Down the lane from where I live now is a seamstress with two sewing machines. Practicing my Khmer (and with notebook in hand to draw pictures), I managed to convey that I wanted her to make me a blouse and skirt for school. But I did not want the heavy synthetic material usually used for blouses, and could she make the skirt just a little shorter?
Previously I had a couple of sampots, which is a Cambodian skirt with three layers of fabric folded in front and wrapped lower than the waist, and a blouse with a pointy collar, made by a charming, but amazingly un-skilled seamstress near Phnom Penh. Her buttons didn’t line up with the buttonholes and the hooks on the skirt make it bunch up; in that get up I did not feel tailored, I felt upholstered.
Forewarned by that previous experience, I had an idea of what the going rate was for skirts and shirts, and frankly forgot to haggle over the price after my new seamstress friend fixed that old sampot lickety-split by simply reversing the hooks and didn’t even charge me for it. This gal knows what she’s doing. I paid $20 for the ensemble and was satisfied with the deal.
Fortunately, the nun-like black and white uniform is only for school. Next, I needed an around-town skirt. Cambodian women are all about mixing up patterns and colors. No matchy-matchy outfits for these girls. They wear pajamas to the market and plastic sandals with brocade. Pair that with a wide-brimmed hat and a big smile and you have fearless style. Taking my cue from my sister sreys, I went shopping.
At nearby Pouk’s mad midtown market, I spied pile of sarongs. Sarongs look like a large open-ended pillowcase. Usually made of cotton, in a variety of bright prints and patterns, the main purpose is to cover milady’s particulars on her trip to the shower. The two old women squatting by the sarongs remarked on my Peace Corps bag, and cackled, “You Peace Corps, Yes? Ha haa ha.” I agreed that was pretty funny and bought a dark green print and took it back to the seamstress in my village with the idea it would make a dandy skirt.
Here’s the part I knew was coming and dreaded. “How much you pay?” she asked in English. When I confessed to $3, she actually hit me on the arm. Three times. A spanking. Then she brought out her notebook and added it up. Although I'm not sure of the exact translation, it sounded something like: ”You American nit-wit! You paid twice as much for the fabric as to have the skirt made! Next time buy directly from me. And forget about cotton. You need a nice polyester knit.” Then she smiled and said thanks for your business. And I said spanks for the lesson in economics.