a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Friday, July 8, 2011

First week

It's Friday already, the end of our first work week in Cambodia, and I would say it's been a most successful week for both of us. Stephen really hit the ground running at the office, jumping right in with meetings and presentations with his office staff to give them an introduction to his vision for the work he hopes to do here. He's also begun some language work: both learning Khmer and teaching English. (He told me this afternoon that it feels longer than only a week.) As for me, I've done a little colored pencil art, researched materials for teaching English, and I too have begun language work.

Something we've noticed already about Cambodians is that it appears they value timeliness and good follow-through. This not only makes our lives easier, as it matches our own culture, it also makes it easier for Stephen to do his job well. We've had two examples of this so far. One is when we first arrived, we only had to request twice to have our hotel room safe's batteries replaced so it would function. Another example is our new apartment. We were told it would take 7 to 10 days before it was ready but Stephen informed me yesterday that we are moving in after only 6 days. It makes a huge difference living in a city as compared to a rural village. In Tugela Ferry, the most routine of matters (in our eyes) could take just an inordinate amount of time to be dealt with, making living there challenging. By comparison Phnom Penh is a dream.

While Stephen learned Khmer from and taught English to his office staff, I practiced with strangers. Yesterday I had a fairly lengthy conversation with one of the hotel staff. In the morning, I went to the pool area with the intent of working on a new colored pencil drawing. As soon as I sat down the young Cambodian who was mopping the pool tiles asked me if I was a teacher. I said "yes I am", a little curious to know what made him think that. He then promptly said, "I want to learn from you." Since I had all my colored pencils and paper on the table I said, "what do you want to learn from me? English? Art?". He said, "English. I want to learn English. I want to change my life." "And learning English will do that for you?" I asked. He replied that it would. I said that I wanted to learn Khmer and he was more than happy to teach me. "I want to be a teacher like you," he said. So I asked him how to say, "Good morning" in Khmer. Ayun suo stey.  I have discovered that I have a much more difficult time only listening to a new language; I really need the words written down so I can look at them while I'm hearing them spoken. He was happy to write down what good morning was. "But I can't read that," I said when he had finished writing in Khmer (right now it's just all squiggles) "can you write it in phonetic English?" He laughed (as is how Cambodians seem to respond to any difficulty or misunderstanding) and then wrote the English pronunciation for the Khmer words. The thing is English doesn't have equivalent sounds, they are only best approximations. And as I listened to him speak his language, I heard many more sounds than were on the paper in front of me. But it's a start to have those English spellings of Khmer words. As I hear people speak them, I will refine my pronunciation. Which is very important to me. I don't want to speak Khmer badly.

So after he wrote down a few different phrases in Khmer for me, we just had a chat in English. Though he had a decent vocabulary, I often had a difficult time understanding his English but he said, "I would like for you to correct me." So I did my best to understand, asking him to repeat himself many times and then once I got it I repeated it back to him. In one instance he was trying to say, "flash disk" to explain how he saved his school work and he was saying something like, "flas  dis". Once I finally understood, I repeated it back to him with emphasis on the "sh" and he copied my pronunciation. He told me that his family is very poor and that he came to Phnom Penh to get a job and take care of himself, "but the salary is very low". $65 a month is what he told me that salary is. He said he's been in Phnom Penh for 4 years and he's been going to a private school during that time. He works at the hotel in the morning and goes to school in the afternoon. I asked him what kind of classes he was taking and said he only takes English classes. When he graduated from high school he was given a "scholarship" but he couldn't pass the "scholarship" so he couldn't get into the state school. But the private school will take him, he just has to pay. When he was writing English spellings of Khmer words he wanted to know if I thought Khmer was harder than English. I said I couldn't really say about Khmer yet but I know that English is very difficult. He pointed to the different languages and said, "two languages, one spoken only in Cambodia, the other one spoken all over the world." He said, "It is easy for you to travel to my country. But it is hard for me to travel outside of my country." I agreed with him. He said he would be willing to travel "abroad" to get a good job. Towards the end of the conversation I said I was American. He said, "I've been thinking about you, that you are American because you are fat and your skin is so light. It is not like this in my country." He already knew I was American because I'm fat and fair skinned. It's true what he says, "It's not like this in my country". 36% of Cambodia children under the age of 5 are underweight from malnutrition. 40% of all children are stunted which means underweight for their age and 11% are "wasted" which means underweight for their height. Malnutrition is a significant health problem but also an education problem because when the body doesn't get the right nutrients neither does the brain. Malnutrition is one of the 4 major areas Stephen wants to do work in.

My conversation with the Cambodian hotel employee added more fuel to the fire: although I don't yet know how it will work out, I believe I will teach English much sooner than I planned. Students who are as motivated as this young man are fun to teach. And his current English proficiency would make it possible for me to teach him before I've learned Khmer. What he needs a lot of is to listen and speak to a "native speaker" as he said. It's exciting to think about my tutoring other Cambodians who are just like him.

So we have seen the "angry rains". Short bursts of heavy rain. And so far they have been in the evening. Last night there was a thunder and lighting storm just before 5 o'clock. It was raining very hard but the sky was light and clear. The rain cools things off so nicely. It makes eating outside completely pleasant. Stephen and I are feeling the effects of the heat and humidity: lots of hours of sleep each night (we are worn out by 8pm!) and headaches from dehydration. I seemed to be drinking a ton of water but still, it's hard to keep up with all the perspiring!

Stephen and I are working on our laptops in Cafe Fresco again. Our new apartment is just around the corner actually. We signed the lease today and move in on Sunday. It will be nice to be in our own place. For almost two months now we have stayed either with family or in a hotel. I'm ready to set up my studio and get back to painting. It will be so great to have my own space for my art, something I didn't even have in the states. This area, BKK I, is where "the rich people live" according to the Cambodian office staff.  It's the expat community. And judging from the abundance of wonderful restaurants and coffee shops, this is a fairly large community. There is a Brown Coffee on street 51 and a Brown Coffee coming soon to street 57. Just like Seattle: a Starbucks on every corner!
There are all types of construction going on throughout the city. I just read an article in a Cambodian magazine (published in English) that talked about the lack of city planning and the fear that Phnom Penh will turn into Bangkok. As a capital city, according to the article, Phnom Penh still has charm and beauty but it's starting to get crowded. Businesses and apartment complexes are not taking parking into consideration. Giant Lexuses, Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers are parked up on the sidewalks and clog up the small streets. Motorcycles are really the most practical mode of transportation. Stephen and I are planning to get a Toyota Rav4. If we didn't need a vehicle with 4WD and good clearance for rural roads, I would consider getting two scooters. :) We will probably get a motorcycle in addition to the Rav4. But I don't know how to ride one yet. Before we left the states, Stephen took a motorcycle safety class; so he has a motorcycle license. For the most part, everyone drives really slowly here, but still, I think learning how to drive a motorcycle in Phnom Penh might be a little too dangerous. Ha! Maybe when we come back to the states I'll take the motorcycle safety class. :)

Well that's the latest from Safari Cambodia. Until next post.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic that you are doing so well - I'm proud of you!