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Chapter 6: Getting to Know You

Cultural orientation and Khmae language classes began in earnest. I hung back before filing in with the other UN volunteers, UNVs, into a large, sparse classroom, watching as they took seats in vintage wooden school desks reminiscent of the 1950s.

Mr. Thel Tong, a balding, well-educated middle-aged man, greeted us. Befitting his status as the head honcho, he wore a suit and tie despite the lack of air conditioning. “Guest speakers will lecture on Cambodian history and culture. You will learn Khmae language,” he informed us, his soft voice barely audible above the creaking ancient ceiling fans whirling above. From that first day, my eyes burned from the blistering heat; and the shy, young Cambodian teachers’ monotones made my lids droop uncontrollably.

Yama, driving the same white UN transport van, would arrive daily at the guest house promptly at seven a.m. to take us to school. At lunch and after classes, I explored the city—risking life and limb in Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic by crossing streets among bicycles, motorbikes loaded with live chickens and the odd pig, men pulling rickshaws and occasionally a cow or elephant. I learned how to exchange money at rates of four thousand to one, and I managed with minimal success to avoid food poisoning at the local restaurants. I also sought out Hon.

Even if she were busy, Hon would leave her shop in the keeping of a neighboring seller and accompany me, enthusiastically chatting nonstop. “What do you want? Really! Do you need it? Show me at another shop. I will return there and bargain for you.”

Occasionally, when she wasn’t trying to protect my meager volunteer subsidy, we would sit on small stools at a tea shop while Hon shared stories of her life. After she and her siblings were orphaned by the Khmer Rouge, her sisters died either in the labor camps or trying to escape to Vietnam. Alone and scarcely surviving, she married early and gave birth to a son. There was a slogan Cambodia: A woman without a husband is a woman without protection. I could certainly relate. But her baby died within weeks from encephalitis—water on the brain. A few months after the infant’s death, her husband perished in a motorbike accident.

Hon had lost her entire family! Survived on the edge of disaster and poverty! Chastened by her story, I was ashamed that it had taken me decades to come to terms with my father's death from heart disease when I was a teenager. With a sense of abandonment rather than loss, I had married at a young age, wanting a man to replace him so that I would feel safe and whole. Hon had made a youthful bad marriage for the same reason. And it hadn't worked out for either of us.

Nevertheless, despite her history, Hon glowed with optimism and rattled off her mantra whenever I saw her, “You my friend. I’m lucky girl.”

Brielle was angry with her French-speaking friends or, more likely, they with her. “CJ, do you eat lunch today?”

Figuring I wouldn’t get any closer to an invitation, I replied, “Sure, come on.”

She wore a funny little canvas fishing hat pulled low over her pale face and scolded me repeatedly for walking bare-headed without dark glasses under a sun at its highest point in the sky. We ate at a small Vietnamese café down near the river on Sisowath Quay. The restaurant was hardly sanitary, but the air along the Mekong was fresh—unlike the stagnant water that filled the potholes on streets close to the school. The front of the restaurant was a canvas awning, and we sat half inside and half outside like most of Phnom Penh’s citizens who spilled out of buildings and houses onto the sidewalks or roads.

“My dad is, emm, not working, emm, retired,” Brielle began, while waiting for her steaming Bánh Xèo Vietnamese crepes to cool and struggling a bit with her English. “He dragged us all over South America until my mother died, and then my sister Isabelle and I were packed away to boarding school in upstate New York, under the care of our mother’s old aunties. I basically had to be a délinquant juvénile for them to send me back to Europe.”

We walked back to class in silence, but the curtain had been lifted; and over time I began to form a clearer picture of my petulant roommate.

Brielle was close in age to Sara, twenty-plus years my junior but, aside from their ages, she was nothing like the ‘happy go lightly’ daughter I had left behind in the States. She was far more politically radical than I first imagined, having studied in left-leaning undergraduate political science courses on the west bank of the Seine in Paris. I liked that about her, and the more we hung out together the more our conversations turned to feminism and liberal politics. Brielle’s wardrobe was modest and functional, consisting of khakis and cotton shirts—no little black dress or costume jewelry hung in our tiny shared closet.

At times, living with Brielle felt like being on trial—interrogated by a sly prosecuting attorney who secretly observed and passed judgement on your every word or action until she made her final summation against you.

A tummy ache or migraine would elicit a fleeting glance of tenderness or a flurry of soothing French words. But I sensed that she didn’t want to get too close, didn’t want to risk caring for me only to lose me—like she had lost her mother.

If Brielle was an enigma, so was the mission. I learned nothing about it from our handlers or, more important, my role in it. I felt like an accidental tourist on a school holiday rather than a person charged with bringing democracy to that war-torn country.

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