April 20, 2010

Mandela comes to Cambodia?

I never thought that I would come all the way to Cambodia to teach students about Nelson Mandela and Apartheid. But my advanced discussion class (hello, it's 6 AM) was hungry for some meatier discussions. Though I am desperately curious, I have been warned many times about not bringing up the Khmer Rouge regime. For many of my students, Pol Pot's Kampuchea was a world they lived in, or were born into. Even the youngest of my students still feel the effects of what happened in 1975—when Cambodia went back to year zero.

I asked them instead about apartheid, and I was not surprised that most of them knew nothing, not even where South Africa is geographically. But a few older students lit up when I began talking about Nelson Mandela. I admit that until I saw the movie Invictus, I hadn't given apartheid much thought. I bought the movie in the Russian Market because I thought I could use it to talk about sports and leisure time in my lower levels. Sound the buzzer, I was totally wrong. The movie is indeed about the South African Rugby team, but when it finished, I didn't find myself thinking about how big sport matches can unify nations; instead, I found myself in deep thought about Mandela's universal appeal as a leader, and as a symbol of audacity and forgiveness human beings are capable of. In the film, Mandela gives the rugby captain a copy of the poem that he carried with him at Robben Island. As the film's namesake poem and the backbone of the story, this poem is the bridge between South Africa and Cambodia. In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed. The Khmer Rouge regime battered Cambodia, but they could not break the spirit of the Khmer people. The resiliency of this country and the respect that the Khmer people have for tradition is a nod to the strength of character built by adversity.

This morning, as I said, “Even when the laws change, it takes a long time for the minds of the people to do the same,” I got chills. I realized the incredible opportunity (and responsibility!) that I have as a short-term teacher. Especially for my advanced discussion (though don't sell my level 4's short, they will definitely be able to pronounce s and sh perfectly by the end of this), I am a window to the world that Cambodia often keeps shut. I can't tell if Cambodia wants to be isolated or if they just don't have the means to really connect with the rest of the world. I guess that's a common dilemma in developing countries. If we lower the cost of better education or the internet, anyone could use it. If we connect to the world, we might not have as tight of control of our people.

Critical thinking (that very, very 1980s term) is not a learning skill in this country. More commonly, students copy information from the blackboard, sit silently in the classroom and they might even have to pay the teacher to get a passing grade. The other volunteers and I have discovered that it is frustrating to ask students how and why questions only to look out on a sea of downcast eyes. In western cultures, these types of questions are taken for granted. We are allowed to ask and answer these questions without fear. They never tell you this stuff before you become a language teacher.

I love to see students learn, and to see them think gives me a feeling of true accomplishment. In a place like Cambodia, the growth of the nation depends on a new generation of thinkers. With such a violent past still in the rear view mirror, a new generation must have the courage to navigate the course. This is the part of the poem that really floors me: It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll,/I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.

I can see the headlines now: Matt Damon flick inspires young volunteer to show movie in class and write another blog about humanity and poems. Whoopdy-do.