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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Laughter in Cambodia

Water rained down upon us, as we plunged our hands in and out of the normally still and shimmering Bassac River. Through the chaotic fray, it was impossible to decipher how many of us there were or who was splashing whom. Our group of seven or eight foreign beach-goers was in the midst of playing keep-away and frisbee with many of the locals our age who were enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon in the cool water. Suddenly, someone somewhere began to splash and the fervor rapidly spread throughout the entire multitude. Soon we were are drenched, and the melody of our jubilant laughter mingled with the loud music behind us on the bustling beach. A glistening rainbow formed around us, the product of our carefree fun.

It has been moments like this that have transcended the language barrier throughout our homestay and made our limited verbal communication with most locals unimportant. Today is our group’s sixth day at homestays on the Cambodian Island of Koh Sach Tonlea, and I now feel as if I have a good sense for the culture’s daily rhythms. Despite my limited grasp of the Khmer Language, I feel that I have formed close bonds with my host family, and some of the kids who live nearby who all call me “Chess-piy.” I have discovered that these bonds, which I know everyone in our group is forming, are made primarily possible by the unifying force of laughter.

Laughter can seep across cultural barriers, and lighten the mood in any scenario. It’s contagious; it’s a wordless but easily understood interaction; and most of all it’s a conveyance of positivity, happiness, and friendship. When I look back at the current highlights from this homestay such as our spontaneous splash fest at the beach, communal and cross-cultural laughter has always been present.

Laughter resonated throughout the starry sky as we danced among the locals at a party celebrating the holiday of Chinese New Year. We had only been on the island for slightly more than twenty four hours, yet one of the host families had hospitably invited us all over. The loud Cambodian music drowned out all of our anxieties about sleeping in unfamiliar beds, and the glowing smiles served as a warm welcome to a new community, across the world from our own.

Laughter bounced off of church walls as the small congregation clapped their hands and sang along to Cambodian Christian Rock. Although I couldn’t do much more than hum along, I found myself deeply enveloped in the merriment. I had been invited to the church by my 24 year-old host brother named Wieteh, who is one of the leaders of the island’s small Christian community comprising mainly of young adults. Seeing a worship service on the other side of the globe proved to be a phenomenal experience as I instantly felt the same potent sense of community, belonging, and comfort which always awaits me at my church at home in New York.

Laughter rung out across the dry dusty ground as despite my best efforts a soccer ball sailed off of my 14 year-old host brother Sowanarah’s foot and went directly between my legs on its way to his friend’s waiting foot. As if the humiliation of being nutmegged wasn’t punishment enough, I had to jump up and down as high as I could six times before I resumed my hasty pursuit of the ball. By the time I finally managed to dispossess the ball from the imposing pentagon of five kids, forcing someone else to be the man in the middle, I was sweating profusely and laughing with the rest of them. Fortunately, it did not take long for me to exact revenge on my host brother and again stoke the group’s merriment by nutmegging him. This friendly rivalry has carried into night-time games of Go Fish and has produced countless celebrations of smiling, singing and dancing.

While I might someday forget how to say I’m going on a bike ride in Khmer or eventually cease to remember the beautiful architecture of the island’s Buddhist temple; I will always cherish the moments of organic laughter this homestay has bountifully provided. The people on this island have all been wonderfully accepting of what must seem to be an extremely strange group from overseas. After eating more than I should for breakfast at my host mother’s insistence, I always look forward to biking to class because little children scream “Hellowwwww” and wave as I pass by. I yell “Sua Sdey!” back to them and smile, preparing myself for another laughter filled day.