To Cambodians eating is serious business. The dinner table is not a place for idle chitchat. I’ve had supper with many different Khmer families; the one constant is a large pot of white rice at the table. When my host mother calls me for dinner, she says, “Tree, hob bai—eat rice!” Some families gather for dinner at a heavy round table, some eat on the floor, picnic style. Most families I have dined with like a wide variety of vegetables and meats—sometimes all in one soup. One family I know enjoys watching Chinese soap operas on TV at suppertime. Besides a big pot of white rice, the other cultural constant is the Khmer disappearing act. Like a panda that eats shoots and leaves, dining Khmer style means never having to say goodbye. Once you et, you get out.
Cambodians actually make most of their food, unlike Americans who generally assemble their dinner from precut, precooked or prepackaged food, if they eat at home at all. Here we eat the rice grown in the field behind the house, eggs from the chickens and ducks underfoot, and greens that vine around the pound, like morning glory leaf. Food gathering, buying, and preparation are done everyday. Something is always cooking. There’s nothing in the cupboards because there are no cupboards. We don’t have a refrigerator, just a small ice cooler to chill water and sometimes fruit. We eat what is prepared and you are expected to finish what you put on your plate. You do this without a lot of talk. The dogs and cats wait impatiently for the leftovers.
Once I found myself alone at the dinner table and wondered if it was something I had not said. Since I am slow with the language, I have to amp up other cues. It looked to me like everyone had simply finished eating and went off to do something else. No explanation needed.
My host father is a man of few words any time of the day—his wife is the chronicler in the family. She doesn’t need anyone to talk with to keep the chatter going. I think it’s her way of reminding herself what she is going to do next. She’s her own audio notebook. The moody teenager in the family is exasperated no matter what; dinnertime is just another imposition. The one sweet, affable college coed isn’t home much, but when she is it’s like Snow White has arrived. She sweeps and cooks and sings while she works. But when it’s time for her to return to school, she never says good-bye. She’s just gone. Her empty place at the table is never mentioned.
Maybe this taking leave without saying goodbye has something to do with the Khmer Rouge period. During that time families were split up, sent to live at opposite ends of the country. Perhaps the deprivation of that time, the time of not knowing, brought on this custom of not asking, not telling. It leaves the door open to possibilities. Maybe I will see you again. Maybe not. Either way, we carry on. The Khmer language is in present tense. Khmer drivers don’t look behind them as they merge into traffic. This is a forward moving nation. Khmer family members may come and go. We never say good-bye.