Saturday, March 08, 2008

cambetia 3

"The Book" tells you that seeing a family of four seated atop a passing motor scooter is one of the top ten sights in all of SE Asia. A friend glibly states: "I'll be impressed when I see five." Does carrying a mattress, copper piping, or a pig count? How about three giant pale-skinned farang squeezed onto one instead, wobbling down the traffic sign-less, stoplight-free streets? Well, the Khmer love a good joke.

On a day --when I was neither Rambo-ing Cambodian hookers nor foolishly taking photographs of ghosts-- I found myself squeezed onto the back of a moto, with two teachers. Sans helmet, my eyes, beard, and hair accrue Cambodian snow, the paved roads left behind five minutes outside of town. Turning down one road, passing muddy canals, we arrive at two recently-painted sheds. One building teaches teenage girls how to sew garments, so that they might earn a living in a sweatshop, rather than entering into the lucrative field of prostitution. The other has the words ENGLISH SCHOOL spray-painted on the outside. Today, I help teach English words to a classroom of Khmer children.

As with many encounters in Cambodia, the intensity is of such a heart-juicing/ brain-grinding strain that it somehow maintains an air of normalcy. The kids race out to practice their English. "Hello, how are you?" When I ask in turn, the reply invariably goes slightly aslant: "I am happy," they all respond. Happy? Amid crippling poverty, hunger, and corruption?

I get told afterwards that many of the kids have been orphaned, their parents lost to AIDS. Outside of Africa, Cambodia has the highest rate of AIDS, with nearly 3% of the population infected. While they seem small enough to be at most 6 years of age in my guesstimation, many are twelve or above, malnutrition stunting their growth.

The games they play are almost as inscrutable. One involves sliding their sandals along the cement, in some strange variant of croquet or something. Can’t figure it out. nor can I figure out their variant of jump rope. We English teachers cluelessly deem it "the string game," but it could just as easily be some version of limbo, played with a rope of rubber bands, pulled taut. But it's sorta like hopscotch and HORSE, too.

Girls are far more adept at this than the boys. It involves hooking your toes on the cord, bending it down and executing a series of jump moves, which everyone else follows, the string rising ever higher. At game's end, the girls execute astounding falling backward overhead kicks, their sandals on their hands as they do handplants to catch the string.

Inside, they chant again and again "This is a _______" as we point at the blackboard, wall, floor, eraser, chair, building up that vocab. Where the kids border on the ecstatic though is when we do a rousing rendition of "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes." Class ends on a high note with a performance of the Countdown Kids' big hit "I'm H-A-P-P-Y." Maybe that's where they get it from?