Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality

“Gender disparity”

I wrote the phrase in blue felt pen on the dingy white wipe board.

“What does this mean?” I asked, underlining the phrase for emphasis. Because it felt teacherly.

I looked out on a chorus of blank eyes.

Which is not actually what I looked out on, but what I’d like to think I did. Really, it was a chorus of chatter, back-of-the-classroom text messaging, shuffling, soda drinking, and probably only a half dozen eyes actually looking at me, the teacher, in the front of the class in my button-down shirt and skinny pants that haven’t been cleaned since Oakland.

This is teaching in Cambodia.

I haven’t written about it much, since I plan to write (and sell) funny disheartening funny pieces about the whole fiasco that is applying for, interviewing for and teaching in Cambodian schools. It’s a complete and total farce. Given that neighboring countries pay double, you really get the dregs of Western society over here. Reminders at the all-staff meeting for the university where I teach evening classes for high school students included: 1) come to class on time, 2) don’t tell your students dirty jokes, and 3) don’t come smelling like alcohol.

Note: Not “don’t come to school drunk.”

“Don’t come smelling like alcohol.”

Are we beginning to get the picture?

So I teach in this rundown ramshackle-ass classroom with trash in the corners and a door that won’t close all the way, that some industrious student wedges a plastic straw in the doorframe to keep it shut. The majority of class arrive late, play on their phones and cheat on tests—all of which I’d been warned of and told was best not to fight against—it’s a losing battle.

But I can’t get myself to totally not give a shit. Especially cause there’s those five kids that sit up near the front and actually appear to somewhat give a fuck. You know, the kind of kids whose eyes light up a bit, whose voices raise timidly after the dead silence of my glaringly obvious reading comp questions.

And as it turns out, they like to write. Well, they don’t actually like to write, they bitch and moan about it, but the class goes real quiet when I make them write paragraphs and when I read them, they’re grammatical bloodbaths but at least they’re original, ie not copied.

And, as a bonus for me, I make them write about shit in Cambodia, so that I can learn a thing or two. The first assignment was to write about how Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year (cause they do). One kid wrote: “We burn the ghost money.” And if that’s not a goddamn beautiful line, I don’t know what is.

So tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. It’s a public holiday over in these parts, which baffled the shit out of me last year when I was here. Really? In a country with a fucking 80% domestic violence rate, endemic prostitution, fainting garment-factory employees and expatriated domestic help who live like slaves in neighboring countries?

There’s not a lot of irony going on in this country, so yes, really. But, you know, okay—at least we get a day off, right?

I’m supposed to do these listening exercises with them—I read aloud and check their comprehension. If you think reading comprehension is painful in this country, try listening comprehension. It’s painful stuff, and just to make it more painful (for me), I pick stuff not in their boring-ass American textbook that they can’t relate to (ie: the lesson on the NYC subway, to which I opened by asking, “Who’s been on a train before?” No hands raised. Now how the fuck do you teach that??). Noooo, there I go giving a shit again, and I bring in one of the English-language newspapers and read that shit aloud, stopping every few words to explain terms like “gender disparity.”

The gist of the article is that Cambodia ranks lower than any other country in the Southeast Asian region when it comes to gender equality, as measured by literacy, economic participation and empowerment. Of course, the government is disputing this, because disputing stone-cold facts is something they do.

Which I’m not dumb enough to begin a debate around. It’s in my contract that I can’t teach “controversial” material, which given the aforementioned propensity to deny inconvenient facts pretty much includes anything you’d read in the English-language newspapers. So I’m already pushing the envelope. I mean, this article’s got a quote from the (female) opposition party leader. (Should I be writing this on my blog?) That, and it took fifteen minutes to drag the above summary out of them.

So we focus on access to education, since “the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.”

“What’s a ‘social pressure’?” I ask. I write the phrase on the boar beneath “gender disparity.”

More blank looks.

We hash it out, and come up with a good little list. A lot of the expected “a woman’s place is in the home” kind of stuff, but I’m surprised by “girls can’t study at the pagoda.” Boys can become monks and study for free; girls can’t become monks. That hadn’t occurred to me.

But I’m most surprised by how quickly some of them say “because the war.”

I just leave it there, on the board beside a bullet point: “war.”

I know better than to ask.

I point to our list. I inhale, “Now, what you’re going to do—” They groan. They know what’s coming. “—is write a paragraph telling me about why you think girls don’t go to school as much as boys in Cambodia. For those of you that have been listening,” I stare not at the kids who’ve been listening but at the ones in the back, “it’ll be easy.

“Oh, and this is how I’m going to take roll today. So you’d all better write something.”

They shuffle around and pass each other sheets of paper, and pretty soon they’re writing, scribbling, and it’s not quiet in the room, but as quiet as it gets—which is kind of like a jungle-quiet, with a constant buzz of insects and the occasional strange what-the-fuck animal call. (It’s usually a ringtone.)

I should say here that these are patently not the population the article is referring to. These girls are the privileged—they have iPhones and bedazzled purses and platform wedge sandals that remind me of Boogie Nights. They’re pursuing higher education, and their families have the means to send them to what is sadly considered one of the better schools in the city.

But still.

The “social pressure.”

“Pressure’s like a hand pushing on you,” I told them, demonstrating on my arm. “It’s what you feel whens something’s pushing on you.”

After fifteen minutes I collect the papers. We review some vocab and I let them go early, their eyes are so glazed.

I read the papers later, over dinner. Some gems:

“Because Khmer old culture they thought that women can’t go to school because if the women get high education they can write love letter to men and it not good for Khmer culture.”

“They think if the girls go to study, girls can go outside and have boyfriends, that is not the culture in Cambodia.”

“I think Cambodia is the small country that get up from war in 1993 and it’s stay from colonial a lot too. Long time Cambodia have one culture that unfair for girl is the boy can go to study but the girl cannot.”

“Some women in countryside [read: poor people] have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. And the schools are far from the house. Some students in Phnom Penh didn’t study because they are allowed the foreiner [sic] tradition.”

“They think if women get high education or not is not important because they will become a housewife and only work in chicken and look after the child.”

“They’re think that if they agree the girl go to study, the girl can meet a lot of boy can write letter love and don’t listen parents advice.”

“Because the girl is 15 year old – 18 year old they alway get marries.” [We've reviewed "always" like 800 times, so this especially broke my heart.]

Those were from my more stellar students, most of whom are sit-at-fronters and girls to boot. As you can see, I’ve got my work cut out for me, when it comes to correcting and editing this stuff. Guess that’s what you get for giving a shit and trying to go all Dangerous Minds on these kids.

But strangely, it was the half-assed papers that got to me the most—the ones from the boys in the back of the room, who spent the whole class dicking off and then furiously scribbled shotty sentences, or even bulleted lists (NOT sentences, minus points!).

There’s an almost haiku-like starkness to them:

“We don’t have enough schools for students.
A lot of families are poor.
We just finish the war in 1979.”

“Because:
– don’t have money for them.
– Family don’t have enough money.
– Tranditional.
– War along time in the country
– Girl can help housework.”

“Because parents don’t have money to study. Some women is the countryside have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. Cambodia have war.”

Or this one, the worst one, in terms of effort, information and sentence structure:

“Because Cambodia just get up from the war.”

Oh, there’s a sentimental old poet still knocking around inside me.

Screw it, I’ll give him the points for it.

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6 Responses to “Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality”


  1. 1 Awkward American Traveler March 7, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this because I didn’t know how. My kids would say things so matter-of-factly on topics like this and they didn’t even realize how much it would break my heart. I hope things are going well for you, though! I’d love to hear more about your students.

  2. 2 Stateside Educator March 8, 2012 at 9:04 am

    This is great. I’d read more about this. Keep it up.

  3. 3 kirstin March 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I like the emphasis on love letters, it seems so conservative and innocent and romantic (oh gosh I hope Cambodia never discovers “sexting”). There’s definitely more creativity than I ever managed to get from my photography students. Why do you like or dislike this photo? “I don’t know,it has good shutter speed.”

  4. 4 Swathi March 10, 2012 at 12:38 am

    yeah,..right!,.. working in chickens and writing love letters,…:P

  5. 5 Jacob I. Evans March 15, 2012 at 11:56 am

    I like this. It seems like there’s a story in this story.

  6. 6 Naomi March 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Oh man, I empathize with so much of this post, especially trying to get away from the boring textbook stuff. The biggest challenge for a teacher, I think, is getting the students to care about what they’re learning – and if they can’t relate to the material, there’s no way they’ll care.

    But, I have to say that your students are more impressive than mine when it comes to writing….even the dick-offs in the back are more eloquent than some students I see ;)


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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