I am in the office at the center. The kids are here: the office doors are open, and so they’ve come to hang out. They’re unobtrusive, usually, and they always listen when I say I’m busy with other work. But they do love to talk, and it’s difficult to turn them away. Last night five girls came to ask me how long I was staying, when I was going back to my country, what I did there. One asked questions about economics: bank accounts, the strength of the dollar, international business, whether they use dollars and riel in the United States the same way they use riel and dollars here. I explained that in the United States you only use American money, but I don’t think I acquitted myself well otherwise. Like most Americans, I only have the vaguest idea of how the Federal Reserve fixes our currency at its strength. A New Zealander is here to teach them all about personal finance: budgeting, saving, household expense: she might have a more straightforward way of explaining dollars here and there. The ex-director’s husband teaches a current-events class that wanders down any number of tangents (“What does bias mean? Oh. Well, say you own a newspaper, and one of your friends–say Srey Neat owns a newspaper and Chamorn is her friend, and Chamorn does something bad….”)
I am overjoyed to be here. I have a set of capsule lives now, and it seems I can open them up by returning to the right place: if I can’t step into the same river, I can walk in the same stretch of riverbank. Cambodia is the place I remember. But the year I remember was unhappy: I was exhausted to the point of anhedonia. After a few months, I started conking out at sunset, wherever I was. Once I nodded off at a drag show, even though our table pushed up against the bar where the dancers twisted. I contracted headlice a few weeks after I arrived, and wasn’t able to shed them until I returned home. For the first several months of my stint, I couldn’t even control them: my sharpest memory of the year is of myself lying awake, my scalp burning from insecticides and the fine comb, while lice swam fitfully through my hair. I could call myself a competent teacher by the time I left, but my first quarter performance was dismal.
Now I’m here on vacation. I know I can go home in two months. I have only one job while I’m here. I can afford an apartment instead of a series of failed housesits. I have strategies in place for thwarting the lice, and less hair to scrape them out of. I can be calm and happy the whole time.