Yesterday Savong sent me a dozen lovely photos taken recently at the school near Siem Reap. These photos reminded me of the cultural collisions that subtly occur when a volunteer like me stands up in the Cambodian classroom.
At first, (for 45 seconds) culture shock threatens to overwhelm the experience, but as soon as you start asking questions as well as answering questions from the students, the ice is broken. For any volunteer the first few minutes are spent answering questions about your age, your family, your marital status and your country. I pointed to New Zealand on a map, last time I was in the classroom, and told the students that I swam all the way to Cambodia. There’s an international look on young people – a kind of polite “aww bullshit” expression which I recognised, and at once the ice was broken and the students knew not to take anything I said at face value.
There are little cultural tips about teaching here. Don’t point at students with your forefinger (as my mum always told me: it’s rude to point), and take your shoes off at the door. Again, last time I was there I took off my sandals and this revealed that one of my feet is missing, thanks to a wayward lawnmower, two toes. A girl in the front row nudged her classmate. “Landmine,” I heard her whisper. I felt a bit humbled, because my accident was such a first world problem by comparison. Later when students asked me about my foot I explained that “this big tiger had attacked me.” Again I got that familiar “aww bullshit!” look. I clearly lack credibility.
As the photo indicates, there are likely to be monks in the classroom also, and at Savong’s school this is likely because of the local monastery 1km away at the Rolous temple, site of the first of the Angkor temples, almost 1,000 years old. Many of the monks are teenagers, though some are older guys.
At first I wasn’t sure how to relate to them. One expects a kind of Zen-ness about the demeanour, but actually they proved to be just a group of teenage boys: conspicuously sitting in the back row (like I used to do at that age) and not above writing on their desks. For female volunteers there is simply the added instruction: don’t physically contact a monk – either by shaking their hand, or – worse – patting their head.
After a few minutes in the classroom I’m overwhelmed by the sense that really, this is the same as teaching in a local school. A few years back I wrote a young adult fiction novel, The Whole of the Moon, and this occasioned me to to visit several dozen schools in New Zealand to discuss writing and offer students encouragement. Really those classes were the same as the Cambodian classes. Smart girls sit up the front and whisper. Bad boys sit at the back, legs kicking, eyes gazing out the window. Students everywhere laugh at the same jokes and take especial delight in proving the teacher wrong.
In Cambodia I taught one class hangman, the word game, and they took special pride in beating the gallows, two guesses away from their fateful end. My word was a biggie: VOLLEYBALL but the moment one boy asked the letter “L” the whole class could smell the teacher’s doom. They jeered knowingly.
Later on I felt awful for another reason. Was “hangman” a little too close to the Pol Pot experience? Was it culturally insensitive? Not to worry, Savong assured me. In Cambodia they have a similar word game where you draw steps that, lead, step, by, fateful, step, to, a, crocodile. Snap snap.
I miss these students, and I can’t wait to swim over to Cambodia once more.