When I moved to Cambodia a year ago, I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. I was told when I got here that I would be living with a Cambodian family. At first, this seemed really daunting, how was I going to communicate? What if I did something culturally inappropriate? Would they like me?
As it turned out, I could not have been placed with a better family. I have Peace Corps to thank for that. As fabulous as each member of my family is, none of the other members would be so without the influence of my host mother, Touch (pronounced Dtoo-ick) Chhiev. She is one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. She is strong, confident, caring, has more than a fair share of sass and I like to say she can have a “bad ass” attitude (in a good way!). She is loved by everyone in our community and it is common to find her sitting out on the crey (a big wooden table) chatting with neighbors and listening attentively to all their triumphs and woes, knowing the right moments to interject advice and opinions. Although, she has only three children of her own, she is “mother” to many more, including myself. You can see her hugging, feeding, and scolding children from all over the neighborhood, giving them just the right amount affection and discipline to teach them right from wrong. Out of all these strong characteristics, her most admirable and inspiring trait is the amount of love she has to offer those around her.
She has suffered grave loss. Three years ago she lost her husband and a son, leaving her with her with two daughters and adopted son (she adopted her brother and wife’s son when he was a baby due to his parents death, yet another remarkable thing she has done!). But, despite this she conquers each day with passion and a smile. She has raised her children to be hard working, loving, respectable people and you can tell how much they all truly love their mother. Even amidst tragedy in her life she managed to cultivate a bright future for her children and stand up in a time of despair as a role model for her them. Her life is a story of a woman who has every reason to give up; she lost a husband, a son, a source of income, ultimately everything but, never did. She possesses power and resilience that are inspirational to everyone. She is now a recently newlywed and is helping her daughters run a school under our house.
I am so fortunate that I have been able to become a part of this family and have Touch as my other mother. Mai, as I call her (Khmer for Mother), has shown me nothing but love. Now that I have been here for a year, I feel I am just another member of the Chhiev family- I have my chores, fit seamlessly into the daily routine, receive a stern talking to when I don’t wash my clothes often enough and get to experience the warmth of Mai’s huge heart.
When I was very ill one time, Mai was there by my side just as my mother in America would have been. She checked my temperature every hour, came into my room with wet wash cloths to soothe the fever I had, ensured I took medicine and drank enough water to keep me hydrated, and coined me (Traditional Khmer Healing). She was so attentive and caring, and being sick in a third world country can be challenging but, her care was over the top. When I was better and thanked her what seemed like a thousand times both from myself and my worried family at home, she simply said, “you are my child and I love you, of course I am going to take care of you when you are sick”.
Another time, a friend of mine became abruptly sick and it was really important for me to go to see her as soon as possible. Since it was around three o’clock in the afternoon, it was a really hard time to get a ride to the city. Nonetheless, Mai was determined to help me get there. As I rushed to pack, she began dialing every phone number she had. Nobody was available to drive me at this time. So, we rushed to the road. It began pouring as it so often does in the afternoon of the rainy season in Cambodia and she took of her coat, wearing nothing but a t-shirt underneath and gave it to me to keep me from getting to wet. As I tried to help her flag down a van, she yelled at me to “stay under the shelter, I am your mother and I will take care of you”. So against my own will, I stood under the overhang, while she stood at the edge of the street in the pouring rain, while cars whizzed by splashing her waiting to flag down a van. Of course, the determined and strong willed woman she is, she managed to get a van at an hour when it seemed to me, impossible. She put me on the van and through my many thanks and the downpour she wished me luck, to be safe and call her when I got there… typical mom.
One last story involves yet another time when someone I know and love was very ill. I had told my family I was feeling sad because of this and mentioned I was going to go to the Wat and pray later on and at first I seemed to think they didn’t care or just nodded their heads and let it pass them by. But, that afternoon Mai suggested we go on a bike ride, something out of the ordinary so, I immediately agreed. She led the way to the Wat and told me she wanted to stay while I prayed for my friend. After I emerged from the Wat, she said she had one more thing to show me. We road through some rice paddies to some of graves near the Wat and she brought me to the grave sites of her deceased husband and son. We walked up to them together and she told me where we were. First, we kneeled and bowed and prayed for her deceased family. Then she turned to me and said if we pray for my friend to our deceased ancestors, it will bring this person great luck and fortune. So together we prayed again but, for my friend. Although this may just seem like a nice story to you reading this, this was a really personal and loving gesture. In Cambodian culture, expressing emotions and feelings is not common, due to the country’s history. Also, in Cambodian culture ancestors and the deceased are worshiped in the deepest regards. Although in action this seems like a small gesture, it in actuality was grand. She opened up to me and gave me her deceased family and ancestors as my own to pray to and ask for help and I couldn’t have been more thankful.
So no matter how many times she fixes me up before weddings, or calls to check up on me or tells me to go change before I go somewhere; I know it’s out of love and she does to me what she would do to any of her other children. I am so fortunate for this. She is a role model and inspiration to me and I have learned so much from her in one year. She is an exemplar to all women, especially those who have struggles in their lives, to be brave and strong for those around you and expressed by my Mai’s actions but in the words of the Beatles “all you need is love”.