The Meanderthals

Table for 17, Suen!

Som On stopped his tuk tuk at a red light while we were en route to work several weeks ago. He turned to me and asked one of his charmingly convoluted questions:

“Skip. My wife brother son nephew cousin. What is that?” I looked at him, clueless, then at Gabi, in search of help. The light changed and Som On edged his tuk tuk into traffic, his question abandoned in lieu of keeping his place in the sea of cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks that cram Phnom Penh’s streets every morning.

He drove a couple of blocks and suddenly pulled to the side of the road, stopping beside a grinning 36-inch man clad in black pants, spotless white shirt and a brilliant red bowtie who stood in front of a Korean restaurant, waving enthusiastically.

Pointing at the man and turning to face me, Som On asked: “What is he?”

Now, Gabi and I have become mostly immune to the lack of personal boundaries in Southeast Asian culture. We’re used to comments about physical state of being (“you/he/she is fat, skinny, black, light-colored,” etc.) questions about money (how much things cost, what we pay for our apartment, etc.) and generally we handle such questions and situations gracefully.

But this one floored me. What do I say? He’s a midget? A small adult? A vertically challenged Cambodian?  Khmer has no linguistic equivalent of the term “politically correct”, and since language here nearly always defers to the principles of expediency and clarity, to define the guy as a vertically challenged adult male would have taken hours to explain.

So I shrugged, silent and stupid, and waited for Som On to help me figure out what was going on. After a few minutes of back and forth in a mixture of Khmer and English he got it through my thick head that the guy in question was, indeed, his wife’s brother’s son, which makes him Som On’s cousin.

“Oh, he very small,” pointed out Som On, ever the master of the understated, self-evident truth, putting to rest the day’s baffling beginning. He waved goodbye to the happy guy who’d stood quietly by our tuk tuk while this debate had raged on and we resumed the journey to work, leaving us laughing and shaking our heads.

Fast forward a couple months, when we decided to ask Som On and his family to join us for dinner at the restaurant where his tiny cousin works.

Around 6 p.m. Sunday evening we were joined not just by Som On, his wife and two kids, but two sisters, a brother, a brother-in-law, his father, some friends of ours and their tuk tuk driver Pou and a couple other undefined tagalongs. In all it was a raucous dinner for 17, watched, attended to and lorded over by Som On’s cousin.

They guy has a name, as it turns out.

“It is Souen,” Som One told us, drawing the letters with his finger on the seat of his tuk tuk. “S-U-N.”

“Oh,” said I, pointing skyward. “Like the sun?”

“No,” Som On said with a deep frown. “S-U-N.”

Once again, clear as mud, but the pronunciation was easy to grasp.

Sure sounded like “Souen”, so Souen it is.

Never was there a happier waiter. Never was there more attentive service, as he spirited bottles of beer to our tables (three of them, conjoined) in batches of four. “Angkor dop thom pboun thiet!” (four more big bottles of beer!) became the evening’s rallying cry, as Som On, his brother and others rose to the challenge and hoisted away.

Soon, we ran out of cold beer, and Souen quickly defaulted to the Cambodian standard of warm beer delivered with a huge cube of ice deposited into the glasses.

Som On’s father explained that, despite the guy’s limited height, he was somehow the same age as his elder son. He seemed confused as to how that could be, so Som On came to the rescue to clarify the matter.

“Two other small people in his family,” Som On explained. “One brother. One sister. One die.”

We ate tangy chicken and vegetables stir-fried in enormous flat pans heated by open gas flames. We dredged whole cloves of raw garlic in hot sauce and gobbled them down, chased by bits of spicy kimchi and something that was either soup or fingerbowls, according to whom we believed at which point during the evening.

I introduced Som On’s family as “our Cambodian family” to our English-speaking friends, using my own version of bastardized Khmer to the gang’s profound amusement.

We toasted each other (chuul mooey! sokhapheap laah! – drink one! to good health!), our families, the food, the beer, the weather, and by the time we ran out of ability to eat and drink think of things to toast we had formed a larger family bound by a night to remember.

We departed with back-slapping hugs and long goodbyes, vowing to see each other again soon.

“In Cambodia if you invite family to dinner they bring whole family out of respect,” my colleague Buntheourn explained to me later on. “It is great fun.”

What an understated description for an evening of familial joviality, a cross-cultural experience of deep affection and understanding that once again showed us the innermost workings of a Cambodian family.

We had a great and memorable time, but for a tiny Cambodian guy with a bright red bowtie and a huge smile, it was a night to shine and bask in the glory of being the center of attention and the catalyst for it all.

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