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Chapter 34: Finding My Voice

Buca, buca, buc,” I clucked to the seller, wishing that I knew the word for chicken. Her mouth pursed. “Aw tee,” she said, shaking her head ‘no.’ I pointed to the large eggs in front of her and quacked until she nodded ‘yes’ and clapped, amused by my bird imitations. My language skills had not improved, and Téphanes had already informed me that I was getting a partner, whether I wanted one or not. If I were going to get into the communes and be of any use during the voter registration process, I needed to hire Nhean officially, before someone else did, and I had to find one more.

I decided to start at Untac HQ in KPCC, where several locals had applied for the position, although I had no script for a formal interview.

“Does anyone want to speak English with me?” I asked the group of approximately twenty young adults in the room.

A young woman approached me first. Despite liking her immediately, I learned through our brief conversation that she couldn’t leave her family in KPCC to live in the districts, so I began again.

“Does anyone else want to speak English with me?” I inquired a second time. A young man, who appeared to be in his early twenties, answered and walked up to me.

He was relatively tall for a Cambodian, with a handsome full face and an unruly shock of straight brown hair that seemed to stand up on its own. What I liked best were his eyes―the way they disappeared when he smiled.

“You remember me. I am Kosal,” he said softly, not so much a question as a statement.

Slightly embarrassed, I shook my head to indicate I didn’t.

“From Choeung Ek, the Killing Fields.”

Suddenly I felt like a colonial oppressor. He knew exactly who I was, but I had no immediate recollection of him―only the grisly tour and the sound of bones crushing beneath my feet. Mortified, I said, “No, sorry, no. But um, it’s okay. Can you live in Skon?”

“Yes, no problem. I can live anywhere.”

Asking him a few more questions, I began to remember Kosal more clearly. He spoke a sort of “tour guide English,” which I could understand. But as Mr. Tong had warned the UNVs during cultural training, Cambodians were all looking for something―a favor, a job. I was sure that this was true of Kosal, as well. Nevertheless, maybe out of guilt or despite his youth and lack of guile, I hired him. I also put in the paperwork to hire Nhean from Skon. I had been functioning like a deaf mute. With two interpreters to help me, I would finally have a voice to speak to the Cambodians.

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