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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.


Miscommunications are inevitable. But when you don’t speak the same language, the miscommunications are less frustrating and more entertaining.

The first night of my homestay in our instructor Thavry’s home village, I ate dinner with my host family. The sun already set, leaving the scant motorcycles to light the dirt road. After finishing my mango, my host mom pointed to the green bike and said “bike” in Khmer while peddling her hands. Then she pointed at me and said “Thavry go.” I pointed to myself, the bike, and asked “Thavry?” She nodded. “Now?” I asked while pointing to my watch and then the ground. She nodded again.

I crept over to the bike and slowly walked the bike over towards the road. Everyone in my family stared at me as I wondered why I needed to go to Thavry’s home at 8pm. Maybe my host mom wanted me to drop something off there? After all, my host mom is related to Thavry’s mom. But she didn’t hand me anything, so I hopped onto my bike and peddled on, hoping to get a clearer reason if I talked to Thavry. But when I got to Thavry’s home, she and the other instructors were busy settling everyone else into their homes. So I peddled on hoping to to find the instructors or any of my friends playing outside. No familiar faces, just stares from locals wondering why this foreign girl was biking alone this late at night (for context, most of the village is sound asleep by 9 pm).

I eventually turn around and a few moments later, my host mom and 4-year-old nephew yell “ALYSSA!” From their motor bike. I followed them to Thavry’s home, where the instructors had just finished their work. Thavry translated for us and apparently I was supposed to use the bike to go to Thavry’s home the following morning and not now. My host mom followed me because she was worried as no one here bikes at night. We all laughed at my mistake and went back home.

Now that I’ve been here for a few days, I understand my host mom much better. Her touching my shirt and pointing outside meant that the laundry we washed together the other day was dry and that I should go and collect it. Every meal, she points out the food and says it in Khmer, and I repeat it. This morning we had fried rice. “Baicha” she teaches. “Fried rice,” I teach back. “Ride rye,” she responds. I repeat it slowly, but she still struggles to mimic. We both laugh and grab a spoonful of rice instead.

Not only do I feel like a member of my family, but I also feel integrated into the community here. My 9-year-old neighbor pops by at my house and calls me his sister, insisting I give him a ride to the beach. Last night, Caroline and I started dancing to the music blasting from the wedding pre-party. The kids saw us dancing, and a bunch of them ran into the street and pulled Caroline and me into the party. We have no idea whose wedding it was, but we danced until our clothes were soaked in sweat.

Later, Gai, Jeff, Asa, and Sydney joined as we pulled out classic dance moves such as the Macarena and the sprinkler. We all flossed and pretended to fish one another. We laughed with the locals, pulling them into our little dance circle. After retiring at around 8:30, a 12-year-old boy walked me back home to ensure I got back alright, even though his home is in the opposite direction. My host nephew greeted me with yellow flowers as my host mom explained with her hands that he started crying when I left to dance.

Language barrier ins’t a problem in this village. Our body language, expressions, and actions are more than enough to create lasting memories. After all, smiling is a universal language. 🙂