. Everyone in the class was invited, including my co-teacher. It would be my second wedding but I hoped it would be better than my first at which I didn't know the couple and was chaperoned by my Ming from my previous house so I felt I had to refrain from dancing and drinking.
Now Khmer weddings are way
different from weddings in America. For starters, they last about three days and consist of different ceremonies which are usually meant only for the couple and their families. In the morning of the last day, there is a procession of men and women dressed in their best clothes carrying flowers and fruit in the streets and the last ceremony ends that afternoon. It's followed by a huge 4-course-dinner under a massive tent, usually setup in the street next to the bride or groom's family's house and is followed by hours of drinking and dancing. So Monday evening I dressed in my silk sampot
(skirt) and lace blouse, looking a tad ridiculous by Western standards, and walked a block down the street to the tent. They lined the wedding party up along both sides of the entrance, the groom with his parents and groomsmen on one side and the bride with her parents and bridesmaids on the other. I sompeah,
bowed with palms together, down the line and then was escorted to the single ladies table in the far back of the tent; there must have been close to three hundred people in the tent and I was the only foreigner
. The ladies at my table were all older, most of them married and working either in the market or at schools and not one of them could speak any English. It wouldn't have mattered much anyways since mostly all that was said was “Johl Kaioo
!”, to the bottom of the glass, as these petite women knocked back can after can of Anchor beer. In between cheers, we shoveled some of the most amazing food I've had in Cambodia brought to us on steaming platters into our small bowls while young flustered waiters watched us carefully, ready to swoop in and replace an empty tray with a new course. First came a tray of pickled vegetables and salted peanuts (beer food) and a whole giant fish still frying over a flame in its sweet and sour sauce, followed by a large roasted duck stuffed with mushrooms and nuts. Next course was prawns in red curry served with coconut bread, and no Khmer meal would be complete without a side of soup and rice but thankfully by that point in the meal my stomach refused to allow any more food (needless to say, I'm getting tired of rice). This really was an amazing experience as I watched the women around me throw cans and bones over their shoulders and beneath the table, children diving under the tables to collect the cans, waiters juggling platters and women sauntering by struggling beneath layers of ruffles and sequins- very entertaining.
Most meals in Cambodia are a race and to be done quickly and efficiently, so once the eating was done at my table, so were the women
. They stuffed what remaining beer and sodas they could find into their tiny purses and shuffled out in single file, me following behind. As I reached the exit, I came upon ten of my students, packed around a single table, already immersed in a sea of empty beer cans and only into their second course. I was only sitting a minute before a student of mine, about my age, asked me to dance. Now dancing here is not the same as it is in America. For starters, there are two different kinds of dancing; traditional, where they dance more with their hands, fingers splayed and bent back looking almost painful, and modern which can be likened to American dancing in the 70's; both rather conservative compared to dancing in America now. They switch between the two every other song and dance in a circle around a large table ladened with flowers and fruit from the morning's procession. This particular student, usually very vocal and opinionated, suddenly seemed shy and nervous as he attempted to make small chat. “Nyam bye howee?”,
have you eaten rice yet?, or the equivalent of our how are you?, as he swayed back and forth next to me in our procession around the table. We completed a couple laps when my co-teacher beckoned me over to his table. His table was surrounded by men, all red-faced and grinning, eagerly pushing beer cans aside to make space for me and calling a waiter over to bring more beer. Han Sokum explained the dancing to me through his slurred English then pulled me back to the circle for a couple more laps
. The rest of the night followed the same pattern until all of my students were dancing and laughing around the center table.
Exhausted, but happy and sedated, I left the wedding tent feeling that a barrier between me and my students had disappeared. Maybe it was the lack of inhibitions or the familiarity of dancing at a wedding that triggered it, but I suddenly saw my fellow dancers not as the serious and overly-eager students I had struggled to understand, but like many one of my friends back in the states. They gossiped and joked the same way, the boys rough-housed while the girls rolled their eyes and whispered to each other and we all seemed to appreciate the fleetingness of our time together at the RTTC. Sopeak, a guy who is one of my better students, walked me back to my house around 9:30, chatting about the exam the next morning. “Maybe none of the students come to school tomorrow,” he said matter-of-factly. Well that's too bad, I told him, maybe we would have our exam on Wednesday then. He beamed one last eager smile as he sompeah
and walked back to the party. My host father was waiting for me on the front stoop when I walked in the gate which reminded me a bit too much of teenage nights with curfews and the apprehension that comes with beer on my breath
. Sethaa is a stout man with a kind smile in his early 60's and recently shaved his head because of his mother's death (boys and men will shave their heads when a close family member dies in respect for the deceased and to imitate the lifestyle of the monks). He was wearing nothing but his playboy bunny boxers (most Khmer don't understand what the cute little bunny represents in America) which is nothing out of the ordinary here and we chatted about the wedding and the loss of his mother. He stared in the direction of the party almost longingly and talked about how he must abstain from parties and drinking while he mourns his mother's death for a week, laughing politely to take away from the awkwardness of the subject, then dismissed me to return to his stargazing in his hammock.
So sure enough the next morning, no students showed up to class. Unfazed, I resolved to give them the exam the next day. But they never came. Apparently all of my second year students had left Tuesday morning for their “homelands” but I continued to show up at school in disbelief that my students would plan to leave town before our scheduled exam. My co-teacher claimed ignorance and shrugged as he usually does when he doesn't understand my frustration (the best is when he nods his head yes while saying 'no' when I ask him a question requiring an answer other than yes or no). Finally, I gave up showing up to class and sat at my cafe by the lake. I must have sat there for a couple hours, contemplating my effectiveness as a teacher in Prey Veng when my teaching hours suddenly drop from twenty to four for two months, 2 hour blocks Wednesday and Thursday with the first year students. I wrote lists of secondary projects; rewriting the curriculum at the vocational center, volunteering at the orphanage, succumbing to defeat and accepting all of my co-teacher's hours as he does nothing, starting a contemporary history class, organizing a girl's sports team or taking a stab at rewriting the whole English for Cambodia
text book where many volunteers have tried and all of them have failed. No decisions were made but it seemed to bring me back from the brink of realization that I'm in a small town in Cambodia accomplishing nothing, a thought that has sent many Peace Corps volunteers from around the world packing since the very beginning.
There is a cycle of change here that I don't think I will ever fully be comfortable with; once one problem is solved, another follows; once you think you understand, you realize you couldn't be further from comprehension; once you've gotten to know your community and made friends, you're alone again. But with all of the negatives come positives and I'm definitely having fun along the way and looking forward to the next strange cultural event I'll be able to participate in. Just wondering what the next curve ball will be.
If there has been anything that I've learned thus far after living in Cambodia for six months, it's that once I feel that I've finally found a routine, that I've become a successful volunteer or that I've learned enough about the culture that I am finally comfortable, Cambodia throws me another curve ball. I was feeling pretty good about my service so far, especially after I wrote my first blog in two months (always a time for self-reflection) and I was preparing an exam for my second year students. I have two classes of around 16 people in each year two class and all of them were excited for this week when they would receive letters from the Ministry informing them of the districts in Prey Veng in which they would conduct their practicum. Practicum lasts for two months so I wanted to make sure that I gave the students the exam before they left. I had a review session on Monday morning with class 2B, the stronger of the two classes, and chatted about the wedding that evening between two of their fellow students