(It's the students, stupid!)
I've been living and teaching in Phnom Penh Cambodia for six months now. I suppose I could write about the magnificent ancient temples of Ankhor Wat, the beaches of Sihanoukville, the Buddhist scriptures and artifacts, and the splendor of the Royal Palace. But I won't. What I would rather write about are the people, the society, and some of the students: Like the 21 year old girl who is being pimped to a 45 year old American she's never met; or the 14 year old who fired her family maid. (What else was she supposed to do? There were no eggs!) A 12 year old with a personal chauffeur; a 13 year old who forgets his book in his ‘other house'; the administrator who loves to play ‘slap and tickle' with his girlfriend in the back row. Yes, I think I'll write about them; and a few others. After all, it's not the temples or the beaches or the Royal Place that makes Cambodia what it is. It's the students, stupid!
(Miss Cambodia said I'm nasty. I'm so happy!)
I am told by the principal that I have a new class. Fantastic, I'm teaching six hours a day again and can stay at the school for 12 hours. I really am happy about that since I get more done that way.
It's an upper-intermediate level 10 class with six teenaged and adult students. The principal said that they are lazy so relax and go easy on them. Lazy? Not in my class. So on Monday evening I walk in. I see five females and one male. I am told the male of the species is an administrator at the school. (And we all know how I love administrators.) I am also told the woman sitting next to him is his fiancée and possibly the most beautiful woman in all of Cambodia. (Let's call her ‘Miss Cambodia'.) Of the remaining four women, two are high-school students, and the other two are currently looking for employment.
Anyway, Mr. Administrator and Miss Cambodia sit next to each other and giggle like 15 year olds who have just discovered that they like each other. They also teasingly slap and pinch each other. (Let's call that Cambodian foreplay.)
Before I have a chance to introduce myself, two cell phones go off. Mr. Administrator begins talking on his, and Miss Cambodia walks out of the room and into the hallway and begins chatting on her phone. I follow her into the hallway. "Get back into class and turn off your cell phone."
"Teacher, I'm talking to my mother."
"Get back in class!" I'm beginning to raise my voice. Quite frankly, I don't care who hears me. In fact, I am determined to grab control of the situation and comfortably ensconce myself as the ‘King of the Classroom.' Miss Cambodia walks back into class.
Meanwhile, Mr. Administrator continues to talk.
"Turn off your phone", I tell him.
"I am talking to the principal."
"TURN IT OFF!"
He does, and angrily puts the phone in his pocket. I turn around and write a few simple rules in the whiteboard. Besides telling them to always come prepared to class by bringing the proper material, (textbook, notebook, pen, pencil, dictionary, etc.), I also tell them to bring to the classroom a good attitude and a work ethic.
I also write on the board in bold letters ‘TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE BEFORE COMING TO CLASS. IF YOU DON'T, YOUR PHONE BECOMES MINE.' (By the way, I still use my cheap no-frills Nokia which I bought in Thailand in 2004, so I can use one of those new fancy-schmancy phones.)
I then explain the rules to the students. These rules are open neither to negotiation nor discussion. Afterwards Miss Cambodia looks at me with puppy-dog eyes. Sorry, Miss Cambodia. That doesn't work with me anymore. "Oh teacher", she says, "you are so nasty."
My face lights up. "Thank you!" I reply happily. The class laughs. "That's the nicest thing a student here has said to me."
We start class; the cell phones are switched off; and the learning begins.
(Wanted! A foreign husband for the little one)
A colleague of mine, a foreign teacher from England, storms into the teacher's room one morning recently and angrily sits down at his desk next to mine. "This is bullsh*t!" he says, "absolute bullsh*t!"
Okay, I'll bite. It's a slow morning, anyway. "What?"
He looks at me and I think I see smoke coming out of his ears. "You remember Jane Doe?" (Not her real name)
"Sure. She was in my level one class last term."
"She's getting married, or so she told me."
"The thing is, she's 21 and he's 45."
"And she's here in Cambodia, and he's in America. Her uncle is forcing her to marry a 45 year old American she's never met. Apparently they have been chatting on the Internet. That's why she's learning English; to go to America and marry this guy. Unbelievable! And complete and utter bullsh*t! It's all about money."
I like this teacher. He cares about his students and wants them to learn. So far I've been fortunate here. I work with a few caring and dedicated foreign teachers.
Another foreign teacher, and Australian, chimes in: "There's a Khmer family living next door to me. Her mother asked me if I knew any foreign men for their daughter. She's only 10, I told her. Yes, she says, but you can never start too early."
Business as usual, mate: business as usual.
(As of this writing, it is more than halfway through the next eight-week term and "Jane Doe" is nowhere to be found. I was told by her Khmer teacher that "maybe she dropped out." As for the 10 year old, I believe her mother is still looking.)
(What!?! No eggs today? You're fired!)
Ah, the stories I hear in this place. The things I see and hear. It's enough to drive this TEFL lunatic completely mad.
A student, a 12 year old girl, rummages through her school bad anxiously looking for something. Realizing she cannot find it, she takes out her $400.00 iPhone and starts pressing buttons. "Hey, what are you doing?"
"I'm sorry, teacher, but I seem to have left the memory stick for my laptop at home. I will just call my driver and he will deliver it immediately."
"Your driver? What are you, the Queen of England? Turn off your phone and put it away or I'll throw it out the window."
Another student, a 13 year old boy with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), sits down in class and immediately starts fidgeting. Everyone has their textbook out but him. "Where's your book?"
"Sorry teacher, I left it in my other house."
"Your other house? How many houses do you have?"
I imagine him telling the teacher about his houses: His five bedroom mansion here in Phnom Penh complete with a tennis court, a swimming pool, and a Jacuzzi, as well as his condo in Sihanoukville, and his four bedroom villa off the coast of Monaco overlooking the Mediterranean.
And not to be outdone by Miss iPhone and Mr. Other House, a 14 year old girl came into class one day looking rather glum. "What's wrong?"
"I didn't have breakfast this morning. I'm hungry."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Breakfast is supposed to be served at promptly 6:30 in the morning and there were no eggs."
"No eggs, oh dear. What did you do?"
"I fired her."
"You fired her? Who did you fire?"
"My maid, I fired my maid."
"You have a maid?"
"Not anymore. I fired here."
"You fired your maid because there were no eggs?"
"Okay. Now open your book to page 20 please."
(Why I don't give my students homework: "Much to his chagrin.")
My former class last term, a level 11 advanced evening class, was preparing for their final exam. For the penultimate class I gave them a writing assignment to do in class. The class before they were reading a book review from the textbook with comprehension questions, so to get them prepared for the writing component of the exam, I told them to think of a book they had read recently or a movie they had seen and write a four paragraph review. They were to follow the guidelines set out for them in the textbook. I explained and modeled the assignment, concept checked, and away they went. Most of them finished by the end of class, but a few did not. I told them that this was not homework and we would continue next time.
Wouldn't you know it? A few of them who didn't finish the writing assignment the previous class ended up doing it at home.
This included a teenaged male who can barely answer a question from the textbook. He gives me his completed work, a three page impeccably written review of the movie "Titanic." I read it. It's perfect. I'm amazed! I'm flabbergasted! I'm shocked! There are no errors, no mistakes. The grammar, spelling, and punctuation are flawless, including this passage:
"After running out of ammunition, Cal realizes he gave the diamond to Rose, much to his chagrin, but returns to the boat deck and boards a life boat by pretending to look after a lost child."
Much to his chagrin! Wow I'm impressed. I never even taught that to him. I walk over to the student who penned this incredible movie review. "Very good job", I tell him, "but tell me; this term, ‘much to his chagrin', what does it mean? What is chagrin?"
He looks at me for a moment as if lost for words. He then looks around the room hoping I'd go away. I repeat the question. "I don't know, teacher. I just copy from the Internet."
I thank him for his honesty. This is one of the reasons why I don't give homework. This and the fact that I can't be with the students to help them. Whatever extra work needs to be done, I make time to do it in class. I find this is better for the students. Let them struggle, let them flub the work. That's how they learn, much to their chagrin.
(And all it took was three phone calls)
The first week of a new term begins. I walk into my level 7 listening and speaking class. I see one student; a 23 year old monk with the orange robe wrapped around him. I look at the attendance sheet. There should be seven or eight students here. "Where are the others?" I ask the monk.
"I think they went home."
"Were they here for the grammar class with the Khmer teacher?"
"Some of them were."
"How about the three girls who were here on Tuesday, were they in the Khmer teacher's class today?"
"Yes" the monk says.
"Excuse me" I tell him, "this will only take a few minutes." I look at the attendance sheet and see the mobile phone numbers for each of the students' parents. I take out my mobile phone and start calling. The conversation went something like this:
STUDENT'S MOTHER: Hello.
ME: Hello Mrs. _______? My name is Steve. I'm ________ English teacher at ______ School.
STUDENT'S MOTHER: Oh yes, is there anything wrong?
ME: Well, your daughter is not in my class right now. In fact, she has not been here for three days this week. I'm just calling to make you aware of this. Perhaps you can talk to her when she gets home.
STUDENT'S MOTHER: Yes I will. Thank you for calling.
ME: You're welcome, Mrs. _________.
Since that day those three girls who skipped my extremely important listening and speaking class have been faithful followers every day. And all it took was three phone calls.
(My lizard and two cockroaches' speech)
I love this speech, mostly because it's true. At the moment I work with four other native English teachers; all good and dedicated teachers in their own right. That's rare to see in one place. Sure, they're a bit strange, but then again, so am I. What makes them different from me is that all of these men are either married to or living with their Khmer partners; three of the four have young children and the other has a wife who is expecting any time now. So the baby talk in the teacher's room is almost non-stop.
"My baby grew her first tooth today."
"Well my son loves to sit on the balcony and watch all the cars go by."
"My daughter said, ‘I wove you daddy.' It was so cute."
"‘I wove you?' mimicked one of the teachers. Your kid has great pronunciation!"
Everyone laughs. This is nice, by the way. It beats the locker room talk found in most of the schools in Thailand. Do I feel left out? Although there was a time when having a daughter appealed to me, I very much dislike the idea (and reality) of a wife coming with it.
Instead I have my "Lizard and two cockroaches' speech." It goes something like this:
"Kids, if you want to fool around and play games in class then you will have to give me back the time. You know that the other teachers here have a wife and kids, right?"
"They have to leave right after class to go home and see them. Their wife and baby will be very unhappy if they don't go home right away, right?"
"But I don't have a wife and baby. You know what I have in my room?"
"A lizard and two cockroaches." They laugh. "And the lizard and cockroaches don't care what time I get home. So I can stay with you as long as I want. If you need to work through your break to get everything done, we can do that. The lizard and cockroaches in my room won't get mad at me, so don't worry."
The students get back to work.
(Have these people learned anything?)
I'm into my sixth month at the school in which I currently teach, and I have some really good students. Students who care about their future; students who come to class prepared to learn; students who study; and a few students who are ‘tuned into' the environment around them. They are good students because they are good people; and they are good people because they have good parents; parents that have raised them with values, principles, and a strong work ethic. Sadly, this is a rare phenomenon. It's hard to find a multitude of students and parents like this anywhere in the world today. Blame computers, blame the Internet, blame fast food, blame the West; to me, it all comes down to one thing. Good children come from good parents and bad children come from bad parents. Call me old fashioned, but I still think parents have the largest and most important role to play in the way the next generation turns out.
So what are teachers to do with a 14 year old who sacks the family maid because there were no eggs on the kitchen table when she awoke? How can I teach someone like that? This maid, who probably comes from a remote village and is making less than $100.00 a month, is obviously seen as less than human by this 14 year old and her family. This maid probably works 12 hour days with two days off a month if she's lucky.
A 12 year old girl with a personal chauffeur, an iPhone, a laptop, and God only knows what else. What to do with her? A 13 year old boy who keeps forgetting his textbook in his ‘other house': What do we do about him?
Have they been raised to believe that they are better than everyone else?
They are not. Their parents have money. That is all. And while many of these children are formally educated in exclusive international schools, they take for granted their ‘privileged' status and flaunt their wealth by viewing those less fortunate as "children of a lesser God." They are not children of a lesser God; they are children of a lesser bank account.
And it behooves me to say this, but I am not sticking up for the poor here. If I am to be brutally honest, I dislike the poor as much as I dislike the rich. Whenever I walk the streets, it is always the poor who ask me for money. The rich, for the most part, leave me alone. I like that about the rich.
What these students in Cambodia are showing--- and there are many of them--- especially at exclusive international schools, is that they are ignorant, uncultured, and unschooled in the art of human relations. What these people in Cambodia are showing the world is that they have learned absolutely nothing from the ‘Pol Pot era', a four year period which saw a quarter of its population starved and slaughtered by a band of Communists and their brainwashed teenaged goons. It has not been two full generations since the genocide and 14 year old rich princesses are sacking the family maid, being driven to school in BMWs, walking into class decked out in rubies and sapphires, have private chauffeurs and bodyguards, and perhaps spending their weekends at the Prime Minister's mansion dining on lobster and beluga caviar.
This is a city where high-school students give money to proctors who then allow the students to cheat on tests and exams. I recently read about this in the Cambodia Daily. Some students have been known to give proctors 5,000 or 10,000 riel, or $1.25 to $2.50 each for permission to cheat. Then we have some of the teachers who have been known to ‘sell' to students everything from handouts and assignments to answer sheets and final grades. That's what happens in a country where local teachers make $50.00 a month.
(Why sex-tourism and sex-trafficking continues to flourish)
What do we do with aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers who pimp their own daughters or nieces or sisters to much older foreign men? I have just finished reading "Modern Slavery" by Kevin Bales, an excellent read for those interested in finding out more about the huge problem of human trafficking and bonded labor. And I'm following with great interest CNN's continued series on the phenomenon of human trafficking. It's a subject near and dear to my heart and has been for quite a while. As well-intentioned as CNN is in its campaign to end human slavery and sex trafficking, it will ultimately fail. And here are three reasons why:
1) The propensity of many of the anti-sex trafficking advocates to exaggerate the figures and to use hyperbole when discussing this issue;
2) The ignorance and apathy of the general public, especially in the West;
3) A lack of social and political will to declare war on those truly responsible for the perpetuation of sex trafficking: Women.
According to Bales, a full two-thirds of those who traffic in women and girls for sex here in Cambodia are women. And in an opinion piece in the July 8, 2011 edition of the Phnom Penh Post, Chenda Keo says this:
"As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed, among others, 91 individuals incarcerated for human trafficking in eight Cambodian prisons. Incarcerated traffickers in Cambodia are poor, uneducated individuals, AND 80 PERCENT OF THEM ARE WOMEN." (Emphasis in capital letters mine)
In fact, go to the bars of Bangkok and Pattaya, Phnom Penh, and Angeles City in the Philippines and you'll find a very high percentage of bar owners and managers to be women. While men are the customers, it is women who run the show. It's the same for those who traffic in women and girls. Behind each teenaged Southeast Asian girl that is pimped to a 45 year old American, there is a mother or an aunt who dreams of wearing pearls and shopping for Gucci handbags and taking long vacations to Europe. Then there's the "mail-order bride" industry in the Philippines, where women on numerous websites act as their own brokers.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting a real leather handbag, there is something terribly wrong with selling your own daughter to get it. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to live and work in an affluent first-world country, there is something morally and ethically wrong with selling yourself to a foreign man with intent of getting a "Green Card" or a phony fiancée visa. In fact, that's a crime and anyone who does that should, at the very least, spend many years locked in a small dark cell to ponder their actions.
But the world is not yet ready to declare war on the women who dare to sell their own children; and it probably never will be. The world is still living in the illusion that women are only the victims of sex trafficking, like my 21 year old ex-student. But women today are increasingly becoming sex trafficking agents, the perpetrators of this crime, and sexual predators themselves in the many cases of using foreign men to traffic themselves to first-world countries. That is why sex-tourism and sex trafficking will continue to flourish.
I wish I could do something for my former 21 year old student who clearly does not want to be pimped to a 45 year old American she has never met. I wish I could confront her family. I wish I could find out who this American sex-tourist is so that I could plaster his face all over the Internet. But I don't feel like floating face down in the Tonle Sap River come Monday morning. So to the family who is pimping her, I hope you enjoy all the money she will eventually send back to your village. I hope you can sleep at night while she cries herself to sleep missing her family. Yes, think of the money. And try to convince the rest of us how much you love your daughter. Bastards!
(Stay out of politics!)
That's what my father tells me, and he tells me this often. He sees what I post on my Facebook page and he's been known to read my blogs on occasion. Stay out of politics over there, he keeps saying.
But that's impossible. I enter the world of politics every time I step into a classroom in Southeast Asia. This part of the world is a social, economic, moral, and ethically barren wasteland; a nightmare for those who truly want to do good work. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines... the list goes on. Political corruption on a massive scale, graft, bribery, unimaginable poverty, and a huge disparity between the rich and poor, crime, child soldiers, child prostitutes, child labor, slave labor, the ignorance, and the apathy, superstition, greed, and cultural backwardness... the list goes on. It boggles my mind why any westerner from a first-world country would want to live here long term. I sometimes wonder why I'm still here.
Stay out of politics? Teaching is not only an educational act; it is also a political act. Governments in this part of the world don't want their citizens educated because they don't want to be challenged. That makes educating a child a subversive act. Why put money into education and pay good teachers what they are truly worth when you can build super-highways to Pattaya, Sihanoukville, and Angeles City where perverts and pedophiles can get to their prey a lot faster? Education then becomes a call to action; a call to war where your only weapons are books, pens, pencils, and social networks on the Internet. You want to spit in the government's face? Teach a child to read. You want to go against any government in Southeast Asia? Educate their children properly.
(Are you happy with business as usual?)
So what is this ‘business as usual' of which I speak? I've said it before and I'll say it again since people in this part of the world seem to be poor listeners. If you're happy making $100.00 a month and living in a one-room shack, then God bless you. Go back to business as usual. And don't come to my class. But if you dream of one day living in a nice house, driving a nice car, wearing nice clothes, and eating good food, then by all means come to my class, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.
And that means you Mr. Administrator and Miss Cambodia. Since both of you failed the first of my four exams, I had to separate you two and place you at opposite ends of the classroom. (I would have done this a while ago, but I couldn't find a crowbar.) It's time to stop playing ‘slap and tickle' with each other in the back row. It's time to stop treating my English class as a joke. It's time to stop thinking that white western English teachers are here to entertain you.
One of the reasons I came to Cambodia is to bear witness to miracles; to see a phoenix rise from the Khmer Rouge ashes. In my own small way I have been lucky thus far. Daily, I am in the company of a few Khmer teachers who are working harder than I have ever seen teachers work. I am honored to be working with these teachers. You know who you are.
But for those who deign in any way to use my classroom as their own personal playground, you are in for a rude awakening. My classroom is my temple and within its walls there is no room for business as usual.