Some Notes from Cambodia

In the absence of a proper blog entry, some notes —

The Phantom Orphanage – Another tenant at the guest-house is an Australian guy named Ryan.  Big guy — almost as tall as I am — with dreadlocks.  Walks around barefoot.  Kind of a hippie Australian surfer dude.  He’s here to volunteer.  A very feeling guy.

My work schedule badly conflicts with continued volunteering at the phantom orphanage.  But Ryan was telling me he was waiting for his organization to find a place for him to volunteer, so today I brought him out to the phantom orphanage.

And, it was kind of funny.  An, the Cambodian teacher who I don’t much like, starts right in on him with the guilt trips, and on me for not doing enough work there.  The first day, I had let this get to me (back when the pagoda was still an orphanage); but by now, I have Borg-like developed an immunity to it.  And I just looked at him.

I also gave him the dictionary that I bought him.  He looked at it in disgust — possibly because I’d left the price tag on it.  Real picky guy.

Anyway, I left Ryan there, about to tour the pagoda with An.

Teaching English – The educational theory that holds sway is a kind of immersion-ish way of teaching, where the students encounter the target language, in a text, and then you explain some pattern to them, which ideally they encountered in the text.  Finally, you coax them into producing the target language with some kind of goddamn game or something.

The school where I’m teaching has books based on this new teaching strategy.  I know English, on good days, and looking at the books I can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be learning. 

On a two-page spread, the grammatical lesson will be described in a two-paragraph lead-in to a stupid exercise, and it won’t be explained well.  I asked my advanced intermediate students, “Do you like the book?  Is it clear?”

They said, “Uhhh…” and laughed.  We agreed it was “so-so.”

I know how to teach in that style — I have my certification in it — but I’m not teaching that way.  The “high-school” and “junior high-school” students I have are already confused enough by this approach.  Some of them have already decided they’ve failed, and it’s only halfway through the semester.

I’m teaching the grammer.  And I’ve written these daily quizzes in a modular fashion to identify which of the grammatical lessons they don’t have down.  It has really basic fill-ins for simple, prototype-y sentences for each of the grammatical modules.  About half of them failed it.

And there’s a third of the class that doesn’t show up.  So, a third are failing but hanging in there; a third have given up hope; and a third are doing pretty well.

Another American – There’s another American teacher, named Cody.  Ex-military.  We had a beer.  Cody told me he came to Cambodia because he’d been impressed by a Cambodian stripper in L.A., where he’s from.

Attitudes Toward Natives and Money – Cody got drawn into a conversation with a nearby tuk-tuk driver, which irritated me.  The driver had adopted a servile, groveling niceness that meant he smelled a fare.  I made an irritated comment, which surprised Cody.

Cody is into the tourist thing.  He isn’t careful with his money.  He went to the beach somewhere and said “chicks come up to you and they’ll do all kinds of weird shit for money — they’ll give you a massage, they’ll massage your feet, they’ll shave your back — all kinds of stuff.”

It was a Sunday and, there being no banks open, he had broken a $100 bill, his only cash, at a local business, that had to give him $50 in local money.  He recruited his tuk-tuk driver that day to help him.  I’m thinking he shouldn’t have trusted his driver, and he probably got robbed on the rate, as I don’t imagine he verified it.

“So I had all of this money in Real (Cambodian currency), and I was going to Thailand the next day.  And I was like, What do I do with this?”  (I would have put it in my luggage.)  “So I just started giving it away, there on the beach.  Just handing it out to people.”

Buddhism – Cody told me he had been studying Buddhism for years, and he was deeply and profoundly into it.  He asked me if I studied it, and I kind of shrugged.  “Not really.  I’ve read up on it, but I can’t pronounce most of the terms, or keep them straight.  I practice meditation.”

He said he wanted to give up everything and become a monk.  He thought about it sometimes.  We talked about that, and then I said, “But now, that’s incompatible with you finding your beautiful Cambodian lady.”

He said, “Yeah.”  I continued:  “But they’re only incompatible if you try doing them at the same time.  Do one and then the other, and you’ll be fine.  — Or, learn tantra, and you can do both at once.”

Ego Loss – He told me about a religious experience he’d had while taking LSD, that filled him with compassion.  Subsequently he did research and discovered Timothy Leary and something called “ego loss,” which is what he figured he went through.

From reading Tim Leary, he segued into other authors, and finally found Buddhism that way.  This is before he joined the military.  He explained that the monks didn’t have the same attitude toward their religion that lay-people had; lay-people weren’t going for enlightenment.

“That’s my attitude!” I surprised him by saying.  I laughed.  “In college I knew all these people who were into doing the commando-style raid on enlightenment.  Naah, too much work.  I figure, if it’s as-advertised I have a few thousand reincarnations in front of me — I’ll get enlightened sometime then.  Why rush it?”

He nodded.  “That’s the usual layman’s attitude,” he said.

More Attitudes Toward Natives – It was getting on; neither of us wanted to be out late.  I explained to him that I don’t take tuk-tuks; I like to walk.  He lives on the quiet side of the river, too, so he decided to walk with me.  I told him about the Cambodian hooker, who I thought was a guy, and he laughed.  He talked to all the tuk-tuk drivers on the way, sometimes throwing in a few phrases of Khmer.

I told him he was the only one I knew who was also trying to learn Khmer.  He said you had to.  He said that he tries to learn the language wherever he goes.  I said, “What’s that thing that happens when foreigners move to a country and they don’t assimilate, but they just hang out and talk with each other?  I think a lot of English teachers do that.”

He said, “I don’t know what it is, but I know what you’re talking about.”

(In retrospect, I’m not sure Cody’s interested in learning the language to fluency.  Sometimes when people say they “try to learn the language wherever they go” they mean they try to pick up a few phrases. 

(I really don’t understand how people can live in a country and not know what people around them are saying — I don’t understand how this could be acceptable.)

When we reached the river, some very sweet girls approached us and said hi.  I grinned and said hello, and no thanks.  This one was clearly female.  I mentioned it to Cody as we walked away.

“Yeah could be,” he muttered, not looking around.

It was kind of funny.  Cody had been very outgoing with the tuk-tuk drivers, but when he was suddenly confronted with hookers, he clammed up:  hands in his pockets, head down, short sentences.

Maybe he has a thing about hookers.  Or maybe I do; I’m not sure I know what the un-hung-up reaction to Cambodian hookers would be. 

Conclusion – It’s pretty clear that Cody and I have nothing in common.  It’s kind of nice being in touch with another American, but we’re pretty clearly not each other’s kind of people.

Which is not surprising, as my “kind of people,” if there is such a thing, are few and far between.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 11:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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