My language teacher told me that his name, literally translated, means “Whistles-Happily No-Problems.” He was born in provincial Cambodia, fourth child of seven in a farming family, to parents who survived the Khmer Rouge with the regulation emotional scarring. “I don’t speak to my father,” he tells me. “When I go home, I sew up my mouth, because whenever I speak to him, it’s wrong.” This is hyperbole, I think. “He drinks a lot. When we were children he hit us a lot. I don’t want to be like him. I work with foreigners now; I want to be like them.” I can’t decide whether this makes me sad or hopeful. Both, maybe.
When he was a child, my language teacher worked as a rubbish-kid, sifting through stinking piles at the side of the road for recyclables, which he could on-sell. He had a cart, with bicycle pedals and handlebars and a saddle. “But I never sat on the saddle. I was too small. I just stood on the pedals all the time. It was very difficult. I stopped that job when I was twelve, because I was ashamed.
“I was a very cheeky child,” he tells me. The Khmer word for ‘cheeky’ is the same as for ‘broken.’
“When I was twenty, I came to Phnom Penh. I carried everything I could on my moto, and wore extra layers of clothes so I didn’t have to pack them. I came with some friends, and we were so excited. ‘Goodbye! We’re going to Phnom Penh. Goodbye!’ I had $25 in my pocket. I wanted to study medicine at university.”
My language teacher is a very intelligent guy. His grades are always good, and he doesn’t pay to pass, though the practice is common here. When he got to Phnom Penh, he went to the university, and asked how much to apply to study medicine. “$25,” the clerk told him. He went back to the room he had rented and lay in bed. “I thought, $25! $25! So expensive!”
He worked for a while at the side of the road selling rice; then again, he worked for a while in a factory, covered from head to foot in white safety gear, so the workers hardly knew each others’ faces.
“My brother got me that job. I didn’t want to do it, because I thought I was too smart to be a factory worker. But I had to. For three months at work I never talked at all. People asked my brother if I was dumb. Then I started to talk.”
After a little while at the factory, my language teacher decided to study veterinary science. “The application fee was $5.” He left his job at the factory. A friend helped him get a job at the language school. He is working in the mornings now, studying every afternoon. His colleagues are all Khmer. They are almost all Christian.
“It made me very angry,” he said once, “because they told me anyone can go to heaven, even my father. I didn’t want my father to go to heaven.”
He spoke almost no English when he started to teach. He learned fast.
“My English is still very bad.” This is not true. “My students are patient, and I am learning.”
My language teacher became a Christian after some time working at the school.
“I was very harsh, before I believed in Jesus. I didn’t say much, but inside. If you didn’t do what I told you, there would be a big problem.” I find this hard to imagine, knowing him now. When he found out I was a Christian he asked to pray at our lessons.
“For today’s class?” I asked.
“Yes. And for the school, and for me; for your family; for Cambodia; for the foreigners who come to have a good attitude; for Khmer people; everything.” So we prayed for everything.
When he completes his studies in Phnom Penh, he would like to do his Masters in Veterinary Science in Australia. After all, my language teacher wants to be a veterinarian, not a language teacher. Money is difficult, so he would need a scholarship. He doubts his English is good enough for that.
“I have a project. A plan. I will start a farm in my province. My friend can help me finance it. I will help children who have no parents: they can work with me in the mornings, and go to study in the afternoon, so they can learn.” He smiles when he talks about it.
The day we discussed his name and its meaning, he told me, “I don’t like it. I can’t even whistle.” He showed me, pursing his lips and blowing, soundlessly.
My language teacher has taught me so much in the past nine months, not simply about Khmer as a language, but about the culture and about what life is like here. He has shared a great deal with me, and I am intensely grateful that he was also willing to share his story more widely. I wrote this as I wanted it, assuming that there would be parts of it he would ask me to change or remove. He left it all as it was, saying, “I’m free. I want to share.” I pray he is successful in all he puts his hand to; if you’re the praying kind, perhaps you could too.