Poems I Penhed

As an English teacher, I inevitably have to teach poetry. I mainly teach to analyse it, but sometimes I teach to write it too. And when you ask the students to do something, usually you have to provide an example.

So, I taught my students about accentual verse (where it has a similar number of stressed syllables in each line) and poetic metre. I also taught them about using metaphors, and used the structure of the opening three lines of The Highwayman‘s as an example. It has a metaphor that consists of two nouns, and each noun is modified by another noun or adjective. So these are the examples I created for the students in order to show them how to write it.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 1

The wires were twisted jungle vines hanging from ancient jungle trees;
The ruined roads were racing rapids of motos weaving and winding with ease;
The food carts were bubbling cauldrons sending scented smoke high into the sky;
The houses were rain-stained sentinels watching the noisy traffic rush by.
The golden Wat was an open oasis, full of orange-robed men.
This is the city I live in: the beautiful Phnom Penh.

Postcard from Phnom Penh 2

Plastic stools sit around street side stands
Selling baguettes, fruits, meats, condensed milk from cans.
Tuk tuks with curtains and tireless fans whirring.
Smoke from the incense swirling and curling.
Tires wrapped in gold foil at repair stores;
Motos hitched up on black oil-stained floors.
Children spill from school like the tide at the shore.
Ice-cream yellow. Shuttered windows. Dirty whiteboards.
Sudden side streets at jaunty angles.
Shops with a single lightbulb that dangles.
Grandmothers in brown, black patterned skirts swaying,
Wearing white blouses, returning from praying.
The heat of the day switches to the dark of the night
And its still humid air with the dark moths in flight.

It was also important to me to teach poetic forms from various cultures, including the traditional Cambodian Pathya Vat form. It’s a really hard form to copy into English, as Khmer generally consists of shorter words. The form is each stanza has four lines, each line has four syllables. The last line of one stanza rhymes with the second and third line of the subsequent stanza. (So an ABBC DCCE FEEG pattern.)

Again, I wrote an example.

Sunrise Over Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat stands
A silhouette
Its towers set
Before the sun

Rising golden
The night is done
Monkeys among
Ruins, birds take flight

An orange globe
It’s yellow light
Reveals the might
Now set in stone

Ancient battles
Myths, gods all shown
Carved by unknown
Hands, this Wonder

A thousand years
For us to honour
As we ponder
On Angkor Wat

Now, I’m under no illusion that these are works of literary merit. They will need a couple of redrafts or rejections before I would be satisfied with them. But they did the job they were meant to do and I hope you enjoy them somewhat.

My favourite things about Cambodians

In my previous post I spoke about cultural clashes. I want to remind you that they are not reasons I look down on Khmer people, but rather where our cultural values conflict. Neither is right or wrong; it’s dependent on whose perspective you see it from. Also, there’s a propensity to see only the differences, and more often than not, the negative ones. I love Cambodia and its people. Yes, there are times when that’s tested more than usual, but I still try and celebrate Cambodians and enjoy living here. So here are things I love about Cambodian culture.

The joy

Cambodians are famous for their friendliness, their laughter, their smiles. Their parties are loud and exuberant. Things are colourful. Their chatter playful. They love games and silliness, even as adults.

The word for play is leng /leːŋ/ លេង. It’s often attached to other words to suggest an element of fun or relaxation:

  • daer leng /ɗaᵊ leːŋ/- to go out for fun (to walk + to play)
  • niyiey leng /niʔjiᵊj leːŋ/- to joke or tease (to speak + to play)
  • angkoy leng /ɑŋkoj leːŋ/ -to sit and relax (to sit + to play)
  • keng leng /keːŋ leːŋ/- to nap (to sleep + to play)

Celebrations, such as weddings and other festivals, are bright, loud affairs. There are games and food and drinks. Cambodians love to laugh and joke and play.

The hospitality

Hospitality in the UK and hospitality in Cambodia is somewhat different. (If you want to see how this difference caused me reverse culture shock read my post melamine plates.) It’s slightly more relaxed (those not used to it would say chaotic) than in the UK. It’s far more easy-come easy-go (like much of Cambodian life, it seems). There’s a vague arrival time and people turn up and plates of food appear.

The welcome is always warm (although sometimes a bit shy and nervous around foreigners) and the beer is always on ice. The cheers “juol muoy!” happens regularly. Basically, any time someone goes to have a swig of beer, you have to clink glasses with everyone then every takes a good swig of their glass, often drain it entirely.

There seems to be an endless conveyor belt of food. There are multiple dishes, ranging from soups, seafood, snails, bbq meat, stir fried greens and, of course, rice. It’s a relaxed affair and you just sit eating. This can go on all day. During this time, neighbours, friends, family, passing acquaintances will be invited in or appear and eat then go. There’s a lot of greeting and farewelling or others popping to the nearby store to pick up another case of beers.

There can be (very loud) music and karaoke and children playing.

This hospitality is more casual than in the UK. There are no napkins (maybe some tissues to wipe your fingers), you can use fingers or lettuce leaves or chopsticks or spoons to eat with, there are few manners to worry about. The karaoke doesn’t matter on the prowess of your singing voice. (This can make it entertaining for all sorts of reasons.) This is the type of hospitality I love. Hospitality that is devoid of social barriers such as etiquette (etiquette is always designed to divide people between social status, so think about that when you next tell your child to take their elbows off the table) and special talents. You come, you eat, you sing. It is hospitality designed to welcome.

The bonds

Cambodians can be naturally shy and a bit hesitant with foreigners, but once you are in, you are very much in.

Social networks are important in Cambodia, and often the connections made can be long lasting and strong. Also, when you’ve made a strong friendship with others, you adopt many of their connections as well. There’s a concept of bong-p’oun. This little means older and younger siblings, but it really refers to your circle of close friendships and family members. There’s a sense of responsibility to care and look out for those in this circle. It’s a tight, reciprocal bond.

I’ve been seen grateful for the connections and friendships I’ve been able to make. There’s a definite sense that I have a collection of people who have my back and will care for me whatever happens.

FAQ: How is this time different to last time?

So, I’ve lived in Cambodia twice now. One for a year, where I was mostly in Siem Reap (there were 10 weeks at the start when I was in Phnom Penh). This time I’m in Phnom Penh. These are the two major differences and they mean that there are other differences as well.

Siem Reap versus Phnom Penh

I’ve been asked which I prefer. The answer is both. Siem Reap is more green and works at a slower pace. The traffic is less chaotic and there is a lovely river sleepily drifting through the centre. The centre of Siem Reap is very touristy, which can be good if you want to escape to cafes and restaurants. It also has quite a buzz during the evenings.

Phnom Penh is chaotic and crowded and the traffic is bad. It can be hot, noisy and exhausting. However, it is also colourful and vibrant and is one of my favourite places in the world. There are some many amazing things going on and it’s great to see Cambodian life in full swing. Phnom Penh is also changing and developing so rapidly it’s crazy seeing it grow literally before your eyes. There are also so many cool restaurants, bars, malls, cinemas and places to go.

South versus North

Whilst I was in Phnom Penh last time, I stayed in the south of the city, so the area around the Russian Market and Boeing Tompun were really familiar to me. I definitely did not know the Toul Kork and north of the city at all. I only knew if from journeys around the airport and the few times I visited Vitou’s in-law’s house.

Now I live in the very far north of the city, in Phnom Penh Thmei. There’s a road, with houses on one side (where I live) and fields on the other. There are occasional cows wandering about. This area was pretty much unfamiliar to me, and it left me feeling a bit disorientated and bereft of my familiar surroundings. However, I’m getting to know this area better and I feel I have a wider knowledge of Phnom Penh as a whole.

Khmer versus Expat

Last time I worked in a Khmer school and spent most of my time outside of work with expats. Now, I work in a n international school and spend most of my free time with Khmer people.

My school is a bit of an expat bubble. There are Khmer staff, and sometimes I sit with them an subject them to my poor language skills. However, apart from the temperature, the A/C and the insects, it’s easy to forget that you are in Cambodia.

A lot of my old expat friends are in Siem Reap still, or have moved elsewhere in Cambodia. Also, many of them visited home for a couple of months as soon as I arrived. This means I’ve not actually had an opportunity to see former expat friends.

Last time, I made a good Khmer friend, Vitou. However, he lived in Phnom Penh, whilst I lived in Siem Reap. However, now we live about 5 minute’s drive from one another. Our friendship has grown really close, and I also know his family well now. I’m glad that they all have pretty good English as my Khmer is still quite limited. Most of my free time is therefore spent either just with Vitou or with his family.

More pressures

Working in an international school is great, but it does mean there are added pressures. The work is a bit more intense than last time (although nowhere near as intense as working in a UK mainstream school). Last time, I was the only English teacher, I set my own curriculum and I decided how that would run. I think the autonomy meant that I could decide which pressures and difficulties I would take on. (Setting and marking homework: no; reports and grade setting: no.) There were other factors determining my choices as well, but it did mean that I was able to make my life easier. The basic level I was teaching at also meant that very little written work was being produced, so it could all be marked in class.

However, here I’m a part of a department, following set curriculums and having to work within a wider school framework. This means that you have to do the things you don’t want to do or do things in a way that would not be your first choice. Obviously, when you have to work within systems that have to meet a whole variety of needs, it means that sometimes the way you do them is not perhaps what is easiest for you.

Also, I’m doing Khmer in the evenings. The pressures of my Khmer assessment and the normal pressures of end of term collide, so that was a painfully intense period. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve enrolled in level 4, and this semester has very few breaks.

I’ve also offered to help with teaching in the village and I’ll soon be helping play music on Sundays at church. I keep taking on little things and sometimes it becomes a bit much and feels like death by slow slicing. However, most of it is really rewarding but I’m going to have to practise pacing myself better. Therefore, it does feel as if I’m a bit more busy than last time. This means that the last six months have gone by incredibly quickly. I’m already a quarter of my way through my second stint here. That’s quite scary.