By Dipika Kohli
Northwest Asian Weekly
Today is the second day back in Cambodia, after six weeks in California. I go to a small side street just off Khan Chamkarmon to look for a quick and warm lunch. A dusty road with a cluster of young men together applying an air pressure tube to a motorcycle seems to be a good bet that something will come along that could work for a simple meal. Wondering how I’d forgotten not to wear my new suede boots, I step around scruffy puddles and try not to get caught in the pinks and blues within greyish stray rubbish that’s also pretty much a guarantee to be flattened into the uneven blotches of dirt road. It’s warm and humid, especially compared to the Bay Area. The moisture presses up against one’s skin and even ventures inside the body, making tracks toward the higher pressure spots inside to offset… something.
Could it be stress? Not out of the question. I sense my heart rate slowing, and even the arrival of the all-Khmer menu at the spot I’ve picked—there are solid wooden chairs with full backs and a table that reminds me of my parents’ home when I was a kid in the suburbs of Detroit–doesn’t wrack me as it might have even just a few days back. Foreignness is relative, after all. There’s a sense about this place that wasn’t easy to capture in a neat phrase when people in San Francisco and Oakland had asked me about life in Cambodia. How to describe this particular quality of space in modern Indochina that’s updated in surprising ways from the things you might read or see in movies? A kind of repose. A sort of splendor. But most introductory exchanges with American people I’d meet over there stayed on the surface, of course. Yes, I live in Phnom Penh. Yes, it took me a week to learn how to spell it, and two to discover how to pronounce it. Yes, I’ll be there for a while. I have committed. My son has started school.
The same young woman who’d just brought the laminated menu wears a green baseball cap that’s worn in. I can’t help but compare it to the crisp new black hats fans of the San Francisco Giants would be wearing when you saw them on the trains right after games. Six weeks in that place and you notice patterns. Distracted, I almost don’t notice that she’s caught me in the stunned space, and when I focus, I see she’s got a question without words.
Need help? she says with greater patience than I’ve seen in recent days, a hint of a smile that’s like a sister’s, and soft eyes. Another young lady appears, and then a more vocal dialogue can begin.
“Noodles?” I ask, less tentatively than my first week in town, straight off the bus from Chiang Mai and wondering what on earth I was doing in Cambodia. A few lucky landings, a few dots getting connected, and six months go by. A new base. The summer in California was good—got a gig out that way, generated from new contacts here in Phnom Penh.
Within nine minutes, I’d get a plateful of Asian food of quality I didn’t find in San Francisco, because when you put fancy names to simple dishes, things start to feel a little pretentious. Space opens. I feel calm. Time for people-watching.
A man in a button-down blue shirt and cropped dark hair at the next table seems to be waiting for no one, and thinking about nothing. We are not plugged into iPads or laptops or smartphone devices. We aren’t going to engage in small talk, either. We’re definitely not going to come back to this same spot tomorrow with a paper or business cards to try to get work done. It’s midday on a Friday, but this is a very different flow from the Coffee Bar in San Francisco, with a hundred people packed into the same space for fancy espresso and oatmeal and bran muffins day after day, gazing into the glow of screens and trying their best to obey house rules about how you can’t have computers at certain tables at certain hours. Here, there’s room and circulation. We’re half inside and half outside. Slowing down, now. Jetlag and processing. A certain quality of light belongs in this space, here in the Kingdom of Khmer, where either something might reveal itself intensely out of the blue to inspire or disgust, to remind you that you are most certainly not from here.
Food comes. Chopsticks, broccoli, carrots, and the noodles I’ve been waiting for took much longer than the time it took to make them to taste anew. Asian food in Asia. A dollar and a half. I finish my tea and pour two more cups. Later, there will be a group of people to meet who have been asking me through e-mail all summer, “How is California going…?” There will be a conversation about comparing where we are and where we’re from, and all the many layers of what that means. Origin isn’t about a nationality, or an ethnic makeup. It’s about the frame you choose to put yourself in to define who you were before, who you are. Maybe it’s a kind of tribe, like “Generation X.” Some of my lot will be ready to hear about what’s been happening, and I want to make sure to prepare the right set of stories. They’re all here, in Phnom Penh, some from America and some from the UK, Poland, France, Korea, and Japan, too.
I didn’t believe a marina could have Wi-Fi. I didn’t realize, either, that there are good people in the world who aren’t part of my everyday life, but I can trust because there’s been sharing of ideas, stories, poems, and maybe even tears. In time, you start to discover your real village is the set of people with whom you feel safe.
Dense Phnom Penh air isn’t dry like California. No more talk or signage about droughts now. Even as we’d descended in from the hop from Seoul into Phnom Penh, it was raining. “Phnom Penh is small and not sophisticated enough to be called a city…” This is what the airline’s interactive dashboard reported if you clicked around and over to the travel information section. “…But it’s Cambodia’s hopeful key point where Cambodia attempts to rise beyond its tragic history, ‘killing fields.’”
They went on. You can cover it in a day, and you can take a cab across one edge of town to the other in 30 minutes. But even if that’s true–and you’d have to have pretty optimistic ideas about traffic hour if it were to be—I’m not convinced this town I’ve made my home for now is “unsophisticated.” By whose standards? Is America sophisticated? Is California? Are they talking about clean streets and ample plumbing, because if that’s the case, sure, but what about quality of life? I give two dollars to the lady with the green hat, and she gives me some bills back in riel. No haggling here, like there would have been in Vietnam or India. No confrontation or fishy business.
Back to work now. Back to the routine. Air pressure mechanics send sounds that guide my way, I pass the lads with the motorcycle on my short walk to the pickup point for the next get-together. Feeling excited to see good people I care about, in a place where all of us are doing our best to cozy into these adopted nests we’re making within, I’m feeling good: light-stepped, hydrated, and happy. (end)
Dipika Kohli is a writer based in Phnom Penh.