Friday, December 18, 2009

On Teaching and Things

I am barely 22 years old. My students are 17-21. I live with them, eat with them, and sleep with them. They call me Older Sister Kanitha. (Side note: I’ve finally begun to pronounce my name the proper way, which is much prettier than the butchered American pronunciation of my name. Here, I am Kahn-ni-tah, pronounced with soft syllables and grace).

I should first explain my role as a resident leader. The place I live is called the Leadership Center for Women. It is a dormitory in Phnom Penh and houses 57 students. These girls are from the countryside, and were chosen to live here on scholarship because of their promise as potential future leaders. Many girls in the countryside are unable to attain a higher education because they lack housing in the city (where the universities are located) and lack funds (most come from farming families). Boys from the countryside are allowed to live in temples, but women are not. This is one example of gender inequality that exists in this society. There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently that discusses gender inequality and religion. The article suggests that whether women are deemed inferior or equal to men in society is determined not by what a religious text says, but rather by the interpreter of this text. Most of the time, the interpreter is male (i.e. priest or monk). According to the article then, more women from the countryside would have the opportunity to go to college if monks allowed them to live in the temples. This would then result in an overall rise in the level of education here. I read somewhere that only 27 of 1000 Cambodians will finish high school today in 2009. That is truly absurd to me. Come on, monks. Anyways, sorry that was a bit of a digression...

The girls who live at this center are smart, motivated, and passionate learners and people. In fact, they work much harder than university students in the US do (at least me, and I worked pretty hard). Many wake early (think 4 am), cook, clean, and then go to classes, leaving before 8 o’clock. There’s an incredible sense of community here, in which the girls think of themselves as sisters. Not in the way that a sorority house functions as sisters. I think it’s safe to say that throwing 40 girls in a house together is bound to brew some rivalries, cattiness, etc. In all honesty, there is none of that here. In part, I think it is a cultural thing, in which Cambodian etiquette requires what we in America may think of as being too doleful and caring. When the girls are not in school, they devote their time to studying more. I have individual tutoring lessons with many of the girls who want to improve their language skills and writing abilities. The first year girls attend an extra class with me every evening in addition to their regular course-load. Their curfew is 8’o clock, and they usually don’t get out of classes until 6. When offered a later curfew on weekends, the girls refused, saying that they wanted to keep the 8’o clock curfew to focus on their studies. Imagine that. Riots would break out across college campuses in the US.

The girls look up to me, kind of like I’m some magical fairy sent over from America. It’s a lot to live up to, and I fear that I’m going to disappoint them somehow. It somewhat makes me nervous that many of them are as smart as they are. I sometimes feel more like their peer than their teacher. But I think that’s also what good teaching is—teaching without that hierarchal bullshit. A professor of mine once told me, “Good students pull good things out of their teachers.” The girls here have challenged me to expand my knowledge beyond poetry and essays, to engage with subjects I am unfamiliar with, to speak Khmer correctly, and to test my own English language skills. I found myself bewildered by the perfect and conditional tenses of verbs, forgetting which is which because I’d grown up knowing the correct verb to use without knowing why. I think back to the time I first took Spanish or Italian classes. Knowing the tenses was necessary to grasping the languages. Teaching requires that I re-learn what I have been taught. I think all teachers, if they are good ones, never stop learning.

I’m finally getting into a routine, which is nice. My first years are reading a Khmer folktale called "The Clever Little Hare." We’ve been working on it for the past three classes, learning vocabulary-in-context as well as practicing the pronunciation of words. The t, d, th, and f sounds are particularly hard for some of the girls. During yesterday’s class, some pronounced the word trunk as drunk, and when I explained the meanings of the two words, they could not stop laughing. We’re still working on that one...

The older students want to focus mainly on writing since their English speaking skills are pretty good. For the first assignment, I had them write an autobiography—not a typical one that spews facts such as one’s hometown, age, school, major, etc. Rather, it requires them to reach for a moment, a place, or a person—some memory that resonates with them. This memory is the vehicle they use to tell the story of who they have become. They must then reduce this story to one paragraph, which draws out the most important aspects of the longer story. Finally, they must reduce this to one word that epitomizes their autobiographical story. Reducing the essay to one word is the hardest part of the assignment, naturally I think. This assignment challenges the girls because it requires a kind of writing that is different from the formal academic style of writing that they’ve been always been taught to use. Menghoun, who I share a room with, tells me that Creative Writing does not exist here in Cambodia. None of the universities offer creative writing courses. Menghoun says that most people would not even know exactly what creative writing is. This is because it is not common for people to read books, and there are few Cambodian authors who write books. I’ve always thought of literature as one of the primary means of transmitting culture. If literature doesn’t exist in a country, how is a country’s history recorded? If it is through academic texts, such as history books, do these texts offer everything that literature offers? Or, is something lost? I am inclined to think it’s the latter, and it worries me. While the girls here are studying law, economics, and politics, they’ve never been taught to write their own stories. As education is slowly improving, if the art of writing never rises here, how will Cambodians transmit their culture? Writing is the most important means of communication, and it seems not only here, but also everywhere, that people are unable to write in an effective way, and thus, unable to communicate effectively.

I am meeting with Kho Tararith on Monday who runs the Nou Hach Literary Journal, Cambodia’s only literary journal. I’ll have to get his thoughts on this. I’m off to a holiday party featuring a turkey, Christmas tree, and the whole deal...

Until then...go read.

Love (Everyone signs their emails here love. Always. Business emails, friend emails, stranger emails.),



  1. Loooove, Loooooveee, loooovee this post. I can already see you making your impact in making sure some sort of Creative Writing Program is set in place before you leave Cambodia. I agree, creative writing tells the real, true cultural stories. No history book can grasp and convey what culture is. To be honest, I've read snippets on Cambodia but never got a feel of a culture until I read your memoir. Upon finishing reading your memoir, I not only had a better understanding about you, but also your culture and Cambodia. Get 'em baby cheeks! I'm really loving the autobiography assignment. It's oh so hard!! And I know it because I've done with with Brice but I really think that it is amazing that you are putting what you learned to use and adding your own creative twist to it. As always, I'll be following you through these next few months.


  2. Kanitha,

    I am profoundly proud of you.

    I'll ditto Mayra's comment. I'm sure you've already impacted your students in unimaginable, liberating ways. And your captivating story telling has earned you another fan who's waiting for more!

    Your fellow Cambodian (or am I American?) sister, Nimol Hen