Mrs. Trotter’s Neighborhood

–by Elizabeth

I love my neighborhood. I really do. Come with me, look past the trash on the streets and the smell of funky Asian food, and let me show you my neighborhood.

Every day the kids next door greet us with a “Hello Jonneeeeee!” They think that’s especially funny because Jonathan’s nickname, Johnny, is a brand of whiskey: Johnnie Walker. (No one in this country can say his name, and they can’t say Nathaniel or Faith either.)

We play outside on our street regularly. (No worries; it’s a dead-end.) Our boys ride their scooters and race up and down the street. Then they share their scooters with the neighbor boys. They play Frisbee, and sometimes the neighbor boys join in. If our regular tuk tuk driver happens to pass by and see them playing, he’ll stop and throw the Frisbee too. (He’s new to Frisbee-throwing.) And if we forget to take our frisbee with us when we go inside, the neighbors put it on our doorknob for later.

Our neighbors have a push toy for their baby. Faith is in love with this push toy. So our neighbors let her push their baby in it, and they push Faith in it too.

The neighbors also have a plastic chair that is just the right size for Faith. She’s in love with that as well. They don’t even stop her when she drags it over to our door to sit on it.

IMG_0112

The kids next door speak a little bit of English. Our kids speak a little bit of Khmer. And everyone knows Gangnam Style. The recipe for a budding friendship, right? Sometimes my boys play with Legos in their top-level bedroom while the neighbor kids play on the shared roof. Listening to them talk back and forth through the open window is one of my favorite things.

I just walk down the street to buy water. If I accidentally leave the money at home, it’s no big deal. I can pay the guy later. I can’t think of a place in America that would ever let me do that.

It feels like a village. (In fact, we even have a village chief — I know this because he had to sign the papers for us to rent our house.) I love my village. I love my neighborhood. And maybe you remember this song about neighborhoods:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

I am glad that mine have answered with a resounding yes.

IMG_0166

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.

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.