By 7.05 this morning, three different people had wished me ‘Happy Valentine’s Day!’ This is bizarre, I mean granted, it is Valentine’s day, so it isn’t entirely random, but I can’t recall the last time anyone greeted me in connection with it. However, this must be the latest marketing ploy and training initiative of this cafe, as I was the first person through the doors today and every available member of staff warmly welcomed me with the same words. 100% compliance with the latest management directive I’d say.
I’m back at Joma Bakery and Cafe near the Russian Market. I end up here with alarming frequency, and I don’t even like it particularly. It’s an ex-pat hub, so it doesn’t really feel like Cambodia, and it is also expensive compared to other options. However, it is an ex-pat hub for a reason. Excellent internet – unlike the flakey to non-existent internet in my apartment and at school, I have always (well, nearly always, barring power cuts and blips) got reasonably fast internet here. You can sit at a table for three hours at a time for each purchase, and you can plug in to one of the many power points around the place (as long as you are choosy, plugs have a habit of falling out of sockets here for some reason). There is air conditioning, and the staff are super-friendly. This is also the only place in town I can find a salad. I always have the same here. A roasted veg and humous wrap with a side order greek salad. Yum. $6.20 though, that’s steep really. The menu is entirely in English. The establishment proclaims ethical working conditions and to support NGOs various, which makes me feel a bit better about the eye-watering costs of it. (Coffee $3.50 a pop, which is comparable to being in the UK, then again, they do banana bread for $1.10, which is a bargain, so hey ho). I suppose it’s selling point, is exactly what puts me off, it is like you are insulated from Cambodia, yet I return like a moth to the flame because ultimately I need somewhere to work, that is cool, has power and internet, brings endless water refills and yes, does a very nice salad, a very nice mango shake and respectable coffee. So go ahead sue me! (Only not really, life is stressful enough). This is an old photo nicked from their Facebook page, but the layout is pretty much the same.
As a regular, I have come to witness several customer care initiatives over the past few months. Some are mercifully short-lived. I know they are trying to be super-friendly, but it can cross over to the obsequious at times, and that’s awkward. One example is the day that staff were obviously told they had to say goodbye to everyone as they left. I daresay this is intended to be a personal touch, but it did come across as a bit stalkery, I mean, the staff are lovely and everything, but there is really no need for histrionics at my departure. I don’t know what this relationship means to you, but when I said I wanted coffee, that was literally as far as I was planning on taking things… It was one of those days when I’d embedded in a corner to do lesson planning and blogging and emailing and was there for the morning. I witnessed many an-hilarious interaction over the hours. Someone would get up to go to the loo say, and a chorus of team members would shout cheerily across ‘thank you for you custom, see you again sir/madam‘ or whatever, and then there’d be an embarrassing backtrack as the customer in question sheepishly gestured to the conveniences. At the other extreme, a customer would nearly make it to the door unseen, and some poor hapless team member would have to put on a fair old sprint in order to catch them with the farewell words before they disappeared through the glass doors into the crush of the streets outside, perhaps never to be seen again. It was all quite stressful, if entertaining to watch. This initiative was mercifully short-lived. Staff were watching you like hawks at every moment, in case you tried to make a getaway unseen. It must be what it’s like to be tailed by a not very good spy.
A more recent, but equally misguided (in my view) initiative has been launched this week. Staff are asking everybody’s names as they come in. I feel this is a doomed policy, and I’m not sure why it has been introduced. Perhaps to be more ‘personal’ to regulars. I happen not to mind at all if someone asks my name, but I can’t help but feel it is different when the poor server is compelled to do so as some sort of ghastly initiative. ‘May I ask your name sir/ madam‘ is followed by you giving it, and the Cambodian team member then struggling to first pronounce it, then asking about spelling, and you are left feeling like the poor waiter/ waitress/ food and beverages assistant has been compelled to complete some sort of English language comprehension, speaking, pronunciation and writing test of which you are the cruel instigator. It’s all a bit agonising. At the weekend when I was in, the poor server got in a terrible knot asking the person I was with. My fellow volunteer has short-cropped hair, and was wearing a baseball cap. She also has a gender neutral name. The server greeted her as ‘sir’ was then mortified as he realised ‘she’ was a woman, and then was confused all over again as her name was no help at all. On the same occasion as we left, some ghastly woman (not a native English speaker, but not Cambodian either) was literally screaming in the face of some poor server ‘don’t use my name, how dare you use my name‘ or something. It was horrible. The customer in question may have been unhinged and I can’t conceive of any possible provocation that would go anywhere near to provoking such a response. However, I did retrospectively wonder if it was something to do with this clumsy name gathering exercise being rolled out across the cafe floor.
I was asked my name today. And the spelling. They havent used it since though, they have asked me if it is OK to do so. I shall await with interest.
Anyway, here I am on Valentine’s Day. I was up early due to coughing. Feeling rough, but lots to do today so figured I’d head out to the land of air-con, internet and comfy seating. One of my students asked if we’d have a lesson today or if it was a holiday on account of Valentine’s Day. When I asked my students about the day in class they all knew about it, but regarded it as a day to give flowers to parents and don’t have the connotation with anonymous messages to your secret sweetheart. I haven’t decided whether or not to do anything around it in the classes today or not. I was going to, but I’ve just been reading up about it and now I don’t have the stomach for it. I have no idea if these news items are true or still current, but it seems that in Cambodia rape has become associated with Valentine’s Day. So, according to the article, young men do give gifts to their ‘songsar’ (the person they are going to marry), but it is the expectation that sex will follow, consensual or otherwise. According to this 2014 Washington Post article an alarming number of men have admitted to rape and or expect gifts in return for gifts. It is so depressing and sad. It is easy to be enchanted by how disarmingly naive my students seem at time, but the dark underside is that if that what goes along with this is a complete ignorance about sexual health, rights, responsibilities and that women have the right to say ‘no’ and eating a dinner isn’t consent then this is not funny. Not endearing at all, it creates a vulnerable group and this, combined with the sleazier aspects of life at the riverfront legitimizes a horribly objectifying view of women and an unbalanced view of how relationships can work.
I do feel disheartened at how the world is, not only in Cambodia, but complacency about women’s rights elsewhere at a time when they are being eroded all around us, starting with USA. How is it possible that what seem to me to be absolutely fundamental rights over our bodies; over who we have sex with; over our right to travel in safety; remove ourselves from threats of violence – or less sensationally just be paid the same as men; access education; the list is endless – are all being rolled back with all too little protest. There’s that picture isn’t there, of Trump, surrounded by men, signing away abortion rights for women the only positive is that it did get some coverage I suppose. I really didn’t want to have to have a picture of Trump here, but then again, it will be annoying later on if I can’t find the picture in question and I can’t remember what it was about it that so enraged me. So, let’s make it easier by enjoying this alternative at the same time – Sweden’s Deputy PM recreating the photo apparently, signing her own important legislation, but surrounded by women. It is notable isn’t it, that such a shot of all women is so unusual, it was immediately identified as ‘trolling Trump’. Hardly trolling, referencing perhaps…
So, the nature of love? It’s a complicated thing.
I lurve my students. Even so, it seems my love has limits. Yesterday I was trying to negotiate with them when our last teaching day will be. This week is the last official week. We will stop using the text books on Friday, and marks will be based on what has happened over the previous ten weeks. The following week becomes therefore optional. There are no lessons on Friday (when we will have a staff party). The thursday is on the timetable as a student party, but they are required to organise this. If not all students can make that day, we can, or choose to anyway, have the party some other day, and then classes will finish. I was really, really hoping my classes would take up this offer, so I could have some free days to finish my time in Phnom Penh. Not so. I went through it with both groups yesterday. No ambiguity, as we are working on saying dates correctly. I explained that we could choose, and whatever day they had the party will be the last day, they won’t come in any more.
I thought they’d jump at it, it’s been a long haul. The chance to finish early I mean. But no. They are delighted at the prospect of more lessons. They say they want as many as possible, they want to practise their English they just want to play games and talk with me. On the one hand this is all very flattering and all, but it means I have to come up with an additional 9 hours of fun-filled English based activities for the last three days. I suppose from their point of view, why wouldn’t they want to come. They can rock up without doing anything, and I have to be a party – organiser three days ont he trot. I’m getting a bit jaded. I do have ideas. Creating a year book, giving out certificates. There are lots of things I could do, but I’m exhausted, and also a lot of the ideas would require me digging into my own pocket again to pay for printing or getting materials and I’m increasingly resenting that. On the plus side, it’s really nice that my students want to spend time with me. I think some of my sinking heart feelings is that I really want the last few sessions to go well, I want to end on a bang not a whimper, and I’m not sure how best to achieve this. Bottom line is, I don’t mind doing the extra sessions, but I hope they go well, and I hope the students attend, otherwise I will be wishing I was free to have some final hours of exploration in this extraordinary city.
I don’t resent my students, they are fab, but increasingly I do resent the school. It’s NGO status seems to have evaporated. Staff now wear new uniforms that state ‘CWF Company Ltd’. Erm, what? I asked one of the local staff about it, he said they have just changed their name. I didn’t push it, as it isn’t his doing, and he didn’t have the English language skills to pursue the different status between a for-profit company and a charity/ NGO but quite clearly this is not just a name change, it is a change in legal status. I know the link with CRDT (the previous recipient of supposedly 40% of the profits) has ended, and although there is a new link being forged with a clean water initiative NGO this is not in the same scale at all. It is all highly suspect. It changes how I feel about being here, and it makes me feel duped to some extent. CWF are well organised, the students are great, this has been a good experience but, no, I don’t want to volunteer here for three months to line the pockets of the school proprietor. It would help if they said ‘thank you’ now and again, or even just kept us informed with what is going on. Partnerships do shift and end, it isn’t necessarily suspect. However, it seems that once we are here, expectations are heaped upon us and in these our last two weeks we are required to make ourselves available for testing new students so working additional hours. I’m feeling grumpy about it now. I don’t want to rock the boat in the last few weeks, I want my reference. I wont regret this experience I’m sure, but would I recommend it to others? Hmm, I’d be guarded in doing so. I think you could do a short volunteer placement in a rural area and have massively more impact at considerably less expense. Still, I only know that with the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight is a wonderful thing? Incidentally, did you know David Beckham is credited with coming up with this phrase? I know! Give me strength… or kill me now, the latter might be the more humane option quite frankly, but harder to organise. I was going through job titles with my students yesterday by the way, and one came up with ‘murderer’ tricky, I suppose a trained assassin could be a legitimate career choice in some quarters. Same issue with ‘computer hacker’ but at least they now have the language they want to use, that’s the main thing.
So, back to today, I will trawl the internet for some inspirational ideas for later on. I am told Cambodia has its very own valentine story. I wonder if I can find that. Story telling. That would be a very nice way to spend a couple of hours with my students. Maybe we will all be feeling the love again after all…. Valentine’s Day warnings or otherwise.
Thursday 23rd February will be the Student Party. I have told them I will do nothing, they must organise this. Gulp. I have to trust them. One group I have zero expectation of coming up with anything. The second group though are more savvy. One of them – having earlier asked me about how to say ‘I would like five minutes‘ v ‘I want five minutes‘ suddenly said ‘teacher, I would like five minutes‘ and then chatted away feverishly in Khmer for a bit to the other students, before ‘secretly’ passing round his mobile phone for some illicit purpose or other. They are scheming something. I have now metamorphosed from a teacher fretting that my students will do nothing, and it will be just me and the tumbleweed for the last week, to a teacher who is sweating wondering what on earth they have in store. I know, never satisfied eh, never satisfied. Either way, the countdown has begun.