Christmas in Cambodia can be perfect. Until it absolutely isn’t.

FIRST THERE WERE the “Happy Merry Christmas” banners hung across the doorways of restaurants and guesthouses. Then mannequins had balloons stuffed inside red jackets and white construction paper beards glued to their faces. Soon store clerks were forced to wear Santa hats while parents dressed toddlers in miniature Santa costumes.

Then came the lights. The many, many lights.

Christmas had struck Phnom Penh. Actually, it looked as though Christmas had thrown up on Phnom Penh. Strands of blinking neon were strewn from streetlights and trees and awnings. Independence Monument was cast in an electric glow, while the medians surrounding it became home to illuminated outlines of bells and trees and gifts, creating a kind of psychedelic altar in the middle of the city. Even the US Embassy got into the spirit. Behind its ten-foot fence, it erected a giant Santa riding a motorbike, pulsing in the night.

Photo: bengarrison

But something was missing, and not just the cold. There were no references to Jesus, I noticed, no Manger scenes and no hymns. There were no ads, no Christmas lists, no frantic shoppers. I’d read friends’ stressed out Facebook statuses — bemoaning impending visits home and constant pressure to Buy! Buy! Buy! — with detached bemusement.

It was as though Phnom Penh had taken away the bummer elements of Christmas and whittled it down to its simplest, most fun form: an excuse for more shiny shit.

I liked this version of Christmas, I decided. In fact, I preferred it.

Christmas Eve

“All right, all right,” Ray set the tray down on the table and yanked the tin foil away. Steam rose in squiggly, cartoon odor lines. “Turkey!” We clapped.

I inhaled the scent as he began slicing. It mingled with the other scents of the table: stuffing and cornbread, potatoes and gravy — a Christmas Eve potluck with all the fixings.

I felt a thousand little memories rise with the steam: the stockings my grandmother had made, my favorite angel ornament, and Aaron Neville’s Christmas album.

“Oh my god, I’m excited!” Lina cried out. “Did I tell you I cried on Thanksgiving when we didn’t get turkey? Literally cried.” She shook her head.

I smiled. “You know, it’s funny — I hadn’t really been missing turkey, but now that it’s in front of me,” I breathed in deeply, “it smells like the best goddamn thing in the world.”

I served myself a plate and sat down, cross-legged and barefoot in my sundress. Nat King Cole played in the background. I chewed slowly, savoring the familiar flavors: overly sweet canned cranberry sauce and salty Stove-Top stuffing. If I looked away from the open terrace doors and piercing sunlight, and towards the fake tree glittering with ornaments, I could have been in any American living room.

We put on A Christmas Story. It’d been years since I’d watched the movie all the way through, and I laughed at the familiar scenes — the tongue on the ice pole, the department store Santa, “you’ll shoot your eye out.”

The camera panned out, paused on a scene of the house from the outside — nighttime, snowing, the house was all lit up. I felt a pang of longing. It was the picture of a stereotypical American Christmas, a cliché I’d never lived. I’d grown up non-religious, in California, in a little house huddled between apartment buildings. There’d been no snow, no chimneys, no letters to Santa.

I thought about surly Facebook statuses, everyone’s “holiday blues,” and wondered if maybe that’s part of what the holidays were all about — a longing for something we’ve never quite had, for the idea of Christmas.

I felt the longing well up in me. It was a part of Christmas I’d thought I’d avoided, conveniently side-stepped, along with the religion and consumerism. But even here, it’d found me.

Especially here.

Family tech meltdown

The next morning, I clicked the “Answer” button on the Skype icon. No video appeared.

We all let out a groan.

I’d been up most of the night with a grumbling stomach and insomnia, but I was determined not to miss my family Skype date — determined to fill that loneliness that had risen.

Photo: tvol

“Do you want to see if we can video chat on Facebook?” Under the perky overtone, my sister-in-law’s voice was tired and thin.

I opened a new window, clicked icons, downloaded software. While I waited, I could hear them all, clattering around. I heard my niece’s high, young voice; I hadn’t heard it since I’d left.

“Hey Zaia!” I exclaimed.

I heard a faraway whisper. “You have to say it louder,” my mom told her.

Another muffled response. “I still can’t hear you, sweetheart.”

“She wants to know what Christmas is like in Cambodia,” my mom told me.

“Oh, well,” I drew in a breath, trying to think of what would be most impressive to a 6-year-old. “There’s lots and lots of Christmas decorations here. Especially lights. And some people put their kids in these little Santa costumes, and—”

“Oh, wait,” my mom cut in, “she just ran off.”

I felt a sink in my heart. “Oh.”

The software loaded, but the video didn’t work. We tried other options and troubleshooted.

Twenty minutes passed.

I heard a sharp, high-pitched infant cry, then rustling.

“Hey sister,” my brother cut in. His voice was soft, but had the same layer of tired just beneath. “The kids are starting to get cranky; I think we’ve gotta go home.”

“Oh, okay.” I felt tears well. My nose tingled.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly.

“Hey, I know how it is,” I said, trying to sound upbeat and understanding. I wondered if he could hear the layer of longing beneath.

“Email me this week and we’ll set a time to figure this out!” my sister-in-law interjected.

And in that moment, I wouldn’t like the Cambodian version of Christmas at all — I’d be homesick for my own Christmas. Even with its cold and consumerism, even if it was just an idea, a myth, an image from a movie. It would surprise me — a longing for something I hadn’t known I was missing.

I said goodbye to my parents and disconnected. Then I shut my laptop and let myself cry.