Tika is every day picking up tidbits of new ideas, like a girl gathering shells and shiny stuff on the beach, and she proudly shares with me each new find. She is trying to piece together what is womanhood and diligently working at making this happen to herself. With enough study and practice, she figures it’s going to happen. For instance, she discovered a few months ago that husband-wife kisses are different from grandma kisses—she sat on my lap and told me about this with a sly grin. Now she enlists Puck for practice kissing, and he innocently offers up his face to her. She has also learned—through her brothers, I think—that pimples are a signal that things are about to change. She wondered about a bug-bite on her face. And since I saw no point in taking birth control while I’m on another continent from TJ, my face is abloom with zits. Am I turning into a grown-up? When will I finish changing? On the bus-ride back from Battambang, Tika suddenly gave me an earnest expression. Why are some ladies pretty, but not married? I explained that marriage really isn’t about pretty, and that some ordinary-looking people were quite happy together. But I can see that her mind is a grab-bag of ideas and inspiration, she just hasn’t figured out causality yet.
Ernest and Yoshi are approaching that delicate time in a boy’s upbringing when one foot awkwardly straddles either side of maturity. Grouped under a dusty tarpaulin for too long at the roadside, they pinch and jab and provoke one another. Still they whine to mom in the heat about endless hunger, thirst, and bodily irritations. But when we’re back on the bus seated two-and-two and the AC has finally cooled us down, Yoshi looks out across the paddies and tells me he wants to see more of the world. He thinks it would be pretty neat to be a teacher or run a school in Africa. When Ernest can get away from his brothers and sister, he sketches inventions in a notebook he hides in his desk. Standing by me at the kitchen sink, or kicking pebbles waiting for the school van, he returns again and again to conversations in his head: ‘If there was one thing you could do to make a difference…’ ‘If there were just two things you had to change…’ And then he launches into a criticism of Cambodia’s bad electrical grid, crappy roads, and run-down schools. Yoshi can tuck away his ideas for another day, but Ernest exudes, well, earnestness, and needs to solve problems in the here-and-now. He waves his hands for emphasis, and looks either hurt or pissed when I suggest he wash up for dinner.