Welcome to Cambodia, where the English major in me is reduced to giggles by the horrible English translations that appear on street signs, restaurant menus, pamphlets, food labels and essentially anywhere there are words. Even as I type this article in a little Internet cafe off a street in Phnom Penh, an ad near the search bar in my browser warns me, “You Have (6) New Massages!”
I’ve been in Cambodia for almost a month now. Study-Service Term has been a strange mixture of awe, exhaustion, confusion and laughter. I’m not going to write the perfect SST anecdote filled with proper transition words and meaningful cultural analysis. I’ve seen too much to let just one moment sum up a month of my life.
Instead, I feel like my memory of the past month is fragmented into an overwhelming collection of images, in which the only constants are me and Cambodia:
Perched on my red bike at a traffic light on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, I breathe in the dirt and exhaust from the cars and motos around me. I sit around a table eating rice and sauteed greens, catching only a couple Khmer words from my host family’s animated conversation.
I stand on thousand-year-old ruins at the Angkor Wat complex, watching tourists swarm to get the perfect picture of the sunset. My host mom, wearing rubber yellow gloves, washes our family’s long-haired lapdog, Yumi.
I lounge around with the SST group in the Graber-Miller’s apartment, singing classic Mennonite hymns. A little boy knocks insistently outside my bus window, begging me to buy bananas for a dollar.
In a refrigerator-like lecture room, I struggle to pay attention to speakers whose accents I can barely understand. My host dad squints at the bill from the Chinese restaurant, holding it at an arm’s length just like my dad back home.
I walk slowly over a dirt path at the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, where clothing and bones peek through the ground, reminding me that I’m walking over a mass grave from Cambodia’s genocide in the 1970s.
A Cambodian baby wearing Angry Birds pajamas stares at me as I stand in the shade on the side of a dirt road. I sit cross-legged on a pillow in the middle of a wat, shifting uncomfortably even though I’m supposed to be meditating.
The constant stream of sensory input that I’m receiving doesn’t tie together to create a clean, tidy Record article. I’m still processing everything I’ve experienced, instinctively attempting to assign meaning to chaotic occurrences and impose structure on my unpredictable life.
One constant in my life is laughter. Whether I’m engaging in light-hearted wordplay or simply grimacing at grammatical errors, laughter reminds me that I can find humor in any situation. And luckily for me, “Cambodians have wonderful sense of humors!”
Kate Yoder is a sophomore English major. She is currently on Study-Service Term in Cambodia.