On my second trip to Cambodia, fourteen years after the first, the temples of Angkor still astounded. The scale of the vision, the intricacy of the architecture, the skill of the artisanship. For five hundred years, Cambodia controlled nearly all of Southeast Asia: land that now spans Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, arcing all the way into Myanmar. During our stay, the Bayon temple, studded with 216 massive stone faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, made routine appearances in my dreams.
But what I’ll remember most from this trip to Cambodia are not the fine sandstone reliefs of Angkor Wat, or the imposing gates of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, or the elaborate lintels of Krishna’s biography at Banteay Srei, but the time that we spent teaching English at a Theravada monastery in the northern quarter of Siem Reap.
The general consensus within Cambodia is that the public schools are failing to develop the basic English skills that students need to find work in the tourism sector—the Cambodian economy’s lifeblood—or in any sort of international commerce. So private institutes have sprung up across the country to teach English to those who can afford the hefty fees. But Cambodia remains one of the world’s poorest countries, and many families can’t afford to send their kids even to local public schools, let alone to these English institutes for additional education.
Three years ago, the monks at Enkorsai Pagoda founded the New Life School to help fill the gap. One Sunday evening, we paid a visit to the pagoda, and within minutes, the young monks there asked us to start teaching the following day.
The challenge with English language instruction in Cambodia is further complicated by the lack of qualified foreign language instructors. During its twenty-year reign, the Khmer Rouge targeted the intelligentsia, wiping out an entire generation of academics, historians, teachers, writers, artists. They took the country back a hundred years and left it leaderless. The Cambodian English teachers that we met were eager to invite native English speakers to lead their classes—even for a short stint—not just for the benefit to their students, but to improve their own skills.
Our two dozen students at the New Life School ranged in age from twelve to twenty-three. There were middle- and high-school students, a cashier, a motorbike mechanic, a cement salesman—the latter a shy young man, who seemed physically unable to shape his mouth into the embouchure necessary to produce the more challenging elements of English pronunciation: consonantal clusters, bi-labials, fricatives. Quiet. Money. Have.
The first night, when we entered the outdoor classroom, a single fluorescent bulb buzzing overhead, the main teacher introduced us before handing over his class. The students jumped to their feet, unsure what to make of their new “instructors”—a family of four Americans, the youngest a blond-haired eight-year-old. “Good evening, Teachers. How are you?” they chimed in unison. This refrain would become the introduction to every class we taught over the next week.
We skimmed through the school’s only textbook. One chapter taught about a fictional American boy-band auditioning on television. Another began: “In Tokyo, money is everywhere.”
None of this seemed terribly useful. We pushed the book aside and dove impromptu into conversational exercises.
“Where do you live?” I asked the class. A small, pony-tailed girl in the front row answered first. “I live far from the pagoda, Teacher.” Then others: “I live far from the pagoda, Teacher.” “I live very far from the pagoda.” The farther from the pagoda, we were told, the poorer the family.
We were already halfway through class before I realized that all two dozen students were still standing. I laughed at my own cluelessness. “Sorry,” I said. “Please sit down.” They smiled with relief. “Thank you, Teacher.”
Over the following days, we covered animals and sports, colors and shapes, food, transportation, school, selling and buying. We had them speak with us, in front of the group, with their neighbors, asking and answering questions again and again. Miles and Jonah scrawled lists of vocabulary across the board and drafted fill-in-the-blank sentences as a guide to these conversations. Whenever we called on him, our cement salesman would smile, cheeks darkening—he’d take a deep breath, then turn to one of the teenagers beside him for help in Khmer.
“You can do this,” I told him. “It’s just a matter of practice.”
At the end of class, we thanked the students for their attention. But they didn’t leave immediately. Instead, they rose, palms pressed together in sampeah, fingertips raised to their noses, and chanted a Khmer-Pali prayer: a wish for their teachers’ happiness. The five most revered elements of a Southeast Asian Buddhist layperson’s life correspond to the five fingers of your hand: The Buddha, the teachings, the community of monks. Your parents. Your teachers. “Will you come again tomorrow?” the main teacher asked us. Of course we would.
As the week progressed, our students grew bolder, took more chances, entertaining us and each other with their particular brands of humor. “What’s your favorite animal?” I asked. “A dinosaur.” “How do you get to school?” “On a snake, Teacher. It is very slow.”
On our last day, I broke the news: this would be our final class together. “When will you come back?” they asked. But they’d been through this before. In Cambodia, foreign teachers go as easily as they come. Their primary teacher would take over the reins once again. New visiting teachers would pass through. And the young monks of Enkorsai would continue to lead the school as adeptly and selflessly as they had for the past three years.
We took the ceremonial pictures with the class. The students prayed for our happiness one last time.
As I packed up my bag, our oldest student, the cement salesman, sidled up to me. Sparkling eyes, wide grin, he bowed deeply. “Teacher,” he said, “see you later.” Maybe I only imagined it, but he seemed to stand a little more upright as he spoke. “That’s right,” I said, returning the bow. “See you later.”