And Just Like That, It’s All Coming to a Close

This is it! I had my last day of Khmer language class today. My test is over and my presentation is complete!

This must have been the most difficult six weeks in my academic career. I’m lucky that a lot of things come easy to me; foreign language does not. I’ve had nine-hour school days just to go home and study for several hours more, drilled my brain with new concepts and words, and generally immersed myself in this program.

I knew an accelerated course would be tough, but I had no idea how much content we would truly pack into this month and a half. I probably end up doing more work than this during the school year, but the difference is the type of work. At least with several slower classes I can take a break from a subject if I need one. With this course, I had to power through without stopping.

I feel like I gained valuable skills from this class. My language has improved tremendously over this last six weeks, arguably progressing more than I have in my two years of language courses. Immersion does wonders. I’m able to carry on conversations and understand more than ever before. Even beyond language, I feel as though I’ve learned some other important things as well. Determination was essential, discipline mandatory, and sheer willpower to carry me through.

This course has taught me about what it means to be a hard-working and driven student, from accepting your challenges and working to correct them, communicating problems with your professors, asking for help if you need it… All of these are things that I’ve had to do in this class, and many that I’ve refused to do before. Moving forwards, I need to remember this.

Overall, I’m so grateful to my professors, the coordinators of this program, and my amazing host family. Thank you for helping me learn so much.


Fourth of July in Cambodia

Yesterday (or I suppose tonight if you’re in the US) was the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day. It’s clearly not a holiday celebrated in Cambodia, and I missed the festivities for the year. No chewy hot dogs, booming fireworks, flying flags, or overwhelming patriotism.

Many of you know of my displeasure with the United States right now. For those of you who don’t, a nutshell-version: Trump is horrible, climate change is the largest issue facing our generation (such as the water crisis), and blatant discrimination and violence are rampaging our country. We’ve withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, hate crimes are on the rise, police brutality dominates minority communities, and so on. I’ve been so upset this past eight months because of the governmental and systematic issues that have been revealed and amplified by the Trump presidency. For me, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve fallen.

In all honesty, I’m a little relieved to have been gone. I’m not feeling particularly patriotic lately. Here, there was no pressure to celebrate a country I’m not sure I believe in anymore.

Why Study Khmer Language, of All Things?

When people find out that I’m studying Khmer language, their first question is always “Why?” This is closely followed by “How many letters are in the alphabet?” (The answer to which, for those who are curious, is 111.)

To be fair, it’s definitely an unusual language to study and one that’s significantly less useful than something like, say, Spanish or French. Even in my fields of journalism and political science there’s a whole host of languages that might serve me better than Khmer, ones that are more common or more necessary in a political sphere.

So why did I choose to study this particular language?

Part of my answer stems from my very first experience in the country. At age fifteen, I went on a service trip to Cambodia with a group called Youthlinc. It was my first trip across the sea, and the first time I was exposed to a place and culture so different from my own. It was a place of learning, where I saw poverty for the first time, talked to people who had experienced genocide in their lifetime, and kids who went eight hours in the sweltering heat with no water just so they could go to school. I was impressed most by their kindness, welcoming us naive students into their country and teaching us patiently.

When I first began my time at the University of Utah I discovered, much to my surprise, that they offered Khmer language classes. I took this as a sign, and began my two years with Professor Tol. He paid close attention, patiently tutoring my language, teaching me more about the culture, and talking with me about life in Cambodia and here as well. Unfortunately a third year class was not offered, and so my only option for continuing was this six week study abroad.

Truth be told, I have no clue what I plan to do with my knowledge. Maybe I’ll find a way to apply it to my career, or maybe not. All I know is that I have fallen in love with this country and it’s people, the knowledge they have given me, and what I believe will come to feel like a second home. Whether or not this may come in handy some day, learning this language is something I hold a passionate love for, and will keep close to my heart always.

The Weekend of Tourism

This last weekend, I finally was able to go out and see some of the sights in Phnom Penh! It was a welcome break from studying, to be sure.

A classmate of mine found a smaller tour through a local arts college called the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Our guide took us around to see twelve old theaters in Phnom Penh, telling us a bit about the history of both the theaters and the surrounding neighborhood. Unfortunately, most of the theaters have been destroyed to build new structures, residences or shops mainly. Our guide had pictures to show us of some of the old buildings, and the comparison was quite interesting.​ I’ve included some of the before and after pictures.

I was also able to visit the National Museum, which featured hundreds of statues and carvings from Cambodia’s history. Most of the statues depicted figures from Buddhist or Hindu religions. They came from all over the country, including private collections and Angkor Wat (among others).

My last stop was Wat Phnom, a large temple from which Phnom Penh got its name. Phnom translates to mountain, which is a bit of a misnomer. The whole “mountain” was perhaps seventy feet tall, and maybe just as many steps to the top. Khmer music drifted from the courtyard to the surrounding area, and the smell of incense wafted through the air. I sat inside the temple for perhaps twenty minutes. A pair of Khmer people engaged me in conversation, pleased to learn I speak Khmer. We talked for a while about their families. One of them, a middle-aged woman, had a daughter just my age.

Sitting in the temple is awfully relaxing. I’m not sure if it’s the atmosphere, the incense, or simply the presence of so many people paying their respect.

I did spend some time hanging out outside the royal palace, but I have yet to visit inside.


Pagoda Etiquette

Cambodia has a very respectful culture. Those who are seen as higher rank than yourself are addressed and treated differently. Before going to the pagoda yesterday, we were briefed on some etiquette and I thought it may be useful to some people to share.

  1. Always ask before taking a picture of a monk. (This isn’t bad advice regarding regular people, as well.)
  2. Take off your shoes and hat when entering a pagoda.
  3. Dress modestly and appropriately when visiting a pagoda. Men should not be shirtless, and women should wear a longer skirt and cover their shoulders.
  4. Use both hands when giving an offering to the monk or pagoda.
  5. Women should not touch monks or give them gifts directly. If you want to give a gift to the monk you should set it down within reach.
  6. Treat monks with high respect.
  7. Don’t sit higher up than a monk.
  8. Don’t point your feet at a monk. Women should sit with their legs tucked to the side.

Truly, just do your best to be as respectful and polite as possible. If you are a Westerner, people tend to be very understanding of the fact that you aren’t familiar with the customs, but you should still strive to follow the rules and etiquette.

Classes Have Begun! 

I’m three days into class, and it is intense! 

On the first day, I came down to go to school in a pair of leggings and a nicer t-shirt. My host family gave me a funny look, and that’s how I learned that skirts are expected every day in class. I don’t mind, because skirts are a lot more comfortable in the hot weather.

We study for four hours in the morning, have a two hour lunch break, study again for another two hours, and then go out on a cultural adventure. Since it is an advanced-level class, it is very rigorous. Every day we’ve been given around 30 new vocabulary words, in addition to readings and worksheets. I spend most of my free time studying right now. I think that the things we learn in class are extremely valuable, but I feel that I benefit even more from simply talking to real people.

I’m in a class with two graduate students, both of them studying South East Asia. After the program, they stay for a year to do their graduate research. It seems so cool to be able to do something like that, and I think I might like to go some day.

The part of school that I’m most excited for is our daily cultural field trips. Yesterday, we took a trip to the Russian Market (ផ្សារទួល​ទំពូង)​​ which is near our school. It’s an indoor market with really crowded and narrow pathways, lined with tightly packed booths. There is food, cloth, souvenirs, work tools, household goods, clothings, etc. all within stalls of each other. You could find anything there… if you took the time to search.

Today we went to a pagoda (វត្ត)​ to talk with one of the monks. Visiting the pagodas here has been one of the things I’m most excited for because of how interesting I find it to learn about other religions. Although I myself am not a terribly religious person, I think it’s important to understand different faiths, their beliefs, and their place and influence in the world. Besides, the different stories from religions fascinate me.

It’s traditional to bring a small gift of something useful, so we stopped by the market to purchase incense and candles.
We were lucky enough to be able to meet with one of the high monks, the Venerable Khy Savanratana, at this particular pagoda between his journeys to several other countries for workshops, speeches, and the like. He’s been a monk for 27 years, over half his life. He was born in a small district town on the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. His mother and grandparents encouraged him to become a monk, and so after he completed high school he began his life in a Buddhist monastery. He believes the most important thing he’s learned as a monk is patience and tolerance when going through life, because “If you want hot, you get cold. If you want cold, you get hot.”

My First Few Days…​

I arrived a few days early with the thought that I’d need time to adjust before classes start. I’ll be at the Royal University of Phnom Penh for about 7 hours studying every day, a feat which definitely deserves to be well-rested for.

I’m staying with a host family for the duration of a trip with one of my professors (Professor Sannang), his wife Sotea, his two daughters Mnek and Lita, and a tiny baby; but it doesn’t stop there. They live in a complex with Professor Sannang’s seven siblings, as well as his mother. All the houses are conjoined, which means that there are constantly people around and kids running to and fro.

I love having so many people because it means that there’s always someone to talk to. Professor Sannang asks his family to speak as much Khmer language as possible so that I learn more. People mostly use colloquial language instead of formal so it’s a little hard for me to understand, but it’s good because this is what most people use in daily life. I’m already picking up pretty fast, using words I didn’t know before and solidifying those I did.

Most importantly, the family has made sure I feel welcome.Professor Sannang asks that his kids call me sister. The younger kids follow me around in a pack, and the older ones help me study. Until school starts we are doing the same homework, them in English and me in Khmer. We all eat dinner as a family, and sometimes people from other families come over too.

I love it here, and I’m so glad I came. I can already tell I’ll miss it when I leave.