Language Learning

I’m taking a Khmer language class, and it is kicking my ass. Luckily, though, we’re only learning the spoken language and avoiding written language, because the Pali/Sanscrit combo is currently beyond the reaches of my Roman-alphabet-centric brain.

On my first day of class, I walked up the stairs, thinking I was supposed to go to classroom #2 (because I stopped to use the toilet and forgot where I was supposed to go). I walked in the door, and the two Western gals in there greeted me in Khmer and then said, “You’re here for level seven?” I replied, “Level seven? Noooooo. Kickstart. Which is like level zero, right?” They kindly laughed and told me which classroom I was supposed to be in.

The kickstart class, an intensive two-week course, has ten people in it. Four are young gals from Denmark here volunteering with some Christian organization doing work surrounding the sex industry. There are also three other young people with another Christian organization (from the USA and Mongolia) here to do similar work surrounding the sex industry. Then there’s a guy who works for an NGO also doing work surrounding the sex industry. The only other person in the class just happens to be another speech-language therapist. Turns out this gal (I’ll call her SLT2) is working for a woman who’s also involved directly in the work I’ll be doing. Small town of 1.5 million!

Learning a second language is just plain hard when you’re not a young child. Several years ago, when I was going to spend a bit of time in Argentina, I used the Rosetta Stone course to learn a bit of Spanish. I studied. I logged the hours listening to the words and phrases. I answered the questions. I repeated things and let Mr. Rosetta tell me just how jacked up my pronunciation was. But I managed to work my way through several levels, giving me a bit of confidence that I’d be able to get by in trying to communication when arriving.

Man, was I wrong. First of all, the pace of language — real language, spoken by real native-speaking people — is immensely faster than anything ever presented via an online course at the level I was doing. And while the content of online courses is usually applicable to things you’d need while traveling, I never had to actually ask for a teacup. And while I could label the color of anything I saw, somehow the lovely people of Argentina never asked me to dazzle them with this skill.

There are things here that I wonder why are on the list of important things to learn, but I do feel like some of the things we learn are glimpses into culture. For example, in the middle of learning greetings and the like, we also learned the phrase, “Help! Fire!” Huh. Really? As common as, “Hello.” Whaddya know. Although, if you saw the electrical wires on streets here and extrapolated this wiring system to homes, you may no longer wonder at all about the necessity of teaching this phrase.

Our teachers encourage us to talk to people about things on the street. “Ask the woman at the market how she’s doing,” or “Negotiate prices with your newly-learned Khmer number knowledge.” (no specific encouragement was given on the “help! fire!” phrase, though.) So I try. I tell my tuk tuk drivers I am learning Khmer. I ask things like, “How are you doing?” There are two possible responses in this situation. (1) Blank stares, letting me know my pronunciation is horrible or my words are wrong. I’m sure I’m saying things like, “You where goes yellow goodbye.” (2) A string of words in response that comes so rapid fire that I have no idea what the words were, much less what they mean. The one good thing from this? I’m learning very quickly how to say, “Please say that again more slowly.” (note: i usually still can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying.)

And I know it’s incredibly cliche to say that a smile supersedes language (and all that other stuff about communication being so much more than language) but gotdamn if it isn’t true. And laughter? There are few things I find more endearing than laughing together with locals over how horribly I verbally massacred something.

Charmed life example #328? Almost everyone here speaks some English. And if they don’t, they’re usually willing to go round up a helpful young person who does.

Unrelatedly, I ate one of these tiny fried frogs (skewered through the eyes). No, they didn’t taste like chicken. My strolling partner was forced to eat the rest as we couldn’t even give the rest away. Tiny Skewered Frogs

Tuk Tuks (sort of)

I sat down to write about tuk tuks, but it’s not what I really have on my mind. It’s about to get a bit … umm… introspective? preachy?…  in here for a minute. Consider yourself forewarned. I’ll post a bunch of pictures at the end, though, so you don’t feel misled by the title. I’ll start with tuk tuks, though…

I mean, it’s really still sort of about tuk tuks, but it’s mostly about being an outsider. And being an outsider is both a blessing and a curse of travel. While it’s the only way to experience things very different than what you’re used to experiencing, it also keeps some doors closed and opens some so widely that you wish they’d slam the hell shut.

Like the open door for tuk tuk drivers on street corners waving from an entire block away and yelling, “Tuk tuk, madame?!” I get it. It’s these guys’ way to make a living (and, yes, they’re almost all guys. i’ve seen one woman tuk tuk driver so far), so it makes sense for them to hawk their wares as assertively as possible. But when it happens literally over a hundred times a day when you walk places, you get tired of saying “no” (or “aw-tay”) with a smile that many times.

The other day, I walked out of a mall (another whole topic I could write about, given my love for malls in general – what a place!) in the drizzle, and it was like a swarm of bees with all the tuk tuk drivers when I approached the street. Umbrella up, head down. I powered the length of the block where they were all parked. Was I tired? Fed up? Hangry? I don’t know. But something got the better of me, and I found myself feeling frustrated and angry with these people who are just trying to make a living.

It was interesting to watch myself go from several weeks ago finding the interactions positive and engaging, to finding it all tiring and infuriating. It just begins to wear on a person.

And here we go… (Qualifier, because that’s how I roll: these are incomplete thoughts, spurting from my fingertips. If something strikes you as “off,” as ignorant, as disrespectful, please make a comment so we can have a discussion about it.)

Travel recalibrates my mind in so many ways. Today I am reminded of how lucky I am to have been born into a situation that makes me not have to think about how to fit in unless I choose to be in that situation. Now, I understand that my experience here is NOTHING like the things people encounter in the United States when they are viewed as outsiders. Or anywhere else where outsider status arbitrarily equates to less-than status. I would never even consider to compare this to the systemic issues that exist (except, i get that i am comparing by even writing this), but it’s good for me to experience this tiny glimmer of what it feels like to consistently be seen as an outsider and treated differently because of that. I am SO. DAMN. LUCKY. to be able to say that I’m an outsider incredibly rarely, that sometimes my outsider status as a rich white American girl is a positive thing, and that I typically only experience any bit of discomfort when I choose to put myself in those situations. I mean, really? How much more ridiculously privileged can you get that, to feel even any surface removal of privilege, you pay for an expensive plane ticket and jet off to the other side of the world?

There are people in my own town at home who experience the negative sides of this type of thing every day, only magnified a quadragazillion times. And not in worst-case terms of getting ripped off by having to pay an extra $1 for produce in the market, or being mildly harassed by tuk tuk drivers, but in terms of getting into life-and-death situations. Literally. Life and death.

So, now, every time I’m greeted with, “Tuk tuk, madame?” even if said in a more-aggressive-than-assertive way (which, honestly, is quite rare), I smile openly, say “aw-tay,” silently wish them well, and send a message of gratitude to the universe for this being the extent of the annoyance I endure as a rich white girl in the world.

Charmed life example #1.


And now, the promised pictures in a series I’ve entitled “Town by Tuk Tuk,” or, “Back of Tuk Tuk Drivers’ Heads,” or “Tuk Tuk, Madame!” or “There’s One with a Dog on the Back of a Moto.”