Sothea’s Story

A handful of ex-pats: One South African. One Swiss. One Canadian. A few Americans. Three Cambodians (including two from Phare). The Kinyei Team (a mix of Aussies and Khmer). Reams of ‘butcher paper.’ Tissue paper. Oil pastels. Paint (supposed to be acrylic, but was not perhaps due to the request being lost in translation). Paintbrushes. Q-tips. Forks and knives. Freshly-picked banana leaf. Masking tape. Scissors. Section of the Phnom Penh Post. Toilet paper roll. Water. Fruit: papaya, dragonfruit, banana. Shake, stir and wait for magic to happen.

Those were the key ingredients that, rather unexpectedly, and pretty much at the last minute, brought the cross-cultural creative expression workshop, held yesterday, at Kinyei, to fruition.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we struck out for an ‘urban walkabout’ around the block. The purpose was to pay attention to familiar surroundings with a new eye, in other words to notice an object that had previously eluded our attention, or simply a surprising sight.

Upon our return, while everyone was knee-deep in materials and playful creation, Sothea was eager to share a story. It happened during the walkabout, as he walked near the psar nath. Their eyes met and his heart skipped a beat: She was his old flame, a woman he had not seen in 11 years (she had moved to Phnom Penh long ago). When they caught sight of each other, they were too timid to speak; moreover, now that she was married (Sothea assumed the man with her was her husband) they should not, according to Khmer cultural norms, approach each other.

Sothea manages Kinyei’s Soksabike program and teaches art at Phare Ponleu Selpak. You could hear a pin drop in the room as he recounted the story, captivating everyone’s attention by how obviously smitten he was more than a decade later.

When Sothea finished his story, I asked if he understood the meaning of ‘coincidence.’ He did not, but his Khmer colleague Reaksmey did. I told Sothea that I don’t believe in coincidences, that everything happens for a reason; and that perhaps the reason I led the group on this walk (it might never have happened if we’d been tight on time) was so that he would have the opportunity to bump into this woman. A couple of heads nodded in agreement. But Sothea, as if in a world unto himself, just smiled and stared off into the distance; his mind was far away, perhaps imagining what could have been…


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