“Do I have a fever, Lori?”
Cheeks tingling and burning, I seated myself across from my translator at the table. Lori raised her eyebrows and gently placed her hand on my forehead and on the back of my neck. She frowned, “I think so, Maggie, but let me double check.” She called out a few words I couldn’t understand, and a middle-aged woman poked her head out of the makeshift kitchen.
They were speaking in Khmer, pronounced koo-MAI when referring to the language, a tongue spoken only in the country of Cambodia. The summer after my senior year of high school, a small group of students and I had the opportunity to visit Plong, a rural Cambodian village, to help create rain catchers to collect the fresh water that the village needed. After a brief stay in Phnom Penh, the capital, we traveled to the village with volunteers from a local organization: a group made up of construction workers, kitchen volunteers, translators and us, the Americans, who were there to help.
I sobbed as I was led back to our sleeping room that night, wrapped in the arms of someone who might as well have been speaking gibberish. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my friends and companions bathing in the sudden downpour, their cheerful voices echoing around the school where we were staying. I wanted to be racing around in the rain with them, not sent to bed early like a petulant toddler.
The next morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. I had to be supported by two people just to be carried to the porch, and while my American compatriots blocked me from view, two of the Cambodian volunteers scrubbed me clean from head to foot, murmuring gentle phrases to me in Khmer.
For the next few days, these two ladies did everything for me — from spoon-feeding me broth, to helping me sit up and move about, to the rather embarrassing task of helping me squat over a bucket to use the bathroom– since I had no strength to do it myself. Our only communication came from simple gestures and me shaking my head, unless a translator was present.
One morning, I felt something tight on my arm. I cracked open my eyelids to see one of the women sitting by my side, her eyes tightly closed shut, murmuring something fiercely. After a few minutes, it dawned on me that she was praying; which was something unusual, as Christianity isn’t necessarily welcome in Cambodia.
“Awkun,” I rasped, suddenly remembering one of the only words I knew: Thank you.
The volunteer’s eyes flew open and her smile could have powered a thousand cities. I smiled back. “Awkun,” I said again, trying to put all of my gratefulness into two syllables. Somehow, I think she understood.
As I got stronger, the two women who had cared for me had to do less. Soon, I was able to help with simple tasks, such as sweeping the porch and cleaning up the schoolyard. I didn’t speak to the women as much when I was fully recovered, as I had to help with the construction of the rain catchers, or leave the school to run supplies to a nearby town.
But between each smile we shared in passing, there was unspoken happiness and friendship, even though we were from two different worlds.
The day the ladies left, I had to hold back my tears. I had come to know them as my “mings,” my aunties, and I had grown to love them over the span of a few days. I haven’t seen them since, but each time I encounter a language, or even a challenging cultural barrier, I remember how so much love was given to me during a rough spot in a foreign country, and I try to do the same, even if I can only communicate in gestures and broken phrases.