Language Lessons

Every Tuesday and Friday I have a language lesson with Anna, who is the daughter of a friend and a great teacher. We've been working through an aptly-named book: "Cambodian for Beginners," and I have been pretty successful at mastering introductory conversation and spurning marriage proposals. After that, though, it's a bit more difficult to chart my progress.

Khmer (or khmai) is an interesting language for many reasons, including its many vowels, new phonetics, and naming principles. Just today I was reminded that the words for top, over, above, and up are pretty much the same (neu leu) as are the words for bottom, under, below, and down (neu krhaom). So if you wanted to say something was "over the top," you're out of luck. Despite using one word for all these pronouns, there are completely different words for long (yuu = time; wegn = distance) and short (klay = distance). This does not include the fact that you can be tall (kapua) or short (tiep).

I also discovered today in our review of fruits and vegetables, that the word for grapes is dom being bai chuu. Forgetting the rest of that word, let me tell you that the last part, chuu, means "sour." I'm not sure how you could express that someone is eating "sour grapes," since they are already the same thing. The word for shopping cart, interestingly enough, is roteah, which is also part of the word for train (roteah de pleung); just imagine the fun of grocery store lines with shopping carts the size of a train car! The words are made different because the de pleung in the word for train means, "with fire" or "with electricity" (because the word for fire and electricity is the same thing). When there is a power outage, I tell people that I don't have fire. Even when I'm lighting candles.

This doesn't even begin to cover the homophones in the language. The words for dog, far, and delicious (chagaii, chingai, chingein) are nearly identical to my ear, which can be problematic if you tell someone you want to go very delicious or that your meal is quite dog. You should be careful when you're tongue tied, since the word for tongue (andat)is pronounced similarly to the word for turtle (andaut). I'm sure you wouldn't want a turtle stuck in your mouth. Of course, sometimes the word is exactly the same, like the pronouns he and she (gowuht). Have fun figuring out if HE told HER the info or if SHE told HIM. The same is true for the words remember and wait (jahm). A sentence in which she can't remember him could easily be mistaken for one in which he couldn't wait for her.

Other vocabulary words are simply exact meanings crunched together. If you have a sore ankle, you would explain to someone that you injured the corner of your leg. Similarly, the corner of your arm (elbow) could also be hurt, say in a motorbike accident. Your knee, despite its 90 degree bend-a-bility, is in no way a corner of your body. Neither is your shoulder, come to think of it. When you take off your shoes (sbeik jeung), you remove the skin of your feet. Ouch. Your socks, though, are sraoum jeung, and gloves srouam dai. In other words, cylinder foot or cylinder hand. The names for your fingers aren't numbered either, being simply may-dai (the boss, your thumb), dai jong-croh (the finger which points), dai kandal (the finger between), dai neeung (the finger of a girl, your ring finger), and dai g'oohn (the baby finger). Sadly, the word for arm, hand, and finger are all the same, as is the leg (except for the thigh, which is called plauv, the same word for road).

And we haven't even gone over grammar yet. Oy.

All of this is the reason why some weeks, two lessons is not nearly enough, while others, it's far too much to handle. Even when we finish the book (which will be soon), I'll only be ready to upgrade to "Cambodian for Beginners II."


Buy Now!

I've been a bit remiss in posting pictures here lately, and I apologize. Hopefully this will make up for my previous lack of photography.

The hospital in my neighborhood has been around about a year now, so they're celebrating their anniversary with some specials. This one is my favorite.

Apart from the obvious, what other plastic surgeries are there to buy twice?


Sherlock Cambodia

Sometimes, life in Cambodia is a little slow. There are always things to learn, things to see, but sometimes it's hard to process them all at once and understand everything a tired brain is trying to think about.

And so, one must turn to mysteries. I love mysteries. I love solving puzzles. If it weren't for the gun-toting and dead-body inspecting, I would consider a career as a detective. Since I've decided to go the non-police-work route, this means investigating those little conundrums that pop up around me. Today's installment: The Case of the Unknown Baby.

The Mystery:

About a week ago, a baby appeared in my landlord's house. Baby is very small, obviously newborn, and spends most of the time sleeping under a little netting thing, covered in blankets (despite the 90 degree weather).

The Facts:

My landlord's daughter is pregnant, and has been for some time.

When asked, she indicated that her baby was due to be born in April.

The Unexpected Baby is cared for by a young woman who is not the landlord's daughter.

The daughter, until yesterday, was suspiciously absent from the premises.

The Obvious Question:

Who does this baby belong to?

Well, intrigued readers, I am happy to report that I have solved the mystery. Sort of. The baby does not, in fact, belong to the daughter. Although I saw her yesterday, she was sitting in such a way as to disguise whether she was still pregnant or had recently given birth. This very morning, however, I left for work only to see a very pregnant woman with her husband and mother discussing some new landscaping taking place in our little driveway.

Of course, this only prompts more questions!

First, who is the woman with the baby?


Why are they landscaping a paved courtyard?

It seems an amateur sleuth's work is never done.


Minor Inconveniences

I was explaining to someone yesterday that it's unacceptable to demonstrate anger here in Cambodia. The culture is one which values saving face, being in control of your emotions and keeping your fury to yourself. It's why you rarely see people screaming at each other in the streets, and probably why drinking, drug use, and spousal abuse are so high. That's a lot of stress to keep bottled up.

Only a few hours after making that statement, I found myself at home, attempting to turn on my computer to check my email. I'd had our tech guy install some antivirus software earlier in the day, and thought everything was fine. So imagine my surprise when my 3 month old computer would not start, claiming some kind of logon failure, and beeping at me like a petulant child. I was not pleased. I will say that it was a good thing it was 9 p.m. and too late to phone anyone for help.

Fast forward to this morning. I packed up my old and new computers for the office and climbed carefully down the stairs, only to find that between yesterday evening and this morning, my back tire had gone completely flat. I had a meeting at 9 which I was going to be on time for, except for this mishap. $11 and one new tire later, I was on my way to the office. Thank goodness for understanding staff members.

Whereupon I opened up my new computer and found it fully functional, virus protection installed, and no sign of last night's ugliness.

At no time did I yell at anyone... even in my own home I grumbled but did not scream (it was late, people were sleeping). But oh, man, did I want to. Even if I'm better at controlling those emotions (or the expression of them) all that stress has had to go somewhere. My question is where?


Rock Star

I've had a couple weird weeks where I haven't been in the office as much as usual. This break in routine is good… it's nice to be away from my desk and out in the world. Particularly when this means I get to interact with our field staff and what we term "beneficiaries," those people who we seek to serve and help with our programs. It's hard to consistently communicate passion for our work when I'm sitting miles away from the people we're trying to help.

Anyway, I was out in the field with some visitors. Among other things, we attended a support group meeting for people with HIV/AIDS, and briefly chatted with one of the group volunteers and one of the patients. The volunteer blew me away with her story. She began working with HIV patients when there was still an enormous amount of stigma and discrimination in her community. Her husband banned her from using their motorbike to help people. She was ostracized and degraded, her own family thought that she should stop helping the poor and the sick and spend her time elsewhere. Yet Sokha continued to work for those who needed her most. Now, there are 19 people in the village that she cares for, and she is the leader of a cell group. Many of those living with AIDS are members of that cell and have become Christians because of Sokha. Her husband now accepts and supports her. Most of all, as we sat there with Sokha, we could see the results of her sacrifice in the face of Sok, the other woman we interviewed.

Sok told us she was so sick that she could not get out of bed. The doctor refused to see her, because he knew she was HIV positive. No one would talk to her, her family were outcasts. Her husband, also infected, could do little to help. So it was Sokha who tracked down another doctor for Sok. When he, too, refused to come to the village, Sokha told him the symptoms of Sok's illness and asked him what medicines she should give to Sok. At one point, Sok looked at us and said, "Without her, I would be dead. She has done everything for me."

I sat there, listening, totally humbled by this conversation. Sokha is, quite simply, a rock star. She gives out of what she has, which is very little. Yet Sokha has transformed a community from one that condemns AIDS patients to one that supports and encourages them. It's when I meet people like Sokha that I realize how much farther I have to go in my own sacrifice for the Lord. Sure, I've moved away from my home country, given up a few conveniences, certainly traded away some comforts. I haven't had my husband or family tell me to stop, haven't had anyone stand in my way to keep me from serving. No one has looked at me and said that my sacrifice has kept them alive.

It's not that I want the recognition or the accolades; no, I'm very happy to carry on in the background. Watching someone like Sokha—who has her own struggles, fears, and heartaches—give up so much to serve those in her neighborhood made me wonder how far I've really extended myself. Have I acted in ways that God desires? He's quite clear on what true sacrifice looks like: "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58: 7). Even though I'm far from where I started, God's mandate is not specific on geography. The hungry, the wanderers, the naked… they exist in all places. The admiration I felt for Sokha during our conversation became a deep conviction for the ways in which I had turned a blind eye to these issues. Now, though, it has morphed into an aspiration; rather than feel guilt over what I'm not doing, I want to look for ways to be poured out, to be of service.

What I've realized is that Sokha didn't set out to be a heroine or an example. She simply did what was right, showed love to those in need of it. Turns out, that's something that I can do too.