Friday, March 14, 2008

This ex-pat life for our children... living more locally again

On Jemima’s first day back at school after our visit to the UK I discovered that two of her closest friends are leaving Cambodia in June – to Iceland and Azerbaijan. Her other great play mate already upped sticks to Madagascar in February. Oh, and her long-term friends, the twins, are headed home to Canada in August.

I admit a bit of me finds all this terribly exciting – her childhood seems so exotic at times. But my main emotion is that of a fiercely protective lioness who simply must protect my daughter’s fragile heart... and mine for that matter. As my friends told me of their plans to leave I could hear another voice in my brain telling me: “Start to have less play dates now! Emotionally prepare! Loosen the bonds gently!” (This is the problem with the ex-pat lifestyle – never tell anyone you are leaving more than a few weeks before you go or you will be friendless for the last months of your stay.) No, I am not really planning to abandon my friends before they leave, but I have actively started filling her life with more permanent pals as well.

The street kids have come in twice this week already to play with Jemima and the neighbours' children are here every day again, as they used to be before Jemima started school. There is also another big change in our daily life. Srey Mach is no longer working with us. This is a long story which would not be fair to share here. We miss her but now have a lovely, older woman Sophy, mother of two older children, working for us instead. Not only is she a calm, quiet, grandmotherly type who helps me keep the ants under control (they are marching over my keyboard right now, the little bloggers) and adores Bella, she speaks no English and loves tea. The result of all these changes is that our lives have come to feel a lot more local lately, and my Khmer is improving dramatically.

I ought to explain that I do speak Khmer, though many who have heard me might beg to differ. I can travel around the country, direct a Tuk Tuk, shop, chat, enjoy a conversation with people on the streets, and talk on the phone. Actually I really love the language, but I do find the tiny and subtle nuances between ten different words with ten very different meanings hard to grasp. I was thrilled to hear that Khmer was ranked one of the hardest languages in the world recently. So there is a reason to put it on my CV after all! I have been wondering how I can justify showing off my prowess at a language so utterly useless anywhere else in the world but here.

Seriously though, after giving up the lessons when Bella was born I was getting increasingly frustrated at having to stop a conversation as soon as it started to get interesting because of my limited vocabulary. I also wanted to improve my pronunciation so that I could be understood by the foster mother of the children we support in Takeo province. (In the provinces people tend to tell me they do not speak English when I start to speak to them in Khmer. Of course at the same time they cheer and clap when anyone manages a mere Sok Sabai! They run around saying “The Barang speaks Khmer really well!” even if that is your only word. I do love Cambodians!)

So I had my first lesson in ages yesterday and am back on track. Hoorah! I have a brilliant new teacher who started to correct me before he even shook my hand. It turns out there are some words which I have been using every day for two years which I do not say quite right. This man is a perfectionist and I could not be happier about that.

Sophy joined in my class - mainly because this week I asked if we could devote my lesson to the long list of things I wanted to express to her. After watching me mess about with about various concoctions this week (ginger water for a natural antibiotic, olive oil and garlic for ear infections, olive oil and citronella massage oil for mossies, olive oil and lavender for bedtime, chamomile tea for bottom washing…) she has asked me to teach her how ex-pats look after their children. Obviously I am taking this opportunity to tell her how I believe ex-pats should look after their children, being the objective and nonjudgmental woman that I am. So lessons in natural, positive, attachment parenting here we come! We must have made a funny scene yesterday. A tiny Khmer man and a tiny Khmer woman, both in their 40s - ooh, I wonder if he is married? Sophy kicked her useless husband out long ago… - sorry, where was I? Oh yes, a tiny Khmer couple with a huge white Barang repeating and translating: “Carrying babies is very good for their emotional and physical development!” and “Chamomile tea is very good for nappy rash!”

Long may it continue! Next week I shall ask him to teach me how to proselytise about breastfeeding. And the week after that we need to get Jemima on board... though that is another struggle altogether, to be posted about sometime soon. Off to get her from school now. Have a great weekend everyone!

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