Mobbed by monklets

In Siem Reap, a pretty, pouting girl gave me bike rental forms.
   ’What time do you open?’ I asked. It was enough to prompt a tirade.
   ’We open at five in the morning because people like to see the sunrise at the temples. I go to bed at ten o’clock and get up at five. You believe me? I am here all day, every day, except one hour at 8 o‘clock when I go to study English. And I make just twenty dollar a month. Just twenty dollar!’
    ‘Is this your family’s business?’
   ’My sister. I live here. But twenty dollar not much money. And I save it to pay for my school. And never, never go anywhere. Always here!’
She might have been seventeen years old. Her mascara and her English textbooks betrayed big dreams, but for now she was stuck.

At least Siem Reap passes for a big city. Takeo is a provincial town 120km or so south of Phnom Penh, which doesn’t see many foreign visitors. I counted one other falang face the night I spent there. At sunset, the whole town strolls by the lake—there’s nothing else to do—and each knot of people I pass wants to practice the English formula that has been so painfully acquired. Frowning with concentration, the boldest in the group produces:
    ‘Hello. What is your name. Where you from. How old you. How long you stay Cambodia.’ Anxious mothers push their kids forward to deliver this dull pitch.

They are often stumped when I deviate from the script, or even when I return the questions. I’ve learned to use exactly the same affectless pronunciation to help them recognize the phrases—’And what is your name?’ just doesn’t work in the sticks.

I always stop to talk, aware of my economic value in these parts. A live falang is a prize indeed when English lessons don’t come cheap. A conversation class, probably taught by a local who speaks unintelligible pidgin English, is $4-$6. Families scrape together enough for one member to attend a weekly class. I know their textbooks well—I taught out of the Headway series ten years ago in Spain, and the ‘everyday situations’ that formed the basis for each chapter make me cringe here. ‘At the airport.’ ‘At the office.’ ‘Going to the cinema.’ The rural Khmer do not tend to miss flights regularly.

In Takeo, two ambitious young monks insisted on leading me back to their quarters at dusk, where twenty others sat in a candlelit circle to listen while advanced students practiced. I tend to groan at these invitations, but was glad to learn that Khmer monks are less hardline than their Lao and Thai counterparts. I was allowed to accept a cup of tea directly, provided I didn’t brush fingers, and was—gasp—allowed to sit on Monk Souvan’s bed. Their quarters were spartan even by monastic standards. There was nothing in the room but twenty plank beds, a few kerosene lamps in tin cans, drying orange robes, and a some tattered books. The monks were mostly in their teens and twenties, and, as in Laos, most seemed to be there primarily to get an education of sorts.

Every so often, word of the exotic captive spread around the monastery and another young monk would scramble up the steps and breathlessly launch into his English formula before joining the circle on the floor. One late arrival was not a monk at all, but a 20-year-old ‘temple boy’, Reamon. He wore his moustache and his threadbare English with equal pride. I found him heartbreaking; ferocious and hungry, and alternately fascinated by and resentful of tourists. How much money did I make? What language did they speak in Ireland? How long did I spend on holiday? Where else had I gone? How much did my guesthouse cost?
   ’I think you must be very rich,’ he blurts, ‘All Americans very rich.’

Yes, I am very rich. My daily budget is $20, a whole month’s salary. I can splash out and spend six dollars on a Christmas cocktail, or forty bucks on a pass to the Angkor temples, if I like. But instead I say:

    ‘I’m not American. And not all Americans are rich.’
This makes him angry.
    ‘All Americans are rich. I see on television. All are rich!’
    ‘They don’t show poor people on television. But America has poor people, though not poor like Cambodia…’
    ‘I think you are lying! America make cars and aeroplanes. American people rich!’
I sigh and agree. Yes, America rich. He continues in an injured tone.
    ‘I want to study. I want to stay in school. But my mother very poor. She want me to work. So I leave village and come here to work and study. I need to learn English. Then I can get a good job with tourist.’

This is the fondest hope of the bright kids, to learn enough to get sprinkled with falang fairy dust. It’s depressing, but not surprising. In Phnom Penh, teachers were burning tires outside the parliament building, protesting their pitiful $20-a-month wages. ‘End Corruption of Civil Servants’ their placards read. How? When all government workers—nurses, bureaucrats, police, teachers—make between $20 and $30 a month, bribes are inevitable. Traffic fines are just taxation here; parents have to supplement teachers’ wages.

I want to tell the Takeo monklets: My country was poor like yours. Now it is rich and educated. Keep studying.
I want to tell them: I think my country was happier just before it got so rich. Don’t be afraid to stop when you get enough.