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A Cambodian Riddle

By: Clare Ortblad Posted: November-09-2011 in
Clare Ortblad

One of the best reasons to come to Cambodia is that you’re bound to come away with an unusual story. I have been living in Phnom Penh for a few short months and feel as if I have already collected at least a dozen stories to be retold for years to come. Many of these stories have been collected through my experiences as a volunteer at a local, non-governmental organization (NGO) that specializes in agricultural development. One of the best perks about working at this NGO is that I get to go out into the field with fellow staff.

One trip into the field was particularly special to me, and oddly enough not because of anything exceptionally adventurous, but because of a funny cross-cultural exchange that happened between me and a coworker.

During a long car ride to a village in Prey Veng province, I was doing the usual chit-chat with two Cambodian coworkers, a female who sat next to me in the back seat, and a male in the front passenger seat (for privacy purposes, I’ll call him Mr. S ). After a lull in the conversation, Mr. S turned in his seat to face me and began telling me what is supposedly a Cambodian riddle (and I say supposedly because I think a lot of vital information or clues got lost in translation. Mind you, Mr. S’s English is not perfect). This is how the conversation went:

Mr. S: “Clare, tell me what you think answer for this is…There are two brothers and the younger brother says to the older brother, where is our mother? And the older one says, she died before you were born.”
Me: “Okay.”
Mr. S: “…So what is your answer?”
Me: “Uh…they don’t have the same mother?”
Mr. S: “No.”
Me: “They are not brothers after all then.”
Mr. S: “No.”
Me: “Okay I give up. What’s the answer?”
Mr. S: “Banana.” (He also pronounced this as BANA - NA - NA)
Me: “Huh, what?”
Mr. S: “Ha ha. Banana!”
Me: “Why banana? I don’t get it.”

He went into explaining that bananas grow from one “mother” but can become offshoots that continue growing even if the original tree dies. After his explanation it suddenly dawned on me that the real answer to this riddle is that the brothers ARE bananas. In fact, it was only then that I fully realized that Mr. S was telling me a riddle. I even had to explain the answer to my female coworker, who was just as confused as I was, and she’s Cambodian!

Mr. S didn’t preface the story with anything, perhaps because he wasn’t aware of the English word “riddle.” I also guessed by the nature of the answer that this might be a farmer’s kind of riddle, which would not be altogether that surprising since roughly 80% of Cambodia’s population consists of farmers! A lot of them are subsistence farmers too.

In addition to this being a hilarious conversation, I was really proud of myself for figuring out what the hell he was talking about. I’ve encountered so many moments where messages and meanings get lost in translation. I’ll never forget this exchange though. The initial confusion, ensuing hilarity, and then dawning realization and understanding, are just too good to forget.


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