Oh my god. I think it’s blood. I think that’s the weird taste in my mouth experienced on waking. It took me a little while to process… ‘what the?’ I do declare though, this is not the first sign of sudden onset tuberculosis (I don’t even honestly know if that would be symptom anyway) it is rather exercise induced – apparently, if your heart can’t keep up with your exertion your lungs end up filled with blood. Well, that might be a bit tenuous on the science, but I’m liking the drama around the notion. Also, it doesn’t entirely make sense, since it was my heart that was in the dancing and partying of last night not my inherent physical talent or even my head. Dignity being left at the door most definitely. Though to be fair, it’s been a while since I saw any of that with my name on. Maybe I left it at the hotel at Heathrow Airport along with my forgotten mobile phone. Anyway, upshot is that my farewell do with my group 2 students had a slightly strained start but a cathartic release at Cambodian Karaoke. I can die happy. Which is just as well, as my lungs do feel like they could give up at any moment.
Not for the first time, I’m jumping ahead. Yesterday I stomped down to CWF anticipating an awkward final the gathering at school. Pleasingly, there were a couple of other teachers around which was good, it was horrible the day before walking round essentially empty passages. The other teachers were at various stages of farewells. Some had strictly speaking had theirs, but as not all students attended felt compelled to put in a further desperate appearance just in case any waifs and strays arrived on the last day expecting a lesson. None did. But the precautionary principle is a compelling one. We are all incredibly conscientious I feel. I didn’t necessarily expect that from a disparate (desperate) group of volunteers right up to the bitter end. However, none of us have skipped a single session, other than a couple through illness for which others stepped up to provide cover. One teacher who had to leave early due to a crisis at home, taught before heading straight to the airport. Her students were wanting to take her and all her worldly goods in a convoy of bikes, which would have been quite something, but not as altogether practical as the tuk tuk conveyance she actually went for post her own farewell party.
Amongst the gathered. I was mightily relieved that a fellow volunteer teacher, also vegetarian, was similarly expecting to end up at the BBQ place pretty much next door with her students at the same time. She had got party hats for all her students, emblazoned with ‘Happy Birthday’ it was the only available option. They looked fabulous, vividly-coloured cardboard cones with tinsel fringing. I was wondering if I should have done the same. She had also brought a big cake in, and had the foresight to leave it at the restaurant to be brought out at a suitable moment. Curses. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Then again, I needed to use my cake for my birthday session the day before, can’t have it all ways….
So I left it until just gone 6.30 to head up to my teaching room, I wanted to give them time to assemble. Only four had. They were doing a rather non-secret passing around of a large golden-yellow box, which I tried to ignore. We sat on the little blue plastic chairs, wondering where the others were. It was definitely a bit strained. Mutual uncertainty about who should take charge. I just smiled a lot and said again that we must remember each other with smiles. At one point another volunteer teacher popped in to say farewell. She is a returning volunteer and really interesting. Annoyingly I only started to get to know her in the last couple of weeks, and I feel that’s a missed opportunity. We promised to try to keep in touch, but different countries, different lives, so who knows.
After about nine had arrived we gave up on the other two who are not the best attenders, and headed off down the road. It was fun leaving in a gang, although I was slightly unsure about how the evening would unfold. We went up the steep stairs for the BBQ, and I spotted the other group – only the teacher was wearing a hat – what’s wrong with her students. Tables were heave-hoed together, there was much excited chat. I was offered a range of dead animals. This vegetarian idea is very confusing for them. ‘No meat – how about fish? No, well beef, beef would be OK?’. It was awkward, and the more considered woman in the group suggested the soup. Later fried rice was ordered and that was fine. Everyone got Cambodian beers. Lots of beers. Oh my god, they are all on motorbikes. I was a bit worried about the fragile and youngest (I think) female member of the group. I don’t think she’s used to drinking. It’s a weird one, I was being led by them, they are all adults, youngest is a student at university, but they seem so very young. Up until now I’ve been in charge – albeit loosely. I didn’t know if I should intervene or not. I just went with the flow and kept a watchful eye. Another teacher ended up with a vomiting 19-year-old at 4.oo a.m. and had to take them back to his own flat in desperation to keep him safe! I don’t want that to happen to me. (Everyone was fine though, so don’t worry).
The food arrived in enormous quantities. Poor creatures, so much food. My students are absolutely tiny though, where does it all go? The centre of the tables had metal circular holes in them, in which were placed pans of burning coals, with a cover on top to create an on-table BBQ. It was a vegetarian nightmare, but an impressive display. A separate gas stove was brought to the table to boil water for soup. It was a banquet of opportunity.
Before we got stuck in, there was the present giving. I was expecting a desk tidy having espied one being viewed on a mobile phone the day before. The box though was HUGE. My students were excited by their treasure. It was carefully chosen. It was indeed a desk tidy. It came in a huge box. My favourite thing is that they’d all signed the outside of the packaging. Some had added hearts and ‘I love you comments’ and honestly, who among us does not like to receive similar affirmations from time to time? It was quite hard to get in due to copious amounts of sellotape, but when I did so it was to reveal a weighty block. By the way, I hope the eagle-eyed amongst you appreciate the ‘Happy Christmas’ banner at the back? Very festive! They aren’t the most flattering of photos, but if this is how my students in Cambodia will remember me then so be it…
On the top is a model of Angkor Wat rendered in gaudy gold. It’s practically life-size. The front has ‘Cambodia’ written on it and then above ‘Kingdom of Wonders’ in Khmer. My favourite thing is that it even has a built-in clock, the back of which is a map of Cambodia with all the provinces marked out. One of the first things I did with my students was get a map of Cambodia to see where they are all from. It is a genius gift. They were very pleased with it, I am too. It may not have immediately obvious aesthetic charm, but it is incredibly precious to me. It came from the Russian Market. I am not sure who was despatched to get it.
Obviously,. the giving and receiving of gifts requires documenting on film. Many photos followed. Here is one of my favourite shots.
Clearly though I’m not going to limit myself to just the one image!
The presentation over with, the eating and drinking commenced. It was quite a party. Much clinking of beer bottles, furious smearing of butter onto the heated plates and then they were piled high with more dead animals than would fill an abattoir. It was all very interactive. I don’t think the photos quite do it justice, but you’ll get the idea.
We were noticeably the rowdiest in the restaurant, but I didn’t really care. The eating bit was a bit tricky for me, but the mood was generally good. Food of this type takes a lot of sorting so that provided a focus reducing the need for actual conversation which was a bit harder. There were some things that hit home though. One incident in particular. The fried rice was ordered and delivered. A huge plate. I started to scoop it out into bowls for each of the students. As I did so, one said that me doing this made him feel happy, because it was like having a mother. He said because he was an orphan he didn’t have anyone to give him food like this. I was so taken aback on every level. I had no idea. It was like falling, so many things suddenly fell into place or took on a new significance. Being an orphan in Cambodia is exceptionally hard in a land where family is everything. The symbolism of sharing food is enormous here too. Then there is the realisation that it was he who yesterday said he didn’t believe in ghosts because otherwise why didn’t the spirits of the dead come back to help during the time of the Khmer Rouge (I now feel sure that is what he was saying) – it was also he who closed down that conversation. I can’t imagine his history, but I’m sure it isn’t too much of a stretch to see the connection. I didn’t know what to say or do. I just got up and went round and gave him a huge hug, which he returned, and then I sat back in my chair. He looked away, his eyes brimming up. I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing but I felt so sad and so frustrated that I find this out now, at this final farewell. I know that’s probably why he said it, but it made me wish I’d picked up a bit more on some of the cues there have been along the way. He really wants to be rich so I can come back and stay in his house in Phnom Penh. I’d laughed at this – with appreciation – but not seeing it entirely for what it was. He is wanting approval, many of them do seek it from me, which I’ve attributed to my novelty value as ‘their’ foreigner. However, I think for him there possibly aren’t that many people who fulfil that older mentor role. He is seeking connections that endure. He has also referred to the group as his family, the classes as the place he feels happy and safe. It occurred to me that for him this is a literal expression, not a metaphorical one. My big regret is that going through the photos of the night I don’t have a snap of him and me together. He took a lot of group photos, and shyly did some selfies with me in the background, which was fine and I thought nothing of. I just assumed that’s what he wanted. With hindsight I think he couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask for one of just the two of us, so was doing it surreptitiously. It’s such a shame. I hope I do get to hear the end of his story. I know he will be succesful, he is the most driven of all the students, and has been remarkable in the last couple of weeks, but he seemed so vulnerable right then.
The evening continued. At some point, some children appeared selling fruit in sellophane wrapping. They went first to the other volunteer’s party, and left their table wearing a party hat to approach us. This was the next remarkable and poignant interaction for me. The student who had just explained he was an orphan, wrapped his arms around the boy who was maybe eight. I wouldn’t have bought off him, but my student was choosing carefully and chatting away. He was showing him the paper weight. He was apparently taking time to explain it. It was very, very touching.
Afterwards he explained that the boy had seen my paper weight of Angkor Wat and never seen anything so beautiful and remarkable, he didn’t know it was a real place. My student told him about it and was nurturing and kind. He said to me that he himself was uneducated at that age, it is not the fault of the child, but they need to learn about these things. It was very moving. He could see himself in that little boy working at night touting fruit. I was touched he chose to reveal something of his story but I wish I’d had time to hear it all. It makes his determination to succeed so remarkable. How does he survive?
It was also a reminder to take nothing for granted. Cambodia surprises always. I’ve seem this charismatic, succesful young man, outgoing and able in class and I had no idea at all about any of this, and yet he has a back story that I’m sure is quite inspirational, and his current success was by no means a given. Cultural assumptions are as inevitable as they are unhelpful. In the classroom I forget the context, they are just young people larking about, but no-one here is untouched by the terrible recent history of this kicked about country.
I suppose in truth all people are remarkable if you give them a chance to tell their story, but I am in awe of how my students interact and support one another. The tour guide has absolutely promised he will take the untraveled student to Siem REap for Chinese New Year. They do regard each other as family. They do call each other ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ and they regard each other as a support network – though probably not in those terms. I have never experienced that, and witnessing their connectivity seems profound.
I wasn’t sure how things would continue. However, the evening took on its own momentum. Around the outside of the central dining area, were mysterious doors. Each was labelled a different place ‘Siem Reap’, ‘Battambang’ whatever, not that I’d have known as it was in Khmer. Behind the doors were instant party rooms. Miniature glitter balls, a small dance floor, some squishy seats and a karaoke screen with some microphones. Flashing lights, loud music. Genius. My students paid for everything, so I don’t know how it works, but I think you maybe pay for an hour, or just your drinks as you consume more with all that singing. No idea.
As we entered, I could hear a rousing electronic chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ as a tape went on for the cake to be brought out to the other volunteer’s table of farewell celebrants. Hilarious. Not her birthday, but clearly a cake can only be for such an occassion, and so Happy Birthday would be sung, relevant or not!
So, in our Karaoke booth. Well, it seems that photographically speaking at least, what happens in karaoke stays in karaoke. No pictures were taken. We were having way too much fun. It was a Lucy-sized and appropriate party. I haven’t had so much fun in years. I just went with it. Oh my god. Hilarious. Exuberant, joyful, anarchic, every adjective under the sun. It was all very chaste and reminded me of old-fashioned discos. The young men all took turns to dance with me, proper arms in hold type thing – and one, the extrovert tour guide, taught me some nifty Khmer moves. He too counted out ‘one, two, three, four’ endlessly as if that would help. But I had a ‘penny dropping’ moment, when suddenly all my dancing planets correctly aligned and I cracked the Khmer dancing foot work. Feisty woman and twerky man would have been so proud. Their work was done. Thankfully the olympic stadium training put me in good stead. It seems all those months there when I thought the intrinsic joy of joining the early morning dancing sessions at the Olympic Stadium was its own reward I was wrong. In fact this was the pre-requisite basic training in Khmer moves that allowed me to graduate with flying colours at the karaoke finale night out with my precious students. Gawd I love them more than ever, they did not disappoint. They were thrilled with my dancing. Not with my skill, which as you will appreciate is negligible, but with my enthusiasm.
The young women were a bit more sedate, everyone took turns at singing the Khmer songs. Mostly (and probably thankfully) i had zero comprehension of what the songs were. Still the language of music and dance is universal eh? As the beers were clinked and consumed it got more rowdy and flamboyant. Some English language lyrics appeared. Grooving along to ‘Twerk Baby Twerk’ being a memorable high point.
I was in my element, i really was. I lurve dancing, but only when I can do it with the sort of abandon usually reserved for when no-one is watching. Here no such inhibitions were necessary, once we all got stuck in everyone took turns mimicking rapper dives, and high kicks and doing competitive riffs (I don’t even know if that’s a word, let alone a thing). I haven’t sweated so much since the Student Union Monday night discos of the early eighties. We even got to use some useful English phrases learned over the past semester. I really think the two phrases ‘ignore them’ and ‘that’s easy for you to say’ have been the greatest gift and best legacy I have given to my students. You’d be amazed how handy it is to have such language when the dance floor frolics get especially boisterous. These phrases are suited for almost any occasion. I was proud.
The young men in particular were very funny, they danced more like young women at discos in the UK do – or did back in my day anyway – all in a circle, whooping and cheering each other on, draping over each other. The young women paired up more sedately, but here everyone was hitting the dance floor limited as the space was. Nobody was shy or bashful in this context. The beauty salon student turned up to the do. I was pleased, I like her, but she attended class only very rarely, and has consequently made absolutely no progress. Anyway – turns out she’s a very good (i.e lucy-style) joyful dancer, finally we have a means of communication we did a lot of paired mirror dancing to spectacular effect!
Suddenly, and abruptly almost it ended. I think we (they) must have paid for two hours. Cue more hugs. It had been a bit awkward earlier on, but now I was right in there. It was fine. I suppose because I am so very much older than them it doesn’t feel inappropriate. Though I notice they didn’t do much hugging of each other of the opposite sex. Oh I don’t know, I don’t care, it felt fine.
They wouldn’t hear of me walking home, so I had the agonising choice of whom to ride with. I went with the student I’d previously turned down. It was in breach of my travel rules, to go on the back of a moto without a helmet whilst here – but it’s OK, my funeral arrangements are now in hand. I’ve explained to my olympic stadium buddy that I want ‘that’s class right there’ on my casket so pretty much everything covered what with the dragon and drum procession and the Khmer version of achy breaky heart from our dancing sessions to be played at the service (if one). I won’t be there so don’t actually care. I would like to add in the ‘Stand by Me’ version that includes the ‘that’s class right there’ ad lib if possible, but that might be harder to get hold of.
In the end i made it home safely, in a little convoy. In my apartment by ten, which is past my bedtime but all well. My farewell image is of my students outside the club dispersing into the night on a fleet of motos, and then later at my apartment the final two, zooming off, hair flying back in the wind and disappearing into the dark. And so it ends.
A frenzy of postings on Facebook followed. An outpouring of loving testimonies now doubt brought about in part by exercise induced endorphins, but also because I think we are genuinely sad to be going our separate ways. I wonder if I will see them again. I would like to think so, but reality check. It’s not massively likely. I’m sure some of them will make it to the UK, but maybe not whilst I’m still young and healthy enough to host them. I’m 52 and aging fast. It’s my memory that bothers me, every day parts of my brain fizz-pop and phut out of existence. I feel it like a physical process. Who knows how well I’ll be communicating ten years from now. On the plus side, we are accustomed to problematic communications, so maybe it will be fine. It often is.
So goodbye my lovely students. May wonderful adventures await you all. I will keep and treasure my paperweight, and the box it came in covered with everyone’s signatures too! I may need to get a bigger desk.
Oh, and I think it’s just possible there was a budding romance. I really hope so… There was one mixed sex couple dancing together in a slow-dance hold. Wait and see.
Happy Christmas anyway.