Catching Up No. 4: Sit and Play

One variety of home style sit and play - Phnom Penh

One variety of home style sit and play – Phnom Penh

This is the fourth article of a series I have dubbed, “Catching Up,” also known as, “An Attempt to Redeem Myself.” The series covers the period between January and March when there was a big gap called, “The Time When I Wrote Nothing.” We continue this series with day two and three of fieldwork in Battambang, made possible with the assistance of HelpAge, an international NGO that works to advocate for marginalized populations of older people. Their head office in Cambodia is based in Battambang. 

Lounging comes in a variety of forms. There’s one man who practices a version on my street.

On the street corner is a beauty salon, in front of the beauty salon is a bench, and on top of the bench sits the lounging man, regularly naked, save for the checkered krama around his waist. I used to send a neighborly nod and smile his way if I was ever walking by during his morning perch period. He does not speak much. Although, one time I did hear him sneeze. And then another time I did hear him say, “Oh!” when a black, wooly bear of dog jumped at me in the street. I’ve now just settled for his poker-facing the side of my skull.

With the exception of my neighbor, I have found loungers to be some of the most naturally skilled hosts, particularly the loungers I met during fieldwork in Battambang.

After the first Battambang day with Sak, I entered a two-day collaborative arrangement with HelpAge in Cambodia. When I told an Australian-Khmer friend of mine who worked for HelpAge that I had been meaning to make it out to the Moung Russei district in Battambang to do some work, because that was where my mother’s family was located during the Khmer Rouge period, she mentioned that HelpAge had some assignments there. So we struck an agreement. I would help them interview two elderly women in Moung Russei and write up the case studies, and in exchange they would help me get to my sites of interest in the district.

This was the plan for our two days in Moung Russei:

Day 1

Interview for first case study in Prey Nil village. Interview for second case study in Srey Oeu village. Break for lunch. Discover that pineapples in Moung Russei are truly sublime. Look for memorial at Wat Chrey. Look for memorial at Wat Tha Loas Chah.

Conducting an interview for the first case study in Prey Nil village with HelpAge - Moung Russei, Battambang (Photo by Xuan Dong Le)

Conducting an interview for the first case study in Prey Nil village with HelpAge – Moung Russei, Battambang (Photo by Xuan Dong Le)

Day 2

Stop by the Moung commune hall for a HelpAge meeting with the commune chief and to inquire after memorial sites in the area. Head to the villages of Koan Ka’ek, Boeung Bei, and Pratheat, the areas where my mother’s family was during the genocide.

Riding on the back with Sampov (for hours) on day two in Moung Russei - Pratheat, Battambang

Riding on the back with Sampov (for hours) on day two in Moung Russei – Pratheat, Battambang

During the course of the two days, I was a grateful recipient of the assistance of four HelpAge staff members based in Battambang:

  • Angela Lim, the intuitive and discerning administrator, as well as the Australian-Khmer friend who initially proposed the joint project;
  • Sampov Bun, the feisty and passionate community organizer, who manages to wear a turtleneck in tropical weather and make everyone who comes into contact with her simply love her;
  • Xuan Dong Le, the dedicated HelpAge volunteer hailing from Vietnam and our photographer for the case studies; and
  • Sunheng Chab, our loyal and patient driver, who didn’t really smile for any pictures but was immensely friendly and personable nonetheless.

With the help of this team, I was able to get to three memorial sites in the Moung Russei district – Chrey, Tha Loas Chah, and Russei. The few memorial structures we came into contact with were valuable for the sake of adding content to my research. However, when I process the notes from Moung Russei, I don’t find myself exceptionally fascinated by the memorial structures. Rather, my brain is much more absorbed with something else I found there: the loungers.

(I should acknowledge that my brain was also partially absorbed with Battambang’s temple statues. These large colorful concrete statues of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which I had never seen before at any temple sites in other parts of the country, were a common sight at every temple I went to in Battambang. I felt like I was at Disneyland.)

Example of one of the many statues found on the grounds of Battambang temples - Wat Chrey, Battambang (Photo by Angela Lim)

Example of one of the many statues found on the grounds of Battambang temples – Wat Chrey, Battambang (Photo by Angela Lim)

The loungers of Moung Russei were typically older men, on average 50 years of age and above. They hailed from the local villages surrounding the temples and seemed to frequent the pagodas regularly. For them, the temples were a social space. At Chrey, we strolled onto a shaded pavilion where a group of them were sprawled across stone benches, chatting lightly amongst each other – lounging. Later that day at Tha Loas Chah, we scrambled across from one building to another to find someone who might know where the elusive memorial was located within the temple walls. We finally found a monk in the shade of a building under construction. He was lounging. On the second day, when it was just Sampov and me out in the field, at Russei we ended up sitting with an older monk and his hammock – lounging again.

Sampov and I counseling with 71-year old Lang Chhay Vuon Yen, the lounger we bumped into at the temple - Wat Chrey, Battambang (Photo by Angela Lim)

Sampov and I counseling with 71-year old Lang Chhay Vuon Yen, the lounger we bumped into at the temple – Wat Chrey, Battambang (Photo by Angela Lim)

I hypothesize spring heat imbibes Khmer culture with strong inclinations towards lounging.

The loungers who absorbed the largest chunk of my Battambang memory were actually at a temple that did not have a standing, existing genocide memorial. Sampov and I came to it on day two at Koan Ka’ek. According to conversations with my mother and two of her older sisters, their mother and one younger sister (my grandmother and aunt) were taken to a clinic at Koan Ka’ek. Both grandmother and aunt died from illness and were buried near the clinic. I wanted to see the clinic, but it turned out that the clinic, which originally stood outside the front wall of the temple, had been torn down and a school built in its place, in the same vicinity as the Koan Ka’ek village commune hall. I took a couple of pictures of the school that had replaced the clinic, to send to my mother and aunts, and said a little prayer for my grandmother and aunt.

The school now standing on the grounds where a former Khmer Rouge clinic used to stand and where my grandmother and aunt passed away during the Khmer Rouge period - Koan Ka'ek, Battambang

The school now standing on the grounds where a former Khmer Rouge clinic used to stand and where my grandmother and aunt passed away during the Khmer Rouge period – Koan Ka’ek, Battambang

Sampov and I learned this information, and some more, from the loungers at Koan Ka’ek. These men were scattered on benches and in hammocks beneath leafy trees and one exceptionally full bougainvillea near the front entrance of Wat Koan Ka’ek. One of the loungers was an endearing spectacle, swanked in a black polo, wrist encircled by a shiny watch, eyes shaded by shiny aviators, one finger bearing the metallic weight of a shiny ring. I would not have thought much of his appearance if I was in the high roller’s suite of a Las Vegas casino, but at a quiet temple in rural Cambodia, it was impossible not to notice him (and maybe spend more seconds than was polite staring at him).

One of the men kindly put out on the bougainvillea petal-sprinkled table a pot of jasmine tea and a plate of plumply pulpy grapefruit. Then, our communal lounging commenced. The Koan Ka’ek loungers were for the most part initially unmoved by the presence Sampov and I imposed upon our arrival. But Sampov, absolute master at easing strangers and engaging them in conversation, lightly coaxed up a roundtable discussion. Like an obedient apprentice, I just sat next to her and followed her every move, which included asking the occasional question, responding with “Hm” to everything said, and peeling the grapefruit.

We talked of the temple’s recent history since the genocide, the origin of the name “Koan Ka’ek” (reported to be a type of bird commonly seen frequenting the trees in the area), the clinic and what happened to it, and the memorial that used to be on site. They said there were mass graves towards the back wall of the temple and that there used to be a memorial near the front. However, the bones disintegrated and the structure fell into ruin and disappeared.

Though there was no memorial to be found, the visit did not go to waste. It left me thinking about how one creates a hospitable space for conversation. The loungers were remarkable hosts, a role that I believe is fostered by a culture of lounging. It should be noted that one kind of lounging is equivalent to being plain lazy. (I have personally witnessed this kind of lounging.) But there’s another kind of actively engaging and communal lounging that reminds me of a Khmer verb: khuoy laing. It literally translates to “sit and play.”

If I’m paying a social call to family, and I walk into the common space where guests are received, I’m told, “Khuoy laing.” An aunt will smile and insist that I sit down. The definition of khuoy laing is something like if you bred the verbs, “wait” and “enjoy,” similar to the phrase, “Make yourself at home.” The last time I was asked to sit and play was last week when I stopped by the tailor. After I walked into the store front and handed them my receipt, a young woman working there smiled and uttered the courteous khuoy laing with her hand gesturing me towards a chair. (One of the blue plastic chairs ubiquitous across this country. Either every plastic chair producer in Cambodia is making the exact same chair, or there is a filthy rich plastic chair business owner out there.)

To khuoy laing is to be welcomed into a space in preparation to be served. At Koan Ka’ek, this service was not simply limited to being given a place to sit along with some food and beverage on the side. The service encompassed more than that. It included dialogue and exchange and stories, all which came at the willingness of the loungers to care for Sampov and I, the strangers. We were given what every good Khmer host would offer: to khuoy laing.

Before we left, the shiny watch-shiny shades-shiny ring lounging host urged me to take the rest of the grapefruit. But, like every good Khmer guest, I said something to the effect of, “Thank you, I’ve already eaten so much. Thank you, please keep it for yourself. Thank you, you are so kind. Thank you.” We said goodbye (and thank you) to the khuoy laing advocates of Koan Ka’ek. One day, hopefully soon as my time is running out, I aspire to strike hospitable rapport with the lounger on my street. I’m not insistent on an invitation to sit and play. But an amiable nod would be nice. I’ll even take a grunt of acknowledgement.

Thank you Angela, Bong Sampov, Lee, and Pou Sunheng. You were a dream team indeed.

Staff of HelpAge made fieldwork in Battambang a rewarding collaborative project, from left to right, Angela Lim, Sampov Bun, Xuan Dong Le, and Sunheng Chab - Wat Chrey, Battambang

Staff of HelpAge made fieldwork in Battambang a rewarding collaborative project, from left to right, Angela Lim, Sampov Bun, Xuan Dong Le, and Sunheng Chab – Wat Chrey, Battambang

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