2. ...But they’ll give you a hard time too
That said, they’ll also highlight your pimples, laugh if your hair is unruly and will gleefully let you know if you’re looking a bit scruffy. Though I somehow find their frank honesty refreshingly comforting. There’s no hint of malice and I always invite their openness, so I guess I’m asking for it really…
3. School lunches aren’t like I remember
I remember on my first day, a Khmer teacher asserting he’d give me a month before I get tired of the food at the school and start bringing in sandwiches instead. How wrong he was. Khmer cuisine is centred around herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables , dipping sauces, edible flowers, other garnishes and condiments - and it’s delicious! That said, not all the Western staff share my enthusiasm for the food, and it’s fair to say some Khmer cuisine is better suited to the more adventurous eater. ‘Prahok’ (fermented fish paste) for example is an acquired taste, but the diversity of lunchtimes never fail to tickle the taste buds. A growing amount of the produce is now being sourced from the school’s organic permaculture farm located in the grounds of the High School, and will one day become the sole provider of fruit and vegetables at lunch, and dinner time at the Boarding House.
4. A break from city life
New cafes, shops and restaurants seem to pop up on a daily basis in Phnom Penh. It’s a city undergoing rapid development and while it keeps you entertained, it can also be a little hectic. By Monday you’re ready to return to Prek Thmey where it’s fresher, more peaceful and there’s a greater community feel among the villagers. Living in the city but working in the countryside provides the perfect balance and gives you a greater appreciation of both.
5. Cycling to school
Since the turn of the year I’ve started commuting by bicycle and I find it the best way to start the day. Entering the village I feel like a professional cyclist as local kids cheer me on, and run alongside before I say my goodbyes and continue to school. I eat my breakfast of rice and barbecued chicken at a nearby café, drink my ice-coffee and I’m set to start my day. In the afternoon, I find the students’ ability to accurately forecast when the rain will fall and how heavily particularly useful as a weigh up the option of taking the bus home instead.
6. Proud Cambodians
The students always want to discover new things about cultures around the world and regularly ask about my experiences of living in the UK. Comparing their customs to those that exist around the world might be fascinating to them, but Cambodia has its own rich traditions and identity they’re extremely proud of. Far from working hard at school as a means of leaving Cambodia, the students hope to one day get good jobs to support their families and give something back to the country that they love so much.
7. ‘I’m here to help’
One turn of phrase I used before arriving was that ‘I was coming to help’. It says both everything and nothing and though to some degree it’s true, it doesn’t tell the whole story and suggested the situation needed rescuing. Of course it was never intended in this way, but I would still reconsider using those words. The Khmer English teachers and management staff at Happy Chandara are all highly passionate and experienced who probably did more to help me than vice versa. Both the students and I have learned so much from their teachings, and the advice and knowledge they’ve passed to me I believe has made me a better teacher.
8. Learn a little Khmer
Learning Khmer can be quite frustrating. You know what you’re trying to say, but pronouncing the word so it can be understood is often the part that lets me down. Nevertheless your efforts, no matter how error strewn they may be, will win you plenty of brownie points. Locals don’t expect ‘Barangs’ (foreigners) to speak the language, let alone take lessons to learn it, but making the effort to show you’re embracing the culture they’re so proud of will be warmly received by students, staff and in the city.
A little like returning to a music festival for the second time, you wonder if the second year of teaching will give you that same wide-eyed excitement of it all being brand new - but I’m looking forward to next year being even better. Knowing all I do about the staff and the students, and they now knowing me, I feel firmly a part of the school and my community in Phnom Penh. This is a school making a huge difference and I feel privileged to be playing my small part in it. I’m coming back to the UK over August, in which time I’ll be catching up with Izzy, Henry and the 25 girls selected to attend OISE. Then on September 2nd I’ll be flying back to the Kingdom and itching to meet my new students and start all over again. Perhaps there’s a small part of me that’s beginning to feel like a proud Cambodian too.
See you next year!
Written by James