My adopted Khmer family and saying goodbye

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From left to right: Mom, sister, me, Konnitha, grandma, husband, father, friend and cute baby.

The past few months I’ve been so blessed to live next to my friend Konnitha’s wonderful Khmer (Cambodian) family. I lived in a simple bachelor suite next to their house, but I spent most of my time hanging in the family’s house or was out with friends.

I was a weird feeling when I visited them sometimes because my lifestyle is very different than theirs. I’ve had weeks where I have been out every night while they spend most of their time at home when they are not working, particularly because they have to take care of their baby and their grandmother in addition to being tired from work.

Nevertheless, they don’t expect me to live exactly like them and their door is always open whenever I want to come and say hi. Though my friend is on a mission to make me a good Khmer girl, meaning that I should ideally be back home by 9 p.m. (never happens) or stay home in the evenings. But we have friendly jokes about that all the time and me being “barang lop lop” (crazy foreigner).

I would not have had the same experience in Cambodia if I didn’t move next to them. They’ve been so kind to let me join them for meals, take naps at the house and sometimes sleep over to keep them company. I always offer to contribute any ingredients or offer some money for the meals they’ve made but they rarely accept it. Now with a new volunteer, they happily welcome both of us to join their family for meals and expect nothing in return. Every day, I grew more and more attached to the family, which made it so much harder to leave Cambodia.

Allow me to introduce you to my adopted Khmer family:

Konnitha, friend, co-worker and my Cambodian mother

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Konnitha, my Cambodian mother

I met Konnitha while I was volunteering at an NGO for seven months. I call her my Cambodian mother because even though she’s two years younger than me (26 years old) and has a four-month-old baby to take care of, she makes sure I have a fan when its hot, a pillow when I’m visiting, and full when I’m fed. She also gives me that motherly look when I start going out at 9 p.m. and asks, “Why? It’s so late.” It makes me laugh every time.

I enjoy our hours of conversation whenever I hang around the house. Even when she’s busy with her baby, if I come when the family is about to eat, she doesn’t just ask me to join them, she practically demands it when she says, “Please have breakfast with me” or, “Don’t go out, have dinner with me.”

When I first came to Cambodia, we didn’t talk that much because we didn’t really know each other. I can’t even really remember when we started getting close. But any close friends I have now has developed naturally and this is no exception.

She’s sweet to keep telling me that I should work in Cambodia so I can stay longer. While I was away for a few days she said, “We missed you.” I feel very guilty because she really wanted me to join her family for Pchum Ben during the first week of October. It is a 15-day religious festival when Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives of up to 7 generations. But I was with two other families out of the city that week.

One day, when her mom said that I bought some garlic, Konnitha said, “You don’t have to buy, we have.” I said, “I don’t want to eat all your food.” She then said, “It’s ok, you can take, you are family.”

Hannah, Konnitha’s daughter

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Hannah, my adopted Khmer niece

As I write this, Hannah is now four and a half months old. Every week she gets noticeably bigger. It’s been a nice ritual to see her in the morning before I go to work and come back to the family to hold her.

She’s growing up so quickly. I remember so clearly when she couldn’t even hold her head up and now she’s almost crawling. It’s very calming spending time watching her and holding her.

Vanna, mom

I call her my Khmer Ma, my other Cambodian mother. She cooks for me along with the family and offers me water when I come over. Konnitha once told me her mom worries that I leave the house hungry after some meals and that her mom will miss me when I’m gone.

While I was away for four days at Ratanakiri (another Cambodian province), she asked where I was because they’re so used to me popping in the house before and after work. Her mom said not to forget about them, and I most certainly won’t.

In Cambodia, whenever you develop a friendship or good relationship with people, they will help you out as much as they can.

Dara, the father

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Family dinner

The first day I moved in, I parked my bike outside their place and without me asking, her dad noticed something was broken and just fixed it for me. I thought, “Awwww thanks dad.”

He’s really nice and one of my favourite memories with him is when I came home after dinner one night and he was sitting with a few guys with beer and food. He invited me to join them and gave me a beer and shared some of the fish they caught for the day.

Buntha, the husband and the go-to cockroach killer

Buntha is a very nice and honest man. He works for the tourism office so he leads groups of people among many things. He is so honest that he said when he takes groups of people, he doesn’t accept tips if they give him money for helping them with a problem like losing their passport. He said, “If I take the group out on a tour and they want to give me, that is ok. But I don’t want to accept money if they have already had a bad thing happen to them.”

While I was away at Ratanakiri, another Cambodian province, he was kind enough to text me these messages:

“Hie hie hie, how was your trip there? How are you doing? Ha you might 4got us”

“Pls enjoy ur visiting. Have a very lovely trip and regarding to Mrs. Kimline and hers family.”

“Best wish for all of you there. Safe trip for you there and everywhere.”

Oh yes, and he’s also awesome because every time I found a cockroach in my room or needed help with anything, he would be there to help me in an instant.  He always tells me, “Call anytime you need help” and constantly checking in with me to make sure I got to places ok. If I had a company, I’d hire him in an instant.

He told me a few times, “Don’t forget about us. Please be in touch when you go to other countries. Stay longer so you can see Hannah grow up.”

Yat, the grandmother

The grandma is now 83 years old and I am always curious the many struggles she has lived through. But I don’t ask of course.

She is well taken care of by the family and when they eat meals, she is always served first, which is the Cambodian custom of serving the eldest person first. The family takes turns giving her massages when she has aches and she is always with a family member in the house to keep her company.

She told Buntha to tell me, “Don’t wait too long into you come back. I will miss you. Will you miss me?”

She is very sweet, every time I sit with the family while they are having a meal, she tells me to eat or she makes sure I have a blanket if I stay over at the house.

Kaka (pronounced “Gaga,” like Lady Gaga), my adopted Khmer sister
With my adopted Khmer sister
Kaka is a 13-year-old soft spoken and friendly girl who always helps her family prepare meals, take care of Hannah and gives her grandma massages when she is aching. She is probably the most well-behaved 13-year-old I have ever met. I’m amazed that she cycles to her Mandarin school about two kilometres away almost every day.

I often think of her in contrast to many of the teenage girls in North America, many of whom spend their time shopping, talking on the phone, complaining about small inconveniences and having much less responsibility.

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Gaga’s birthday

Some of my favourite moments with her was when I cooked a few meals for the family, I never ask her to keep me company or help. But whenever I went to the kitchen, she had fun helping me prepare food and helped me wash dishes. It was a wonderful way to spend time with her.

I really enjoyed taking her out to the pool with me and taking her for pizza for lunch. I felt like I had a little sister and I appreciated that because I grew up an only child. I love seeing her smile and laugh at the simplest things and just having fun.

When I came back from Kampong Cham, she asked Konnitha if I was going to the pagoda. When she said I’ll be in away, she looked disappointed, which was really sweet.

I’m glad I got to be here to celebrate her birthday, it was a lot of fun.

Last days in Siem Reap

Buntha and their grandma almost made me cry. While we were sitting in the room alone, he was quiet and then said, “The house will be so quiet when you leave Cambodia, we will miss you. You are like family now.”

When I was in Phnom Penh, Buntha messaged me to see if I got in ok because I forgot to message them when I arrived. And then Konnitha called me after to see how I was doing. It really does feel like a family watching out for me. It’s really hard to be away for them for a few days but it’s a transition I’ll have to get used to when I leave Cambodia. I will have sever Khmer family withdrawal.

The hard goodbye

My Khmer family at the pagoda for Pchum Ben
Konnitha, her daughter and her siblings at the pagoda.

 For my last day in Siem Reap, I spent time with my Khmer family and I didn’t feel overly emotional, surprisingly. I didn’t cry when I said bye to them and I was going to see Konnitha in the office for a bit. When it came time to say bye to her, we hugged for awhile and I purposely didn’t say much to her because I knew I would start crying, which I hate doing in front of people. But I was fine when I went for early lunch with my friend.

After lunch, it was a little past 12 p.m. and I knew Konnitha would likely have gone back home to see Hannah. So I texted her and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t say much to you, I knew if I kept talking I would cry.” A few seconds after I sent that text, I saw she was still in the office. So I walked her to her motto and I could see the sadness in her face. I gave her one more long hug before she left and we didn’t want to let go of each other and when I looked into her eyes, I saw they were teary and then my floodgates opened. I said, “Don’t look at me, you’ll make me cry,” then we laughed. When I saw her riding off, I needed to take a minute by myself to wipe away my tears before going back to the office.

While I was washing my face, my former colleague came up to me and said, “Was she the hardest to say goodbye to?” And I said, “Yes. I knew I would crack today, I just didn’t know when. I was fine this morning but I’ve been so attached to the family so they’re the hardest to say goodbye to. But I’m ok.”

The NGO I worked with has a tradition of waving people goodbye until you can’t see them anymore. They waved goodbye to me and then I was off to the airport to get to Laos.

As hard as it is to leave the family, I know I have to keep exploring and meeting people. But everyone I’ve met that I’ve become close to, I will carry in my heart wherever I go.

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