What I learned in Cambodia
Our guide in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, fluent in English, German, and his native language told us a joke one hot afternoon on our bus as we returned from one gorgeous temple. He asked, “What do you call someone who speaks two languages?” We all shouted “Bilingual!” “OK” he said. ‘ What do you call someone who speaks three languages?” Again, we shouted, “Trilingual.” “What do you call someone who speaks one language?” We tittered self-consciously before responding, “An American.” He asked the questions good naturedly. We responded in kind, but a little self-consciously at the end.
I spent two weeks boating along the Mekong River mostly in Cambodia, but beginning and ending in Vietnam. In each city and region, we had guides who spoke at least passable English and met schoolchildren in tiny villages who spoke almost perfect English. We met teachers and Buddhist monks who teach the old way, by rote. The teachers were mostly men (even of the smallest children) and always wore pressed shirts and trousers even in villages where the children wore the same skirt or pants every day and where washing in the river resulted in mud colored clothes no matter what their original color. We had brought school supplies to this village to give to the children–notebooks and pencils.
In one village we were transported by ox cart to yet another Buddhist temple and school. One little girl of 8 followed us all the way back to the village on her bike speaking to us in English and singing “If you’re happy and you know it” through all its verses. Of course she wanted money before we reboarded our boat. We were encouraged not to do this, and so we didn’t.
I appreciate my country more when I travel. I am also self-conscious. I am a teacher too. My learners are adults, most of whom I never see. They have the same will, most of them, to learn to be effective in the world. I honor this willingness, determination, and commitment by seeking to understand the key to their wish for a better education and by that a better life, just as the Cambodian children I met want a better life for themselves.