My whole world, in this moment, is observing crabs on a beach as I lay in a hammock made out of the same material as an elementary gym class jersey. I’ve never seen such an assortment of tiny crabs, scurrying sideways in and out of their dwelling holes, all immediately scattering if I flinch or sneeze. My beach growing up was the southeast shore of Lake Michigan; a freshwater lake where there were minnows, as I remember, but hardly any shore life outside of the myriads of families applying sunscreen and laying out beach towel after beach towel. Here, I watch the crabs for long enough to begin to know them; this one below me is the largest, and that one over there is small, but the most aggressive. A woman walks by, and she smiles and says, or maybe asks, “sabay?” This word I know to mean something like ‘happy’ or at least I understand it to be a ubiquitous answer to “how are you?” On a bus ride to Phnom Penh, I had listened to the driver chat merrily on his phone, continually chuckling “sabay-sabay.” I repeat this to the woman now, hoping to imitate the way Cambodians say some words twice.
The past few weeks have been a risky game for me as I’ve wanted to connect with the people through their language, the one I’m only beginning to learn. I fear making mistakes, or worse, being disrespectful. I fear evoking a rudeness I don’t fully grasp; the Cambodian language, as opposed to English, has far stricter rules for showing deferential respect to elders, monks, uncles, and more. Already I have made uncomfortable errors such as asking for “lady meat” at a family dinner (“lady” in Cambodian being dangerously close to the word for “fish”). And again, at that same table, I had asked the grandmother a question with shortened words only meant to be used with friends or people your age. Of course, I would learn of this discretion several weeks later, days before leaving on a mid-size cargo boat to arrive here and spend my days watching crabs and the sunset.
Right now though, on this beach, I feel over 30 hours of language lessons coming together towards a simple sentiment: a smile and a “sabay?”; which, in combination, I feel I fully understood as, “isn’t this nice? a hammock, a beach, and an endless ocean – wherever you’re from, whichever language you speak, surely, you feel the same?”