Closing in on two years in this country, I relish more than ever my daily encounters with Cambodians and the chance to practice my atrocious grasp of the language.
It is one thing to try to speak and understand Khmer with waiters and gym trainers who are bilingual to greater or lesser degrees. They seem to enjoy my struggles with pronunciation — you try to articulate as one sound the diphthong “ng” and the triphthong “pdt.”
It is quite another thing to climb the Mount Everest of fathoming a normal rush of words that I know yet fail miserably to hear when they are strung together in speech.
I long ago gave up trying to read or, horrors, write the language. But words and some grammar are beginning to sink in and I now can engage in the most rudimentary of short conversations such as ordering food in a restaurant.
The big problem with learning Khmer where I usually range is that almost everyone seems to speak enough English that I am not called upon to use the local language. Moreover, they usually don’t expect me to speak Khmer and I don’t always expect them to speak English, inevitably causing confusion. Still, I persist stubbornly.
In the last several weeks, I finally have become emboldened to shop mainly for tropical fruits at the local market, where watermelons are sold in stalls next to pigs’ cheeks, where reeking fish fluids coat slippery sections of the floor, and where the art of dodging committed consumers in impossibly narrow aisles must be mastered. (I’ve learned that a phrase containing neither the words “excuse” and “me” seems to clear the way politely.)
My biggest challenge is numbers. I know how to ask how much something costs (in kilos, mind you), but I usually am baffled by the response in a language that once was foreign to me.
Vendors might refer to one (muay) dollar (in a country where dollars and the local riel are used interchangeably) as one riel (of which 100 have a value of two and a half cents). Or, for another product, they might quote bpram buan or m’buan (with the “m” barely audible) puon (thousand) riel, which is 9,000 riel. That would be $2.25. I think. There are 4,000 riel to a dollar.
Get into bigger or small numbers, try to divide by 4,000 with the appropriate speed, and I, for one, tend to surrender the wad in my hand with the hope that vendors familiar with me won’t cheat me. Who knows?
Unfortunately, the math isn’t the hardest part. It turns out that they use moeun to mean 10,000 riel. Quick, how much is that? Two and a half dollars (10,000/4,000=2.5), of course.
The money is one issue; another is the quantity. For how many kilograms will I be paying, for how much of a fraction of a kilo? More numbers: A kilo is a 1,000 grams, or around 2.2 pounds. But they don’t use “grams.” They use 100-gram units called kam. Half a kilo is, indicated in shortened form as g’la, not five kam. It is a lot to remember.
The food sellers might let a foreigner off easy by saying five dollars, which I would find to be readily understandable . . . if I were expecting them to speak English; instead, it will be bpii mouen — see, another diphthong — or 10,000 twice. Aargh!
Sometimes, they’ll indicate prices by the number of their raised fingers. Or they’ll punch the sum on a smartphone or calculator. While I welcome the clarity, I confess that I also feel somewhat diminished by the gestures, however helpful.
It gets especially interesting when the sum is not an even number. Brave readers may want to consider, for instance, muay moeun bpram roi. Easy for me to read transliterated, though it takes thought, is hard to hear and is difficult to translate in a hurry. (It’s 10,500 riel, $2.625, roi meaning 100; add five 100s of 2.5 cents in value each to 10,000, and that’s what you get.)
Then there’s the international convention of quoting foreigners higher prices than locals receive. Although I enjoy negotiating, even while grappling with the language, I’ve become generally philosophical about paying a total of maybe $1 too much for everything during my shopping excursions. To me, it is about sharing the wealth, despite how little of it there is.
Still, on my most recent trip to the market, I did manage to bargain a 1,000-riel (remember, 25-cent) discount for the kilo of oranges that I purchased ultimately for 6,000 riel, or was it 7,000? Maybe it was 10,000.
Why the nice woman originally proffered three kilos of them after we talked and presumably negotiated for just one kilo, I’ll never know. And what friendly comment she made about my language ability remains a mystery.
I can report that the oranges, from Battambang, are delicious, though their green skin is disconcerting.