A Night out to Dinner

March 21, 2007

By Brett Briard

Last summer, I spent 18 days in Cambodia as a volunteer at an English school. Traveling by myself, and being so far away from my parents was a little scary, but I had a really good time. The school I taught at was just a single room with some beat up desks, and some old, donated computers. I thought it was really neat that the school was adjacent to a Buddhist monastery and some of the students were actually monks, complete with the orange robes and shaved heads. To say the least, I had several amazing experiences throughout my stay, but one night stands out in particular. One of the students invited me and the other teacher, Sela, to her house for dinner. From a single meal, I learned that I could be happy without all these material things that we all think we need as long I’m with those that I care about.

The first adventure of the night was finding the house we were to have dinner at. We were speeding through the balmy air on what seemed like the only paved road in Cambodia, which happens to connect the airport and all the hotels. I was clutching onto Sela’s shoulders as he turned the moped onto a little dirt path. On a normal day, most Americans wouldn’t consider this “road” fit for a motor vehicle, but this evening was especially bad. It had been pouring a couple hours before, and each pothole looked like a little lake. I held on for dear life as we navigated through a minefield of water on our way to the little village where we’d find our dinner. We finally reach this village, but it seems my trusty guide can’t quite remember which house belongs to the student we’re meeting for dinner. This wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m starting to feel a little awkward because not only am I the only white person in sight, but also I’m wearing a big rain poncho and we must have passed through the same intersection like ten times. At one point the road actually floods with cows. Amazingly, Sela just navigates his moped through the herd, completely unphased. Eventually, after several calls on his cell phone, Sela believes he knows where the house is.

So finally we had reached the house. We were greeted by smiling faces and the smell of cooking. I was slightly apprehensive about the food, but it smelled good enough and I figured Sela wouldn’t let me eat anything that might get me sick. At this point, it’s probably important to describe the house. This is one of the better off families I’ve seen, but it’s tiny by our standards. To my surprise, I learn that it’s occupied by seven people. They had a little cooking fire going, and there were dogs and chickens running around everywhere. At this point, I’m really starting to appreciate my big air-conditioned house, with running water and electricity. Despite not having all these comforts we may see as necessities, the family looked as happy as can be. Like most middle-class Americans, I usually find myself worrying about keeping up with newest trend and having the latest and greatest, but these people seemed content to just have each other. Seriously, I rarely saw any facial expression other than a smile the entire night.

The dinner itself was a real cultural eye opener. It seemed like I was the guest of honor, I guess it’s not every day an American comes to dinner. I was sat at the head of the table and was served first. It seemed to me like half of the food was piled on my plate. I felt kind of bad, not wanting to eat all their food, but at the same time I was terrified of somehow insulting my host by refusing anything. Also, it felt weird to be the youngest one at the table, and yet get all this special attention. One of the men even stayed home from work to come to the dinner! As the night wore on, not only was I struggling to finish all of my food, but my bladder was about to burst as I was served my third fresh coconut to drink. I didn’t see a bathroom and, and for some reason I felt a little awkward in asking. So, I just decided to wait until I returned to my hotel. Despite my slight discomfort, I really enjoyed watching the family talk and laugh. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying, but it was fun to just watch them have a good time. They really reminded of how important my friends and family are, and actually made me quite homesick.

My trip to Cambodia was full of many exciting adventures, but that night will stay with me forever. I saw firsthand how even though someone may not have all the things a lot of us think we need, they can be perfectly happy by just being around those they care about. Maybe people think that’s just something that’s said in sappy movies, but I witnessed it personally. Although I may still forget to fully appreciate my family from time to time, I definitely have a different outlook on what’s important in life after my dinner in Cambodia.

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