Chinglish

“I like your shirt,” I say, nodding in her direction. She looks down at herself, then back up at me, question marks furrowing on her forehead.

I should have tried in Mandarin, or even Spanish. I remember something about six months she spent in Mexico. But it’s Friday and it’s hot, and I’m feeling lazy.

“It says “Floor Queen,” I try again, pointing this time to clarify. And it does. Say floor queen, I mean. The shirt is a nice, feminine pink, the kind you find used to dye bubblegum or sell tampons. The image of a crown is screen printed across the chest, overlapping several times to create visual movement and take up space. Above this is written “FLOOR,” in sparkly serif font, and a few inches below – “QUEEN.”

“What does it mean?” she asks me in Chinese. 

“It doesn’t really mean anything,” I forge ahead in English. “But we work for a flooring company? And you’re the queen of floors?” My voice rises and falls, a puny wave crashing against the shore of uncertainty.

“Oh. Yes. I am a king. What means “floor?” My persistence persuades to her to switch to English.

We stare at each other for a beat. I crack the silence with a grin or a grimace, and she begins to laugh. We both laugh, back to communicating in body language. But we’re not laughing at each other, and we’re not laughing at the same thing.

                                           —————————————-

The shallow afternoon light shifts and illuminates the dust floating to the floor, settling on every surface and thickening the air. I swallow, feeling hotter and lazier now. I silently count the times I’ve worn my heart on my sleeve for you without understanding what it means. We stop laughing and shift our gazes to the floor. It’s dirty. We go back to work.

I’m Baa-aaack.

I’ve had a lingering taste of stagnation that I can’t seem to wash away for quite some time. That constant, quite, paralyzing fear of your 20′s that you’ve done jack with your life so far, you’re still barreling down the freeway of jack to destination JACK at record speed, and there are no exits in sight. Not even a rest stop.

 

So, after reading through the entirety of this blog earlier today, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of anti-stagnation I found between my first blog post and now.  Aka growth. Aka, I’ve actually learned a lot since I first arrived in China, and even since my last post before I disappeared from the blogging sphere and into the depths of South East Asia.

 

Due to this realization, combined with an over-zealous pact fueled by cheap sake I made with two other writers in Shanghai last month, I have challenged (aka forced) myself to take up blogging again. I realize more than ever how important it is to keep a record of my journey, like a road map in reverse. If someone had told me everything that would happen in the past 395 days since my last update, I would never have believed them. And as I know that no one will give me a guidebook for the next 395 days either, I figure viewing directions through a rear view mirror is my best option right now. 

 

That being said, I have created some guidelines for my blogging this time around. Otherwise this would be the first and last update in another year and change.

 

  1. I am never allowed to write some form of “but that’s a story for another post, coming soon!” in the middle of an update ever again. Because. It. Never. Happens. Posting about future posts is the kiss of death for whatever story said future post is about.

 

  1. I will write about whatever is most current in my life before worrying about retelling whatever story seems more exciting but happened 3 weeks ago. I end up using this as an excuse to not write at all, and then nothing gets said for another 3 weeks. All because I don’t believe that whatever feelings I’m feeling at the time I’m writing are as China-worthy as the ones I felt during a more epic China moment. Which leads me to number 3…

 

  1. This blog does not have to revolve around a theme. I have to stop procrastinating my writing simply because what I feel like saying at the time seemingly has nothing to do with me being in China. This is my biggest, most evil and ugly excuse of all.

 

So there are my new blogging rules. Except for number 3. Scratch number 3 (rules are made to be broken, right?). I believe this blog will have a theme of sorts, in that it will most likely reflect the theme of my life lately. Curious as to what it is? I bet you are.

 

Success is freedom from the fear of discomfort.

 

I’m paraphrasing something I read somewhere, so I’m not going to claim to be super profound here, but when I read it, I realized that I’ve already unknowingly been living my life according to this motto in small ways, and it’s up to me to start kicking it up a notch.

 

So that’s what most of my life decisions, and consequently most of my blog posts, will likely reflect in the near future. I’m learning more and more that life is a cyclical journey rather than a race from point A to B, and I’m betting that being able to learn from where I’ve already been should prove to be a pretty helpful guide to whatever discomfort I’m about to push myself into.

 

Bring on the next 395 days.

 

P.S. – Did I mention I’m back in Shijiazhuang? 

Yup.

Chinese Commercials – Part 1

I rarely give my students homework assignments. It was less than a year ago I was cursing teachers under my breath every time a new paper or project was assigned that would cut into my weekend social calendar (or, for that matter, Twofers at Peggy’s. I mean, what is college life really about anyway? Studying? *Pff*).

The flip side is that going over homework the next week takes up class time. So, it was with a heavy heart that I gave my students their first ever homework assignment in my class. They moaned and groaned, but secretly, I think they were really excited. What a wonderful opportunity to apply their knowledge outside the classroom! They’ll be asking for assignments every week if I’m not careful.

The task was to write their own television commercial. Since I was an advertising major in college, I did a couple lessons helping them analyze and discuss popular American commercials.  Then I turned them loose. The following results are the best of the best – the most creative and brilliant minds of China’s youth. You will encounter tragic love tales, epic battles, and quite possibly the end of the world. I have presented these masterpieces in their entirety, complete with spelling and grammatical errors, to give you the full effect.

Note: I have divided this topic into two posts. There were just too many good entries to choose from. This is my selection from the boys’ commercials.

The first commercial reads more like a teaser to the next 007 movie, complete with a crazy, hormone-raging Chinese teenager as the new Bond girl. The author is a shy, scrawny boy in the front row that goes by the name of Mew.

A Commercial for Tuesses (no idea what that is)

Under the darkness, there is a petrol station. In the country.  A handsome boy turns to the checkstand when finishes geting petrol to his motorbike. A girl who paid for her car’s petrol just now falls in love with the boy, and she wants to accost him, but she was very shy. She can find no excuse. Suddenly, something rings a bell to her. She takes out a tissue and puts it into the boy’s oil tank, then gets on her car, waiting for something happening. Being blind to this, the boy straddles on his motorbike and drives away, and the girl tails after the boy thoughtfully. Before the boy goes far, his motorbike shuts down. He is totally confused and doesn’t know what to do. At the same time, a small car edges down to him. Is that the girl? What fortune or misfortune will the boy meet with?

At first, I chuckled to myself at the word “accost.” It just doesn’t sound like it fits here. But then I looked up the definition.

Accost: verb (used with object)

1.to confront boldly

2. to approach, especially with a greeting, question, or remark.

3. (of prostitutes, procurers, etc.) to solicit for sexual purposes.

I realized this is actually the perfect word for this scenario. Bravo, Mew. I would love to know the psychotic ex-girlfriend from your past (or your fantasies) who inspired this tale of seduction and sabotage. What misfortune did you meet with, my poor Mew?

Here’s another tragic love story for you. From what I can figure out, this is a commercial for a generic TV show. It is written by Stone, a boy who – I checked – is not in any of my classes.

Li Lei and HanMeimei are classmates in primary school, and they help each other. Li Lei is good at running, playing basketball and so on. Whenever Li Lei is doing exercise, HanMeimei will make notes beside. Gradually, they fall love. One night, HanMeimei said to Li, I love you. But Li Lei refused Han because of Li’s parents. Time flys, 2012, the ending of the world, is coming. Again, Han called Li to say that you can not refuse me this time. Li cried.

In the end of commercial, some words came out, you can miss your lover, but you can not miss our programme.

There is one important lesson we all should learn from this commercial: it would take the end of the world for a Chinese child to defy their parents. Even then, I’m not sure which fate would be scarier.

 

Apparently, 2012 is a hot topic. It made another epic appearance in a commercial for volcano medicine. I have taken the liberty of titling it myself.

PMS: The Movie

It is reported that the world biggest active volcano is going to explod. And scientists analyse that if the volcano explods, it will lead to the earth without sunlight for a whole year. Thousands of ideas are put forward, but they are not practical. The temperature of the volcano keeps rising. And it seems the real 2012 coming in advance. Everyone is waiting to die. And Everyone is hanging by a hair. Time produces their heroes. But the hero is not a human being. A capsule from outerspace appears above the volcano. Then it opens, the medicine in it drops into the volcano. The temperature begins to fall down. The volcano becomes an extinct volcano and people don’t worry about it anymore.

Something tells me this must be how this boy feels when he goes to the store to buy Midol for his girlfriend every month. Just a guess.

The next boy, Bob, managed to combine cars, hunting, a Michael Bay film, aliens and China into a few sentences.

Red Flag, the national car brand of China.

One day, unknown organisms attack the earth. They makes a big disaster. But the army cann’t resist them. For the earth, the Red Flag become a clay pigeom others cars are Transformers. However, the Transformers aren’t the rival for the foreign organisms. The Red Flag call on other clay pigeom from a far planet. Finally, they save the earth.

I think Bob needs to be a little more careful next time he makes a metaphor between Chinese military technology and clay pigeons. But I like to think of my classroom as a little bubble of free speech, so he’s good – for now.

Brodrick, however, takes the cake for car commericals with his ingenious slogan.

The advertisement for Nokia. indestrutible Background

There is a car named Kia run around the road. In the car, a confidential document is took to adversarial country. The actors’ mission is to destroy the car and kill the enemy.

Part 1: “Hey, Bob, there is the car, put out the arm and shoot him.” John said.

“Okay.” Bob started to ferret his bag. He fits the shells and shoots the car.

Part 2 (after he used up his shells): “Damn, I have ran out of shells,” John said.

“The mission failed,” Bob said.

Finally, Bob took out his Nokia cell phone throw on the Kia and the car destroyed.

“With Nokia, there is no Kia.”

Why Nokia needs to attack another brand in their commercials that is not their competitor, let alone the same products as theirs, I do not know. But it does make for a very memorable tagline.

This last commercial comes from one of my best students, Johnny. Johnny noticed that all Apple products take a rather subtle low blow at his Motherland with their engraving, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” So he decided to create a PSA to let the world know what’s up.

Part One: In a wild desert, with the heavy wind blows. A tank rushes with its cannon pointing at a jeep. Then suddenly; the tank destroyes the enemy’s jeep. At last, a slogan is presented on screen. “Designed and made in China.”

Part Two: A sunny day, the sky is so clear that you can’t even see a piece of cloud. Two fighters fly by with the thunder speed. The new type fighter owns charming and technolgically layout so it is inviseable with the Radar Radio. At last, a slogen is presented on screen. “Designed and made in China.”

Part Three: A silver-white battle ship occurs in audience’s eyes. Then, a “sea anti air” missile is launced from the ship. The missile is just like a fire dragon, which dashes to the evil enemy. Then a slogen is presented on screen. “Designed and made in China.”

Above three advertisments are aimed at letting the world know, Chinese wepons are better and better. We will defense any offensive country and not let Chinese people down for ever.

Whoa, heavy stuff there Johnny. I’ll definitely give you props for creativity and patriotism. However, I think I’ll refrain from any other comments, just in case.

 

More good stuff to come – including the winners of the girls’ commercials and the honorable mentions!

“Have You Eaten Today?” – Zombies in China

Here is a good test of our friendship: how many of you saw this post coming?

In my dream world, this would be a post informing you of my master escape plan – if and when the zombie apocalypse hits China. Let’s face it; this place is ripe for ground zero. Not only does it statistically make sense that the plague would start in China due to the sheer number of people living here, but also Max Brooks even predicted this outcome in World War Z  (only my favorite piece of undead literature to date). I mean, instead of asking, “How are you?” when greeting each other, the Chinese literally ask, “Have you eaten today?” This place is a hotbox just waiting to explode. Also, there was that SARS thing…

Point being, I need a plan and I needed it 7 months ago when I first stepped foot in the Motherland. But there are so many facets I must consider that this task has proved to be almost too difficult even for me. Notice I said almost.

And just because I have been too preoccupied in China to hatch my master plan does not mean I have slacked on my zombie culture!

First and foremost, I found my zombie Chinglish shirt. It was patiently waiting for me, nestled in the back corner rack of a night market between the xxxxs t-shirts and the Angry Birds sweatpants. Sure, it’s ugly, but it is also existential.

For those of you who can’t read it, it says (complete with typos):

“The normal quesfion, the first qucstion is always. are these canniblas? No, they are not cannibais. Cannibslism in the true sense of the word implies an intreagecies activy. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other, thant the differebce. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Intelligence? They do not prey on each other, thant the differebce. creaturcs a more from cmbered bohaviours from normal life These are nothing but pure, motorized instinot. We must not be inlaid by the concapt that there are and family membrer or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to fush emotions.”

There is so much hidden meaning buried deep within the layers of this novel that I will only attempt to describe my sweatshirt for you in one word: perfect.

Secondly, I recently discovered that Hollywood is filming a movie adaptation of World War Z (again, my favorite zombie book), staring Brad Pitt. BRAD PITT. What is this world coming to? And why are there no zombie movies starring Robert Downey Jr.?

Finally, what is with this show called “The Walking Dead?” To be fair, I haven’t seen season 2 since I am in China. But thanks to my VPN, I was able to watch season 1 on Netflix, and I just don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, this show is racking in 7 to 8 million views an episode. There is no way there are that many zombie fans in America right now who have nothing to do on a Sunday night paid their cable bills.

I could talk about how the show’s acting is more uninspired than a zombie after a lobotomy. I could mention how the writing is more rotten than a horde of Zeds 28 days later. I could even point out that for a show about zombies, there sure aren’t a lot of them around. Long melodramatic talks? Yes. Satisfying zombie annihilations? No. Seriously, this show should be called “The Talking Dead.” Get it? C’mon, people. Walk the walk here, don’t talk the talk.

Instead, I will let the fan comments demonstrate for me everything I believe to be wrong with this show.

1. On YouTube: “28 Days Later rip-off.”

  • This is akin to calling every new eccentric female singer a rip-off of Lady Gaga and completely disregarding Madonna.   If “The Walking Dead” is a rip-off of anyone, it’s Romero. Who, of course, inspired 28 Days Later (and pretty much every other zombie movie in existence).  Is the storyline unoriginal, dull and lifeless (get it, lifeless)? Yes, but this commenter missed the point by a long shot.

2. On Bloody – Disgusting: “My wife hates horror movies. But this is a show she’ll actually stay up to watch with me. Granted, she cringes at all the gory parts, but she still watches it. This show is a bridge, man.”

  • Anyone remember what the “bridge” was for the vampire genre? TWILIGHT. Enough said.

3. On Huffington Post: “That’s why Sci-Fi is a better channel for simpletons who don’t like good stories… this is why the horror genre is ‘dying’ as some have said. It’s because the ‘fans’ are the problem and have non-existent attention spans.”

  • Is that all zombie fans are? Simpletons with ADHD who spend their time watching the Sci-Fi channel?

Not to get all academic here, but let me explain one of the many reasons I love grindhouse and “B” entertainment. It is one of the only forms of folk art that our generation has left. And a culture needs folk art in order to create a separation between low and highbrow. Otherwise, guess what’s left? Pop culture. Zombies can not and never should be highbrow because we need something on the other end of the spectrum, outside the realm of mass consumption. Renowned pop culture theorist Dwight MacDonald explains it this way:

Folk art grew from below. It was a spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people, shaped by themselves, pretty much without the benefit of High Culture, to suit their own needs. Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying…. Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little garden walled off from the great formal park of their master’s High Culture. But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination.

Hmm, a mass of people mindlessly receiving stimuli telling them what to like and dislike. Sounding familiar at all? Like a zombie, you say? You said it, not me…

If you are an independently thinking individual who moderately to obsessively loves zombies and can give me three solid reasons why you enjoy this show, more power to you. I’m not going to say this show needs to be shot directly in the brain with a sawed-off shotgun. But claiming you are a zombie fan simply because you watch “The Walking Dead” is like claiming you are kinky because you own a pair of pink furry handcuffs you bought to try out Cosmo tip #69. Enough already.

*Phew*

Glad that is off my chest. If you actually like all my zombie rantings and musings, you can read more here. If you like my posts about China better, well, tough luck to you this week. Just be thankful you have a friend who’s prepared when the apocalypse strikes.

Classroom Revelations

As usual, I end up learning as much from my own lessons as my students do.

Case in point: my lesson this past week on the life and death of legends.

The original inspiration came from a conversation I had with a German friend about American stereotypes. When I asked why Europeans believe us to be prude, he explained that it seems our media has an obsession with death and violence, yet when a little sex and nudity get thrown in, we’re suddenly up in arms. Better stated in this list I found online, “You like to watch how people die, but not how they are made.”

So when Whitney Houston recently passed away, I saw a perfect opportunity to test this theory of our obsession with death against an Eastern culture (and yes, I realize the irony in my exploitation of her passing, just go with it).

Not surprisingly, the lesson took a wrong turn right off the bat. Only a handful of students in each class knew who Whitney Houston was. No matter that for the past few weeks since her death, I couldn’t escape her music anytime I left my apartment. I could literally hear the teacher in the classroom next to mine start up “I Will Always Love You,” as my students sat there dumbfounded at my attempts to spark recognition. (Fairly typical considering their school uniform jackets have images of Marilyn Monroe’s face on the lining and I still receive blank stares when I mention her name).

Next, I tried to explain why Houston was not just considered famous, but a legend. I played my own copy of “I Will Always Love You” to showcase her legendary voice.

Curveball: they hated the song.

How this is possible, I will never understand, other than Whitney Houston is not a member of the holy trinity that is Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber and Avril Lavigne. Criticisms ranged from the song being too boring to her voice being too high.  From the looks on their faces, you would have thought I had force-fed them a Heidi Montag remix of a Paris Hilton rap. “Even if you don’t like the song, her voice is powerful, no? It makes you feel some kind of emotion?” I tried. A sea of shaking heads. This lesson was really shaping up.

Later, I had them make a list of other legends they could think of in categories such as sports, music, business and politics. The results felt a lot like a game of “It’s Not Jackie Chan.”

 

And no matter that they had never heard of Whitney. When it became obvious I had never heard of their legendary Chinese examples, many were incredulous. I think I personally offended a few of them. “You know! He invented Google for China, but better!” I’m sorry, I realize I may be playing into the ignorant American stereotype, but that means nothing to me. Mostly because that statement is impossible.

I tried to get them to think of examples on a global scale, but after Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs, they pretty much burned out. Back to Jackie Chan and Chairman Mao and the rest of the gang who honorably dedicated their lives to the betterment of the Motherland (and, of course, Hitler, from my one student who always manages to work Germany into the conversation). But after my unsuccessful attempts to steer the conversation, I realized the joke was on me.  In a country of over 1.3 billion people, who needs fame on a global scale if you’re recognized nationally?

Finally, we discussed what qualities they believed make someone a legend. They recited like robots, “They must be lovely. They must be kind-hearted. They must do good things for others. They must give their money to charity.”

“What about someone’s death?” I asked. “How can the death of a legend make someone even more legendary?”

This threw them for a loop. Then I played an interview of Whitney Houston talking to Oprah Winfrey about the death of Michael Jackson, and all hell broke loose.

 

Apparently, it is still too soon to talk about Michael Jackson’s death in China. At least one student in every class broke out crying – and not just the girls. My bad, I didn’t realize it has only been 3 years.

I realized long ago the lesson had completely derailed, but I still had my last card to play (and 20 minutes to kill). I showed them a “60 Minutes” interview with Lady Gaga. In the video, she talks about “the decay of the superstar.” She explains how the media wants every opportunity to showcase the death of a legend, and that’s what she gives in her performances. “It’s dramatic… it’s a movie,” she says. “Everyone wants to know – what’s she going to look like when she dies?”

Somehow, something somewhere clicked for my students. They suddenly got it – the whole lesson. Hands shot up in the air. Brows were furrowed in deep contemplation. Lives were changed that day.

Ok, I might be giving myself a little too much credit here. But seriously, there is nothing like the satisfaction of helping someone to open their mind to new ideas. You can literally see on their faces the moment the light bulb goes off. And the best part is, once they started talking, they began to open up my mind too.

It’s easy to not take this job seriously sometimes. Many attempts to bridge the cultural gaps simply get lost in translation. Their own teachers often don’t give them the credit they deserve. Their other English classes consist of reciting pronunciation and grammar rules over and over until they’re indistinguishable from broken records. But those brief moments when the cultural barriers come down and both the students and I find the right words to express our ideas clearly to each other? Those moments are priceless.

As my students filed out of the classroom after the lesson, the last girl turned around and mouthed “I love you” to me as she formed a heart with her hands. Leave it to China to teach me we are all more than the sum of our stereotypes.

Emotional Turbulence at the Bangkok Airport

As I’m approaching the 6-month mark of my life as an expat (and the end of my New Year’s travels), I didn’t expect my first significant instance of reverse culture shock to come while waiting in terminal F of the Bangkok airport.

 

First to hit me was the food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been starving after a full night of tutoring and wished with all my heart I could just swing by a fast food place.  Well, anything but KFC (I will never be able to eat there again after China). So here I was, waiting for my plane to board, suddenly bombarded with options. There was Burger King and DQ to my right. I turned two feet to the left and spotted Auntie Anne’s and two pizza joints. I counted seven fast food places in one spot.  SEVEN. This was almost too much.

 

Being the indecisive person that I am, I went with the safest choice: Burger King. All I wanted was a burger, fries and a Coke. My expectations were obviously too high as this was a $10 meal. But considering I was in an airport, my price options were limited. And after 6 months, I thought it might be worth it.

 

I was wrong. I felt absolutely disgusting afterwards. I can’t wait for fried rice again, especially since I can get about 10 gallons of it for the same price.

 

Second was the sheer number of white faces. For the first time, I saw more westerners than Asians. I was no longer a minority. I can’t explain it, but this somehow made me feel out of place, like I had lost my way and ended up at the wrong gate or something.

 

However, I wasn’t complaining because… SO many beautiful men! I couldn’t stop staring! Men I would have never given a second thought to in the States were suddenly mesmerizing. There was one with green eyes. Blue eyes! Blonde hair. Tan skin. Chiseled jawline. Six feet tall. I could go on and on. Any male that was within a reasonable age and weight limit was instantly eye candy. Really, how do womanizers get anything done in life? I was breathless after ten minutes. I even melted at a Justin Beiber look-a-like. Seriously, it’s THAT bad in China.

 

And then I spotted him. Two tables to my right, guzzling down the grease with a side of burger and rinsing with a supersize Pepsi, a Hawkeye man! Never did I think I’d be so happy to see that majestic golden hawk head in its sea of black. Granted, he disqualified for both the age and weight limits, but this guy was still going to get my brightest smile and best Iowan hospitality.

 

“Hi! Are you from Iowa?!” I was literally beaming. I couldn’t wait to start talking about beer pong and corn. Finally, a neighbor, in Bangkok of all places!

 

“Yep. Have a nice trip.” He waved me away. He DISMISSED me.

 

This couldn’t be happening. Maybe he didn’t understand. I naturally get defensive when I suspect someone of judging my Iowan roots. “I’m from Cedar Rapids!” I tried again.

 

“That’s nice. I’m from Fairfield. Have a good flight.” Again with the hand shooing.

 

I walked away deflated. What has happened to the world since I’ve been gone? How could one of the rudest people I’ve met in the past six months come from Iowa? I mean, we don’t have a lot going for us, but hospitality is one of our strong suits. If it had been a Chinese person I met instead, even if they lived at the other end of the Great Wall from me, they would have been my new best friend as soon as I uttered “Ni Hao.” I kid you not, because this actually happened in the Bangkok airport my first time around.

 

On the plane ride I thought of about 20 different remarks I could have made to him in that moment, the tamest involving rebuke for his horrible representation of us half way around the world and the more inventive involving a ceremonial stripping of that sacred Hawkeye symbol that he so clearly did not deserve to wear.

 

But I was caught so unaware in that moment that I could do nothing but walk away. Sure, I had probably just met a bad seed (kernel? heh heh). But reflecting on all my strange sensations that had occurred within the last hour at that terminal made me realize, I am about to experience some crazy reverse culture shock when I get home in five months. And, to be fair, why did I move to China in the first place? For my perspective to remain unchanged after a year? No, this is what I signed up for, and I’m already half way through. Might as well make the most of it.

No Temple Ruins, Only Beginnings

Every personal account I ever read told me Cambodia would change my life. I thought these online confessions were a little cliché and overreaching. So of course, after only two days of being in the country, I was proven wrong.

Getting to Siem Reap, Cambodia was a story all its own. But after settling in, I set out for the infamous Angkor Wat temples this morning (the ones from Laura Croft: Tomb Raider). I had explored them a little the day before at sunset, but I had a 3-day pass and planned to venture a little farther out.

Most people rent tuk tuks to ride around the temples. Tuk tuks are basically open air carts driven by motor scooters. A driver will charge about $10 to $15 dollars to drive you between the temples for a day. While this is pretty cheap compared to what renting a taxi for a full day in America would cost, I’m on a China teachers’ salary. Renting a bike for the day costs only $1.50, plus it doesn’t hurt to throw some exercise in there.

As I headed out of town for the temples, a Cambodian girl biking in front of me kept turning around to smile and wave. I thought this was nice but odd, since the town is literally packed with tourists and I could not imagine why she was singling me out. After several minutes of this I finally biked up next to her and began chatting. Little did I know this was the beginning of one of those life-changing moments.

Unfortunately I have no idea how to type this girl’s name in English. But she is 20 years old. She works as a waitress in a fancy tourist hotel in the city, but lives in a poor village at the foot of the temples. She has to wake up at 4 every morning to bike an hour to work. Then at 3 pm she bikes the hour ride home, only to begin cooking dinner for her family and cleaning the house. Then she takes a free English class for one hour, and is in bed by 8 pm to do it all again the next day. She loved going to school, but was forced to quit after 9th grade because the school was almost a day’s journey away and she needed to get a job to support her family.

Before I knew it, I was off the tourist trail and biking through the foothills of the temples to the girl’s village. I was nothing less of a spectacle as soon as I arrived. Yet it was very different from being a spectacle in China. There, I am constantly stared at like an exhibition in a museum. Here, I felt incredible respected and honored. The girl’s entire extended family (and the neighbors) came to sit and listen to me introduce myself. Her older brother is an English teacher in town, and was able to communicate with me very well and translate for the children and the older relatives who didn’t know much English.

The next thing I knew, I was invited to dinner and someone was sent running to the market to buy fish for the occasion. The rest of the evening was surreal. I watched as the girl began to steam fry rice over an open fire while her aunt killed and cleaned the fish on a wooden block in her back yard. I played soccer with all the children from the village while cattle grazed on the hay we used as our field. Men carrying crops on their backs from a hard day’s worked arrived just as the dinner bell rang. It was time to eat.

I thought I would be sharing the meal with the whole family. Instead, the children were ushered across the alley to begin their English lessons. The men disappeared and the women found things that urgently needed cleaning. Suddenly, it was just me and my new friend sitting at the kitchen table. I looked at her place setting. She had a bowl of rice. I looked at mine. I had rice, a plate of delicately prepared fish and a bowl of fish soup.

The whole fish was just for me. This fish that I had watched the family spend over an hour retrieving and preparing was solely for my consumption. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to be rude or offensive, but how could I sit there and stuff myself with this feast while she simply ate a bowl of rice? I asked the girl if she ate fish often. She looked at me incredulously. This fish costs $3 dollars at the market! Of course they don’t eat it regularly! It is only for very, very special occasions.

My heart was instantly broken and filled at the same time. Who was I to deserve this treatment? They didn’t know me from Adam. Yet here they were, offering me their very finest at a minute’s notice. It’s one thing to grow up in a sheltered environment and know that a large part of the world lives this way. It’s quite another to experience it.

As I got ready to leave, the girl asked me one simple question. Would it be OK if I was her older sister? She had always wanted an older sister.

With hugs and kisses all around, I got back on my bike and headed toward town. However, the warmth and happiness began to soon melt away as I realized my new situation. I was biking alone after sunset. It was dark, there were no streetlights, I had no reflective gear on, the temples had closed hours ago to tourists and I didn’t know my way home in the dark. I began to panic.

Ten minutes later, I heard a motorbike come up behind me. This is it, I thought. Either it’s the police to arrest me, a robber to kidnap me, or a motorist who’s about to run me over.

Then I heard a tiny voice above the engine. “Sister, sister!” It was the girl and her aunt. As their motorbike pulled up next to me, she reached out and grabbed my hand.  We rode like that the whole way back to town. Hand in hand, her motorbike pulling my bicycle through the Cambodian countryside and ancient temple ruins bathed in purple moonlight.

I can’t pinpoint exactly how yet, but I know that after today my life has been changed. Some of the greatest hospitality I have ever received came from one of the poorest families I have ever met. And yet, these villagers appeared much happier than many folks I have met in life.  I have a lot to think about.  And so, as cliché as it might sound, I am yet another testament that yes, whether you like it or not, Cambodia will change your life.

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