Chapter 5: Lost in Translation
Lugging my large suitcase to my bed, I quietly hoisted it up, unzipped it and tossed back the flap. The smell of Dior perfume escaped from my suits only to stop dead, stalled in its wafting by the still, humid air. I stared down at the useless fire-making magnifying glass atop my navy linen pencil skirt and wondered what had possessed me to pack them. Even my underwear was a bit too much like lingerie. I zipped up the suitcase and headed out to shop.
Even at that early hour, I found a taxi-moto willing to take me to the city’s large central market. Dodging shoppers eating out of cellophane bags, I hurried along the narrow passage—desperate to escape the press of people, the stifling heat and the pungent odors. Money changers lined the outside stalls, and hawkers sold pirated VHS tapes and CDs, souvenirs, cheap t-shirts and cotton shorts.
“How much?” I asked, pointing at a t-shirt with the requisite image of Cambodia’s national treasure, Angkor Wat.
“Five dolla’ US,” came a woman’s voice from behind one of the t-shirt stalls.
“Bargain with her. Don’t pay more than a buck fifty.” The voice belonged to a over-heated, heavy-set woman who was inspecting a primitive wooden statue of an elephant.
“Bargain?” I asked, tapping the woman on her shoulder.
“Yes, I got the same t-shirt across the aisle for one dollar yesterday,” she answered, without turning from her shopping.
Emerging from behind her stall, the seller waited for the shopper to move on, then turned the full force of her smile on me. “I no cheat you. I am good girl. I am happy you come to my country. You American, yes?”
She was tall and had bad acne, but her English was understandable—better than my French, the colonial language of Cambodia, and I was attracted to her geniality. I smiled and stupidly asked, “How is it you know English, and how do you know I’m an American?”
“I sell. I change money, so I see foreigners. I listen. Talk to foreigners, help them. They buy more.”
“Okay, I want to buy this t-shirt for five dollars.”
“No, you are Hon’s friend. I give it to you for two.”
I paid three. The same shirt would’ve cost ten dollars in the States. One dollar would’ve been stealing, a form of oppression. Impulsively, I introduced myself. “My name is CJ. Nice to meet you, Hon.”
“I see you more for shopping. Your face makes Cambodian people greedy,” Hon said, grinning, and then turned to wait on a new customer.
Clothes that I wouldn’t be caught dead in at home rounded out my purchases—rubber flip-flops and assorted t-shirts, including one with Tin-Tin on a cyclo, as well as several pairs of floral surfing shorts.
I arrived back at the guest house to find that the generator was out of gas and, therefore, no fan cooled our room. Brielle was standing at the door. I thought I saw a hint of a smile as she said, “Welcome to le petit salon. I go to eat some breakfast and shopping.”
“Oui, shopping,” I said, yawning. “I’m going back to sleep.”
Rain pounded down in torrents and the room became a bathhouse, boiling me throughout the day. By the time Brielle returned, I’d taken three showers and had completely forgotten about my encounter with entrepreneurial Hon and my first conversation with a real Cambodian. When, I questioned, would I have a real conversation with my roommate? Wilted, I’d already had enough of Cambodia. I wanted to go home. I could smell French fries, and I longed for an ice cube in my drink.