did you miss the Intro to Black Jack?
I. THE DEALER
I’d been traveling through Southeast Asia for over a month now and had just arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, the so-called “Pearl of Asia”. I took an overnight flight from Bali to Kuala Lumpur and then landed in Phnom Penh around 10:30 AM. I lingered on the airport Burger King’s wifi for a bit and then begrudgingly paid a whole $12 for a tuk-tuk ride to my hostel, but not without a few grunts. I was now used to living on $12 a day. Huh, they use American money here, I thought. My tuk-tuk driver inspected each bill thoroughly, looking for the slightest hint of damage, before allowing me into his vehicle.
The first thing I noticed about being in Cambodia was all the dust. It was like a third world Burning Man desert storm out here. But beyond all the bumps in torn up dusty roads, and motorbikes whizzing by, I felt an unexplainable ominous presence, something dark hanging over everything–which I promptly dismissed as sleep deprivation. I arrived safely at Packer’s Choices Hostel, ignored the medium-sized cockroach that scuttled across the floor of the six-bed women’s dorm room and passed out in my bottom bunk bed labeled “FM1”
When I woke up my hunger was raging. I didn’t even bother changing my clothes, kept on the same black jeans and wrinkled black T-shirt, put on my black wide-brimmed felt hat and headed out the door.
My hostel was across from the Royal Palace by Sisowath Quay, the historic riverfront at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. The street that followed along the river was lined in tall international flags, and filled with touristy shops and restaurants and bars on the other side.
This was the first time I was truly, truly alone. Finally, I thought. I had previously spent two weeks with a long-time friend and her new Malaysian boyfriend. By the time we split ways in Indonesia, I was making my own social circle. Locals, families, shop owners, fellow travelers. New people sure, but people I had chosen to put my trust in. All of a sudden I had no one.There was not a single person in this entire country who I knew or could call on for assistance. But honestly, it didn’t strike me then. I was flyin’ highhhhhh.
I walked a few blocks while reading some food reviews through an app on my iPhone when a man standing next to his motorbike in-between food stalls said HELLO. He told me my hat was neat and that I looked like a cowboy.
“Are you from Texas?” he asked me with a childlike grin on his face. He looked about 35 to 45 years old, had a stripped polo shirt on with a wrinkled collar, and shorts with cargo pockets. He gave off a very 90’s dad vibe, which is to say, his demeanor struck me as completely harmless.
“No, I’m not, but thanks!” Until then it seemed like no one wanted to engage with me, so I figured I better be polite instead of making some wise-ass joke about Texas.
“Did you get that hat while traveling? Here in Cambodia?” he asked.
“No, I got it back home in California”, I told him. It was a technically a lie since I got the hat on Gili Trawangan, a tiny little island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia, because this Italian chick left it behind in a big garbage bag filled with stuff that she didn’t want anymore at my beach bungalows–but I figured explaining all that was sort of pointless.
“Really?” He said it with such genuine curiosity I broke into a smile. “Where in California?”
“San Francisco, that’s where I live”. Technically this was a lie too, since I lived in Oakland, at least before my lease ended–technically I was technically homeless. I had never even lived in San Francisco (yet) but had been routinely answering that way because of its international familiarity.
“Reeeeaaally?” he says again, his eyes lighting up even more now. “My younger sister was offered a position as a nurse in San Francisco, at St. Francis Memorial Hospital”.
“No way!” I say with my stomach growling, not even considering how much of a coincidence it would be. At this point in my travels, I had met people from all over the world, even a woman who lived a few blocks away from me in Oakland, a pair of brothers from my old neighborhood in Cincinnati, and some Philadelphians who knew the same people as me.
Anything’s possible right?
“Oh I wish you could meet her.” He put his head down. “My uncle does not want her to take the position. We are very worried about it because we have never been to America before. We don’t have money for living in America. My sister is scared and does not know what to do. Maybe if you came to my home and spoke to my Uncle he would let her take the job. It is big opportunity for my family. She could ask you questions about San Francisco. Please, won’t you come? Won’t you come for dinner?”
My first instinct was to throw all caution to the wind and say hell yeah. I was on a high from traveling. There I was: single female, doin’ the damn thing, jetsetting around Southeast Asia. (or so I thought) For weeks all I really had to count on was my own street smarts, resourcefulness and undying sense of adventure. And it had taken me pretty far if I do say so myself. I had already had some of the most deeply transformative experiences of my life, and most of them transpired from chance encounters and random synchronicities just like this. In fact, most of them transpired from exactly what was being proposed now–that I accompany a local to his family’s home for dinner.
So I got on the back of his motorbike, and off we went. What could possibly go wrong?
You only live once, right? I could always just leave if things got shady, right?
It was almost like Sunny, (that’s what he said his name was) was driving in circles. We cruise past the Independence Monument traffic circle twice. But what do I know?–I just got here a few hours ago. It’s kinda hard to miss though, a 20 meter high, lotus-shaped, Khmer-style tower, smack dab in the center of a chaotic roundabout with motorbikes whizzing by at every angle. After about ten minutes of worrying whether I just made a bad decision, we arrive on a side-street off another residential street, away from the hustle and bustle of Sisowath Quay. “Don’t forget my name–Sunny!” he tells me as he ushers me through a gate and up a set of stairs.
“Here’s my sister” he gestures towards the woman approaching the door.
“Hi I’m Mie”, she says. Mie gives off an instant feeling of warmth, and I feel my tense shoulders relax.
See–it’s fine, everything’s fine.
Sunny disappears after the abrupt introduction, but Mie leads me by the arm through the doorway to a couch in a very minimally furnished living room. She fires off at least one hundred questions before I have the chance to really observe my surroundings. She asks about the cost of living in San Francisco, what this costs what that costs what everything costs, the weather, the culture–no topic is left untouched. She’s looks about 35-40 years old, has nice jewelry on, a slightly more fashionable style than her brother Sunny, and short coarse hair that looks like it has been dyed a bit reddish. Her English is terrific.
“How much is your rent? How much lunch price? How much you use to buy food? Is your t-shirt from San Francisco? What you pay for it? Is your family in California? Why you not with your family? Do you miss them? What do you do for a living? What is your paycheck? Is the weather cold? Golden Gate Bridge? Do you have boyfriend? Really? Why you not have boyfriend? How you get to Cambodia? Why? How many days you e’stay here? You just got here today, huh? Where you e’stay? Alone? Why you come here alone? Where your friends? You not e’scared?”
She sounded Spanish to me. She wasn’t giving me much time to answer thoughtfully before firing off the next question, giving my arm a gentle squeeze each time. I felt like I wasn’t even getting the chance to breathe. It was almost like she wasn’t even listening to the content of my responses before rattling off the next series of detailed, but subtly meaningless questions. But I was giddy over all the attention. It’s a big ego boost being in a foreign country and having strangers think your life is worth so much interest. I was glad for it, who doesn’t like talking about themselves?
Just as I’m about to start inquiring about her job offer in San Francisco, Mie announces she will go prepare dinner.
Ah yes, I’m looking forward to my first Cambodian home-cooked meal. I keep looking down the hallway, trying to sniff the air to get a whiff of what is cooking. Should I offer to help? Or is it more polite to just sit here and wait? There’s not much to look at in this room they’ve left me in. I’m seated on an especially Western-style couch with a coffee table. There is a television across the room. A side table with a lamp. Not much else. I notice there are no personal effects anywhere. No “decor”. I was used to lots of family photographs or at least a celebrity poster or something tacky on the wall.
It was almost like no one really lived here.
Where did Sunny go? Where is their uncle? Where’s all the little kids of the family, bouncing around, beaming at me but too shy to come closer? I’m ready to sit in a circle and get my grub on with these gracious strangers halfway across the world.
But when Mie returns she is holding a single bowl of spaghetti. I feel confused, but before I have time to ponder on the incongruence of the meal I’m being served, Mie insists I start eating. “You look so hungry”, she says rubbing my back. And I am. And it smells wonderful. So I start shoveling fork-fulls of steaming spaghetti in a meaty herby sauce into my mouth. “This is just like something my grandma might make”, I look up to tell Mie, but she’s already disappeared back into the kitchen.
It would be days before I realized that’s exactly how they wanted me to feel, instantly comforted and at ease.
Like I was home.
An older man enters and introduces himself as Epol, their uncle. Though he speaks softly, he commands attention to each of his words.
“It is our custom in Asian homes not to talk while eating. You enjoy.” He tells me and continues to stand above me. I shut my mouth and start slurping up the last noodles in my bowl, when the thought strikes me that no one else is eating with me.
Pretty sus right?
Sunny is still nowhere to be found. Mie is now standing there looking at me earnestly, almost like her eyes are persuading me to eat another bite. “More?” she asks, smiling wide. I shake my head, and then I push back the icy herbal drink they had given me. I stare at the condensation ring left behind on the table, glistening in the light coming through the window behind me. Uncle Epol is watching me, a bit too intensely for comfort. He’s wearing brown pants, a button-down shirt, and round eye glasses. He’s got brown freckles across his cheeks. Sunspots.
Something doesn’t feel quite right. But then again, everything in Southeast Asia feels a little off. I performed a traditional Bidayuh dance on a stage in a huge shopping mall my first night in Borneo, I sang Afroman’s “Because I Got High” at a Karaoke bar that doubled as a brothel, I got a bamboo handtap tribal tattoo, I puked my guts out after binge-drinking warm homemade rice wine in a 100 year old longhouse in the jungle, I fell in love with a boy on an island who couldn’t read or write and didn’t own shoes, I stole a Muslim’s virginity during Ramadan, I kicked down a glass door at a Balinese warung for no apparent reason—so by now, nothing much surprised me in Southeast Asia. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but this was definitely weird, right?
I flashback to less than 24 hours prior, sitting in the car on my way to the Kuala Lumpur airport with my new friend Leo, who I had met during Gawaii celebrations in Sarawak…
“I don’t like you going to Cambodia alone-lah,” Leo looked at me sternly as he merged left across four lanes.
“Haha, I’m a big American girl, I can take care of myself, I’ll be fine Leo-lah, boleh!”
“Podaa! You need to be very careful.” His knuckles were clenching the wheel, turning white. “You don’t understand our ways here. You must be very careful who you share time with.” It was still so dark outside the windows.
“What do you mean?” The conversation seemed to have taken a turn away from lighthearted. It’s 4AM in the morning and I just had a 4 hour layover after an evening flight from Bali. How many time zones had I crossed?
“You were safe with us in Sarawak. We protect you. Our Protectors protect you. But now you will be alone-lah.” He paused but seemed like he was not quite finished. “You must be careful not to take food or drink from strangers.”
“What you mean like, I’ll get poisoned?”
I had laughed at him tenderly in that moment in the car, but now his words were echoing in my ears. I swallow loudly, like I’m gulping for a breathe of a better reality. Had I made a grave mistake? Has it really been less than 24 hours since that car ride?
Leo went on to tell me a story during the last minutes of the car ride to illustrate his point. He said he was hanging out at a new kampung he wasn’t all too familiar with. There was a girl there. He didn’t think much of her but he started to realize she was sweet on him when she cooked him a meal. That night he was overcome with feelings for the girl. He had to see her again, had to. He kept compulsively returning to her kampung and eating meals with her. Spending all his free time with her. He didn’t feel like he was in love with her while they were together but she was all he could think about. He felt consumed, possessed even. One day he found bits of her clothing in the food she prepared him. He said he also found little balls of her hair. She had been feeding parts of herself to him.
It was black magic he said. Very common he said.
And then he waved goodbye and drove away.
Had this been a warning from the Universe that I ignored?
I mean, I don’t immediately think I’ve been fed hairballs and clothing bits, I just find it suspicious no one has shared the meal with me. That’s usually how it goes, right? But maybe they prepared it special, just for me, their guest? Sunny had invited me specifically to a family dinner… And then it turned out to be a sole bowl of spaghetti just for me. Maybe the whole dinner was a hoax and they just wanted an American to spend time at their home? It wasn’t unthinkable. But before I have time to really question it, Epol starts firing off his own round of questions…
My mind is spinning.
I don’t know how much time has passed (1.5 hours) or how many cheap cigarettes I’ve smoked (¾ of a pack) but at some point, Epol knows my entire family history, everywhere I’ve ever lived, every job I’ve ever had, everything I studied in school, my interest in psychology and social justice, my work with the homeless, my work with immigrants, my $71K student loan debt, my middle name, the names of all my family members, the year my daddy left, my political opinions on the Westernization of the rest of the world, and god knows what else.
What can I say? I’m an open book. I also hadn’t been around someone with whom I could have a hearty intellectual debate in a few weeks, mostly because of language barriers. There was also an awkward little conversation about San Francisco’s “homos” as Epol referred to them, and how “they are okay” if you ask him.
“But I am Buddhist see, not Muslim.”
I change the subject. “Your English is great Epol. In fact your accent doesn’t even sound Cambodian.” I tell him. His eyes widen in a pensive but child-like curiosity. “Are you from Cambodia? You sound more like the Filipinos I worked with in San Francisco.”
“My mother is from Cambodia,” he says apprehensively before continuing, “my father is from Philippine Islands, but my mother is very sick, very sick. She’s in the hospital now, so very worried. We need money for her care, that’s why we don’t know if we should send Mie to San Francisco”, he tells me. He goes on, “we are also worried about how she will be treated in America, very racist in America towards people like us”.
When he said that I remembered that just before my jetlagged nap, I saw on the news that there had been a mass shooting at a predominantly Black church in Georgia. It led us to a conversation about white supremacy, which led to a conversation about the American devastation of Cambodia, which led to a conversation about the evils of capitalism and the never-ending rich versus poor battle.
“I hate the rich” he says, in a way that metaphorically spits on all rich people everywhere.
A second of silence.
“So what do you do Epol? I feel like I’m yapping on like an American about my life.”
“Me?” He pauses and looks me dead in the eyes,