Friday, March 13, 2009

What You See Is What You Get

Dear Maureen,

Being a foreigner in Cambodia often feels like one big web of miscommunication. At the most basic level, of course, this usually has to do with my minimal Khmer vocabulary. Even when I can find the right words, there’s a good chance I’ll mangle them beyond recognition, and likewise, I hate seeing the shattered look on a Khmer person’s face when he thinks he is speaking English to me and I cannot, for the life of me, understand a single word. But the missed connections are more than just a problem of language. Even when someone speaks English well, there are still dozens of cultural potholes that we can fall into.

Here’s one that comes up all the time: Khmer people exist in a world in which everything is taken very literally. Sometimes this manifests itself as funny little cultural quirks. (You want an ice cream sandwich in Cambodia? It’s a baguette with some little scoops of sorbet stuffed inside.) But I didn’t realize how compelled Westerners are to turn everything into an abstraction until I saw their ideas constantly being lost in translation, and that can be utterly maddening for everyone involved. An American friend of mine was tearing her hair from her scalp one night, because, in trying to explain to a Khmer employee why something he did was unprofessional, she made the grave error of turning to analogy. Spinning out a reversed scenario, she asked, “How would you like it if I did that to you?”

He was completely baffled. “You didn’t do that to me,” he said.

“That’s not the point. What if I did?”

“But you didn’t.” This, in various forms, was repeated ad nauseam, until, nerves frayed, both parties resorted to dark looks and chain smoking.

At the Buddhist school where Jason and I teach an English class full of teenagers a few times each week, our attempts to recreate Western education techniques fail miserably. Pictionary seemed like a grand idea, but the students were easily frustrated because they didn’t understand the concept of drawing anything besides a very literal rendering of the word. Given the word “party,” a Westerner might draw a cocktail glass or a disco ball, party hats or a birthday cake. Our Khmer student drew four people sitting at a table—that is, after all, what parties often look like. When trying to get her teammates to guess “teacher,” another student drew a picture of a monk, at which point her team guessed “monk” repeatedly. We suggested adding something to the picture, but she was confused—why would she draw an apple or a chalkboard or a pencil when the word was “teacher”?

If Pictionary was arduous, Twenty Questions was a complete catastrophe. The class seemed perplexed by the notion of “guessing what we were thinking.” (Why would they do that? Why couldn’t we just tell them?) When we convinced them to start asking questions, the queries tended to be hesitant and completely unrelated. “Is it pizza?” one girl asked hopefully. “Is it a duck?” asked the next student.

Even after we corrected this habit of asking about single items and provided them with some hints, the game limped along pathetically. “Okay,” I said. “So remember, it’s not served hot and it’s something round. What could it be?”

“Is it soup?” one student asked innocently, at which point I had to restrain an urge to hurl an eraser at him. The lesson had ceased to be about English at all—it had become an exercise in abstract thinking and logic. On days when we give up and teach by rote, the students are relieved, cheerfully repeating our monotone pronunciations. If this happened in a Western classroom full of seventeen-year-olds, one would conclude that surely learning disabilities were to blame. But on the contrary, our Khmer students are very bright, picking up and remembering vocabulary and grammar rules quickly. It does not have anything to do with intelligence level. But what does it have to do with? At first I thought the explanation would involve complicated notions of Eastern thought and perspectives, and perhaps it does, but I think that the more likely answer is that most Khmer people can’t think abstractly because nobody bothered to teach them how.

Skills like creative thinking and basic logic feel innate to me, like an inborn part of my personality, but I’m beginning to realize that they’re probably not—I was taught them just like so many other things, at school, from my family, and in my backyard, playing with you. The reason that this letter is to you, even though we have long been out of touch and there is only the most miniscule possibility that you will read this, is because playtime with you when we were very little girls is the first time I remember learning that an abstract imagined world and a real world could coexist. “I am Maureen,” you said to me when you first came to my porch. “Do you want to see my magic tree?” And for the next few years, summer vacations were full of magic trees and blue whales swimming in the back yard, of royal tea parties and dastardly villains lurking in the basement.

In a country razed to nothingness just a generation ago, my Khmer students have never been taught to pay attention to anything other than the very real and pressing world around them. Maybe it is a little like America in its infancy—I used to dread when early American literature was assigned in high school, all those texts of Thomas Payne and John Smith and Cotton Mather that speak of much passion and hard work but little imagination or whimsy. They were men who were busy inventing a nation, and they had no time to invent anything else. I see echoes of this in Cambodia. Paintings by Khmer artists, for instance, are not valued for originality of content or technique, but rather for their careful precision in replicating a few standard designs. They can recreate a temple backlit by a sunset perfectly, but would they ever be able to translate their inner life onto the canvas?

It makes me painfully aware that a life like mine, one dedicated to thought and art and invention, could only have been hatched in a handful of very fortunate countries. On the one hand, it makes me newly appreciative of the country of my birth and desperately grateful for that blue whale that was sparked into existence in a landlocked Midwestern town. But it is both a heady and terrible realization to know that those deepest and most private parts of the mind, the mental pathways that serve as the foundation of one’s self, are yet one more sign of the privilege that I did nothing to deserve.

And so I hope that wherever you are, you have managed to make good on our lucky beginnings. I hope you still have the sense to have a magic tree.

With love,


Mimi's Pa said...

First time visit to your blog. My friend Kevin sent the address.

I like your concept--writing letters. Yeah. I want to take baby step backwards--ditch the mobile for a pager, then ween myself from that to an answering machine, then just a phone that is busy when its engaged and rings for no one when I'm not home.

Hope to make an annual escape to SR this summer. Maybe see ya there.

Abby said...

This letter was incredibly interesting. Phenomenally interesting.

I hope all is well.
with love,