The story I’m sure you’ve been waiting for…
On New Year’s Eve, we were invited to a party by a military official known to Hunsaders through former visits when they taught English classes on military bases. The official had attended church here and invited them to teach. It was an important connection. We were told they were expecting us to attend and looking forward to it. All of us girls bought accessories and dresses at the market thinking it would be much more formal than our tourist attire, and even then we expected to be underdressed. I was envisioning the general’s home which I had been told was worth several million even here in Cambodia. I was wondering what kind of conversations we would have with military personnel and other invited guests because they enjoy practicing their English any time westerners are around. We were in the van, on the way to the event when it was found out that the party was to be at a restaurant instead of the general’s residence.
As we got closer to the address it became apparent that we were not in the best of districts. Still, there is such a mixture of new with old, commercial properties right next to shacks, etc… that we continued on in expectation. Pulling over at the address, which was confirmed by the persons greeting us, we were honestly not believing what we saw. The general’s wife was there to open the door and pull us out (literally) and direct us inside what they call a KTV establishment. K stands for Karaoke and you know what TV is but the Cambodian twist on this business is that it’s a brothel. Girls are lined up or sitting in rows at the entrance waiting for customers. Inside was a stage and the act at the moment was a man singing LOUDLY with a line up of girls on each side with what Mr. Hunsader described as “kind of short skirts” and Mrs. Hunsader described as “kind of, no way! they could not have been any shorter”. The place was actually like a large metal garage, bare beams inside, floors of cement and dirt in some areas, and the lighting was mostly flashy Christmas lights and spotlights on the stage. Tables full of people covered most of the main floor. All of us were wondering how short we could make this visit and still be not totally insulting to the hosts.
What I am told is that Cambodian society is such that they are able to compartmentalize their lives very distinctly. They can be Christians on Sunday, another type of person at work, and yet another type of person socially and it is all perfectly normal and acceptable. At the first marriage conference that Hunsaders did for the military, many men asked if they could bring their mistresses. Marriages are often arranged and lacking in passion and mistresses are common. The answer at the marriage conference was “no” by the way.
Mike and Trish were ushered to a large square table in the center of the room where the general and VIPs were already eating and drinking. Mike began hurriedly covering the socially necessary conversations. Trish busied herself giving him frantic “let’s get out of here” messages with her eyes whenever possible.
The rest of us were ushered up to a front row, empty table, right next to the loudspeakers, where we could see the show, I guess. Our host sent two girls up to keep us company and since they sat by me I tried to engage them in conversation. I am sure they wanted to practice their English. Soon, to my relief, four other people whom I recognized from church, were brought to our table. One was fluent in English and she told me the party was not quite what they expected either. At least I think that was what she told me. The music was so loud that I felt fairly deaf by that time. Also, by this time Tyler and Wayne, who had been sitting with us, had already had enough and left, taking a tuk tuk back home by themselves. So much for male chivalry.
The traditional Cambodian celebratory meal began to arrive, dish by dish. I recognized the rice, that was all. My English speaking friend, who was becoming more dear to me by the moment, tried to explain what the dishes were and the other Cambodians waited, looking at us, for the guests to eat first. Great, just great. We had eaten pizza at the mall with the kids, thankfully, and could truthfully say we weren’t very hungry. Nevertheless, it is polite to eat something so I put some things on my plate.
One of the dishes was chicken. I could tell by the foot, which was pretty plain, sticking out of the pile of meat. Chicken in Cambodia always is in brown chunks, always has skin and gristle attached and always has bones. If you saw their live chickens you would know why. They are skinny and tall and my guess is that they just chop them up, bones and all, because there’s not that much meat.
Another dish is probably what they call salad. It does have cabbage and carrot and crunchy noodles in it but also lots of squid. No eat squid. I picked around it and ate some vegetables.
The other two dishes my friend told me straight out “you no eat”. Cambodian’s frequently and with much delight eat something called prohauk (my phonetic spelling) which is rotted fish. Did I say rotted? I meant fermented, which sounds better but is pretty much the same thing. One dish was meat-loaf-looking and the other was a soup. I hear they put prohauk as a flavoring in lots of other things too.
While I was pushing food around on my plate with my chopsticks and wishing the music would stop, Pattie and Alyssa left me to find the restroom. They were guided away from several likely looking doors where other “activities” were taking place and finally found Trish in the bathroom as well. Plans were laid. They came back to the table with Trish and Trish asked which one of them was ill. Pattie said she was ill, very ill, and needed to go home right away. Trish left to tell Mike.
Meanwhile, our hostess, the general’s wife was concerned that we westerners might not be having enough fun so she came by with a bottle of champagne. It was French and she wanted me to have some (according to my interpreter) so I said yes. She took my glass which already had a soft drink in it, dumped it in a plant, and poured my champagne. It was pretty good. Everyone at the table lifted their glasses for a toast and we wished each other Happy New Year. Honestly, I was just trying to be brave and sensitive to the fact that this was an important connection for our mission team. Pattie and Alyssa were looking at me like I was crazy every time I made an attempt to be friendly. I wasn’t feeling very supported.
The hostess came back and asked me if the champagne was good. I said yes. She went for the bottle and filled my glass up again. You really have to watch what you say to these people. She asked me something else and the interpreter relayed it to me “do you dance”. She had to repeat the word dance about five times before I understood it – between the loud music, her accent and my total lack of context for the subject. I said I danced a little, sometimes. The hostess chugged right up to the stage and told the musician to play some dance tunes. She announced that dancing would begin and, by golly, she was right. People got up and started to dance. The hostess came to me and insisted that we dance and have fun. At this point getting up and leaving the table seemed, at the very least, to be a move in the right direction even if it was to dance. All three of us girls, and our church friends as well, got up and were dancing. At about the same time Mike was making excuses about the sudden illness that had come upon one of us, never mind the fact that the ill person could now be seen dancing.
I’m nearly at the end of this New Year’s Eve story. We probably danced all of 90 seconds before we saw them coming to rescue us. We left and our hosts walked us all the way out to our van. We discussed the happening all the way home, mostly laughing at our total naivete about what the evening would be like. It was a glimpse of this society that we weren’t expecting to encounter quite so closely. But perhaps our concern about victims of human trafikking needed to be quickened by a look on the “inside”.