One thing Sambath Suen can’t abide is the cold. Until four years ago, Suen lived in Kandal, a Cambodian province that borders on Vietnam. Before that, he lived in Vietnam, where he earned his diploma, and before that he had lived in his native village, about thirty knots downriver from Phnom Penh, where he spent what Cambodians call “The Time of Pol Pot,” a period he sums up as follows: “I was five years old at the beginning, and I was very hungry after that.”
In 2002, in order to help his mother and siblings by becoming more useful, or less of a burden, Suen agreed to enter the monastery his great uncle Mai Chourn founded in 1986 near Fordham Road, in the Bronx, for the handful of Khmer Rouge refugees landing in New York. (Most went to Lowell, Massachusetts, and Long Beach, California.) Cambodian males often use the wat, or realm of temples, to regroup, study and decide what to do next, and when Suen returns home next summer, he hopes to open a small hotel and a large restaurant in Phnom Penh.
The wat is not a lifetime commitment. So Cambodia, where I lived for three years while Suen arrived in America, has been for me. Still, when I can, I seek things Cambodian, which is why I sought the wat, and how I met Suen.
From the wat, we were headed to Battambang II, a grocery near Poe Park, to do Suen’s shopping. To prepare himself for exposure to the Valentine’s Day blizzard that had begun the night before, Suen tweaked his inner robe, re-wrapped his upper robe, swung the cotton outer robe under and over his arms, and then tugged upward on some thick orange socks and downward on a bright orange beanie. Suen’s cloth was cavalierly agleam, pure hunting-vest orange. A final body-length mackintosh on top of all this had the effect of making him look like a fluorescent freshwater turtle, his orange-topped round head poised to disappear at first danger.
Out on the porch, with the snow already several inches deep, Suen dithered on the matter of his umbrella, and then decided to go without. “When I first got here,” he said, now marching up the slope of 196th Street, “I thought, ‘Those are some big buildings.’ And when I first saw snow, I thought, ‘It’s raining ice.’ Another monk showed me how to make a snowman. We stayed out all day, so long that when I went inside, I found that my blood had turned blue.”
The wind was whipping up the top-most layer of fallen ice, and cars squeaked cautiously down the road. I asked if he found it slippery in his brown tennis shoes.
He plowed ahead in the sand-like snow. From Poe Place, along Valentine Avenue, Suen saw that Battambang II was closed. “Beut!” he said, “but don’t worry. We go to Phnom Penh Nha Trang,” the other Cambodian corner store in New York City. After a quick how-are-you to a school crossing guard, the only other person in reflective gear, we humped up to the banks of the Grand Concourse, just north of Loew’s Paradise Theater. “Chlong!” — “Across!” he commanded. Along the white expanse of the boulevard, Suen’s beanie was the brightest thing around.
“On the way to school one day” –Suen studies English and business basics at the Bronx Community College– “some children asked me if I could teach them Kung Fu. I think they wondered about the way I dress, so I opened my heart to them and told them I was not Chinese.” He was interrupted by the sight of a burnt-out business on Kingsbridge, which made him sad. “This happened yesterday,” he said. “I don’t know why.” At the store, Suen bought some Asian Boy Tapioca Stick noodles, some dried bean skin, some “leaves” (rice paddy herb, water spinach, sweet basil and coriander), a winter melon, two tins of green curry paste, a can of Roland coconut milk, and a jar of mud fish sauce (ingredients: mudfish, rice, salt). He seemed quite pleased.
We turned up Marion Avenue at Planet Earth, a clothing store. Four tied pairs of sneakers hung over an electric wire. Suen’s upper lip had grown glossy, and his spacious cheeks were striated red. Signs at the entrance to building courtyards warned, “Positively no ball playing.” The first house past a giant cinder-block apartment construction project, the one with Cambodian, American and Buddhist flags, and a pointy roof capping a faux turret, is the wat. We took off our shoes.
Inside, the altar fills the entire sitting room bay. It contains a symmetrical array of meditating Buddhas, some illuminated by revolving lights, some protected under seven-headed naga snakes, all framed on either side by golden trees, many-leveled parasols and hanging cloth humanoid ghosts. A pot of ash is spiked with the red remains of joss sticks. Straw mats cover a linoleum tile arrangement, and crepe paper runs the ceiling to the back of the open room, where an anemic old man has taken up residence the last five months. Satiny pink cushions line the wall: the wat is a place for whiling (contemplation).
Whenever Henri Mouhot, the 19th-century French explorer held until recently to have “discovered” Angkor, asked the monks living there how the temples had been built, he tended to get one of four responses, which he dutifully noted in his travel journal. (1) It’s the work of the king of angels, Pra Enn, (2) it’s the work of the giants (“les grands”), (3) we owe these edifices to the famous Leper King, or (4) they made themselves.
Mouhot wrote: “After crossing a swampy plain where we slaughtered some common waterfowl, we entered a beautiful forest that, without a single clearing, extends all the way to the gates of Udong.” I am Mouhot in the jungles of the Bronx.