The Infamous Phnom Penh Flood

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I like to look at silver linings where I can. Making the best of a bad situation is a fantastic coping strategy here in Cambodia. We recently were inundated with rainwater, and it has made life more difficult for some – downright miserable for others. I wanted to get students writing about their perspectives on the whole ordeal. Yet, I wanted to do so with a twist.

Yesterday evening they were told to write about it in their journals. But they needed to be thinking about some vocabulary words they were given this week. The words are as follows: infamous, catastrophe, and embellish. Here is one student’s embellished perspective:

Wow! This flood made everybody hard to arrive. It was infamous. Every moto stopped because of so much water. Some of the cars had been stopped too, and people were pushing them. Dirty water made all the germs get on peoples bodies causing disease. Everybody hated it and the next day it was still flooded. It came up to my neck. So I had to swim to school with smelly water.

When I got back at school all my pants and shirt were like somebody threw up on it. The same with my friends. But when I got to class I saw Mr. Bridell with a nice shirt and nice pants. I was thinking, why aren’t his clothes wet? and when I asked him he said that he took an airplane and flew. It was SHOCKING because how come he had money to ride an airplane to school. When school ended, I swam back to my house.

Nice writing job. But, of course, you know me – I just can’t resist writing some comments of my own. Here’s my counter-embellishment to answer the question of how I was able to fly to school, thus keeping my clothes dry:

The day of the flood, my car had gotten trapped in the stinky, rising water. It carried the ’91 Camry all the way down to the airport. There, the vehicle came to its resting place in front of a Red Cross relief plane. They had empathy for me and said that I could ride in their plane to wherever I needed to go.

As the small aircraft approached the school, the captain said, “Out you go!” I was expecting them to land on the soccer field, but they told me it would be far too dangerous. Instead, they pushed me out the door as we flew over the school. Fortunately, I landed on the top of that coconut tree which grows just outside the cafeteria next to the infamous room 305. I bounced off the fronds and into the waiting (here’s personification, boys and girls) arms of the cafeteria. Just another typical day in Cambodia.


Making the most of semicolons (read on, it’s not what you think)

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The new 6th grade group has nowhere to go; indeed, they can neither run nor hide.

To that, I can only say, “MWahahahahah !!”

Did you notice the cleverly placed semicolon in that first sentence? As I told the students,
even high school and college students rarely know how to use this piece of punctuation.
I suggested that they may soon be smarter than a lot of adults when it comes to the semicolon.

The homework assignment was to take a set of words (which are called adverbial conjunctions [and they must remember to NEVER try to remember this horrible term- EVER!]) and place a semicolon before them, and a comma after them. I mentioned that if they, instead of just writing unrelated example sentences, were to actually turn those sentences into a little story, I would be extremely pleased. So pleased that I may not even know what to do with myself.

Among the pages of student journals, I came across this gem:

The octopus was going to get a crab; however, a human took it first. The octopus was very angry; nevertheless, it could go and kill the human; still, it was very hungry for crab. So it found another crab; however, the same human took the crab again. So the octopus found a swordfish; in addition, it threw it at the human; then, the human caught it and said, “Thank you, indeed, my friend.”

The octopus got more angry; however, he couldn’t do anything about it. So the octopus kept on throwing fish and stuff; thus, the human caught it. Soon the human had nowhere to keep the fish; furthermore, he created an aquarium to keep the fish in. Then the human got richer than before; however, the octopus grew more angry than normal. Then the human said, “Who was the one that threw all those fish at me?; thus, I will let you live happily in a tank and get to eat crab every day of your life.”

The octopus heard that; therefore, he was very happy and showed up to the human.The octopus lived happily; nevertheless, he died at an age of 10 years old.


The Terrace: Why do I keep coming back?

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Everyone here knows it by it’s other name: The Fake Starbucks.

Shortly after our arrival in Phnom Penh last year, we were ecstatic to discover a sign that looked like Starbucks. We thought we had found our escape from eating dirty/ weird food, and a real coffee joint at last.

As with most everything else here that appears “western”, it didn’t take long to realize it was just another facade.

And yet, oddly enough, we continue to go back. Why?

There was the time I sat at a table eating, when something several tables down caught my eyes. It was a rat going from table to table jumping into the little plastic waste baskets for 5 seconds or so at a time.

Then there was the time one of the teacher assistants joining us had just gotten her stew delivered – only to find a fly had been cooked into the culinary delight.

Hairs in our food? Happens everywhere – this is a non-factor.

And then today. As we sat finishing off our meals, we heard a screech from behind us at the doorway. There, before my eyes, was a waitress jumping up and down like a frightened girl, while another was patting herself on the back for having just grabbed a mouse with a pair of salad tongs. I tried to get my wife to look and she told me to shut up – she still had a few bites left.

Tomorrow, the Terrance is opening a new store CLOSE TO SCHOOL!! We’re both very excited about that. I kid you not – we actually are. If anyone is able to explain the spell this place puts on an expat, please let me know. I may be able to find a counter-spell.

Asian Hope

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Oh, those Cambodian Funerals

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Death and taxes are sure things. That a funeral here will inconvenience you on many occasions, is just as sure.

My wife woke me at around midnight to say that something strange was going on across the street and that she was concerned. Especially so, because the occupants of that home were taking the contents of their dwelling and moving them across the street into the wide-open, normally-locked alley where our car hides.

They seemed to, literally, be doing spring cleaning in the middle of the night. What was going out appeared to be junk – except for the motorbikes. Very odd, indeed. I was tired. I went back to bed.

At around 5:00 am, I was awoken again and told to take a look across the street. Shuffling across the living room and rubbing my eyes, I looked out the window. What I saw caused me to rub my eyes again just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. There was, hanging from wires that criss-cross the street, a 15-foot paper skeleton-like image. Either someone had died, or they had a funny idea about when Halloween should be celebrated.

As it turns out, an older woman that had lived there with the family had just died. I believe that the content-clearing operation that had taken place immediately after the death was some sort of a house-cleaning ritual. At any rate, we knew that things were going to be difficult for us when we returned from school tonight. And they were.

Our car is currently parked a block and a half away at the Robinette’s house where we will walk tomorrow morning when we get ready to go to school. There is no parking here. The cheaply recorded funeral music has been going all night and (as I speak) the monks are just beginning to kick into high-chanting gear.

Need a house-sitter for the weekend?

Excerpt from the pages of a future novelist

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As the 6th graders are busily writing their rough drafts for their year-ending novels, I have been telling myself that I won’t begin looking at their works until they get to the final draft stage. Too time-consuming.

Yet I snuck a peek. I had to.

I have already recognized outstanding natural writing talent among several students in the class, and I just had to see what this student was writing – even though she is only in the very early rough draft stages.

Here is the story opening (again, only rough draft):

Tania raced towards the park, her dark hair flying beside her. Only a few more steps, she thought as she ran jumped up the steps and headed towards the bridge. She had to dodge people as they ran, laughed, walked, or played.

And then there it is: The bridge right ahead. The bridge was always one of Tania’s favorites at the park. On both its sides, it was occupied with trees, their bluish flowers, swaying in the wind. There always seems to have a breeze blowing, and the best of all, you could get some snacks on the other side of the bridge and enjoy it, either sitting on the soft green grass, or sitting on the benches.

There was a figure up ahead, sitting on the grass, drinking a milkshake and peering around. Tania put on extra speed feeling as if there was a trail of smoke behind her. “Emily!” she yelled, suddenly collapsing on the ground.

Emily turned. “Tania!” She put down her milkshake and ran over to where Tania lay on the ground, still breathing hard, her face red. Emily laughed. “Get up,” she said gently as she helped her best friend stand and walk.

Unexpected War Stories

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Our relatives have rented a van for their month-plus-long stay here. Graciously, they have taken us to a few places of interest in the last few days. We ended up going north of the city to a temple that has picnic grounds around its base. The place is in Kandal province and is called Phnom Reap.

My brother-in-law, Heng, was unaware of exactly where we were until we had gotten out at our destination and walked over to the restroom. There, in the clearing, we could see a large hill sticking out of the landscape in front of us. He looked at it for awhile and then began to share with me some memories.

He said that he had spent two years around that hill, while in the Lon Nol army, fighting to wrest control of it from the Khmer Rouge. This would have been around 1974 or 75. He chuckled as he spoke about his experiences, undoubtedly because it was the best way to avoid becoming emotional about it.

He talked about the many times that he and his “men” would be told to get to the base of the mountain only to be told after they got there to turn back around. He talked about the airdrops of American military rations that they couldn’t figure out how to eat. He recalled the horrific artillery pounding that came down on the hill from their support bases. And how they were often in more danger of these onslaughts than their enemy was.

He said he cried more times than he could remember.

Then there was the story about the “brave” Khmer Rouge soldier perched atop the coconut tree firing a powerful machine gun at them. How that guy was able to sustain fire for most of the day was beyond anyone’s guess. Eventually, the good guys blasted away everything but the trunk of the tree before the firing finally ceased. And who was going to climb up to see if the guy was really dead? Sure, logic would tell you he was gone, but who would go first?

They got up there and found a large basket of mostly-spent ammunition. The victim was found shackled to the tree. This was to prevent the brave guy from shimmying back down the tree. The poor guy’s relentless fire was purely an act of self-defense. Anybody trying to come after him was gonna get it.

There were other stories, but I’m tired. Heng was a brave guy, that’s for sure.

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