After an amazing afternoon visiting the site of the dolphins, Tim and I were hungry but Red Sun Falling (that adorable restaurant which Tim referenced in his last post) wasn't open for dinner yet. Starving and anxious, we decided to wait on a nearby bench overlooking the Mekong River. From the bench we were afforded a view of the red sun setting while we waited for the Red Sun Falling to open.
And that's where it all started. That's when the best three days of our entire trip began, three days that I have to venture will be unbeatable. You see, that's when we met Sam Nang.
While our stomachs growled, we passed the time by taking some photos of us sitting on the bench together. Behind us the food stall ladies were setting up the pots of food for their nighttime rush, moto drivers were lazing about waiting for more passengers, and school children in uniforms were heading home. It was another lazy afternoon in Kratie. Life was slow, things were quiet, and everything was turning a beautiful orange from the setting sun.
Tim and I had already decided to spend one more day in Kratie. We hadn't had much time to explore the little town or the surrounding countryside yet, and after our experience in Kampot (lovely experiences we haven't had a chance to tell yet) we very much wanted to go on a bit of a walkabout in the area.
In the midst of talking about which direction we would walk the next day (and fantasizing about the food and the beer we were waiting to have that evening), we barely noticed a boy on a bike had just stopped next to our bench.
Before we arrived in Southeast Asia, we had heard that occasionally you'll meet locals who want to practice their English with you. Thinking it was just one of those things that the writers of the Lonely Planet guidebooks write that isn't really true anymore, we never really paid much mind to it. Until, of course, we actually started meeting locals who wanted to practice their English with us.
There are several questions that are usually asked by someone practicing their English in Cambodia. (What is your name? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? How old are you? How long are you in Cambodia? Have you seen Angkor Wat?) And no matter how often we're asked those questions, Tim and I never tire of answering them. Both of us think it's rather fun helping someone with their English, and often we're able to learn a few words in Khmer too. And so we'll answer each question slowly and in complete sentences (and we lie a bit about the marriage part: it's just easier in some places to say we're already married), and usually after five or ten minutes we'll all be going our separate ways.
And so when the boy on the bike who had stopped next to our bench started to speak to us in English, we were only more than happy to talk with him for a bit. (If, for no other reason, than he would help keep our minds off our hunger.)
We learned our new friend's name was Sam Nang, which means "Lucky" in Khmer, and he was 15 years old. Struck by how good his English was already, we were genuinely enjoying talking with Sam and answering the usual questions. And then he asked something new.
"I have an English class, and the teacher speaks some English but with a Cambodia accent. We rarely hear American accents. Would you come to my class and speak more to us?"
We had walked past the American English school earlier that evening (while waiting for Red Sun Falling to open, of course) and had noticed the extensive schedule of English classes listed on the entrance. According to the sign, classes met Monday through Friday for an hour each day, starting at 5pm for the Beginner students and ending at 9pm for the Advanced students.
It was 5pm when we entered the school's yard, and it was teeming with hundreds of children of all ages. Classes hadn't quite started yet and while the older kids were talking in groups to one another, the younger kids were playing and running every which way.
Sam carefully navigated his bicycle through all the children, glancing back at us every few feet to make sure we were okay. Undoubtedly he was a little nervous that his new foreign friends were feeling overwhelmed, but we reassured him we were happy as could be.
The other kids, meanwhile, couldn't help but notice that two foreigners were walking around in the school yard. (When you see the size of the average Cambodian child, it's not hard to imagine why Tim and I, or any foreigner for that matter, are easy to spot!) Suddenly calls of "Hello!" and "How are you?" began to ring from every corner of the school yard. And when that happens (and it happens often when you pass school children in Cambodia) it's very fun, but it gets even better when your replies of "Hello!" or "I am fine, how are you?" evoke hundreds of giggles from the kids who are dancing and smiling all around you.
Tim and I followed Sam up to the second floor and were greeted by more giggles and calls of "Hello!" all the way up the stairs. Reaching the top, Sam introduced us to his teacher who eagerly thanked us for coming to teach. And he also explained in order to help more students, Tim and I would be teaching in separate classes.
The hunger that had been in our stomachs before was completely replaced by this point with butterflies.
I love teaching. I love everything about it: planning the curriculum, leading a class, interacting with the students…there's not a part of it that I don't enjoy. And standing in front of a classroom is one of the places I feel most comfortable. But I have never before felt the exhilaration of walking into a classroom filled with Cambodian students eager to learn from me. Hell, not even to learn from me…just eager to hear my accent. I was so incredibly excited for the class to start.
Tim, on the other hand, isn't a fan of teaching. And since it hadn't even occurred to us that we would be separated into different classrooms, he had been counting on letting me take the lead.
Amusingly enough, when he told his classroom's teacher that he had never taught before, his teacher's reply was, "Now is the time you learn how to teach."
We taught classes that night and the following two nights too. Every class was different for us because we switched students and teachers each day. On average each class had 15 students in it, although Tim had one class with nearly 40 students one night. Most of the classes ranged in age from 8-16, although one class had younger students and an adorable 50 year old man learning English for the first time alongside them.
Some teachers were more hands on, directing their students and us through a lesson together. Other teachers wanted their classrooms to interview us and to teach us about Cambodian politics too. And one teacher completely disappeared while I was teaching, leaving me to return his teacher's guide to one of his students at the end of the class.
When speaking, the students would stand before asking or answering a question. Tim's classes always decided to call him Mr. Tim, but I was simply Jessica. (I would often hear the students whispering to themselves, trying to practice how to say my name correctly. Jess didn't prove much easier either.) The books they were learning English from were surprisingly interesting – one of them had an article about the difference between a backpacker and a package tourist (provoking, of course, the question as to which I was), and the other had an article about some young man living in Europe who is considered to be the new Mozart.
We told our classes about our families and our trip. We told them how Cambodia is our favorite country and why we had fallen in love with it. We explained the seasons in America, what foods we like to eat, and how Cambodia and America are similar and different. We drew maps of the world to show where we had visited, while one teacher drew a picture of me, and another teacher drew a picture of him and Tim (in order to show short versus tall, long hair versus short hair, etc).
I received peals of laughter when asked, "Do you have any children?" and I would reply, "I do not have any children, but I do have a cat." And Tim received high praise when asked, "Do you speak Khmer?" and he would reply, "deek deek" which means "a little" in Khmer. (Although we have no idea how to spell it correctly.)
I was told by one particularly quiet boy that I was very pretty. (I said thank you.) And Tim was proposed marriage to by one particularly outgoing girl. (He said no thank you.)
We were asked everything from "What is the total square kilometers of America?" (I won't lie, I failed miserably at answering that question) to "Who is the Beatle?" (Tim had to explain how the Beatles were a rock group from England) to "What is the situation with the water in the car?" (It took a few minutes for me to figure out that last question, but it turned out it was a question about how antifreeze works in cars during the winter time).
As with any class, there were some students who were painfully shy and others who were extremely outgoing. The proficiency levels of English varied wildly even within the same level. But all of them had a smile. And all of them wanted to learn.
Whether or not Tim and I made a difference in any of the classrooms we taught in, we'll never know. I can say, however, that teaching in those classrooms made a huge difference to me. So don't be surprised, Mom and Dad, if in a few years I'm back in Cambodia teaching full-time.
(Oh, and for anyone wondering: teaching our classes isn't the only reason why those three days in Kratie were the best days of our trip. As to what else happened, you'll just have to wait and see.)
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