She seems to endure a very stressful time whenever she sees her family and always returns having not slept or eaten which in her present fragile condition leaves her looking sallow and haggard, yet despite me not cutting her any emotional slack, after a day of being with me, sleeping and eating well, she always recovered quickly and would be happy and glowing – and I could still despatch her off to bed in time for the football.
Indeed once before I did that I surveyed the scene; a small apartment, me with my work on my lap, the footie on the TV, my computer on one side and my best girl on the other and I thought, “this is bloody brilliant.”
I had in fact segued into a routine of domestic bliss with no significant transition at all: I’d sit with a mound of papers in the living room, listen to her with a plastic bowl, scrubbing brush and mountain of washing in the bathroom and it all felt just right. Since that New Year’s Eve I’d only been out once whilst she stayed with me, preferring to spend all evening every evening gazing into her eyes.
The third day of the new year demonstrated that her family’s wretched luck was not going to diminish. I’d sent her to the market to buy homey stuff whilst I endured my chaotic first day in the new job. On my return I detected that all was not well and it took another two hours of patience, reassurance and tenderness to draw out the story.
She was at the market with the sister she officially lives with. A friend brought news that the sister’s drunken wastrel of a husband had been in a motorbike accident and was in hospital. This brother-in-law had forcibly borrowed the phone I bought my girl for Christmas for ‘a couple of hours’ three days previously and had not returned it; as he and his friend lay dazed in the road they were relieved of their watches, phones and other valuables: such is Cambodia.
The sister wanted her to keep vigil with her overnight at the hospital but my lass was angry concerning the phone and refused. I suggested she should make peace with her sister at least and go to the hospital but she wasn’t willing.
I’ve said repeatedly that this girl and her family give me such a unique and deep insight into the lives and minds of ordinary Khmers. That’s true in more ways than you might imagine. You know how when you come across a kid who is repeatedly bullied by diverse others or an adult who seems to be a victim in multifarious ways you begin to wonder whether there isn’t something about that person which is in a sense ‘asking for it’?
Are Khmers poor and downpressed because they are viciously exploited or because they are lazy? There is a great deal of truth in the observation that there are two kinds of Khmers in Cambodia; dirt poor peasants and the filthy rich – what they have in common is that neither of them know what hard work is; all the businesses are run by Chinese and Vietnamese, and will be until the economic and social revolution centred in our university pervades into the wider community.
There was one aspect about my girlfriend that had always grated on me but my superhuman qualities of patience and understanding caused me to overlook it for so long but in the end I couldn’t ignore it anymore. It’s the Khmer concept of time.
For months before we were in a relationship and she moved in with me a persistent pattern went like this: ”I’ll meet you at 7 o’clock/in 10 minutes’. Then she’d turn up three or four hours later – or days later if she went to see her mother, if she came at all. And she rarely thought to call me if she was going to be late or cancel.
I put it down to her illness at the time. We only have one set of keys and time and again I’d come home exhausted and starving after a long day at work with a pile of papers to go through and I’d be locked out.
The excuse was usually something like she popped round to see her sister who borrowed her phone to nip out and see a friend and return hours later or something – nothing pressing or urgent.
I tried everything – reasoning, kindness, firmness, anger, refusing to see her but it made no difference. She had told her family she had a new job as a domestic worker, taking care of a family, yet being typical Khmers no one thought it odd she was so rarely ‘at work’ (she couldn’t tell them she was living with a guy) until she was ‘fired’.
A further tension crept in, inevitably concerning money and the family. Her mother hadn’t celebrated the Chinese New Year for a couple of years due to lack of funds but she decided this year, despite unprecedented financial hardships, to have a big bash.
On learning that her daughter had just procured new employment, she importuned her to ask her boss for a month’s salary in advance and give the entire sum to her. My girlfriend concurred.
When I learnt this I informed her that I had no intention of funding a party and I told her she should have discussed this with me first. It upset me that the mother had sniffed out a kind and moneyed barang helping the family through a series of crises and responded like the stereotype.
That made it awkward that I’d accepted the invitation to visit them at this time, but there was a further problem here: the holiday was due to stretch from Saturday to Tuesday, but I only had Saturday and Sunday off and I’d need to return on the Sunday.
With the persistent family pattern I described above I realised that in all probability I’d be marooned in a remote village and risk losing my job. I didn’t mention that another factor is that I didn’t want to be discussing marriage and investing in a business at this stage, or not until a long period of time had elapsed and I could be sure these issues were not going to continue.
In addition a sense of suspicion was beginning to creep in on learning that her mother was suddenly talking about selling the property in the province and renting accommodation in the city.
Now that might have been due to the experience with the cops but I couldn’t help thinking that she might have been scheming along the lines of, ‘My daughter’s about to marry a rich, kind barang; let’s move the whole family to within hand-out distance.’ Smell that barang dollar; bees to the honey-pot.
I may have been wrong on all counts but the feeling of discomfort was growing. I guess my backing out must have come across as a serious double-snub even though it was their persistent unreliability that brought me to the decision and I’d never even hinted that I might fund the event.
It’s not as if she was deliberately deceiving me or being greedy or intentionally causing me problems but after presenting the situation in simple black-and-white terms it made no difference at all. It’s a very deep-seated Khmer trait to make a life out of sitting around doing nothing, being inconsiderate, unreliable and thoughtless and asking an individual to change such a habit is challenging enough but she’s not an individual; she part of a typically Khmer family and it was unrealistic to expect her to get her act together.
She simply couldn’t extricate herself, even momentarily, from her family’s daily woes. I asked her if just once she would tell them, ‘It’s 8.30, I have to go’; it was a demand too far.
She insisted that she would, so I waited for her at home – and she never showed. She turned off her phone to ensure I couldn’t contact her. Why? Not for any sinister or deceptive reason and I finally worked out the real motive for the Asian angle on truth.
I’ve explained before how Asians will tell you what they think you want to hear and I’d reasoned that it was because they don’t want to hurt your feelings by giving you bad news. I now see that the motive is more self-centred and cowardly; they tell you the nice thing rather than the truthful thing because they don’t want to deal with an awkward situation.
Thus, rather than call me to say she’d be ten minutes late and risk upsetting me she’d turn off her phone and not come at all – that way she’d avoid any initial confrontation and not see or hear me be upset.
When she’d show up a day or two later she’d be hoping I’d somehow forgotten all about it, but when she’d realise I was even more upset at her behaviour she react by disappearing and going incommunicado for an even longer period.
At the same time I was moving on the fringe of elevated circles and I’m sorry to be snobbish but with the way my career is going I figured I couldn’t have a wife who is causing me problems every single day due to her and her family’s basic ineptness and unreliability, constantly dragging me down or embarrassing me by failing to accompany me to functions for no better reason than she was busy watching karaoke TV at her sister’s hairdressing shop.
I explained all this clearly and patiently, repeatedly over a long period of time. I don’t think I was asking too much really, and I pleaded with her to be more considerate; what more could I do? Another heart broken and I’m really really sorry, but I had to finish this relationship.
But I couldn’t …