Being an Ass (Thursday 5/4 – bonus track)

This is Thursday’s entry, which is standing in for Tuesday’s final entry, and which I’m writing late Saturday night.  I’ve been busy, okay?

And, the time has brought greater understanding to the events of Tuesday.

I ended up in an open, dirt courtyard of a big school with mostly-barefoot kids of varied ages running around in a flock, yelling.  I found my way into an office, labeled “DIRECTION,” and in that office I found a middle-aged guy and an old woman, neither of whom spoke English well.

When I communicated that I was an English teacher, the man kind of smiled and asked how many people I would be bringing.  I said, just me.  It gradually dawned on me that this was a charity outfit.  I felt like an ass. 

I decided to leave them my resume in the hopes that someone who spoke English would get to it, call me, and give me the option of doing some free work.  I wanted to get out of there.  But they wouldn’t easily let me go.

Eventually, they figured out that I “take money from the students.”  And they found this very funny.  And they explained to me that these students were very poor.  And I couldn’t take money from them.  This is the phrase they kept coming back to:  taking money from the students.  And they laughed, and laughed.

And I couldn’t make them understand that if I worked there, I understood it would be free.

Then, they made me sit back down — I had been trying to make my exit — and the woman fetched a guy who spoke at an intermediate level.  He was an English teacher.  So they explained the situation to him, and they talked about me in Khmer, and laughed, and he would ask some question of me — like, “Why do you want to take money from the students?”  And, “Other Americans teach English for free.”

These got responses that invariably made them laugh more — like, “Teaching English is my job.  I take money so I can take care of myself.”  And, “Rich Americans teach English for free.”  At this last one, they laughed especially.  I brightened up a bit — and they laughed longer, to make it clear they weren’t laughing with me.

This, by the way, is true.  There’s an organization around the corner from where I live that apparently places Westerners in volunteer positions — for a substantial donation.  I gather, if you’re well-off and you want your consciouness raised, you pay this outfit for the privilege of working with orphans.  They also have a number of staff, Western and Cambodian, to make sure the orphans aren’t too dirty when you get to them.

Then this guy, An, took me on a tour of the school, first carefully instructing me to say goodbye to the folks who had been laughing at me.

Outside, I took another look at the kids.  About the only thing could be said of them was that they were apparently healthy.  An kept going on about how poor the kids were and how they had no place to be.  I asked, “These are orphans?”

He kind of snorted, and looked at me out of the corner of his eye.  “Yes,” he said.  “They’re orphans.”

The school was a one-room, open-air deal with long, narrow picnic-table-like deals crowded together for the students.  To get to the benches in the middle the students would have to squeeze by and clamber over the other tables.

While we were talking, I sat on one of the student benches.  When I got up, the seat upended and fell off its supports.  A guy with a hammer could have fixed that at any time.  And the room looked like it hadn’t been mopped in 20 years.

We interrogated each other as to our living situation.  I paid $7 a night for my room.  He got his free — he showed it to me; it reminded me of my days as a pseudo-beatnik — because he did work for the pagoda.

Yes, it turned out we were in a pagoda.  The school was some kind of adjunct to it.pagoda

I explained to him that I’d like to do something; that I could maybe volunteer part-time.  Also at this time I managed to communicate that I was in Cambodia to learn meditation.  I had said this several times; I think he thought I’d said “martial arts.”

Beyond the trouble communicating, it seemed An fundamentally didn’t want to communicate.  To some extent this was calculated — it meant he got to keep saying, “but you take money from students,” until he said it one too many times (after I had made it clear I was volunteering free time), and my eyes flashed. 

Apparently we Westerners are scary when we’re angry — non-confrontation runs deep in this culture, and when someone exhibits any anger, they’re close to violence and a psycho loss of control.  I went back to the cell phone shop to ask why they had charged me so much, initially just wanting to be reassured that somehow I’d gotten my money’s worth.  (I think they sold me a business number.) 

But the guy was so evasive and so cleverly stupid about what I was asking that I got adamant about it.  I never raised my voice or gritted my teeth, but I didn’t let him off the hook, and kept demanding to know why they’d charged me so much.  Eventually, he called 911 (the equivalent) and slid me the phone.

I looked at it, and then held it out to him.  “You’re dialing emergency?” I demanded.

His eyes glazed over.  “Yes.”


“It’s the only number you can dial without the chip.”

I snorted, took the battery out, and put the chip back in.  And I asked him again why he had charged me so much.

After he saw that flash of anger, An never said anything about “taking money from students” again.

I went back on Thursday, prepared with some cleaner and a brush to scrub the floor of the schoolroom.  Never got a good chance.

An on Thursday took me on a tour of the pagoda — the monks were an old, old grinning rotten-toothed groover who could tell fortunes, and three young monks, ranging from 9-13, who hung out talking on a cell phone and smoking.

An took me over to see some kind of ceremony that was in progress.  There were these dogs, of the mongrel neighborhood variety, that didn’t like me, and started barking up a storm.  The chant inside the building, which looked like a kind of a 4-H camp meeting hall, faltered, and those inside started straining to see what was going on.

An kept smiling and telling me how wonderful the service was.  I was saying, “I think I should get out of here; I’m disrupting things.”  An kept smiling and nodding and telling me about the service.  At about this time I started to think I’d got his number.

Also, I asked during this tour to see where the orphans slept.  An looked at me.  “The who?”

“The orphans.  The kids.”

“No, no.  They sleep with their families.  All around the neighborhood.”

He had lied to me.  Playing on my Western sentimentality for orphans.  I brought it up once later — I said, “I sure did think you said this was an orphanage.” — and he got quiet and then changed the subject.

The class itself was a mess.  I kept trying to get students to talk to each other, and An would give conflicting instructions — “These students aren’t good enough yet for conversation.”  Yah, and how do you imagine that situation is going to change?

Eventually, he had me write a letter to Mom, which the students dilligently copied down in their essay-books.  How this helped them learn English, I can’t say.  The trend for Asians who come to the states is that they’re very book-smart, very good with the grammar, and they have no fluency. 

This kind of crap is why.  Refusal to jump in and start practicing.  I wonder if this has to do with keeping face.  (It’s different in the new schools.  They do do fluency drills there, and those students are much better prepared for conversation.)

Each student stood up, almost at attention, when I called on them.  I tried to fight that, but it was just ingrained.  Also, asking a question to the general class got nothing.  And it kind of weirded them out — because no one of them had permission to speak, and yet I was calling on them collectively to give a response.

Well, better I get these kinks worked out here.

Returning home, I realized something:

An’s repeated questions about how much things cost; his unfamiliarity with bank accounts; the fact that he grew up in a villiage, come to the pagoda, and apparently had no concept of the city life, apart from what he had heard — his (let’s not mince words) hatred for this wealthy red-headed foreigner who he nevertheless needs to teach his students proper English — I think he’s a commie.  Old-school.

Probably not in his politics — I don’t think he’d be an English teacher then — but certainly in his social values.

I called him on the phone and told him I had two conditions if I was going to keep teaching English there.  He kept talking over me, asking if I was going to show up on a particular day — more, more, always more.  I had to strong-arm the conversation.

1.  He had to let me have the students talk to each other.  Again he gave me, “but unfortunately these students are not very good…”  I replied to that, loudly (had to), and I’m still not sure we have consensus on it.  I’m prepared to fight it out in the classroom.

2.  He had to let me clean the floor.  Because, I said — trying to channel my inner Asian — “teaching is a dignified and honorable profession.  I would no more teach in a dirty classroom than I would teach wearing dirty clothes, or if I myself was dirty.”

There was a pause.  Then he said, “Yeah, okay.”

I bought him a bi-directional Khmer-English dictionary.  He only has ones that go from English to Khmer.  I don’t especially like the guy, but he needs a properly set up dictionary.

Published in: on August 22, 2009 at 10:57 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. [I caught this one out of the spam filters. And it is spam — certainly it has nothing to do with the topic. But the book, which seems to be a self-published lexicon of weird English vocab, seems basically nifty and I’m letting it through.

    [Adam — in future, best practice is to include only one url, ideally in the URL field so your name links to it. It’s better nettiquette, and doesn’t alert the spam filters. Luck with the book.]

    Dear Conrad

    I wondered if you might like a link to both my Foreign word site and my English word website or press release details of my ensuing book with Penguin Press on amusing and interesting English vocabulary?

    with best wishes

    Adam Jacot de Boinod

    (author of The Meaning of Tingo)


    or wish to include:

    When photographers attempt to bring out our smiling faces by asking us
    to “Say Cheese”, many countries appear to follow suit with English
    equivalents. In Spanish however they say patata (potato), in Argentinian Spanish whisky, in French steak frites, in Serbia ptica (bird) and in
    Danish appelsin (orange). Do you know of any other varieties from around the world’s languages? See more on


    The Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine
    coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under
    and elsewhere).
    Discover all sorts of words you’ve always wished existed but never knew,
    such as fornale, to spend one’s money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and
    petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a
    dry spell.
    Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it
    is you wouldn’t want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow
    seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and
    why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else. See
    more on

    with best wishes


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