One balmy June afternoon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, sitting with a group of locals on the dirt floor of a friend’s house, I had a realization. At that point, I was a 20-year-old American woman who had just moved to the Southeast Asian country after spending a few months there and falling in love with the place.
Along with another expat, I’d been invited to the house of a local friend for a late lunch. Khmer music wafted through the room and the smell of grilling meat taunted my aching stomach. One electric fan swung lazily back and forth, releasing a small stream of air that was our only relief from the oppressive heat. Flies congregated around the pot of rice, mosquitoes threatened to slip through the holes in the screen around the home and leave little lumps along our legs and arms.
My friend’s mother-in-law squatted over a small gas stove to prepare our meal, and I watched as an egg she cracked eluded the pot full of sizzling hot oil and slipped to the ground in a mound of goo. Tensing myself in anticipation of an “oh no!” or similar reaction, I was surprised to see the woman throw her head back and laugh, seemingly unbothered. She looked over at me, and I laughed, too. It wasn’t until she’d successfully cracked four more eggs into the wok that she slowly wiped up the mess.
There was a beauty to seeing someone accept one of life’s many inevitable inconveniences with laughter, and joining in it. Any cultural and linguistic differences evaporated during that perfectly human moment. The meal we ate that day was in many ways unremarkable–rice and grilled meat washed down with Angkor beer–but that moment is still as clear in my mind as it was that day years ago. For me, that interaction immortalized what I loved about the Khmer culture: acceptance. Suffering is inevitable, life gets messy, but we laugh and let go, and then revel in each other’s company and the joy of sharing a meal in the midst of it all.