Chapter 25: How to Make Friends and Influence People
Sweat beads decorated my forehead, and droplets of water ran down my neck from my hairline. I didn’t think I could cut my hair any shorter unless I went for a buzz cut, marine style. What clothes I wore were only for the sake of modesty, and even then my long t-shirts over bare legs were sacrilege in that diffident society. Between the hellish temperatures and the punishing humidity, moving to Skon had been hard work . . . and Brielle and I still weren’t done.
I surveyed my completed bedroom. No walk-in closet. A wardrobe—its battered doors hanging half off their hinges—lounged in the corner next to a tomato red two-gallon plastic pail. I would wash using a chipped ceramic basin and a pitcher that sat on top of the small bureau. Nailed to the wall was the photo of my smiling daughter. Beside the lumpy single bed stood a small table fan perched on a wooden stand―the electricity courtesy of the Chinese battalion (thanks to Hon and the fistful of silver dollars I gave to the commander). The petit salon was disorganized, and the kitchen was pretty dodgy, outfitted with a two burner propane stove, a bucket for washing dishes and a small refrigerator. An odd mix of dishes and bowls were stacked on a small bamboo three-tiered shelf. Still, settling in had been a top priority, and we had made a fair amount of progress.
The electricity already needed to be rewired. The present wire wouldn’t carry sufficient current very far, and our house was at the end of the line. Unfortunately, our landlord, who lived downstairs, had told the Chinese that we wanted his part of the house wired as well, but providing him with electricity wasn’t part of the lease.
“Nhean, I need you,” I called from our balcony to the stoic young man standing in front of a crude wooden building across the road. Barefoot as usual, he ran over in his white long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Just looking at his long sleeves and black trousers made me feel hotter. I had to keep the electricity flowing.
“Yes, Momma,” he said politely, his sallow skin flushed from running up the steps to the porch.
“Nhean, please go downstairs and tell the landlord that he can’t use the Chinese electrical line; it will have to be removed.”
“Momma, you make the landlord unhappy,” Nhean reported when he returned. I was annoyed by the landlord’s response and angry about the situation, and I had no idea if the Chinese would understand which wires they needed to disconnect.
Exhausted by the extreme temperature and the endless, niggling tasks, I wanted to escape this conflict. I told Nhean aw kuhn and turned to go into the house.
“You are welcome, Momma,” he said. His teeth protruded slightly, giving him a sort of benign weasel look.
Momma again? What’s this? I turned back to question the skinny, Chinese-looking boy. “Why do you call me ‘Momma’? Is it because I’m old, like your mother?”
“No Momma, you are best foreigner in Cambodia,” he replied in all earnestness.
“Thanks,” I said and watched as he skipped down the stairs and trotted across the road. If he had hoped to make a good impression, he had. I needed an interpreter, and how much longer Nhean would volunteer his help was anyone’s guess. The folks at HQ had not given us DESs any information about how or when to recruit one. When they did, Nhean would be at the top of my list.
Momma. I wondered what he called Brielle.
I went back inside to find Leannán and Brielle arranging furniture in her bedroom. “My god, Brielle,” I said. “I keep getting whacked with the message that we are foreigners here. I can’t negotiate with our landlord if Nhean isn’t around to bail me out. Notwithstanding his help, I’m sure that I’ve managed to create a problem with the landlord that I can’t solve.”
“Look,” Leannán said, “You two will have to settle into this house and the community and figure out how to manage and survive—no matter if your life is primitive or the villagers are hostile. There’s no handbook, only instinct and desire. You’ll be legends, simply bril!”
I sighed. “Thanks for the pep talk, but it’s nap time,” I called to them as I headed toward my bedroom.
Pigs squealed and grunted in the front yard. Brielle poked her head into my room to ask if I needed anything from the market. Our landlord came in to put up the door to my bedroom. He used nails rather than screws and, when something didn't fit, he used a hatchet to plane it down. Maybe it wasn’t nap time after all. I got up and went to the porch to survey the scene around me.
Living in Skon was like living in a post-apocalyptic world. Even though it was a large market town and the local government seat, boasting a restaurant and a dilapidated elementary school, the village was a mish-mash of dwellings and brick-and-mortar structures strung out along the road between Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham City. Car battery-operated televisions played American cowboy movies from battery-operated VCRs. Men pretending to be Clint Eastwood or John Wayne shot off weapons at a stormy sky, and feral dogs roamed in packs. Oxcarts filled the streets, and roadside stands sold bottles containing poisonous snakes fermented in alcohol. People slept in open thatched huts that served as shops during the day, and chickens roamed in and out of houses. The whole town could use a good whitewash and a regular garbage collection.
Less than a mile south of our new residence was a large pagoda, the only sanctuary from the dust and clutter of the village. On our first visit, a chubby monk who ran the temple had greeted Brielle and me with smiles. There were more smiles when I handed him a twenty-dollar donation upon learning that US B-52 bombers had done most of the damage to the village and pagoda during the Vietnam War—a gesture I was destined to repeat hundreds of times on visits to other pagodas throughout the mission. I liked the moon-faced monk, dressed in flowing orange robes. However, I couldn’t be sure if he truly liked me . . . or only my twenty-dollar bill.
Directly across the red dirt road was a large two story wooden house. It was my UN electoral office, which I had rented with Nhean’s help. Get out of bed, cross the road and be at work with no landmines in between. Take it. Small wooden shanties, more like wooden boxes, stood on either side of it.
Ethnically Chinese Cambodians lived on both sides of our blue-shuttered house. To the left was a bakery in a two-story dwelling with big hot ovens in the back and a makeshift warehouse that shared space with living quarters in the front. To the right lived a widow with a brood of naked children and a small herd of huge, mean sows. Their little hut sat on the foundation of what must have been a huge villa, before the US bombing raids.
Three little girls stared up at me from the road as I surveyed my surroundings Hoay, the baker’s daughter, stood next to Keang, who lived with her widowed mother and her older brother―my erstwhile interpreter, Nhean. The third girl was Moam-Moam. I waved to these shy, giggly friends to come over to our house. Holding on to each other’s hands, they approached. I heard their high, whispery voices as they climbed the stairs.
Still holding hands when they reached the porch, they covered their mouths and giggled with their foreheads touching. The girls must have recently returned from school, since they were barefoot and still dressed in their well-worn uniforms of short-sleeved white blouses and dark blue pleated skirts. The three of them, all about eleven years old, were as different from each other as they were alike.
Moam-Moam, soft and round, was an authentic Cambodian beauty with a dark complexion, long curly hair and straight, small white teeth that sparkled when she smiled. Hoay was ethnic Chinese—short, a bit stout and bookish looking. Brielle and I figured out quickly that she was smart and probably a good student. Keang was the scrawniest of the trio. Small and skinny, she looked like Nhean and, like him, was eager and clever.
“Come in,” Brielle said. She stopped putting away some groceries, and I followed them into the house. No one spoke. The girls simply rushed over, took a bag of potatoes from Brielle and began pouring them into the basket by the stove. Minions, I thought; we had helpers. My daughter was an eager helper in the kitchen when she was little―stirring pancake mix, spilling it and then looking to me for approval. I liked this; I liked having these little girls around.
At night, instead of dreaming about cobras and landmines, I would dream about the three little girls—sitting in a circle holding hands or reading a story together, their laughs like the sound of wind chimes when they hugged me. One night, however, the girls morphed into babies who shared a ruffled pink bassinet. A large black and white snake slithered across the wooden floor towards the bassinet, his hooded eyes red and glowing, his tongue flicking in and out. The snake then became an AK-47, the bassinet a hammock.
I bolted up so fast that Fannett, a kitten we had rescued from the side of the road, flew out of my bed where he had been curled up asleep. The heat must have caused my nightmare, but still it left me shaken.