Direct, cheeky and mischievous, Cambodians love to laugh and have a wicked sense of humour. Some say the last step to mastering a language is to be able to deliver a joke and while I’m still some way from that, I’m getting a firmer grasp of what gets Cambodians creasing up. And I love it!
Happy Chandara School provides prime examples of a sense of humour where pranks and teasing is ubiquitous, and no one is spared - even the teachers.
Trundling along the bumpy track between the High School and College is my moment of peace and tranquillity between lessons - only the sound of my old rattling bike and pebbles flicking out from under the wheels disturb the sounds of the countryside. My peace is short-lived however if the level 10s happen to be making the same journey. I approach wondering which tricks they’ll try this time and brace myself as laughing students block the path, pull the bike to a standstill and even try to hitch lifts - before I’m able to wriggle free, manoeuvre round and leave their heckles fading behind.
Every Monday, another glimpse of the students’ mischief is guaranteed as I see each of my four level 10 classes. Students share their stories of the weekend which usually feature trips to markets, weddings or visits to the village’s Pagoda – however there’s always a palpable
sense that something else is brewing in the classroom, that something is being concealed. As one of the students vaguely describes her weekend, flickering smiles play across the other girls’ faces, and listen keenly to see what she’ll reveal, and try to hide. They’re all-knowing, but ask the question anyway.
“So who drove you home on Saturday?” another student asks smiling ear-to-ear. “Err my father” replies the implicated student, before immediately trying to move the conversation on as the rest of the class keel over in laughter. “Not true teacher! Not true!” The class insist on their friend finishing the story in its entirety, working as a pack to probe for all the finer details of the weekend’s gossip.
Laughter is never more contagious than when watching the students’ reactions and it’s hard not to join them. The coaxing out of stories, mischievous looks and detective-like interrogation is enough to break anyone in to laughter. The withholding and digging for information is an elaborate game with students relishing their roles as cat and mouse - not that I’m let off the hook.
Once they’ve finished their stories, eyes quickly switch to me. So teacher, “how was your weekend? Where did you go? Who did you go with? Who else did you go with?” Before finally asking what they really want to know. “Was a special friend there too?” cueing more wails of laughter. My sidestepping of the question is met by deep sighs of doubtful disappointment before the lesson is swiftly moved on.
In reality there is nothing to hide between the students, their tight relationship has been forged over 10 years of
schooling with one another and their loyalty is absolute. They have experienced more highs and lows together than most and there are no secrets between them. The openness with one another and even their teachers creates a classroom that is supportive, inclusive and trusting. Each class member looks out for one another and is quick to support (and join in the teasing).
Even the teachers regularly mock each other during the ‘serious’ business of lunchtime Ouk (Cambodian Chess) at the nearby café. As the tension builds and games arrive at a critical point, teachers hover close by pushing and probing the buttons of those playing, ‘giving advice’ and being a general pest. The more irritable they can make the player, the more they laugh and continue to antagonise.
The ability to take a joke well is an important part of cultural adjustment. I’ve seen students innocently hand over partially rotten fruit in the hope their friend won’t notice before eating, and I even had a praying mantis placed on my shoulder.
In my cultural assimilations guidance before coming to Cambodia, I was made aware of the concept of ‘losing face’, and how one must be careful not to offend. But from my personal experience at the school I have found it to be quite different. Height, weight and appearance are all open to mocking – but what distinguishes the jokes are that everyone is involved and it truly is good-natured. I’ve walked into the classroom on a Monday morning to sudden shrieks of laughter, because the weekend’s sun has turned my face a shade of pink, or I’ve got a large pimple on my forehead – but it’s hard not to find yourself laughing along at their sheer audacity. Be it when they’re playing football together, dancing, or mocking each other, it’s always done with a genuine smile.
Moving abroad, starting a new job and attempting to speak a totally different language to your own can be nerve wracking for anyone, but in a country where you’re greeted with a smile wherever you go, and where laughing is therapeutic, the adjustment has been made so easy. As with every country I’ve been to, I’ll try to take the best cultural aspects with me and try to implement them at home. One of those will be to remember to not always take life too seriously, and know that there’s always a time to laugh no matter what life might throw at you. Now that’s a lesson Happy Chandara teaches that we could all learn from.
Written by James