Cambodia ESL Teaching Update 3: Co-workersDecember 10, 2008
We’ve all seen the wayward characters and over indulgers. We’ve seen them catatonically drunk at 4am and then arriving, zombie-like and wearing the scars of their battles, precisely one minute before their first morning class. They pitch up unshaved and unwashed having had ‘a Phnom Penh shower’ (three sprays of Lynx deodorant) with their ties askew and invariably food stained; shirt buttons working at their very limits and their faces exhibiting a strange kind of pallor – both clammy and florid.
In truth, these teachers (a minority and typically male), their lives being semi-comic stories of indulgence, tend not to last long at any one school and soon end up falling gently and leaf-like before eventually bringing the ultimate calamity upon themselves and hitting rock bottom – all the employers in town having realised they are unfit to look after a gerbil, let alone instruct thirty young Khmers. In fact, one of those great questions to keep me awake at night – along with ‘How do Khmer students keep their glasses on when they’ve got no noses?’- is what exactly I’d do if I were ever to run out of schools.
More than a few of these teachers burn out – quite literally –meeting their maker here (in numerous graphic and exotic ways) before being taken to the pagoda, thrown on a fire and then finally emptied out like the contents of a Hoover bag and FedExed back home to spend a few decades sitting in a vase on their mother’s mantelpiece.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that when procuring the services of a foreign teacher, schools often consider women to be a safer bet. With men, there’s always a sneaking worry that the svelte new hire might let himself go and become a portly, haggard middle aged wreck or, even worse, get his name in the papers.
So most schools add lustre to the staff room by adopting at least one full time female foreign teacher (much as one might adopt a chinchilla) whose mission in life is then to be constantly appalled by the boorish bawdiness and football banter going on next to the water cooler.
And then there is the matter of Africans teachers, which can be a vexed and thorny topic. Putting aside the fact that Africans use the English language very differently from Americans, Brits, Australians, Canadians and other native speakers, we can’t escape from the fact that many Khmers practically view them as the devil in disguise. We could call this racism, snobbery or even outright hypocrisy but the bottom line is that few young Khmers want to be taught by them which is peculiar really as the same young Khmers most probably wouldn’t have an issue with their teacher being a young black hip hop guy from the USA or the UK.
Now let’s now spare a moment please for the Khmer teachers who handle the elementary levels and who deal with a far higher workload, longer hours, fewer days off, and a great deal more clerical and paper work than their foreign colleagues for a fairly piddling quarter of the foreigner’s pay -and all whilst displaying an almost Zen-like calm. (If it was me, I’d be sobbing drunkenly in the corner). It must rankle the Khmers no end to see these interloping foreigners breeze in imperiously– sometimes with zero experience and little in the way of qualifications, maybe even garlanded with the fake laurels of a ‘Ko San Road TEFL’ – only to spend their time pissing, moaning and kvetching all day at their Khmer colleagues – at best, less than graciously and at worst, in a way that can often border on outright racism. Before flinging all this ordure, foreign teachers should remember that their local colleague’s lives are seldom beer and skittles.
In conclusion this week, here are a few notes on appearance. One of the great drawbacks of life here is the unavailability of decent footwear for men so if you have a solid pair of brogues or oxfords or a slinky pair of black loafers, bring them with you (or buy some in Thailand) because you won’t find their like here. Cotton shirts can be tailored individually for $5-8 each (depending on how many you buy) or can be bought off the peg at the market for around $3 or $4 each (and remember that wearing the same shirt every day is not cool and people will notice). Remember also that wearing a white shirt with black trousers will give you the Mormon missionary/Reservoir Dogs/unemployed tapas waiter look, so if your employer requires you to wear a white shirt then you may wish to temper this by wearing navy blue or dark grey trousers. While we’re at it, avoid gaudy comedy ties or, even worse, one dollar nylon ties from Psah Thmei when instead you can easily pick up three or four decent silk ties for $8-10 each at Soriya Mall. Finally, Khmers don’t do facial furniture, so if you turn up for a job interview with an entire ironmongers shop stuck through your face making you look like something from a circus sideshow, it will neither endear you to your potential employer or auger well for your job prospects.