February 26, 2010

Oh the things you can learn in Khmer class!

I knew it was going to be a good morning. My peanut butter and jelly toasts went down well, and my roommate raved about my blog (which had entertained her during last night's insomnia). Self-esteem roaring, I went to a group Khmer lesson. With 20 people in a room built for 8, we were crowded, but undeterred. The teacher, Rotha, animated himself in front of the class, making jokes and showing his knowledge of the world as we each introduced ourselves. He asked me if I lived in “Big Apple” or Colorado, which impressed me. His comments to the Brits about Gordon Brown were hysterical, and the he had the whole room in stitches.

Then we began the Khmer lesson. He spoke quickly and scribbled on the white board as he reviewed some basic greeting words. I've been taking one-on-one lessons for nearly six weeks, so it was no problem for me to understand. I enjoyed the review of things I already have in my bag of tricks. Near the end of the lesson,you can imagine my delight when he asked something much more difficult, “How do Khmer call, 'What is your name?'” Oh, oh, oh!! Me, me me!! Without thinking, I broke the silence with “Da niat chmua aboi?” and he turned to me, totally shocked, and said, “Wow! Number one student! Can you say again for the class please? You say it so well!” Suddenly the center of attention, I called upon my most eloquent Khmer mouth gymnastics, and they repeated.

During the lesson, I also learned a lot of things. In Khmer, the word “yes” is “baht” for men, and “jaa” for women. If a man says, “jaa,” according to the Khmer teacher, people will think he is gay (by the way, that's the first time I've heard a Khmer use the word 'gay'). Interestingly, the King uses the word “jaa,” but for other reasons. The king is heterosexual, however, as part of Khmer tradition, he honors the first ruler of Cambodia—a woman—by using her language. How's that for a women's studies topic? Our Khmer teacher told us that women are the most powerful and respected people in Cambodia, and they are represented by the thumb. Thus, a thumbs-up is a positive symbol. In contrast, the son is represented by the pinky finger; hence a pinky-down gesture is one of the most negative. My sociology and women's studies background goes crazy for this stuff. Looking at this society from a Western perspective, I would absolutely say that women are second-class citizens who are mistreated and disrespected daily. However, my lack of knowledge about the foundations of Khmer culture seriously limits my ability to access the gender roles. I have a lot to learn!

After the lesson, more than one of the other volunteers complimented me on my fine command of the Khmer language. No matter how long you've studied, that's a great compliment to any language learner.

Between the blog and the Khmer lesson, consider my ego stroked.