Wherein I Offer My Deepest Apologies to Khmer Speakers Everywhere (and to Alexander Graham Bell)

–by Elizabeth

Our family has a favorite tuk tuk driver. His name is Bun, and I dial his number every week on grocery day.

I say:  “Can you come to my house now?”

Normally he tells me yes and is at my doorstep in less than 60 seconds. This week I couldn’t understand his reply. But I don’t worry. What usually happens when I can’t understand him is that he’s unavailable and is sending a friend instead.

Would this be a good time to mention that I don’t understand Khmer very well on the telephone?

I wait at the door for his friend, but after 10 minutes, there’s no tuk tuk in sight.  I begin to wonder if he meant what I assumed he meant. I run inside to discuss my little problem with Jonathan and come back out a few minutes later, determined to wait longer.

A tuk tuk has arrived. He’s not my usual driver, but I recognize him. As I leave my house, I see that he is talking on his phone. Hmm. Perhaps he’s calling Bun to ask why I wasn’t waiting at the door for him. Oh well, he hangs up when I walk outside, and I tell him where I want to go.

Just as the tuk tuk starts driving, my phone rings. It’s Bun. Oh dear. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone. I answer the phone, but I’m not sure what he’s saying. Instead, I assure him: “Tuk tuk came already. Sorry. Cannot understand. Street loud.” That seems to satisfy him.

But wait a second. My driver is now going in the wrong direction. “Stop!” I tell him. He stops, turns around, says something in Khmer, and smiles. I return a blank stare. He then points to another tuk tuk driver (whom I also recognize) and says something else, still smiling. Huh? His meaning is lost on me. And he keeps driving the wrong direction.

Whatever. I know these roads. I know these drivers. I will get to Lucky Supermarket. Eventually. Both tuk tuks turn down another road, and the other driver stops at a house while my driver watches him. Then my driver turns around and goes in the right direction. He drops me off at the store, and I say: “Wait about 30 minutes.”

I shop and get in line and am just about to pay when my phone rings. I do not recognize the number, but I intuitively know it’s my driver. It has been 31 minutes. First I silence my phone. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone.  But he calls a second time, and this time I feel I obligated to answer. I do not know what he is saying. But I say: “Wait 3 minutes more” and hang up.

My tuk tuk is waiting for me, all smiles, when I walk out of the store. I tell him: “Sorry. Talk phone difficult me.” He smiles and nods. Would this be a good time to mention that my 6 months of language study gave me survival speaking ability only?

We learned in PILAT (Principles in Language Acquisition Techniques) that learning should be comprehension-based. In other words, we should practice hearing and understanding before we practice speaking. I have unfortunately reversed this. Sometimes when I speak in Khmer — and nearly always on the phone — I am, as my dad would say, “on transmit only,” with no possibility of receiving.

It is for this gaping hole in my conversational ability that I sincerely apologize to Khmer speakers everywhere, especially when using the telephone.

C’est la Vie (or, That’s Life)

Sometimes life surprises me. Like that time when Jonathan was sick with viral meningitis, and I was in the school room, and suddenly the light bulb burst into flame. Literal 2-inch orange flames.

That never happened to me in America.

Or that time when Jonathan was recovering from middle and outer ear infections, and he went up to our beloved roof, with its 3 square meters of peace and tranquility (and several potted plants), only to discover that someone had painted those pots. And the rocks in the pots. And even the plants themselves.

That never happened to me in America either.

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of surprising things did happen to me in America. Like the time a Canadian goose blew itself up when its wings touched two nearby power lines in our yard. Or the time a different Canadian goose attacked my leg while a dog the size of a pony jumped on my back. That was in my neighbor’s yard, by the way.

But back to surprises in Cambodia.

Our boys wailed about our painted plants. I was at the end of myself. That week I had dealt with more sickness in the family and fought off more discouragement than is usual for me, and now, my roof, my precious stronghold of sanity, had been vandalized.

But with Otto Koning’s Pineapple Story* at the front of my mind, we set out to solve the mystery of who, and more importantly, why. Next door to us is a boarding school, and there is an old man who lives there. All day long he lounges on a hammock on the roof, watching television and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally he does some odd jobs around the place.

The neighbor children told us that this man painted our pots and plants and rocks, but none of them seemed to know why. The adults were a bit more helpful, laughing embarrassedly at our questions. This man is apparently bored and likes to make things look nicer. While we were at the ocean with my parents, he took the opportunity to “improve” our rooftop view.

I thought it would be common courtesy to ask before forcing home improvement projects on someone else. But it wasn’t very long until I could see the humor. “My neighbor painted my plants,” I’ll say. And when you ask me why my neighbor painted my plants, I’ll say, “oh, because he thought it would look better.” You might ask if it did look any better, and I’ll say, “no, not at all.”

The neighbors asked us if we wanted him to paint them again, perhaps all one color? (He originally painted them yellow and white.) We said yes, white is best. (Actually, UNpainted is best, but…) And I did have some hope that our pots would get better when we saw him outside this week, painting three tables white.

We played badminton and frisbee on our roof today. And those pots, they were one color, all right. They were 100% yellow. (Surprise! A different shade of yellow.) But we enjoyed our roof just as much as we did before our neighbor painted our plants.

———————————————–

*Otto Koning was a missionary who planted pineapples in his yard. They took 3 years to grow, but before he could eat any of them, the nationals stole them all. This happened several times, and he was always angry about it. Only when he gave his “right” to eat those pineapples to God, could he stop being angry. The nationals noticed his change in behavior, and he started to have success in ministry.