in fire
behind the mountain
perhaps twenty minutes before,
and now the world is pink calm
and darkening shadow,
the distant thud-thud-thud-thud
of a fishing boat,
a fish breaking the rippling surface close by.
The smell of a cigarette carries to me
from another foreigner
sitting a little way upstream.

How strange that the word for
in this language is also the word for
but the words for “true” and “the same” are
How strange that the word for
can also mean “foreigner”,
but there is a
word for “foreigner”
that does not mean “French”.

In the trees behind me
a gecko calls its own name,
piercing the evening like the chime of a clock.
And the foreigner with the cigarette
begins to sing softly
in French,
her voice soft, cracked,
as the dusk
turns purple and night rises up from the river.


Dusk on Kampot River


Passing Through Prey Thea


The road is torn by rain and heat and trucks
whose drivers barrel on. The damage sucks
more life from dirty, ragged streets
where women sit on plastic seats
and watch as no one comes.
The factories watch the slums
now growing grey,
the slow decay,
the rust
and dust.

I stand on sandy soil where trees once grew,
my camera up, and wonder who
to shoot. I take a few
then go. And you
will too.​

Prey Thea is a community that we are pretty involved with, made up mostly of garment factories and very basic facilities for garment-factory workers. It’s kind of a mess, and has been for some time. It feels like it has declined even in the time we’ve been here, but whether that’s actually true, or we’re just seeing the downward-side of a cyclical process I don’t know yet. 

Whistles, Happily

My language teacher told me that his name, literally translated, means “Whistles-Happily No-Problems.” He was born in provincial Cambodia, fourth child of seven in a farming family, to parents who survived the Khmer Rouge with the regulation emotional scarring. “I don’t speak to my father,” he tells me. “When I go home, I sew up my mouth, because whenever I speak to him, it’s wrong.” This is hyperbole, I think. “He drinks a lot. When we were children he hit us a lot. I don’t want to be like him. I work with foreigners now; I want to be like them.” I can’t decide whether this makes me sad or hopeful. Both, maybe.
When he was a child, my language teacher worked as a rubbish-kid, sifting through stinking piles at the side of the road for recyclables, which he could on-sell. He had a cart, with bicycle pedals and handlebars and a saddle. “But I never sat on the saddle. I was too small. I just stood on the pedals all the time. It was very difficult. I stopped that job when I was twelve, because I was ashamed.
“I was a very cheeky child,” he tells me. The Khmer word for ‘cheeky’ is the same as for ‘broken.’
“When I was twenty, I came to Phnom Penh. I carried everything I could on my moto, and wore extra layers of clothes so I didn’t have to pack them. I came with some friends, and we were so excited. ‘Goodbye! We’re going to Phnom Penh. Goodbye!’ I had $25 in my pocket. I wanted to study medicine at university.”
My language teacher is a very intelligent guy. His grades are always good, and he doesn’t pay to pass, though the practice is common here. When he got to Phnom Penh, he went to the university, and asked how much to apply to study medicine. “$25,” the clerk told him. He went back to the room he had rented and lay in bed. “I thought, $25! $25! So expensive!”
He worked for a while at the side of the road selling rice; then again, he worked for a while in a factory, covered from head to foot in white safety gear, so the workers hardly knew each others’ faces.
“My brother got me that job. I didn’t want to do it, because I thought I was too smart to be a factory worker. But I had to. For three months at work I never talked at all. People asked my brother if I was dumb. Then I started to talk.”
After a little while at the factory, my language teacher decided to study veterinary science. “The application fee was $5.” He left his job at the factory. A friend helped him get a job at the language school. He is working in the mornings now, studying every afternoon. His colleagues are all Khmer. They are almost all Christian.
“It made me very angry,” he said once, “because they told me anyone can go to heaven, even my father. I didn’t want my father to go to heaven.”
He spoke almost no English when he started to teach. He learned fast.
“My English is still very bad.” This is not true. “My students are patient, and I am learning.”
My language teacher became a Christian after some time working at the school.
“I was very harsh, before I believed in Jesus. I didn’t say much, but inside. If you didn’t do what I told you, there would be a big problem.” I find this hard to imagine, knowing him now. When he found out I was a Christian he asked to pray at our lessons.
“For today’s class?” I asked.
“Yes. And for the school, and for me; for your family; for Cambodia; for the foreigners who come to have a good attitude; for Khmer people; everything.” So we prayed for everything.
When he completes his studies in Phnom Penh, he would like to do his Masters in Veterinary Science in Australia. After all, my language teacher wants to be a veterinarian, not a language teacher. Money is difficult, so he would need a scholarship. He doubts his English is good enough for that.
“I have a project. A plan. I will start a farm in my province. My friend can help me finance it. I will help children who have no parents: they can work with me in the mornings, and go to study in the afternoon, so they can learn.” He smiles when he talks about it.
The day we discussed his name and its meaning, he told me, “I don’t like it. I can’t even whistle.” He showed me, pursing his lips and blowing, soundlessly.

My language teacher has taught me so much in the past nine months, not simply about Khmer as a language, but about the culture and about what life is like here. He has shared a great deal with me, and I am intensely grateful that he was also willing to share his story more widely. I wrote this as I wanted it, assuming that there would be parts of it he would ask me to change or remove. He left it all as it was, saying, “I’m free. I want to share.” I pray he is successful in all he puts his hand to; if you’re the praying kind, perhaps you could too.

Language Learning

Khmer words tumble from tongues of its speakers,
sharp, sheer-edged consonants crackle like bubbles in beakers,
and clatter and rattle in nattering thought.
Words wrought of tin that ought not connect,
that could catch on clothing, distract. I dissect
sentences, stumble, stutter, start wondering
what sound will sit and stay in a way that seems simple,
naturally normal instead of this hiss and this hack
and I miss in that moment a meaning that tells them
I haven’t been

As a language, Khmer can feel very arrythmic and strange, with emphases in all the wrong places to an English ear. The feel of this poem is meant to reflect that, though it probably works best read aloud.

Grandmother Begging

She calls you out with foreign words –
the sounds are strange, but then the sense
is clear, amidst the moving herds

of people rushing past the fence
she leans on. Hands rest, palms face-up
on crossed legs. Sitting still, but tense

around her eyes. Because her cup
is empty? And to eat today
(and more, to feed the skinny pup

beside her, hungry, mongrel, stray)
she needs the people passing by
to not just glance then look away?

Because she’s seen them, watched them die,
the others like her? Over where
they chose to sleep? But still she’ll try

to make you look, to see her there,
beside the conman selling birds
to tourists. You’ve got change to share,
she hopes, amidst the moving herds.

This is not at all an unusual scene in Cambodia, and the way people can be left without social or financial support is distressing. Giving to beggars is also an ethically murky thing to do, as I alluded to in my previous post, ‘Tuk-Tuk,’ which makes knowing how to respond very difficult.

This is the first rhyming poem I can remember having written in the ten years since I graduated from my creative writing degree. I find rhyming poetry conceptually difficult, because sometimes I think that metre and rhyme can make a serious subject seem like kids’ poetry or a high-school English assignment. But a lot of wonderful poetry contains rhyme – The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson is an astonishing use of rhyme and rhythm to emphasise the content of the poem itself – and it’s something I would like to be better at. So if I can figure out how to bring visual depth and story telling to my rhyming poetry, I’ll probably try to do it more.

Phnom Penh Traffic Part Nine: Tuk-Tuk

Please note that this is the last in the Phnom Penh Traffic Series, so it’s a bit spoiler-y if you haven’t read anything else here before. If you do want to read the series, Part One can be found here, while the central Phnom Penh Traffic Page is here.

Sam hadn’t taken it well.
“Now? We’re just hitting it big!
You’re in pretty deep.
And you think Narith is the kinda guy you can just fuck around with?”
“I booked my flight already.
I’m out this afternoon.”
Sam stared at him without blinking,
arms at his sides,
colour coming back to his cheeks,
and Jack firmed his grip on his beer bottle
very slightly.
But then Sam turned
and walked out without a word.

Now the tuk-tuk is clearing the intersection onto Russian Federation Boulevard
and joining a new traffic jam.
In front of them is another tuk-tuk
with a poster-ad on the back
for a Christian NGO,
sporting bible verses
and a photograph of a smiling soulful Cambodian child
in a white cotton shirt with a starched and folded collar.
They trundle slowly along the wide road,
passing minivans and SUVs on the left,
while streams of motos on the right pass them in turn.
A small boy on the back of one looks at Jack as he passes,
and Jack feels like he is being measured
and made to fit into the boy’s world.
A few adults glance his way
but he sees their eyes
to the suitcase on the seat by his side
and dismiss him.

They pass petrol stations and road-side shops
filled with bottled drinks
and an old woman
sitting by two big orange ice-boxes
and a display stand
hung with plastic raincoats.
A low breeze runs through the tuk-tuk
and he lifts his arms from his sides to let the air pass through his shirt.
Then they pull to a stop
at a red light
beneath a rotating billboard
advertising cameras
worth six months of a Cambodian wage.

In the intersection, a police-officer stands
and waves his baton importantly,
directing traffic to go where it will go
whether he waves or not.

Jack realises there is someone standing by the tuk-tuk
and jumps.
It is a girl,
perhaps six years old,
or four. Or eight.
Who can tell?
Her yellow blouse is faded but
as yet
Her palms are pressed together
and she murmurs,
inaudible beneath the growl and sputter of engines.
Jack stares at her
You’re better not giving to beggars,
they told him.
Especially kids.
They have to give it to their bosses anyway.
After a moment she turns away.

“Wait a second,” he says suddenly, surprising himself,
and she is there again.
He hurriedly digs for his wallet
and pulls out the first note he finds,
a twenty.
Her eyes go wide as he pushes it at her
but she plucks it from his fingers
and is gone.

Jack glances up and sees the driver’s dark eyes on him in the mirror.
After a moment, he looks away.

The lights change,
and the traffic rolls ahead.
Jack wonders if she will keep the money
or lose it
or just buy glue.

The child with the white starched collar
stares at him from the tuk-tuk ahead,
never moving.