Pu= Uncle (What I usually call my host dad)
Ming= Aunt (What I usually call my host mom)
Pu calls to me through my bedroom door. I am resting on the edge of the bed, stewing in a sickness that feels like it’s been hibernating for months. “Jade, come here. Come see this,” he says in Khmer. It is already dark and I follow him to the end of the wooden deck, my gaze shifting to the direction he is pointing, the direction of our moon on her day of full glory. Pu tells me when the full moon comes, so comes happiness to the Khmer people. “It’s easier,” he says, “than planting and harvesting rice under the sun.” Farmers escape the heat and bend toward the earth, their labor lit by moonlight. “And they are happy,” he asserts, staring up towards the Illuminated One, never breaking his gaze. In my mind, I see the moonlight reflected on the backs of workers who tell each other stories only so that their words will cut through the darkness and claim it as their own.
Pu is telling tales of the past. I struggle to understand what he is saying, so he pulls out the desk drawer, searching for a marker to help illustrate his point. After finding a krada chute moet (napkin), he sits down and begins slowly writing out a year in English numerals 1….9….6…0. The ink of the blue permanent marker bleeds easily through the thin napkin, expanding each number instantly. I imagine a Cambodia of the era he writes, one that Pu likely visits often in his mind. Pu lifts the napkin, exposing the small streaks of ink that have bled through and stained the wooden desk below, a permanent reminder of a moment. Months later, the stain remains.
Ming is seated on a miniature stool in front of three steel bowls, each the size of a small table surface. Her rough hands submerged in soapy water, the sound of hard bristles on cotton escapes in an unmistakable rhythm as she washes her sarongs. She asks me how many days I will be gone to the capital for training. I tell her the specific dates for leaving and returning, commenting that I’m unsure of the number of days my trip is. Removing her hands from the water, she begins to count the days on her hands. She counts all 10 fingers and, without hesitating, she props her bare foot onto the thigh of her opposite leg, continuing her counting from one little piggy to the next.
Sometime in May:
We have a visitor. She is a barang (foreigner). I remember seeing her months before, near the market, biking leisurely with a single pineapple in her front bike basket. She has come over to buy bananas from Ming. She speaks Khmer with Ming and it effortlessly flows from her tongue. I am currently doing laundry and I stop to awkwardly say hello and attempt to listen to their conversation. I always feel strange when I stumble upon another barang at site. I am caught off guard. I feel obligated to acknowledge them in some way. Like it’s an expat or traveler’s duty, to look at each other almost as if to say we don’t fit here. I feel that I already stand out enough, so this awkward head nod I make myself do only brings that separation further to the forefront of my mind. After she speaks to me in English, I find out that the barang is British. She has lived in Cambodia for 25 years. She is a doctor and she even delivered my host parents’ grandchildren. She begins translating for a few things Ming says. Having a translator, even for a few minutes, feels like a golden opportunity, the 11:11 that comes on the car stereo and wakes me up with the hope of connection with someone or something. Ming is talking about me. Her arms are waving in the air and her words are too fast for me to even begin to comprehend. The barang translates for her,
“She says she loves you as if you were her own daughter.”
I am standing on the deck with Pu, watching the blooming Pomegranate trees in front of us. Pu tells me that people say flowers move in the wind, but artists say they dance. He laughs from deep within his belly and smiles wide as the world lives on around us.
It is a humid evening, consisting of me constantly shifting my legs underneath the dining room table in an attempt to scare away the incessant blood suckers. Pu is talking about the other barang (foreigner) that used to live with my host family for two years in the 90’s. He calls her the wrong name and my host mom reminds him of her actual name with a perturbed voice. I joke to Pu, “Are you going to forget my name too?!”
Instantly, Ming roars with laughter. This is the first time in 6 months that I have been able to make her laugh, and I feel elated. The joke goes over Pu’s head but Ming and I smile at each other, poking fun of the forgetful man.
Sitting on the deck, stirring a pack of Nescafe instant coffee into a tea cup of hot water, I ask Pu about the scar on his arm. He begins telling me stories about the many years of war. About the American planes flown over his home, dropping destruction. About the mines he came across, the ones he removed, and others which he unfortunately did not see. About Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. He says, “Stupid men fight. Others know that books and knowledge are more important.”
It is late morning. I am playing my guitar and singing to myself. From the inside of the house, Pu unlocks the wooden door and smiles when he sees that I am on the deck. I instantly stop singing out of shyness but keep slowly strumming. I ask Pu if he would like to play and hand him the guitar. He mumbles something about how it has been roughly 40 years since he has played, saying he has forgotten it all. He begins finger-picking a pleasant tune imbued with a hint of blues. As always, I am astonished he can play that well after the thousands of days that separate him from when he consistently played. He stops picking and he hands the instrument back to me, saying with laughing eyes, “I only like to play guitar because I can play and eat at the same time.”
Using a wooden staph that he pulls from a statue of a fully uniformed warrior on a horse, Pu points at various photos on the wall and explains the history of that time in his life. The walls in this room are overlaid with posters of ancient scenes, bright colored animals, and far-off destinations. Through photos, they also tell the story of the life of a man who finds peace from reliving moments, people, and a myriad of accomplishments. The shelves are filled with tiny, seemingly-unimportant trinkets displayed beautifully and intentionally. After telling me a background story about each photo on one of the walls, Pu says with a mischievous grin, “I used to go to Russia, China, Vietnam…Thailand…Japan. Now, I just go to the farm to see the ants.” As always, he finishes his statement with open-mouthed laughter.