Language Lessons in a Sauna

Teaching English is not a pastime I had ever considered. But a colleague’s husband is at English night school and they saw in me, a native English speaker wanting to learn Khmer, an opportunity which we’ve both seized upon. Now I spend four hours per weekend in reciprocal English-Khmer lessons with a number of English language students.  Another Australian colleague/housemate has recently joined us. The Khmer being taught is very basic, while the English is advanced and more conversational.

We are learning as much about our own language and it’s nuances, as we are learning new Khmer. When you use a language daily from birth it becomes less conscious and more instinctual. So teaching someone the various subtleties and ambiguities in a language that is such an integral part of who you are can be quite a challenge.  For example, the various uses of the word take – take in, take on, take out, take down, take away, take a bath, take over, take part, take into account. Unfortunately teaching is not something I am either trained in or natural at, so they are receiving amateur coaching at best. But my English proficiency is in high demand despite my teaching incompetence. Moreover, we are having an enjoyable shared experience which I for one, am relishing.

When these classes began we held them at an outdoor table in the grounds of a Wat – the walled Buddhist community centre which every community has. Wats consist of large spacious grounds almost always at the end of a long dusty laneway, through a grand high-walled entrance decorated with statues. These wats always house beautiful golden high-roofed temples, ornate tombs known as stupas, communal dormitories for resident monks, classrooms and tree-lined shady paths and gardens, with thoroughfares between the walled entrance-ways for community access. The general public transit through the grounds, use them to rendezvous for various reasons, and of course they are a place for spiritual observance, counseling and ceremonies. However the heat of the pre-Wet season inspired a change in location and now the fan-furnished dining room of our MSF home acts as our classroom each Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon.

A typical golden wat roof (Wat Nokor, Kamong Cham)
A typical golden wat roof (Wat Nokor, Kampong Cham)

This week I was invited to a ceremony at a colleague’s home on Thursday evening. After the death of a loved one, the funeral and cremation are followed by a seven-day ceremony, then three years later another ceremony of remembrance and offering. From an outsider’s observations these ceremonies can be easily mistaken for weddings as large decorative pavilions are erected in the street, with catered meals serving hundreds of people at round tables seating eight per table. However, unlike the colourful weddings, dress for these ceremonies is dark trousers or skirts with white shirts or blouses. The music is much more sombre and the tents which are decorated less lavishly always fly a flag depicting a crocodile, which signifies the loss of a loved one.

My translator Win was also invited to this ceremony and as I do not survive well in an all-Khmer environment, we arranged to attend together. I cycled to his home, where some time was spent with his mother, his wife and their 3yo, before we left them behind and headed out into the busy evening streets. Win took his motorbike and I cycled alongside him on my bicycle. One of the most Cambodian experiences is to socialise from behind the handlebars of your moving two-wheeler, particularly in the evening between about 4pm and 7pm. In these cooler hours the streets come alive with young people on bicycles and motorbikes, riding up to three abreast, with up to four on a bike so that three-abreast can be a crowd of 12 friends, chatting animatedly in the evening breeze as they slowly cruise the streets, ducking and weaving around the hundreds of others sharing this social street time. The purr of small engines and effusive chatter of young voices on-the-move dominates these twilight hours.

We made our way at bicycle speed through the streets, around the busy round-about at the foot of Kizuna Bridge, up residential streets laden with potholes, past a trio of white oxen harnessed to each other being shepherded up the riverbank and out onto the road, where they loped along calmly beside the humming traffic, past clip-clopping horse-drawn carriages, wedding tents blaring music across neighbourhoods, a riverside Wat compound, night market place and riverside food stalls.

Parking our bikes in an allocated vacant lot, we were greeted by our host at the tent entrance in the middle of the street and made our way past the host family who formed two lines on either side of the doorway, exchanging the usual sampiah gesture of respectful greeting as we progressed into the tent. We found a table, thankfully near a large industrial fan, and sat with a group of Khmer-speaking strangers. Platters of rice and various dishes were delivered to the turnstyle in the centre of the table and we served ourselves a delicious meal of chicken, vegetables, fish and noodles. Smiles and polite nods were exchanged with the other guests sharing our table and Win taught me a little about the meaning of the ceremony, the stupas (tombs) which are usually inside the Wat grounds but occasionally seen in peoples’ yards, housing their departed loved ones and also the small golden shrines seen in every yard in Cambodia, believed to provide protection to the household and also often housing the ashes of recently departed family.

From our meal we made our way through the tent, down into the front yard of the home, which was similarly crowded with round catering tables, towards the edge of the yard where a series of square tables along the fenceline were staffed by men accepting offerings of money from queuing guests into a large round bowl, acknowledged with a chanted prayer delivered by a layman sitting on one of the tables. We signed our offering into a book before the lid of the bowl was lifted for our money to be dropped into. From here we returned back out into the street where we farewelled our host, still holding fort at the tent entrance, before making our way abreast of each other, talking all the way, back through the suburban streets.

Thankfully on that particular night we had no rain, but the monsoons are slowly evolving into a nightly ritual with alarming blasts of overhead thunder, brilliant lightning flashes igniting the night sky and cloudbursts of torrential rain tumbling to earth at heavy and high speed, turning the streets into rivers within minutes. These storms provide a brief respite from the stifling humidity until it builds up again over a few hours. They also present new and novel portraits of Cambodia which, when wet, is entirely different to the Cambodia I thought I had become familiar with. Young people frolicking barefoot in deluged streets; a shirtless motorbike driver with one hand on the handlebar, the other holding a yellow umbrella over his orange-robed passenger; an open-engined truck overloaded with cane baskets cranking through the streets, covered meticulously with a huge blue canvas as though wearing it’s own custom-made raincoat. Cycling through knee-deep water, bicycle tyres surging through ripples of white water. Arriving to destinations soaked to the bone but refreshed and cool instead of soaked in salty sweat.

Frolicking in flooded streets, Kampong Cham 28 April 2014
Frolicking in flooded streets, Kampong Cham 28 April 2014

Soon enough brown fields will be shimmering green again, dust will turn to mud, mosquitoes and the diseases they carry will make their annual reappearance, the low-lying calm Mekong waters will rage again and the yearly threat of floods which killed almost 200 people last year will threaten livelihoods and lives.  All the while, the 1.6 million Cambodian families estimated to face food shortages for up to six months every year will continue to be threatened with starvation as volatile weather conditions determine their crop outcomes.

Ploughing rice fields in Prey Veng Province, April 2014. Photograph by Sok Limseng
Ploughing rice fields, Prey Veng Province April 2014 Photograph by Sok Limseng

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