a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

living in two worlds

Our trip to the states was indeed fun! I drove our rental car all over the city, we ate out at our favorite restaurants, met and visited with family and friends, and generally enjoyed life in the Pacific Northwest. Of course the first few days we had to pile blankets on the bed and wear scarves in the house at all times.
But soon we acclimated to the beautiful Portland spring weather. I took walks on even, uncrowded sidewalks to two of the groceries stores within walking distance of my sister's house.
The carefree strolls were so pleasant and shopping in the grocery stores for me was like the thrill of a candy store for a kid. I also made several stops at a Trader Joe's near Stephen's work. I adore Trader Joe's. Thinking ahead, we packed our luggage light so we could bring back several lbs of Trader Joe's coffee and chocolate, plus some peanut butter and steel cut oats. The selection of food is so amazing in stores and restaurants in Portland that both Stephen and I gained a few lbs on our trip. Proves it was a real holiday! :) We got to wear long sleeve shirts and shoes rather than sandals. And have our clothes dried in a dryer. Aahh, how soft clothes are when they come out of a dryer. And how quickly I can wash and dry a load of laundry. Our clothes actually come out less wrinkled from my sister's dryer than after I spend hours ironing them in Phnom Penh! Also in Portland, I blow dry my hair and put on makeup. In Phnom Penh, I let my hair air dry; I don't need any extra heat blowing around my face and head! And because of constant perspiration, makeup on my face turns instantly into massive acne.

Nothing was unexpected about our time in the states. It was when we stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh that we noticed new and unexpected things. Just outside the airport, it was wall to wall people. Some were even pressing their noses up to the glass. Stephen noticed many Khmer getting off the plane carrying US passports. He assumed that all those people waiting were there to greet relatives who fled the country during Pol Pot time or later and are returning now to be reunited after many years apart.

The heat and humidity we expected but not the strong tropical smells. We didn't realize just how used to them we had become before we left. The strong smells, so different from anything in the Pacific Northwest, triggered feelings of when we first arrived last July:  for a brief moment I felt that twinge of trepidation that I felt in July about starting a new life in a completely foreign place. That wisp of a memory evaporated when we stepped into our now very familiar and comfortable apartment.

We have adjusted to life in the kingdom and easily slipped back into our routines of living here. I am almost constantly doing laundry, since air drying takes so much longer and we change our clothes a lot. But it's manageable. We walk to markets cautious of uneven sidewalks and a jumble of traffic. During the week of Khmer New Year we enjoyed the less populated city as a result of the traditional mass exodus of city dwellers to the countryside to visit family there. And early mornings are always better than later in the day. During out first couple of days of jet lag when we were wide awake at 4am, we took advantage of our not yet adjusted body clocks to walk around Phnom Penh before most people were out and about. Stephen went back to work and enjoyed seeing everyone in the office after the long break. And one evening we had dinner with all the staff at a "soup" restaurant to welcome the many new staff members.
I went back to my art, tutoring in English, and studying Khmer. I had my first Khmer language lesson with a new teacher, my friend Thida, yesterday. For about the last month I have been feeling a bit frustrated that I haven't learned more Khmer, especially when someone tries to have a conversation with me. But in preparation for the lesson with Thida, I wrote down all the words I know. Turns out I know over 100 Khmer words, 80 of which were just off the top of my head! So that made me feel a little more encouraged. Then my almost 3 hour lesson with Thida was awesome! We worked on pronunciation and letter/word recognition. Thida is a very good teacher in that she continues to correct my pronunciation until I get it right. For most of the lesson, with Thida's help, I wrote out 35 of the words I already know how to say in Khmer script! So fun!
Thida was impressed with my writing. She said only teachers in the state school write as well as I do. So I guess my hours of practicing Khmer script really did pay off! Since the Khmer script has held little meaning for me, I viewed writing it as an art form. I enjoyed writing in calligraphy for fun when I was in the 4th grade. After lunch recess our teacher would read to us and I would write in calligraphy. So, I've always had an interest in beautiful writing. But there's also a very practical reason for me to form my letters the way I do:  it's the only way I can start to distinguish among them. Many of the letters are quite similar with the only difference being a loop going in the opposite direction or an added swirl. At this point I can only identify standard form, I can't read anyone's handwriting.
April is supposed to be the hottest month of the year, the end of the dry season before the wet season begins. We've had the air conditioning on more and I stay indoors most of the time. By doing that, we don't suffer at all. Stephen's office is a bit warmer than our apartment. He has daily power outages and the hot air seeps in quickly with no electricity to run the air conditioner. The rainy season may be starting a bit early this year though. We've had a few rainy nights and one signature rainy season afternoon "angry rain" in the time since our return from the US. The great thing about this time of year is that mangoes and avocados are ripe. The smoothies are fantastic!
By living in Cambodia and taking trips back to the US, we get to enjoy the best of both worlds. And that's pretty cool. We feel really lucky.

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