A whiteboard behind me. Row after row of gray folding chairs in front of me. A handful of students, heads down, puzzling over their papers. Through the window at the back of the room I can see the contrast that is modern day Phnom Penh: A regal, ornate, gold-plated temple that stands proudly in front of a rather brown and drab new hotel. I am watching that place. Watching them, the students. Not so long ago I was them. Soon they may be me. I am seated at a desk; I am wearing a tie. I suppose -- here, anyways-- this makes me a teacher.
Strange, to be teaching again, after almost a year long absence from the classroom. Strange to be a teacher at all, considering that I always hated teachers and schools, essays and tests.
The truth is, I am happy teaching here, abroad, away. I cannot imagine doing it at home. Perhaps this is because, for me, that old cliche has proven surprisingly true: one learns more from the students than they learn from you. And that can only be intensified in a foreign land. It's impossible to describe what living in a foreign country entails, because it depends on the person and it depends on the country. The question is tantamount to: What's it like to be you? The easiest way I can put it is: You know that feeling you get while watching a foreign film, that slight unease, that enticing intrigue? You understand some, not all; you intuit more than you can assimilate. Living abroad is basically like living in a foreign film that never ends, minus the subtitles. And since movies are the closest, most tangible things we have to dreams, you say that it's like living a dream, living abroad. With all the oddities and ambiguities that implies.
The only way to make sense of it all is to try to learn, period, and it is in countless (or so it seems) Cambodian classrooms I have learned what little I know about Cambodian culture. The students here are kind and bright, lazy and cheating (like students everywhere, in varying degrees), and it is the essential human virtues of the first two qualities that offset the pain-in-the-assness of the second pair. I have learned not to blame the students for their habits, because a habit is all too often something ingrained and implanted by others.
And, besides, who am I to judge this culture? I can only rely on what I see and hear and read and feel; my assumptions and observations are, by necessity, inadequate, filled with open spaces; attempting to fill those gaps is a futile quest. I am daily faced with all that I do not know -- about myself, about them, about where we intersect and where we diverge.
But it's those intersections that have meant the most. Three years ago I cam to Battambang, for a week, teaching English to street children who lived in group homes. They were teenage boys and teenage girls. They were orphans or had been rescued from trafficking or from families too poor to support them; the boys lived in one home, the girls in another. As time passes, I remember much more of that week from three seasons passed than I do of the week before last.
Playing a game of backyard volleyball with the boys as the sky faded from grey to blue to crimson, the colour of a bruise. Listening to one boy gleefully sing a half-English, half Khmer version of 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.' (Where did he learn that, and why was he singing it so passionately in September?) Reading Elizabeth Becker's chronicle of the Cambodian genocide When The War Was Over on my bed in my hotel room, trying to make sense of this unknown land, the same way I read and read and read to try to make sense of Japan three years previously when I first landed in that strange and mystic land. (And trying to make sense, too, of why a hotel in Battambang had a channel showing American porn.) Arm-wrestling one boy after another after another, a dozen or more, until my hand shot and sore. Practicing my limited Japanese day after day with those students from Japan, even though their English was much, much more pristine and refined than my Japanese. Wandering down dirt roads in the dead of night, street lights absent, the black sky bloated with stars. Trying to explain to one of the street kids, a girl of fifteen or sixteen, just what, exactly, a roller-coaster was, and failing miserably. (It's harder than you think.) Watching a group of girls rescued from prositution and trafficking laughing with bemused delight at a video of the Japanese anime My Neighbour Totoro. Chatting with a police officer while sitting on the picnic tables in front of the Battambang airport, a site that resembled little more than a dilapitated, seemingly abandoned bus station. (The airport resembled this, not the policeman.) Sitting in the airplane as it left level ground, and me, reclining back, thinking back, trying to comprehend what a week in Battambang, Cambodia meant to me, and to them.
And now, three years later, I think about what that week led to, which was teaching here, in this country, and what teaching has ultimately given me, both her and in Japan. I wonder: If destiny exists, if karma does, indeed, spin its magic wheel by wheel, then why am I here? In this place, at this time? I feel as if I have already, at the brink of thirty, lived a dozen lives. Perhaps I have. After all, every day is another new life, another fresh birth. Our eyes open, and there is either something to teach or something to learn.
A whiteboard. A row of gray folding chairs in front of me. The person reaching out, and the people being reached.
We will either stand and teach today, or sit and learn.
I feel as if I have no other choice. I feel that I'm ready for both. Eager for both.