When they answer their ubiquitous cellphones, Cambodians begin by saying Hallo, which is not a typo. I suspect the word has its roots from the years that this nation was a protectorate of France, where they don’t pronounce the “h” and the first sound is “ah.”
The telephone greeting often is linked to the Khmer phrase for “how are you?” The populace apparently has tired of the words, and many can be counted on to reassemble the few syllables in their response to amuse themselves.
When I answer the way they do, I await their predictably appreciative laughter: They don’t imagine a foreigner speaks Khmer well enough for that minor challenge. Perhaps that is because many expats don’t try to learn more of the language than “stop,” “left,” right” and “thank you.”
A French friend of mine who has been here for 10 years, knows virtually none of the language. None.
If greeted with “how are you,” two other ways of answering that I often hear can be translated as “normal” or, loosely, “the same.” Sometimes, the response is just “yes,” “bat” in Khmer. A Cambodian who is sad or unwell might reply with words that mean “not happy,” which an interpreter might translate as “not well” or “not so good.”
What is more interesting to me is the question that invariably follows immediately. There being little attention to tense, it is literally “where are you going?” or “where did you go?” The phrase is two short words in the Khmer language that, depending on the spelling system used, could be rendered as dteu na (pronounced kind of like dough naa); the first word is “go” and the second word is “where.”
Two short words for “where are you” — neu na (the first word pronounced the way a Valley girl says “no”) — also are used regularly, though less often from what I can tell. Sometimes “where are you” precedes whatever else follows among close friends or relatives.
An honorific frequently is attached to greetings as well; it is the Khmer word for brother (bong) speaking to some at least as old as the greeter. I hear it all the time.
I won’t bore you any more than I already may have done with what they say to individuals younger than the greeter, but I will the reveal that sometimes they refer to me as “papa,” a term I loathe. I guess it is meant to show respect. Still, I hate it.
Another nearly universally used expression in the national language is “have you eaten (rice) yet?” very early in a conversation. I suppose in a country of widespread impoverishment, where rice is a major staple that tends to overwhelm protein on a plate, the question is natural. Frequently, the query is shortened to two words that loosely translate to “did you eat yet?”
“Already,” which I’ll transliterate as “hauey,” — pronounced like Howard’s nickname but often shortened to a word that sounds a bit like “high” — also is inescapable. It is used alone at the end of sentences and questions, as in “are you finished?” Instead of saying “yes,” I would reply by saying the word. For example, if a second waiter asks what I want to eat, he will more easily understand me if I answer in Khmer by saying I ordered already rather than merely that I have ordered.
For emphasis in a response, Cambodians might merely utter “hauey” twice without other words; at the gym, I often hear that when someone is asked whether her workout is done. (Saying words twice is common, by the way.)
A Khmer good friend of mine laughingly advised me, “Just say it at the end of everything, and you’ll be fine.” Indeed, I hear and use the word constantly.
Then there are the insistent hails from drivers of motor transport — tuk-tuks and motorcycles — who point, sound their horns, clap and shout at passersby. Tuk? Moto? they’ll demand from across a street or down a block even if their targets already have passed a waiting legion of their kind. Shouting or blasting horns do nothing but irritate me, a cultural chasm that I refuse to cross.
Some of the drivers who stand at the same locations that I regularly pass recognize me, and usually we exchange greetings. Their response to “how are you” often tends to differ from the ones at the beginning of this post. When I greet them and ask “how are you” (Sok sbaay?), they can be counted on to reply with “I don’t have money” or “no customers.”
My response in Khmer: “Me too.”
They’ll laugh good-naturedly, and I’ll laugh along with them while feeling guilty that there is so much need here and so little personal ability to make a dent in it.
C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?