Teaching at Parallel U in CambodiaDecember 5, 2006
Aside from the most minimal border town experiences, it had been my first time out of the US. I knew within almost the first few days that one year would never satisfy my hunger for ‘exotic’ Asia. But after that one year I had run out of money and was burned out on traveling, so, what else but teaching English.
Of course I had pumped as much information as I could out of every teacher I had come across seemed as easy as pie. But where? Big money in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, why not go for it? Japan seemed too uptight. Korea maybe. Taiwan sounded like the best bet, so I went to their embassy in Bangkok – back then you had to get a visa ahead of time – and asked for a two month visa. They were totally onto us backpacker types who wanted to work there illegally, so he responded, ‘Why you want two months? Taiwan small country, nothing to see.’ Didn’t have much of come back to that one and was refused.
OK, my return flight went through Seoul, I could just get off on the way back. Well, why not stay in Bangkok? I had already spent a lot of time there and pay was really low, often as little as $4 hour, so why not see something new. So I took the plunge, into frigid Korea in the middle of January; temperature range for the ten days I was there was 12F to 40F (-10C to 5C).
I liked the country and there was plenty of work, but I was woefully unprepared and out of my element. It was one of those cases where you jump off a cliff and hope you can figure out a way to save yourself before the bottom looms hard and heavy. If I had even just a few hours of teaching experience, I might have been able to fake it, but, well, nobody pays $20 plus dollars an hour without expecting at least a minimum level of expertise.
So, what else but to hightail it back to Bangkok. Where I did, in fact, earn $4 per hour, $5 when I spent an extra hour going back and forth to the student’s house. I floundered, needless to say, but at four bucks expectations were low; they were happy to have a big-nosed white face, even one who was learning on the job. During the nine months I taught there I did make up to $8 at times.
By the end, I knew enough, at least, to play the role, and sometimes even like it. But not the part about teaching kids. What kid in his or her right mind wants to be learning English on Saturday morning when they could be watching cartoons on TV? One kid, in a class of four, was kind of a dim bulb, but did seem to be completing the lessons, so I was quite put off when his mother complained to the school that her kid hadn?t learned anything.
Next class I put aside the text for a short time – we were on lesson 6 or so – and went back to the first lesson and asked, ‘What’s your name? How old are you?’ and drew a total blank from the dimwit. In fairness, the kid wasn’t a complete dunce; how else could he have learned how to do the lessons without actually knowing anything?
Fortunately, for reasons not related to work, my stint at teaching in Bangkok was short-lived. I was happy to see it end; not just because rock-bottom wages didn’t leave room for much of a lifestyle – night time fun was a rare treat – but whatever enjoyment I might’ve derived from living in the City of Angels in the beginning turned to sheer oppression by the end. It felt like a ton of lead on my head.
This was the time before skytrain, where you never ventured out on the street after 3PM without a compelling reason since a 10 km trip could easily take 3 hours. I remember being out walking in an especially traffic-challenged part of town in rush hour one day when the traffic came to a dead stop for 45 minutes. I purposely waited to see how long it would take for the first movement. All that time many vehicles were idling, spewing toxic gases into the air – and my lungs. I’d regularly get off the bus a mile or so from my room and beat the bus walking.
So it was, when teaching became my preferred (more honestly, only) means of survival in 2001, I headed back to Asia. My options in America were unmitigatingly awful, so even teaching looked good. I had just come off of a five-year marriage to a young Chinese gal who wanted a divorce as soon as she got her passport. In fact, it was a great five years – we are still friends – and, in fairness, she had no inkling of what an old hippie was when she married me. Try as I might to find a normal job to help her achieve her goal of a middle class life, all attempts were thwarted by my history, age and fundamental eccentricity. Anyways who wanted to be middle class? The positively last thing on my agenda – except to try to please her.
I had spent ten days in Phnom Penh in 1994 and had gotten a really strong and positive vibe from Cambodia: place and people – both local and expat. Moreover, even back then, teaching conditions and pay seemed much better than in Thailand. Still, I knew about opportunities in Thailand and was unsure of Cambodia, so I thought I better check out the Bangkok scene first before heading over to Phnom Penh. Teaching conditions turned out to be lousy, but even just riding into town from the airport I thought, ‘My god, how could I possibly live here again? The noodle soup is a lot better, but how could I base my life on that?
So after a little sightseeing in Thailand, I made it to Phnom Penh and saw banners advertising Parallel U. all over town. (If you really want to know which school I’m referring to, it was the first private university in Cambodia). I went by with a CV and my book and was working in a few days. Never mind that my book, String of Pearls, City of the Future, was self-published print-on-demand and sold about 150 copies, it was suitably impressive.
Truth be known, anybody who can look the part and thinks they could be a teacher can be a teacher here. Nearly every place requires you to have a degree, but not more than one in a hundred checks, most wouldn’t even know how to check. Starting at the bottom, with no experience, you probably wouldn’t get the best pay – maybe as low as $7 or even $6 – but absent a lot of bad habits, it doesn’t take much to live here. With a little experience, $9 or $10 is quite common.
Needless to say, I once again floundered. It was also easy to see that the term university didn’t mean a whole lot. Every page of text required defining dozens of words that the typical American, college-material kid in ninth grade would know. Complex sentences could take 10 or 20 minutes to decipher for them and still many wouldn?t get it.
Having a teaching certificate or some experience or a fundamental understanding of grammar might have made a difference, but I had none of those. I?ve only learned grammar in response to having to teach it. Boring as it might get at times, I?d simply have them read aloud, sentence by sentence, correct their pronunciation, define each problem word and then try to impart the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
Most of Parallel’s textbooks were photocopy compilations (I haven’t taught there for three years but I believe they still are). The compilation part wasn’t so bad; the department head at the time had a pretty good sense of modern culture. The problem was that he’d copy a bunch of pages without reference to where a chapter or section or paragraph started or finished, so text would begin or end in the middle of a sentence. The graphs and charts would’ve been informative except they were all decades old. I was teaching from a text that spoke of the Soviet Union in the present tense. One section he wrote himself was rife with bad spelling and poor grammar. At one point when I needed work I offered to clean up the loose ends and update it a little – you know, make it a little less embarrassing – but they weren’t interested in paying for that.
I like teaching academics, it’s a lot more interesting than what I’m doing now: present-perfect-continuous-type grammar. It also gave me lots of leeway to editorialize, that is, interject my progressive, environmentalist philosophy into the learning process. There’re parts of teaching that I like; in some ways it’s natural for me. It’s especially satisfying to impart knowledge here in Cambodia where I?d often come across a whole class in which not one student had ever heard of Gandhi.
I generally like the students. They can be quite lovable even when they spend half the class gabbing, even when they try to cheat you blind. They’re so innocent and transparent, you would have to be blind not to see it. It’s like a blessing when you get a class that?s quiet and attentive. While it can be majorly frustrating to try to teach amid a constant din, I usually try to restrain myself from turning into a discipline-monster. However, when it comes to cheating, I become a positive ogre, a tyrant; I stomp it out without mercy.