Friday, February 20, 2009

Knyom Jay Neeyay Peesa Khmer! (I can speak Khmer)

For some people, it’s purses. For others, it’s stamps, coins, rocks, or even beanie babies. I, however, collect languages. It’s true. I’m addicted to learning new languages, and try my best to acquire at least one phrase in the native language of every place I go or every person I meet. Some have come more easily than others. (I think the tribal language of my Ghanaian friend in France twisted my tongue more than any others I’ve tried to pronounce!) Khmer is fairly high on the list of difficult-to-pronounce languages, though. There are over 27 vowels in the Khmer alphabet, making the seemingly subtle difference between words like “om puhl” (tamarind) and “om powl” (sugar cane) significant to a native-speaker’s ears.

Knowing I would be in Cambodia for several months, I decided early on to take advantage of this opportunity and try to learn Khmer. One of the church members is a skilled Khmer teacher and offered to teach me on the weekends. While learning a language is always a slow process, I’ve been encouraged by how quickly I’ve been able to communicate in Khmer. Because so few Westerners ever bother to learn the native language of Cambodia, most of the people here are ecstatic to hear you say even a simple and badly-pronounced phrase to them. The shop owners, merchants in the market and moto-drivers all listen attentively when I explain what I am looking for or where I am trying to go. So far, I’ve successfully navigated my moto-driver to church on Sunday morning, chosen and designed my own skirt for a tailor, and explained to the housekeeper about a needed change in her schedule. While I’m sure those successes were due in large part to the patience of the Cambodian listener, I am proud of myself for being able to function as an independent person in Cambodia.

Of course, any progress in the language that I have made is because of how WONDERFUL my teacher, Bora, has been. Today was my very last class with her. It makes me sad to see that weekly interaction come to an end. Not only have I loved learning Khmer, but I’ve loved getting to know Bora. She’s an incredible Christian woman with a lot of dedication. Bora has been working with PIP’s nutrition program that goes out to various villages and supplies them with nutritional supplements as well as information about basic healthy eating. Then at night, she has been studying to become a nurse. Because she must start her hospital rotations soon, Bora will probably have to quit working for PIP in the near future. That’s going to be hard on her financially, which is why she’s been looking for new Khmer language students. So far, I’ve gotten a few others to take her on as a teacher, and everyone that uses her is really pleased with her style.

Bora’s a great joker and loves to laugh. She teaches me lots of fun proverbs in Khmer. Today’s was: “Well spiced soup and a successful husband are both thanks to a good woman.” She’s always encouraging me to keep up with my Khmer once I come back to the states and to work really hard at returning to Cambodia again someday long-term.

I’m going to miss a LOT of people in Cambodia when I leave. But Bora is one of the ones that I will miss most!

Monday, February 16, 2009

I'm Not Morbid

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different beliefs that various cultures have. A really interesting conversation I had with a student on Friday about Cambodian funerals further piqued this interest. I know a post about death is not exactly the most uplifting thing. But I found the traditions pretty interesting and quite indicative of Cambodian people’s typically Buddhist beliefs.

Normally, Khmers have many funerals whenever someone dies. The 1st funeral is as soon after the person dies as possible. This is usually the same day or the day after, and tends to have only the close friends and relatives as mourners.

Then, 7 days after the person has died, there is another, bigger funeral. This funeral is sadder than the first because this is when the Khmers believe the deceased first realizes that he or she is no longer living. The dead person begins to miss his family. He may also come back in spirit form to haunt loved ones or send them messages in dreams. One of my student’s friend’s brothers died. They thought it was a moto accident, but the brother’s spirit is supposed to have inhabited his aunt’s body and revealed that he was really murdered by his friends after a fight in a bar. Apparently the police here take these séances quite seriously, and will look into the allegations from beyond the grave just as much as they would if they were made by someone still living.

There are many subsequent funerals as well- one at 3 months, 1 year and 3 years. These gatherings are intended to be for more than just immediate family, and can become quite large and expensive. The 1 and 3 year anniversaries are especially important for those who believe in reincarnation, as this is the time when the person’s spirit will be born again on the earth.
In the mean time, the dead person’s soul is believed to be in hell, suffering according to how well or how badly he acted in his life on earth. The deceased person’s relatives must hope that in the past year or so, they have accumulated enough good Karma to help their loved-one come back as a human being, and hopefully one of higher standing in society. Because no one can ever know when a person has accumulated enough good Karma to be reincarnated, loved-ones will offer prayers and sacrifices for the dead for the rest of their lives- just in case he or she is still in purgatory. Many worry that if they do not continue to help their ancestors, their ghost will come back and curse the family with all kinds of calamities.

This belief in karma is so strong that it is often used as a threat by parents to their disobedient children. One of my students told me that when she would do something bad, her grandmother would say, “Do you want to come back as an ant in your next life?” Though Mouyteang told me she doesn’t believe in reincarnation per se, she always thought twice before acting up after such a scolding.

The thing that touches me most about this belief is how sad and full of uncertainty it is. I can’t imagine trying to earn my mother or father’s way out of purgatory for the rest of my life- constantly hoping that my offerings were good enough to keep them from suffering. I know Christianity has the existence of Hell and that the Bible does teach that some people will go there. However, I take so much comfort in the knowledge that I can have assurance that I won’t be one of those people. I can know I am saved from suffering. And it is NOT because I am good enough. I’m not. I won’t ever be good enough. But God doesn’t operate on a system of karma. There is no magic scale that weighs my good and bad merits to decide my eternal destiny. There is only grace through Jesus. I am so relieved that my salvation is not dependent on what I do every day. I am a constant failure. But I know I am saved because of Christ’s sacrifice. I could go on and on about this, but I will try to stop here. I love talking about my faith, though, so if anyone has any thoughts or questions on this, I would love to hear them! Post a comment or email me!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yada Yada Yada

Today was a Buddhist holiday, so all but one of my students opted to skip class today. I took the opportunity to go run a few errands and practice my Khmer. On the way to one of the shops I was going to, I stumbled upon something amazing!

Who would have thought that Orlando Bloom and Matt Damon would come all the way to Phnom Penh for their $1 hair cuts? I mean, I always assumed people like that went to high-dollar salons. But the pictures on the front of Pop Style Barber Shop make it clear that I was sadly mistaken. So, if any of you out there have been trying and trying to achieve that perfect “movie star hair” to no avail, now you know why.

As I mentioned before, I did have one student come today. Ya is my 8am pupil. His real name is Chanmakara, but he prefers to be called Ya, and honestly, I prefer to call him that! Ya is a non-practicing Buddhist who is currently studying Physics at University. He is extremely bright and is constantly asking insightful questions to which I don’t always have an answer. (i.e. “Teacher, what is the exact moment when Jesus took the sins of humanity?”)

I picked up Ya as a student from a previous teacher, so I can’t take credit for his incredible understanding of both English and the Bible. But I am continuously amazed at how profoundly Ya has grasped difficult concepts. For example, today we reviewed for an exam he will have next time. I was quizzing him on the sequence of events for different stories in the Bible. When I asked him: “Which happened first? Did Jesus begin his ministry of healing and performing miracles? Or was he baptized by John the Baptist?” Ya replied: “He must have been baptized first. Because when he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and gave him the power to perform miracles.” While most of my students would have gotten the sequence of events right, few of them would have been able to explain why that logically must be the order in which things occurred. Needless to say, I make sure I’ve had my coffee before I come to class with him!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Not-So-Euphemistic Euphemism

A few weeks ago, one of my students and I were talking about a rather unusual Cambodian delicacy known as “Khmer Cheese” (which is basically mushed up rotten fish, but I won’t go into that….) She told me that she absolutely loves eating this, but tries to limit herself because if she eats it all the time, her skin will break out. I told her that in my country, we like to blame skin problems on chocolate and potato chips. She thought that was interesting, and we eventually moved onto another topic.

The next week, this student walked into class with the biggest smile on her face. As soon as she sat down she looked at me and said, “You have potato chip on your face."

Well, her class is right after lunch, so I immediately put my hands on my face and tried to wipe off whatever food could have possibly been there.

When I did this, she said, “No, no. Potato Chip!” and began pointing to her forehead.
I must have looked really confused because she finally gave up and said, “Pimple!” Apparently I had a small breakout on my forehead that I had forgotten about.

My student looked quite confused as she explained, “You told me last week that in your country you call these potato chips.”

Ooops! I guess I hadn’t been very clear in my explanation after all! After laughing for a minute or two over the obvious miscommunication, I explained to my thoroughly embarrassed student what I had really meant in the previous conversation. Poor thing! At least she had a good attitude about it, though. All she said was, “I think it is good that I tried this on you first and not someone else. That would be embarrassing.” (Of course, I’m wondering when blatantly pointing out a blemish on someone’s face wouldn’t be embarrassing!)

*I’m currently in the process of writing a post about some interesting cultural differences. Hopefully I’ll get it up in the next few days, along with some more student profiles. Speaking of students, please keep my student Ly eang in your prayers. She’s in the hospital with encephalitis. I’m planning on calling her tomorrow to hear how she’s doing. I’ll let you know more later.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Professional Perks!

Have I mentioned lately that I love my job? I really am amazed at what a difference it makes in my outlook on life to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Having a purpose and feeling like a contributing force just changes the way I feel about myself and others. I am so blessed to be in a situation where I find fulfillment from my “nine to five” week.

My students are the biggest reason why I truly love what I do. All of them have such interesting backgrounds and future aims. Their hunger for knowledge and work ethic put most of the Americans of their age to shame. And they are all so thoughtful.

Though most come from incredibly humble financial situations, I have been overwhelmed with the presents I have received from many of them. Though Cambodians do not celebrate Christmas on the whole, most of the tokens I have been given came around that time. A few were in honor of Chinese New Year. Just to give you an idea of some of the presents I have received: One girl took the time to find out my favorite color and then made an adorable hair bow for me! Another designed a ring with a “J” charm on it. I also got a few candies wrapped in a decorative cloth, a card with a traditional scene from the countryside, and 2 new pens from some of my other students.

Nimol is the student I want to profile for you today. She just returned from a week-long trip to Vietnam. On her first day back to class, her eyes were sparkling with so much joy. I couldn’t figure out what was so wonderful. But then she pulled out a small package from her bag. In the package was a beautiful bracelet that she had bought for me on her trip! I was so overwhelmed that she thought of me and so touched that she obviously took great happiness in presenting me with her gift.

Nimol is a very quiet girl. Our classes are always very serious and we rarely stray from our study to talk about peripheral matters. Raised completely Buddhist, Nimol has never heard anything about Christianity before coming to PIP. So, it is understandable that she has a LOT of questions as we are working through the story of Jesus. It has been so rewarding to be able to be the very first person to tell her about God’s plan to save humanity from sin. She is so impressed when we talk about grace, and has told me on more than one occasion that she thinks “it must be wonderful to be a Christian.” Right now Nimol knows she would have more peace in her life if she were a Christian. The main thing that is causing her hesitation is her cultural ties to Buddhist traditions. I told her that over the next few weeks we would talk about the differences with Buddhism and Christianity. Since she is the expert in Buddhism, we are both going to compare our faiths and talk about the similarities and differences. I’m excited for the chance for us both to learn more and pray that it will help us both to have a better understanding of the truth.

By the way, I know this is another picture-less post and that many of you are probably bored to tears with reading my ramblings. I think that as my situations have changed in India and now Cambodia, the nature of my entries has changed as well. I hope you all will stick with me through these slightly less exciting posts. I love telling everyone what I am doing over here. I know I might not have a lot of you that are reading, but it’s always nice to know others care about my work and want to keep in touch. I just have a few more weeks left in Cambodia until I come back to the states to finish school. I’m sure the blog will go on temporary hiatus once that happens. (until my next big adventure, of course!) But in the meantime, I’m still here!