me and said,
“Tah, tiw pteah,” (Let’s go home).