Fried crickets weren’t the prescription for calming misbehaved children when I visited Cambodia five years ago, the place where my parents started their lives. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
As a product of these two Cambodian-born, ethnically Chinese Americans (say that five times fast), I now have a permanent visa into the country, free access to most temples and tourist attractions, and dozens upon dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, half-siblings, nieces, nephews… you name it, they’re there. My first visit flew by in a blur as new faces appeared daily, as we custom-made traditional Cambodian outfits, and as I struggled to memorize the entire Cambodian segment of my family tree.
What’s even more interesting than traveling somewhere for the first time, though, is returning there for a second time.
A couple of weeks ago in early July, I went back for a visit that was just short of a month; the exotic was now familiar, and those who were once strangers greeted me at the airport with hugs and bright smiles.
Most of the trip was about creating and building more concrete ties with these people who share my blood and genes. Time is such a hard concept to comprehend, and when I try to understand what five years’ time actually entails, I picture my little niece as I knew her then—a drooling mess of a baby, adorable in all her chubbiness—compared to how I know her now, with her sassy remarks, big almond eyes, and an unapologetic toothless smile—evidence of the amount of sugar she consumes daily and of the toothbrush she doesn’t own. That, and she bites now. In spite of the tooth thing (or lack thereof, rather), she just… really likes to bite people. In five years’ time, she grew up to look, and act, remarkably like a squirrel (the world’s cutest personification of a squirrel—don’t get me wrong).
As the trip continued, I soon came to realize that she was the one to watch (and sometimes avoid), her manic energy evident as she raced around in movements that could only be learned from the Tasmanian devil himself. The one thing I am most proud of in all my time in Cambodia was transforming her biting fixation (no matter what anybody says, the truth is that toothless bites still hurt) into kisses. Even the kisses, though, were a bit more violent than necessary, as she demanded them by grabbing your cheeks and smothering you with slobber that left remnants of whatever she just ate on your face. But still, it was progress.
Interestingly enough, towards the end of the trip, I discovered that toothless squirrels resembling five-year-olds love nothing more than a bag full of fried crickets. Crickets are a common snack in Cambodia, captured by home-made cricket traps and sold on the street. Never have I seen such a wild child tamed almost instantaneously with a bag full of greasy, crunchy fried crickets. And yes, I am aware that this statement sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
As soon as a bag full of crickets was placed in front of her, she would become quiet and completely occupied with munching on them, sometimes pulling the legs off and tossing them on the floor, while at other times popping them in, one by one, and fully intact.
Squirrels and crickets aside, there were two really amazing things about my trip. The first was that, although my Khmer is basic at best, we were all able to communicate with each other by combining Khmer, Mandarin, and English because there was always at least one person present who spoke two, if not all three, of these languages to bridge the lingual gap.
The other great thing was that relatives who live in a foreign country are your ticket straight into the local culture (toss that Lonely Planet aside!) and a way to become more than just a tourist… or at least less of one. Tourist or not, though, Angkor Wat is a sight to see, in every sense of that phrase. Just don’t forget to bring your sweat rag… and some crickets to snack on!
Melissa Taing hails from southern New Hampshire and made her way over to Beijing in January of 2009. While here, she has put in her time as an English teacher, found her way into a Chinese publishing house, and is now giving the Localization industry a go with an internship at CSOFT. When not hopping subway lines and riding her bike around the city, she enjoys chatting up the corner fruit vendor and eating sliced lotus root.