We were talking about other stuff before the conversation shifted, as conversations do. Sitting in the teacher's lounge, killing those last ten, fifteen minutes before class starts, those in-between minutes, when nothing new ever seems to get done, or even started. Empty time.
Earlier that morning during my run I had noticed small groups of Cambodian students clustered around a few of the myriad photocopy shops that litter what passes as Phnom Penh's landscape. My mind flashed back to a CAMBODIA DAILY article I had read earlier in the week, about the ease with which Cambodian students cheat on high school exams. Paying off the supposed 'monitors'. Having their parents throw, yes, throw copies of the answer sheets over the gates of the school, tossing the sheets of paper like bouquets at a wedding. Crazy shit like that. Cambodian shit like that.
A Cambodian colleague, twenty-five years old, nodded his head solemnly as I told him about all this stuff. As a young student, all of his classmates had cheated -- but not him. They would ask him for the answers, him being the smart one, but he would say no, no, you have to do it on your own, and then they'd be pissed. Riteously so.
He did the right thing. That's what he said, and I believe him. He looks like the kind of fellow who wants to do the right thing, a distinct rarity in a country where everyone so often seems to be doing the wrong thing. Always.
The late-afternoon sun feebly shone its way through the window. Everything in the room seemed blue and gray, and I liked that. I took a sip of water. I listened to the air conditioner, felt its chill. Cold. Cold and direct.
It's strange. How the things and topics we talk about can so readily bend and break and reassemble themselves into new formations only ostensibly composed of earlier, related components. Somehow I found myself talking about what it's like to live alone. No parents. No faimly. In Japan and Cambodia. Starting anew.
He longed for that experience, this teacher did. It didn't even have to be in a foreign country; a foreign house would do just fine. He lived with his older brother and his sister-in-law. The brother always told him what to do and when to do it, all the time, constantly. Was it the same in Canada, he wanted to know. That's what so many Khmers ask: Is it the same over there? Are you different? Is it just us? (Isn't that what we all want to ask?)
I nodded. Thought about it. Said that it was somewhat the same, yes, but more people in Canada live on their own, away from their families. They see them on weekends, or every other month. The children put their parents away in a 'special' place when they get too old and they smell too bad.
"That's what I want," he said. "Space. I don't need to see my brother and his wife every night. Telling me to clean the house. I am a teacher, not a cleaner. I see them enough. Love has already gone away from there."
I nodded, thinking how often I've heard Khmers say phrases that sound somewhat odd but are true nevertheless.
Of course, if he lived alone, he would have to do everything for himself, without his brother's help; there was that to consider, he said. And besides, he was still a baby, crying to his sweetheart, begging her forgiveness, enduring his taunts. If that was life, well, so be it.
"I'm twenty-five now," he said, smiling slightly. Gathering his papers and fixing his tie. "I'm a man now."
I gathered my papers and fixed my tie.
The sun was faded now, a muted, half-assed pink. The ash-grey, early evening light dimly lit the dark blue room. The air conditioner was still on high, and I felt it. I stood up and picked up my bag and followed him out of the room.