An American at a Khmer Wedding (Part 1: A Trip or Two to the Seamstress)

— by Elizabeth

The seamstress on my street does my mending, and each time I am happy with the quality of her work (and with her exceptionally low prices). While she speaks no English at all, she does speak her own language rather rapidly.

I’d been admiring the purple dress (my favorite color!) in her window for weeks but didn’t have the courage to ask about it. Asking about it would expose my ridiculous lack of Khmer language. But there was a wedding coming up, and I wanted something more formal than what I owned.  So three days before the wedding (can you tell I brought my whole self, including the procrastinating part, to Cambodia??), off I marched to the sewing shop. And this is how it happened:

I tell the seamstress I like the dress. I stand there next to it, unable to think of the word for “wear.” Because of course I want to wear it before buying it. Oh why didn’t I study first? That’s what Jonathan does before he attempts something new.  I have a limited Khmer vocabulary, and only the most used portions come to the front of my brain during a conversation. Words I don’t use much — like words about clothing — stay way in the back. Think think think. What is the word for wear?? The only thing I can think of is the word for clothes. I stand there unproductively, actually waving my hand in circles as if it could help me. She talks at me while I think. I have no idea what she is saying. Then poof! The word I need comes to me.

I tell her I want to wear that dress. I tell her, if I like the dress, I will buy it. She looks a bit confused, but she teaches me the word for “to try on.” I stand and think some more. Suddenly I know what to say: “I want to try it on now.” The light goes on, and she pulls the dress off the mannequin. I have found the Magic Key. (Magic Keys are an essential part of my life. The Magic Key asks a question that forces the hearer to answer me using words I already know. Or, as in this case, the Key asks someone to do the very thing I want them to do.)

I try it on, and it fits (hooray!). But the back shows too much skin, so I tell her I don’t usually show my back, because I am “shy.” (That’s the only way I know to explain my desire for more coverage.) She teaches me another new word, which literally means “skin for enclosing.”  She’ll basically make a wrap to cover my back and shoulders.

Then it’s time to hem the bottom. I don’t have my dress shoes with me. (Um, again, why did I not think to bring them?? I am so unprepared.) I’m not sure how much she should cut off, so I ask for her advice. She doesn’t seem to understand that I want her help in deciding the length. So I ask her to make it the normal length for dresses. Again, her face registers no understanding. I stand there, think think thinking again, about how to do this hemline. (Have you noticed yet that I do a lot of standing around and thinking??)  At one point she even tells me I should have my husband come (she knows he’s a better speaker than I am).

Finally I tell her, cut just a little bit. She seems to understand that. (Magic Key alert!)

But when I go to pick it up later, it’s not ready. She seems to be concerned that the dress and wrap materials are not exactly the same color, so she hasn’t sewed the wrap yet. At first glance, they look exactly the same to me. But as I examine them closer, I notice a slight difference. She is very concerned, so I start wondering if the slight color difference is a big deal to Khmer people and will I show up to the wedding looking extremely inappropriate?? (Insert internal freak out moment right here.) I stand there. Thinking. Asking myself what to do, as if I could possibly help myself. All this time she is talking at me again, and I understand nothing. Finally I say, sort of questioningly, “they’re close to the same color.” She agrees, “yes, a little bit different color.” I ask her if that’s good.  She says yes. (There’s that Magic Key again. Because let’s face it, all I really care about is covering up that back.)

In the end, I’m very happy with my new dress and wrap. And I’m very happy with my seamstress.satnight (2)

Culture Days

— by Elizabeth

A week ago a high school student came to my house for math tutoring. I noticed the neighbor children pestering her as she waited for me to unlock the gate. When I let her in, one of the girls grabbed a handful of my stomach and yanked. As my student pushed her moto into my house, a boy followed her inside and began examining some of our stuff. I told him, “ot tay, ot tay,” which means “no, no.” Then I tried to lead him out of the house – I had not, after all, invited him in. He just laughed, repeated my request in falsetto, and shuffled out slowly.

A day like that makes me want to lock my doors, hide myself in my bedroom, crank up the air conditioning, and watch a movie.

It’s what I call a “bad culture day.”

The next few days I didn’t want to go outside, or even unlock the gate for our house helper in the morning. In fact, I asked Jonathan to unlock it. I just couldn’t handle another neighbor kid violating my house or my body. (These neighbor kids live in the boarding school next door – and I had never seen those two before. They don’t have normal social boundaries, even for Cambodians.)

But today I had errands to do, so I called my tuk tuk driver and walked out my front door. I paid the bill that was due and bought the items on my list. I even talked to my driver. (He wanted to know my opinions about the U.S. election. Opinions I will not be sharing in this blog. : )

Fast forward to this evening. This evening our children begged us to let them play outside on the street. We initially created a play space for them on our roof in order to avoid playing on the street, where children and adults alike touched them too much. We’ve spent a lot of time on the roof in the last several months. Lately, though, they don’t want the roof. They want the street. (That desire in itself is a huge step forward into the culture for them.) So out we went, culture-avoiding-me included.

First Jonathan stopped by a local Khmer restaurant to pick up some supper. We love their fried rice (and its price!). We started eating it in front of the house while the kids played. That’s a very Khmer thing to do. They cook in front of their houses over an open fire, just like they’ve done for thousands of years, and then eat outside as well. Nobody touched me or my children rudely. We talked with the older ladies. One of them particularly likes our children, and told us tonight that it makes her happy to watch them play. Later, when Nathaniel slipped on the wet pavement, they were very concerned for him to clean his scrapes well.

Even Faith, my shy little one, played and laughed with the girl next door. (That was a first, by the way.) We felt a sense of belonging in what we did tonight — eating Khmer food, speaking the Khmer language, and playing with our Khmer neighbors.

It was what I call a “good culture day.”

A day like today gives me the courage to go back out and try again. It gives me the courage to interact with the people – unwanted touches included.

God, give us more good culture days.

Waiting for our fried rice carry-out at the local Khmer place.