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Chapter 8: Hurdles and Barriers

One day when school was in full swing, Brielle and I were perched on tall metal stools in the shade of a flowering frangipani tree eating our lunch together, separated as much as possible from the others. Our food sat on one of the small, wobbly tables outside the large, faded yellow former high school. She peered at me over the top of her porcelain cup. “There will be a test in our Khmae language class,” she said, nervously tapping the cup with her slender fingers as we sipped our strong black coffee.

No matter how much I heard Khmae, my comprehension didn’t improve. It was gibberish to me. Only the day before, I’d confused the word for cat, schma, with the word for name, chuma. When I asked a little boy what his cat was—with no cat in sight—I was answered by an open mouth and a blank stare. How would I educate Cambodians about democracy and register them for their first-ever democratic election if I couldn’t speak the language?

“I know the teachers worry that I’ll fail the test, which I probably will.” I mimicked them. “Madame Chas-ya soom, soom-toh, please, very please, kar anouvotta, practice, you must.”

Ou la la. If you don’t pass, the UN will send you home.”

I turned my face to hide the nausea that swept over me. Easy for her to say. I was tone deaf, with no facility for language, while she could slip between languages as easily as changing her shoes.

I had already passed another obstacle to my staying with the mission—passing the driving test. I remembered it with absolute clarity.

The test—in a stick-shift car, which I hadn’t driven since wearing out a clutch on a Datsun 240Z twenty years earlier—was demoralizing. By the time that I arrived at the motor pool, I was already in a state of panic. “Get in the truck,” the grim-faced examiner grunted. I tried giving him my best smile, to no avail. I couldn’t tell what country he was from or what language he spoke. For all I knew, he hated Americans.

Hardly able to breathe, I clutched the steering wheel so tightly that my hands cramped as I narrowly missed colliding with a severely listing, overloaded Russian transport truck. The gears scraped a couple of times when I parallel parked the 4X4 in a space large enough for a VW Beetle. Exhausted, I hardly remembered to let out the clutch before turning off the ignition.

“Driving in Phnom Penh will be a picnic compared to the boonies,” he said, almost as if he were speaking to himself. “Have you learned what to do if the truck hits a landmine? Sometimes they wash up onto the roads. Oh, and don’t forget the hand brake; remembering will keep you from falling off a cliff. And if I were you, I would learn to use a winch.” He left the truck to move on to his next victim as I contemplated asking him to fail me and send me home. But by the time I had regained my ability to speak, he was gone.

Brielle studied me for a moment. Then, crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing her eyes, she said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have wished to go home. You want to stay and the UN might not let you—étudier.”

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