Yesterday, I went to Toul Toum Pong (also called Russian Market) and wandered into this cafe that sold homemade jam (mango, watermelon, mango-banana, banana, mango-ginger, pineapple) in jars with plaid cloth covers. They sold two kinds of coffee – Mondulkiri and “Bonne Maman” – and the lady behind the counter said the latter was “from foreigner,” “stronger-tasting than the other.” I ordered Bonne Maman, and it came in a cut-glass cup on a blue china plate, with a little white dish full of sugar and a taller cut-glass cup of cold water. I also ordered a banana tart made with the same homemade jam.
The woman had her little daughter in the cafe – she was maybe six years old, in blue pajamas. She greeted me with Hello, what is your name?
Most of the children here, even if they don’t speak any other English, will say Hello! Hello! or Hello, what is your name? And then Bye Bye! when you go. If asked, they can also say, My name is Phan Lei, emphasis on name and Lei like a classroom chant. Terminal s-sounds are hard for Cambodian children to pronounce, so name and is are pronounced with careful gravity. When I was here six years ago, I’d occasionally hear Hello, farang! and Hello foreigner! but not now.
And sometimes monks will come up to you and practice their English. I was at one of the smaller temples by the Riverside and a young monk came up to tell me about the history of the place – and said that it had been evacuated and damaged when the Khmer Rouge was in power. “Now, UNESCO keep.” A student at another temple came to talk with me about his plans to start a business. and pass the IELTS.
When I was here the first time, talking to strangers was difficult even when they were six years old. I didn’t know how to greet people every day on the street, or respond to comments at the market or the coffeestand. I missed being able to walk down the street in a funk every morning and huddle behind my desk until the sun shone above the screen of palm trees outside the window.
And now, of course, I miss it when I go.
Most of Cambodia’s foreigner stories seem to be stories about its children – half of the people here are under eighteen, half of the people here are under twenty-one, half of the people here are under twenty-five, the children are sold by their parents, children (some as young as newborns!!!) are sold by their parents to sex traffickers, the children are at risk, the children live in orphanages, we saw children begging, the children beg on street corners, the children sell roses in cellophane, children beg by the riverside, the children are not orphans, the children have living parents, these children are the future, the children are so wonderful, the children are so adorable, the children are so beautiful, the children wave hello.
I tell several of these stories myself – the children are so wonderful to teach, the children all wave hello. Hello, what is your name? I chose the title because the phrase seemed emblematic of my experience here – the stranger, the polite welcome, the basic questions, the formal courtesy, the language codes, and of course the children the foreigner remembers.