Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Khmer Mind

Do not think you can see into a Khmer's mind. You can't. A few examples:
1. Many streets of Phnom Penh are narrow, just enough room for 2 cars to meet if there are cars parked at the curb. From 4 P.M. to 10 or so the no. of cars, motos, tuk tuks, wagons and street vendors is unbelievable. SO-- you would think that drivers would try to facilitate the flow of traffic. NOT SO. A guy in a car will come along and stop in the street right beside a parked car ( we call it double parking ) even though there is a parking space 1 car length ahead. He then proceeds to leave his car there for as long as it takes him to do his business at a store immediately beside him. This stops all traffic going one way and things back up and back up and back up. The funny thing is no one thinks this is stupid.
2. We went to a project the other day for a 9A.M. appointment. Upon entering the building a very nice young Khmer receptionist asked us who we wanted to see. We said " Helen ". Helen is the director of the project. We were asked to sit down. We waited and waited and waited- finally, 40 minutes later, the receptionist got up came over and said to us " Helen is not in today ". Go figure why we couldn't have been told this at the start.
3. One night about 5:30 or so fire sirens started howling, people living on our street began to come out on the road and look down the street. A firetruck went barrelling by followed by at least 30 motos. It seems some people left their home and then a small fire began in their house. Of course, the gate to the house grounds was securely locked. The firemen tried to force the gate but couldn't. They shot water over the fence and through the window and managed to put out whatever was burning. Sotheary, our landlady, told us that it was a good thing the firemen couldn't get into the house. It seems that people wait around and when the fire is put out they go in and loot the place. Oh, you know how in N. America firemen have " turnout gear " they put on when they go to a fire. Well, here the turnout gear is a rubber jacket, a hard hat, a pair of shorts and flip flops.
4.One often thinks of the Khmer people as quiet, always smiling and never angry. Not necessarily so.There is a small market behind the CAMA hospital in Poipet where Dr. Kent Copeland worked before he went on furlough. It seems that one day a lady lay down in another sellers hammock. The seller did not take kindly to this and called in some " friends " with knives and swords to teach the offending lady a lesson. The lady's husband grabbed a meat cleaver to defend his wife. One of the assailants was quite large so the husband went after him first. The husband sliced the big guy's thorax and neck and sliced of a big chunk of his elbow. This guy was going to die. Kent, a visiting doctor and Kent's wife ( a trauma nurse ) got there in time, took the patient to the hospital, did surgery on him, gave several units of blood to him and saved him. Needless to say all the market people now refer to the Doctors as " good people who care for us ".
5. Last Sunday we were at a church service and a baby was being dedicated. Just about the time the pastor was going to charge the parents to bring this child up properly, people began to swivel in their seats and look towards the back of the church. We looked back, couldn't see anything, but did smell some smoke. At this time two ushers walked quickly to the front of the church, picked up a big red fire extinguisher, carried it to back, went down an isle shoving people aside, aimed this big extinguisher at the ceiling tile and sent out a hugh billowing blast of white stuff. YIKES- this billowing cloud began to spread through the church and deposit a white covering on people, the floor and chairs. At the same time many people were having some distress breathing. Needless to say the congregation beat a hasty retreat out onto the street, some of the darker skinned people had become white caucasians. Now I'm not a fire specialist but I do know that the contents of these extinguishers are to be aimed at the BASE of a fire, not willy nilly, anywhere. Oh well, 15 minute later we were told to go back in the church and the service resumed. We never did hear what caused the smoke. The baby did finally get dedicated.

A final little story about myself. The Khmer tuk tuk drivers think that I'm a comedian. Twice now I've made arrangements to have a tuk tuk go to the airport. Both times I've been able to communicate about the pickup time and the pickup place ( maung moiy { one o'clock }, knyom pataay { my house}), but not knowing the word for " airport " I spread my arms and pretend to fly around the road. Both drivers have almost fallen on the ground laughing.?????? They know exactly what I mean.

More in a couple of weeks. Stew

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