I take an absurd amount of pleasure in the fact that the Fresco Café staff always remembers me in between my visits. “Good morning, Long Black Decaf!” the hostess chirps as I stumble my way over to my favorite seat. I am not a particularly alert morning person no matter what country I am in however I can’t help but be in a cheery mood. This morning Karen and I are heading over to CCF to pick up our gang of kids for a shopping trip to the mall. Whenever I am in town, the kids love to head there to shop and have burgers and ice cream. Plus they never get tired of the escalators, which are better than an amusement park ride. Until we started going to the mall, none of them had ever even seen an escalator and it’s become one of the highlights of the trip for them.

The kids pile into the back of the pick up. On the way, we stop to pick up Linna and she happily jumps into the truck sans shoes and wearing a pink panther shirt that is about five sizes too big and absolutely filthy. I’m just relieved we were able to find her for our outing. One can never tell where in the city Linna will be at any given moment and Charam was anxious about finding her. Our little family now complete we are on our way.

I’m here to tell you that teenage girls are the same everywhere. Lyda and Layseng fuss so long over finding shoes and clothing, I’m sure the boys are about to gnaw off their own arms. We all heave a sigh of relief when they finally manage to pick out their shoes – matching of course but our relief is short lived when they can only find a right shoe in Lyda’s size. This prompts an all out search by the adults and I’m on my hands and knees in a pile of random footwear praying for a left shoe size 36. Charam has wasted little time in picking out yellow basketball sneakers, jeans and a tee shirt. My older boys Nghan and Meng Ly opted for men’s dress pants; shirts and leather sandals and I smile to think that these handsome young men have come a long way from life in the garbage dump and village.

Linna, tromping around in her new orange sandals suddenly dashes into a nearby store where the girls are shopping. I’ve been trying to interest her in a practical pair of jeans and a tee shirt but she is having none of it. She latches onto the frilliest, pink ruffled dress I have ever seen and clutches it to her chest. She turns those big brown eyes at me and I just know I am about to be bamboozled into a purchase that is totally ridiculous. Where on earth is Linna going to wear such a thing? Plus she’s going to trash it within days as she gallops around the streets of Phnom Penh. I gently try to distract her with a pink sleeveless tee shirt and she shakes her head adamantly. “Mak Tor!” she lectures me in Khmer, “That shirt is for a BOY” Who knew my little tomboy harbored such a secret desire to be a princess? So ten minutes later, Linna is grinning happily all done up in her pink dress. She does however, refuse to take off her dirty blue shorts and delights in flashing us by whipping up the hem of her dress now and again.

Lyda and Layseng are STILL fussing over clothing and Meng Ly’s eyes have started to glaze over. Frankly, so have mine. Then I’m snapped awake by loud, obnoxious sound of a chicken clucking. Linna has found herself the toy section and trots over to me with an activity keyboard complete with ABC, animal sounds and a mini piano built in. Within moments, Charam is at her side and patiently pressing each of the letters encouraging her to repeat them. She charms us all with her attempts at ABC and Karen comments to me how touched she is with Charam. His caring demeanor with his sister during our outing has impressed her to no end. He is her parent in every sense of the word and his innate goodness makes my heart swell with affection and pride.

With no end in sight to Lyda and Layseng’s pickiness, I suggest Karen take the rest of the kids to the restaurant for lunch while I find a way to subtly hurry my divas along. The boys are thrilled at this suggestion and they all tromp off. My growling stomach strongly wishes it were going along. I turn to Lyda and Layseng and raise my eyebrows at them, trying to look stern. They look suitable unimpressed. “You have 15 minutes to make up your mind,” I announce in what I hope is a very parental tone. “Otherwise I am buying you both Hello Kitty dresses.” That threat apparently does the trick because suddenly, the jeans that they found lacking before have become more fashionably acceptable.

After a noisy, happy lunch with chicken, burgers, fries and ice cream we are ready to return to school. It doesn’t escape my notice that Charam is quietly rounding up leftovers and stuffing them into a small box. I know from experience that he is bringing the leftovers home to Yorn and his little brothers. He has also only drank half of his coke and plans to bring this back as well. We drop Linna off first and Charam spends a few moments conversing with his mother before he says goodbye to his little sister and hops back in the truck with a pensive look on his face. He reaches over and grabs my hand looking serious. “Heather” he pleads, “Linna needs to go to school too.”

He sits back and watches his sister as we drive away.

– Heather E. Connell

Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.

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