Cambodia has been an interesting place to live to say the least during this Covid pandemic. In the beginning we did not much feel the effects as our total infection and death rate was very low. Businesses remained open for the most part and life was fairly normal. But when an outbreak occurred on February 20, 2021 everything changed and the country has been in lockdown in one form or another ever since. The events that lead to the change are fascinating and deserving of its own article, but the point of this blog is of a more personal nature. My family has undergone much change as well during this time, transforming my life into something that I thought it would never be. As a person of means living in a third world country with a wife from a poor family, I have needed to take on more responsibilities than I thought I could previously bear. I have undergone a prolonged quarantine during this time, celebrated the birth of my first son and two birthdays during this pandemic. I have changed much during this time as has my family in size, complexity and structure. I first came to Cambodia 7 years ago in search of a particular life and now find myself in the midst of a life both unexpected and grander in scale. This article is part 1 of 3 in which I will attempt to trace my journey through this most unusual of times.
As previously stated, Cambodia seemed almost immune to the pandemic in the beginning. Most of our positive cases were imported from tourists travelling from abroad and the local population remained largely untouched. There were no curfews, lockdowns nor restrictions to speak of and life continued normally for most. It would be nearly a year until we would finally feel the effects when on February 20, 2021 a group of tourists quarantined in a hotel, who would later test positive for the virus, bribed a guard to leave their containment grounds and start a chain of events that would drastically change the course of the country. There were outbreaks throughout the city but my family and I were largely fine as we lived a bit outside of town, seemingly a safe distance apart from all the chaos that was ensuing in the city. I had a second residence nearby where I would go to daily in order to work and play poker and sometimes I would sleep there as well if my sessions ran deep into the night. It was at this residence that I first felt the effects of the pandemic as a group of people on the 14th floor would test positive for the virus. On one particular night I finished playing poker around 1:00 AM and proceeded to head out for drinks with some friends. I returned to the second residence at 4:00 AM and crashed for the night. I awoke the next day at noon and proceeded to head out to my favorite Japanese restaurant for lunch when I was stopped by a group of police and military personnel. I was told we had been locked down and quarantined for two weeks while they tested everyone in the building for covid after some residents had tested positive. They allowed us to get groceries and food delivered from the outside, but we were not permitted to leave the grounds nor could we receive any visitors. As this was my secondary residence, I am grateful that my family were nowhere near although it did make for a more lonely experience.
I immediately went inside to my unit and called my wife. Amusingly enough she did not believe me at first and I completely understood why; a married man telling his wife he could not come home for two weeks. But as news got around that we were 1 of 21 such condos closed down for quarantine, her suspicions quickly changed to worry and concern. I assured her I was fine as I was completely asymptomatic and that I would be tested in a few days. I then spoke to my kids who obviously had difficulty understanding why their father could not come home. Being away from the family was obviously the most difficult aspect of this quarantine, but I called them daily to tell them that I loved them and missed them dearly.
I had to move on to practical matters next so I quickly got out my phone and ordered enough groceries to last me the two weeks. This ended up being somewhat unnecessary as we were later told we could also receive deliveries from restaurants, which I ended up doing for most meals as I was not in the mindset to cook. I thought it would take the government a few days to organize and get everyone tested as 21 locations were locked down. But to my surprise they came knocking on my door the very next morning to inform me that the entire building would be tested that day. They rounded everyone up in the parking lot and tested us one by one, getting all of our information then swabbing us in the nostril. By the 7th day we were informed that everyone in the building tested negative and that we would be tested again on the 10th day of quarantine and that if everyone tested negative again, we would be allowed to leave after the two week period had concluded. While this news did provide much hope, I still have to say that the remaining time was quite difficult. My wife was 6 months pregnant at the time, I could not see my two daughters and I spent every night alone in what now seemed like a very cramped condo. On most nights I would open up all the curtains and windows in my bedroom just to fool myself that I was outside.
On the 10th day of quarantine they rounded everyone up again in the parking lot for our second test. Everything went as smoothly as before and I returned to my condo, hopeful of a release in 4 days time. But in what felt like the most disappointing moment of my life, we were all informed 3 days later that two people had tested positive in the building and that quarantine would be extended. I had read in the news that a similar result had occurred in another complex a few miles away and that their lockdown was extended for another 2 weeks. We were not specifically told how long the extension would be, but I feared a similar fate meaning I would be locked down for basically 1 month total. I informed my wife of the news and tried to explain to my kids why their father was away for so long. We all talked daily and nightly on video calls and they did much to lift my spirits. I wish that I could say that I was productive during this period and made good use of my time. But in truth I did not get much volume in poker wise as I was just not in the proper mindset. Most days were spent ordering takeout food and watching episodes of my favorite TV shows on my computer.
On the 17th day of quarantine they rounded us up again for another round of tests. We all gathered in the parking lot once again but the mood was quite different this time around. I am sure we were all thinking the same thing, namely what would happen if more people tested positive again and just how long are we going to be stuck here? I tried not to think of such things and prepared myself for the results and another round of tests before hopefully being let out after 28 days. But on the 20th day of quarantine I woke up to very surprising news. I was asleep when the management office of the building called and informed me that everyone had tested negative in the latest tests and that we were all free to leave. I thanked the building staff as they had gone through much as well, having been quarantined along with the rest of us during this time. I sprinted out the door without even combing my hair, high fived all the security guards on my way out and found the nearest tuk tuk to get me home. I did not tell my wife of the news as I wanted to surprise everyone. That 3 minute ride seemed like an eternity but I finally got home, ran through the front door and yelled "Papa's home!" They could not have been more surprised as both of my daughters ran to hug me as we had not seen each other in nearly 3 weeks. I kissed my wife, told her what had happened and spent the rest of the day in bed watching YouTube with my kids.
Although I was let out of my own quarantine, the city at large still went through various stages of lockdowns and curfews in the ensuing months. Given that my wife was 6 months pregnant I had missed one doctor's appointment with her but was glad to be able to resume accompanying her on such visits. Traveling about the city was becoming increasingly difficult and the police would stop all vehicle at nearly every intersection for the proper documentation to be able to travel. We did not possess such but were able to present our hospital records in their stead. On one such occasion, the police stopped us and asked why we were outside when my wife explained we were going to the hospital for our regular visit during her pregnancy. The policeman then asked who was pregnant, which was quite amusing as my wife was obviously showing by this time and the only other person in the car was myself. My wife laughingly exclaimed that she was the one who was pregnant, to which the policeman laughed and let us go on our way. All of our appointments went well in the ensuing months with no surprises. Everything indicated that we were going to have a healthy boy in mid May and we made preparations towards that date. We had not yet named our son and my wife had left that decision entirely up to me. I was having some difficulty as I did not want to follow the usual convention. Korean Americans have a tendency to name their children after biblical figures, a trend I myself continued when I named my daughter Sarah. But I wanted to deviate from tradition this time around so I did what I usually do when I have difficulty deciding anything and googled "most popular names for baby boys." Nothing really jumped out at me until I came across the name Aiden, an Irish name which meant "little fire." I thought to myself that the name struck a perfect balance between breaking away from convention but not being so out there that people might consider the name weird.
Life continued fairly normally for the next couple of months and we would not face much drama until it was time for little Aiden to be born. As I previously mentioned, the pregnancy was going very smoothly but that would all change about a week before the expected due date. My wife was not getting enough red meat and iron in her diet and so she had developed anemia. The baby was now registering as slightly underweight and the doctor's were recommending a cesarean delivery to limit the loss of blood. But they informed me that my wife would still need bags of blood on hand during the procedure as a precautionary measure. As I came to find out, procuring blood in Cambodia is a harrowing task and the week that led up to my son's birth would prove to be a trying and difficult time. In the next article I will discuss the peculiar method by which blood is obtained in this country and the eventual and life changing event that was the birth of my son Aiden.