The orange puff-dog of happiness

Sometimes I think about the little dog at the furniture factory.  I lived off a narrow dirt road in Phnom Penh, about the width of an alley but lined with open-air shops and shacks. One was a furniture workshop, where young men worked all day with paper masks over their mouths. They shaped beautiful glossy, red-brown headboards, chests and tables of tropical wood, every piece heavy as marble.  When I walked by they looked up from their lathes and stared over their red-tinged paper masks.

The little dog maybe used to be white or cream or tan but now it was a streaky orange, tinted the same as the furniture. Mostly it slept or just looked bored, but sometimes its puff-tail wagged when people passed.

Walking down that narrow road felt intrusive, like stepping through backyards and bedrooms. People stopped talking. Bloody meat and fly-covered fish in the market stalls seemed too close. Half-dressed itty-bitty kids shouted “HELLO!” and followed until it became a mini-parade.  I couldn’t reconcile “Hi, let’s be neighbors” with “Sorry for being a space alien, can I just get home?”

It was especially bad because that’s why you go new places, right? To meet people and become part of a new fabric? Guilt-guilt-guilt.

But sometimes after a long, hot, awkward walk I’d turn around and find that little puff-dog at my heel, wagging its puff-tail.

Back at home now, months later, I think of that alley, and the furniture factory and the little dog. I wonder if it is ok being wood-stained or if it misses being white or cream or tan. And I think about how happiness sometimes sneaks up that way. A hot day. A long walk. But when you get to the main road, you see that some weirdo scrappy guardian has been at your heel the whole time, disguised as a freakin’ end table.

You are a stranger here

It’s Tuesday; no wait — Monday; no, yes, Tuesday, and last Tuesday was sick day, but now mango bread pudding with chai spices and the French press coffee on the porch at Java, and the way your sunburn just fades to gold, make all of this purr like a moto should. You are planning for Kep and Rabbit Island; you are remembering gerunds; teaching and learning words that trip onto new tongues. What’s the word for “oops” in Khmer? “Ah-ya!” Ah. You know, those fake Ray Bans that everyone has? Everyone is all of us, wondering if two dollars is too many for too much. Meeting new puppies in old bookstores, abetting their theft of Salinger covers between tiny teeth as they bolt for the door.

Law homework on a Monday morning

This morning I helped C. and S. with their homework. This started simply enough, with their bright cheery smiles and a hand motion to join them upstairs. They cracked open the thick green book, though, and that’s when I remembered they’re studying International Law. In English. So, I read passage after passage of dense, jargon-filled text to help them answer four questions about international custom, treaties, general principles of law, and, somewhere in there, the Hague and Geneva and something about fisheries. Holy goodness. I forget sometimes about how difficult their studies are. I teach English from a very rudimentary ESL book, and we talk about “window shopping in Hong Kong” and “What’s happening between Agrippine and her mother in this cartoon”. (Yes, Agrippine is not my first choice of a character’s name either….)

They study at Royal University of Law & Economics, which has this to say about its history. I remembered why it’s so important to study law here, despite the challenge:


From 1975 to 1981, the Faculty of Law and Economics was closed, during and after the Pol Pot regime. During those years almost all legal professionals were killed or fled the country. Law books were destroyed. At the end of Pol Pot regime, only six licensed members of the legal profession remained alive in Cambodia. The former campus of the Faculty of Law was reopened in 1982 as the Administrative and Judicial School. The main purpose of this School was to train the new government officials who were responsible for Administration and Judicial duties (in service or on the job training). The training was organized to assist the socialist authorities after the liberation from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and to respond to its urgent needs. Three different programs were developed subsequently: a five-month program, then a two- month program and a two-year program. Because the majority of the legal professionals had been killed, there were no teachers available, so a five-month program and overall curriculum were organized by Vietnamese experts and were taught through interpreters. Some of the first group of graduates were selected to be the teachers and assistant teachers for next courses. These newly created teachers began teaching the two-year program. The five-month training program was discontinued in 1989.


— This morning in the dorm lounge I watched Hellboy dubbed in Khmer and subtitled in English.

–A girl said to me today: “I think you are polite and lovely… and attractive, too.” This is totally common. They tell me every day how pretty I am. I have never been so flattered on the constant.

–One girl had been given a worksheet for her English class (at the university) that was on her level linguistically but conceptually far below her intellect. Basically, it was a drawing of a children’s party in a classroom and it asked her to describe  the picture. It’d be in a third-grade workbook in the US. In her paragraph of “what’s happening in this picture” she managed to work in how children’s rights are important and parents and community members must work together to support their education.

–Sometimes my bag is like the Room of Requirement. I’d been pining for a tweezers (haven’t found one here) and then one tumbled out of a pocket of my napsack today — packed for a long-ago trip.

Who Stepped on My Watermelon?

Every day there’s a fruit break of some sort. Someone buys a bag of fruit from somewhere (market trip, passing seller, etc.) and an insta-picnic begins. One girl grabs ceramic bowls, another the (very large) cleaver, another gets chairs, someone starts to slice or peel — speedy, clockwork-like, and the gossip and relaxation begins, a thirty-minute respite from a hardworking day. I’ve tried a bunch of new fruits. Brown grape-sized spheres with husks, peel to reveal a jelly-like fruit surrounding a pit, slick the fruit off with your tongue. Fuzzy brown seed pods filled with sweet tamarind paste. Something that looked like a bit of chopped-off cactus. I always have to ask for operating instructions from one of the girls, who is always super-amused that I need help with something so simple.

Today, though. Today was watermelon. And I know how to eat watermelon. “Do they have this watermelon in the U.S.?” one asked. “Oh yes,” I said. “In the summer. Only for a few months a year.”

Then S. began to tell her watermelon story. In Khmer. I had no idea what she was saying, but she spoke animatedly and was cracking up the half-dozen girls who were munching on watermelon chunks and slicing new ones with the cleaver. I wanted to know what the joke was. She didn’t want to tell me in English. I’m thinking, what kind of joke is she telling? What could possibly be so side-splittingly funny about watermelon?

Finally the other girls persuaded her to give it a try, even though she was nervous about her English. And here’s the gist of it:

She went to a relative’s farm and in the field she saw a little watermelon. It was so cute, and she wanted to eat it, but it was too young to eat right then. She didn’t want anyone else to find it, though! Someone might come along and pick her perfect watermelon! So she decided to hide it. She buried it in the ground and thought it would be ok there while it continued to grow. She wanted to save it for six days.

After six days she returned to the spot where her little watermelon was buried.

“But it was broken!” she said, laughing.

“A cow came along and stepped on it,” Marady explained. “The cow didn’t know.”

Their comic timing was so awesome that I, too, was just rolling on the floor over this watermelon debacle. And it made me realize a few things. 1) Humor can be pretty universal. 2) I have never, ever valued a watermelon so much that I tried to save it from all harm until it was fully grown. So maybe I should take better care to love things I’d consider ordinary. and 3) Maybe this is a self-help book in the making. You think you have it all figured out, you bury your watermelon for later… but then along comes a cow.