— 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.