By Stephanie Hollenberg
Sometimes I tend to be too serious. I feel my experiences deeply, I feel others’ experiences deeply, I ponder deep theological stuff. It made my three months in Cambodia pretty weighty—learning about the recent Khmer Rouge genocide in which one-fourth of the population died from brutal murder, starvation, disease; being cared for by Cambodians who are haunted by those excruciating memories; feeling judged for my interest in Buddhism by my host sister who recently converted to Christianity…Yes, dear first-years and sophomores, S.S.T. is tough.
Yet swapping memories with S.S.T. buds or flipping through my photos reminds me of the richly humorous and playful moments that stirred up the hard stuff—kind of like turning heavy cream into whipped cream. Three stories:
One: On service, I watched many a glorious sunset over the rice fields at the edge of town. Twice, as I sat on the ledge alone, a woman with crooked teeth, grubby clothes, and a comical, colorful hat that tied under her chin wandered over to me, sitting directly facing me. Initially she asked me where I was from, why I was in Cambodia, and then began babbling on animatedly—in Khmer—as if we were old friends. Her words were fast and slurred, she giggled frequently, and I never followed what she said. But all I had to do was laugh along, keep nodding and smiling, and simply be present with her, and she was content as could be. After our “conversations,” I would bike away in a big grin, feeling full and alive.
Two: During our group’s big weekend trip to Siem Riep, Keith and Ann Graber Miller (our group leaders) took us on an adventure to see the “Stilted Village,” set along the Tonlee Sap River where all the houses were on stilts because of annual flooding. After walking around the village, playing volleyball with the local kids, and watching Charlie lose his sandal by stepping in a well of pig manure, we took a boat ride out onto the Tonlee Sap. Julian and Jake had the bright idea to take a swim—and pretty soon all of us were taking off our pants and jumping into the water! It felt great in the heat, and it was amusing to see our modest Cambodian boat drivers watching us strange Americans. But what tickled me most was that nearly our entire group was pants-less in front of our professor. Ah, group bonding!
Three: No doubt, living with a host family is enriching, but it makes me anxious. In Phnom Penh I typically stayed tidy and unobtrusive because I didn’t want to be in the way, afraid I would say or do something offensive. But one evening, my host sisters asked if I wanted to learn how to Khmer dance. Um, yes please! So I attempted the graceful, light steps, the delicate and fluid twists of the wrists. (Unfortunately my hips kept going Salsa on me, and my arm-hand-finger coordination was terrible.) And then they asked to learn American dancing. I chuckled to myself, wondering what in the world to show them; I decided to keep it modest, teaching them to slow dance old-style. Now, I was a bit of an anomaly: comparatively speaking, I was rather large and curvaceous, my shortly cropped hair made me look like a man to them, and I stood nearly two heads above my 27-year-old host sister. Seeing her and I slow dance was a sight to behold. But my true colors really burst from my foreign shell when “Dancing Queen” came on, and I broke into my dramatic enactment of the classic ‘70’s song. I tried teaching them the chorus routine, but they ended up collapsing into a fit of giggles, and I was left alone on the dance floor.
I’ll always carry the weight of those three months, but how much richer it is with a little whipped cream!