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Language of Hope, Language of Change

A recent stay in Cambodia has prompted Tom Conner (Modern Languages & Literatures) to initiate a Skype-facilitated program that is connecting students in the Southeast Asian country with speakers of English around the world. The Cambodian language learners are now able to improve their fluency in English through weekly long-distance conversation practice with some 20 St. Norbert student volunteers and others recruited from universities in the United States and in Saudi Arabia. Conner, a professor of French, has a long affinity with the francophone Cambodia, a country he has visited more than 50 times. He explains what took him back to the region last summer, for a new experience and a new way to serve its people.

For many years I have found myself returning to Southeast Asia, to reignite memories of previous travel in that part of the world, for sure, but also to go off the proverbial “beaten path” and do something a little bit different. 

This summer, I had just recently finished a book project and badly needed to take a break from what I usually do in the summertime, which is to read and write. Some mutual acquaintances had made me an offer I could not refuse. The next thing I knew, I was on my way to work as a volunteer for an NGO in Cambodia, a former French colony now making the transition to a 21st century “tiger economy.” 

I worked mainly with curriculum development but also had a chance to do some teaching in Kandal province in central Cambodia, just outside the capital of Phnom Penh, as well as in Kampong Speu, three hours by motorbike northeast of Phnom Penh. Over several months, I was able to travel around the country and visit many schools. 

But let me begin from the beginning.

This trip was my 50th or so to the region; my first visit was as far back as 1964, when this was another world. One war had ended, another was about to go into high gear. Today Cambodia is a very different place and there is reason to be hopeful, despite widespread corruption and mismanagement on all sides. 

I’ve been back countless times. I’ve been on a number of missions as a United Nations observer and attended the Khmer Rouge genocide trials. My interest in the region is academic, too: My next project will be a study of the French intellectuals, like Sartre, who inspired various Communists – specifically, in Cambodia.

This latest opportunity was a good way to return to the country, and also to do something meaningful for a few weeks.

I arrived in Phnom Penh from Bangkok in mid-afternoon and was greeted by my hosts at the SSI (Sustainable Schools International) Leadership Academy. It was raining lightly but, all things considered, Cambodia during rainy season isn’t that bad, though the streets do tend to be unusually cluttered with garbage. The sewer system just is not equipped to handle heavy rain and city authorities are overwhelmed by the challenge, so services are disrupted. People leave their trash in huge piles here and there, at more or less well-designated points, and eventually (later rather than sooner) it is picked up.

To my surprise, we boarded a tuk-tuk [an auto rickshaw] for the short trip over to the academy, which is situated in the remote “hinterland,” a kilometer or two off the main road of Confédération de la Russie leading in to Phnom Penh. We soon ventured off the paved road and into a maze of narrow and very busy side roads. I remember thinking to myself, “I am definitely NOT going to go jogging around here.” I pride myself on my good sense of direction, but my built-in compass must not have been working here, or was it jetlag, I wondered, because I began to think that I could never find my way out of this labyrinth. Still, the very next day, off I went on my daily jog. I did have my cellphone, after all, and could always dial for help. The local crew at the Academy were so very helpful and probably would not have minded coming to my rescue.

Speaking of the staff, I was impressed by my warm reception. After settling in and unpacking my few belongings, I sat down to dinner with the complete group of students, all 27 of them, to enjoy a delicious rice and pork dish and some good conversation. I kept my self-introduction brief and to the point, and then turned things over to my new students, hoping that they could come up with some good questions. I was not disappointed in this regard and by the time I straggled back to my room two hours later we had covered a wide range of subjects, including differences between our two countries and changes I had observed in Cambodia over the past quarter-century or so. For starters, I said, cars were becoming ever more numerous and motorbikes no longer dominated the city streets the way they once did. And street lighting was more common, as were traffic lights. It remained to be seen when traffic rules would become strictly enforced.

The students were quite proficient in English but needed practice speaking, so I planned to try hard to engage them in real-life conversation whenever I could.

The first full day of my stay I met with one of the site coordinators to talk shop. We intended to discuss issues like curriculum development, but did not get that far before a student appeared, looking to engage us in some casual conversation. We were only too happy to oblige and spent the next two hours or so talking about things like demographics and sustainable growth. Cambodia is growing at leaps and bounds but, hopefully, its growth not only will continue unabated but also will not come at the expense of the environment, for example. (During my travels this summer, I was able to follow the illegal logging industry and land expropriation that goes on even in natural preserves, such as the Aural region, which I visited in June. Later that month, and again in August, I had the opportunity to share my impressions with the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.)

In Chrauk Tiek 
During the next couple of days I visited the SSI model school, the Grady Grossman School in the village of Chrauk Tiek, which is situated inside the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, about three hours by van northwest of Phnom Penh. Cambodia is changing rapidly. New developments are going up everywhere and it seems they can’t build fast enough. The “National Geographic Guide to Cambodia” proudly proclaims: “The 21st century has served as a new dawn for the kingdom of Cambodia. With the scourge of war gone and economic investment flooding in, there is a palpable exuberance throughout the country. And, as Cambodia grows integrated in the world economy, foreign visitors, ideas and trends increase in influence.” But, for this economic miracle to happen, the government has to lead by example and set realistic goals that do not sacrifice the interests of ordinary people – or the environment, for that matter. I am not sure that this kind of leadership exists today. All too often, the big companies, many of them multinationals, come in and lay down the law by strong-arming any opposition to their expansionist schemes.

We eventually arrived in the village and were greeted by a throng of curious students, boys and girls ranging in age from seven or eight to about 16 years old. Although this school enrolls students in grades one through six, children often matriculate at an older age because they have started late or dropped out for a year or more, which is why in one sixth grade class I visited there was a student as old as 16. 

I chatted for a while with the students and then unpacked and settled in. I was staying in a guesthouse on school grounds, at a distance of about 100 yards behind the main building. Accommodations were Spartan but perfectly adequate, though I imagine many tourists would be unimpressed and even quite frustrated by the lack of electricity and running water, for example. I was nevertheless pleased by my simple room with its mattress on the floor with a mosquito net draped over it. The veranda had a chair and a table where I could sit in the afternoon evening and contemplate the landscape. The surroundings were peaceful, almost serene. The Cardamom Mountains rise majestically in the background. (Mount Aural at just over 1,000 meters high is the highest peak in Cambodia.) 

When the sun set it got dark very, very fast. It was pitch-black by 6.30 p.m. The generator was on for a few hours in the early evening and helped me get my bearings in the dark so that I did not by accident trip over any poisonous snakes or worse. (Thankfully, this was not an area where a lot of landmines were dropped during the war.) 

This first night, I turned in early and slept soundly, and my sleep was interrupted only by the tireless loggers whose trucks lumbered by on the newly constructed road that passed in front of the school. These guys wouldn’t be happy until they had cut down every last tree, I thought to myself as I went back to sleep. 

The next day in the afternoon I taught an English class to about 25 third-graders. Students listened attentively and were exceedingly polite: when called upon, they rose to answer. However, most were unable to comprehend or at least respond to even basic phrases, even though they had been studying the language for at least two years. I attributed this weakness to several circumstances, among them a lack of appropriate textbooks and an outdated teaching methodology. Teaching seemed to consist mainly of rote memorization and studying basic vocabulary charts. I prefer the so-called interactive, or communicative, method that has students practice dialogues in class. Moreover, teachers should use the target language in class as much as possible and use Khmer only to explain difficult concepts of grammar. 

I was very much impressed by the energy of students and by their positive attitude, which energized and inspired me. Moreover, everyone seemed to be having fun; the kids were smiling and eager to participate even though most were terribly shy. Before taking leave of the youngsters I tried to impress upon them the need to master English and math. In any other country they would learn enough about computers on their own but not here, so I added information technology to that list of must-study subjects. 

Nothing I saw really surprised me that much. I have crisscrossed Cambodia many times by motorcycle on my own and seen a lot. However, thanks to my stay in Aural, I am able to better visualize what an average school day looks like for kids of very modest means whose parents make enormous sacrifices for their child to get an education. Instead of keeping their children at home to help out on the family farm, for example, they send them to school to give them a better shot at a decent future. A lucky few are recruited by SSI to continue high school or even university in Phnom Penh, where they are housed at our Leadership Academy.

The last night we were invited to have dinner at the home of a Leadership Academy student’s parents. They had prepared a sumptuous meal for us: three courses and homegrown rice. A real treat, washed down with the local brew, the omnipresent Angkor beer. We sat in the dark outside on a table (that’s right, on a large table, outside, in front of the house), the only light provided by a small lamp powered by an ancient-looking generator. At the end of the evening, the father of another student, who had also been invited by our hosts, thanked us for coming and went on to say how much he appreciated the commitment of SSI. He vowed to support his child until she graduated. “We insist that she do no work at home in order to give her the necessary time to do her homework and thereby get a head start in life,” he revealed to us. This is the kind of commitment that is needed on the part of parents in this impoverished nation and contrasts with the stories we sometimes hear of parents who sell their underage daughters to brothels. I was very moved and vowed then and there to make a real effort myself to improve the chances of these kids to have a shot at a decent life. Surely, there must be a lot that even someone like myself, a college professor of modest means, can do. 

Conner is considering leading a three-week study trip to Cambodia as well as service-learning and fundraising initiatives, and exchange programs for intern teachers from the United States. 

Nov. 13, 2014