A broken zipper pull on my overused backpack sent me to the Russian Market in search of a quick repair. What I got – along with handily repaired backpack – was a double dose of random Cambodian kindness.
Arriving at the market, I entered the teeming mass of humanity and began to search the rows of shops for someone selling luggage and backpacks. And after shrugging off a few minutes of “you buy silk, sir?” and “you want buy gift, sir?” I found a slight woman in a tiny shop. Dwarfed by an avalanche of backpacks, fanny packs and hand luggage, she was barely recognizable among the piles of merchandise.
Speaking in my pidgin Khmer and showing her the damaged backpack, I asked the woman for help. She smiled at me, offering a typical Cambodian’s tribute “oh, neak cheh Khmer banh la-or” (You can speak Khmer well), a white lie intended and received as a compliment.
Cutting to the chase, she retrieved a pull from another backpack, deftly took it apart and struggled as she tried to pass the string through the zipper loop. Stumped, she left her booth in my care and headed to the jeweler’s booth next door, where she asked the shopkeeper for a small tool to fix my backpack.
Struggling mightily to force the string through the tiny loop, hers was a quest with only one possible outcome. The determination and patience of a Cambodian woman is an impressive phenomenon that I have come to recognize and deeply respect.
She handed it back to me with a grin, mission accomplished.
“Thlay pon man?” (how much?) I asked.
She waved me off.
“Oh, no. Khnyom kitah neak trow kaa loy somrap kruasah,” (I think you need money for your family) I replied, offering her a dollar.
Again, she dismissed me with a broad smile, and I recognized the futility of further argument. It was the turning point where an offer to make an appropriate payment for a service rendered ran the risk of overruling a Cambodian’s hard-wired impulse to give.
I’ve had over two years’ experience watching some of the poorest people react most quickly to opportunities to give of themselves and I have learned that it’s both wise and appropriate to capitulate under such circumstances. So I left the booth with a bounce in my step and a lump in my throat, once again lifted by Cambodians’ eagerness to help and give.
I’m a regular in the Russian Market, where Gabi and I go in search of a quick and cheap lunch, silk scarves and trinkets for gifts, or to re-stock our supply of first-run movies. So I’m a known quantity to a lot of the shopkeepers as well as the vendors who stroll the aisles selling post cards, books and bric a brac.
I buy note cards from one of two people. One is a one-legged handsome man who is always dressed in combat fatigues, the other, a middle-aged woman whose face is horrifically scarred and disfigured. I’ve never asked her, but I assume she’s a victim of an acid attack, a fairly common act of retribution or aggression among Cambodians who for one reason or another feel they have been done wrong.
She’s a sweetheart, quick to smile and engage, speaks serviceable English and has always been kind to me. She is particularly tolerant of my awkward Khmer.
We’d been away for six weeks and it seemed a good time for a quick hello. So, after the experience with the backpack vendor, I went in search for the card lady.
Rounding the corner near the silver aisle, I saw her, standing in the middle of the row and chatting with a silk vendor. She spotted me, broke into a wide smile and rushed into my waiting arms for a hug.
“Canh chup kinneah yu howie,” (long time, no see), I said to her, and we proceeded with a good catch-up as we halted traffic and created a bit of a spectacle.
Parting briefly to allow traffic to pass through our human roadblock, I happened to look around and noticed that every vendor within eyeshot of our meeting was grinning at us, some nodding approvingly. A baraing (foreigner) engaging with a street vendor in such a manner isn’t a daily occurrence, I suppose, and we made quite the couple.
We chatted for another minute, me in my goofy Khmer, she in her less-flawed English, and it was time for another hug and a promise to see each other again soon.
I headed out, vowing to make a loaf of banana bread for the backpack vendor and then I realized that it should be two loaves – one also for my card vendor friend.
And so it was, on a sultry morning in Phnom Penh, that two women and their random acts of kindness led to real human contact with a stranger – and in the process rekindled my ongoing love affair with this strange and wonderful country.