Archive for May, 2011

Running in Siem Reap

As I laced up my gym shoes for the first time in Cambodia, I couldn’t help it – all I could think about was a run one year ago through Athens, Greece.  It was our first run in Europe, first of many as it turns out, but it is the one that stands out as similar to running in Cambodia because of how dang hot it was that morning. I remember setting out towards the Acropolis thinking how cliche and wonderful it was going to be to see the Acropolis at the break of dawn, however by the time we reached the hill’s summit I was too hot, tired, and sweaty to care.  However, despite the sweltering heat, running through many European cities and now Siem Reap has shown me that it can be a great way to know the city better, feel more a part of the city, and see some really interesting parts of daily life.  Here are some of the funny and interesting things I have seen while running in Cambodia.  Oh and speaking of funny and interesting I am sure that is exactly how each Khmer person I pass thinks of the crazy barang girl who sweats her brains out each morning for some unfathomable reason.

Running in Siem Reap is a bit like running an obstacle course, where the obstacles continuously change.  On one of my first morning jogs I was finally comfortable  enough with the bends, curves, and intersections of the river path to zone out during longer stretches of sidewalk.  Suddenly, I was ankle deep in sand.  I came out of my heat induced daze to find myself standing at the start of a huge pile of sand that had literally been dumped on one of the main sidewalks in town.  Two small children were driving plastic trucks over it, around it, and through it.  They were having a wonderful time as sand flew into the street and spread along the sidewalk, not an adult in sight nor any clue as to the purpose or use for the sand.  It was the best urban sandbox I have ever come upon.  The next day every speck of sand was gone.

My favorite route doesn’t have sidewalks, instead I run on the road with the trucks, cars, bikes, and motos and those walking to school, work, or to visit a neighbor.  However, I do feel perfectly safe, as Cambodians build their shops and homes right up to the side of the road.  People are always standing, sitting, or selling on the roadside and make more than enough room as I jog past.  I started to run this route daily though because I became interested in a school bus that a group of Khmer men were dismantling on the side of the road.  Day 1: I watched them pull up in the bus and take off the doors and take out the steering wheel as they all piled out.  Day 2: the bus lost its windows, engine, and other internal parts. Day 3: They began to take crowbars and sledge hammers to the top and sides of the bus.  Day 4: The bus was nothing but a metal base on wheels.  Day 5: All that remained was a heap of scrap metal on the side of the road.  The group of men were standing around it looking proud while one worker was sawing the metal pieces into smaller portions.  All of this happened as traffic flew past inches away, and the whole ordeal did not catch a single second glance from a single person but me.

Every morning there is an old woman who practices her English.  Inside of her one room clapboard homes she sits in the doorway while the television blares simple phrases loud enough for neighbors five houses down to hear.  Each morning I get to hear a sentence or two of her English lesson, and I often wander if she is simply repeating the phrases or actually knows the meaning of the words; I am still wandering.  However, one morning as I passed by I heard, “They are going to have a baby soon,” in a man’s British accent play from the television and float out onto the street.  The old woman repeated the phrase with the same gusto as the video instructor, and as I was going by she turned to see me jogging by.  She yelled out, “They are going to have a baby soon.”  Her Khmer accent skipped the s, fumbled the v, and forgot the th altogether, but the smile on her face was contagious and while I didn’t have the breath or time to repeat it back to her I managed a quick laugh and a wave.  She practically fell off her chair as she feverishly returned the wave and gave, “they are going to have a baby soon,” one more emphatic shout.

During my dad’s visit to Siem Reap I made him run one morning with me.  I shouldn’t say made – I asked and he agreed.  He described my route out of town like this, “I felt like I was running with, around, and from cars, bikes, motorbikes, trucks, people, and dogs.”  He said it with laughter in his voice, but it was no joke – that is exactly what running in Cambodia is like.

Ben and I went on a run in mid-May earlier than usual – earlier because while we are both up by 6:30AM every morning, neither one of us usually gets it together to go running until 7:30AM.  Regardless, it was earlier, and all of the monks were on their way to a wat (pagoda) for the day.  We passed many of them in their orange robes, shaved heads, and bare feet, each one we passed without much notice until as we ran through the Raffles garden and a young monk gave us the thumbs-up.  It not only gave me the energy to run faster and farther the rest of the way but made me smile for the rest of the day.

When I run along the riverside in the evening men sit, crouched low on the sidewalk playing cards, checkers, and dice.  The sidewalk is not large concrete squares as it is in the United States but red concrete cut into small squares and then laid down in the shape of flowers, larger squares, and other shapes.  In many places these small squares are marked with black and white chalk to show the different places on a checker board.  The men then sit over these makeshift boards and play their games until the sunsets.  The ingenuity and simplicity in these nightly games always makes me smile.  What makes me smile more, is how as I pass, they all stop just for a second and say, “hello lady.”

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My Father, Mr. Ted, Comes to Cambodia

When my dad opened his guest room door two Tuesdays ago to my smiling and dirt covered face I wish I had started his visit with this: Welcome to Cambodia! Where Coke-Cola is a special treat, motos are more popular than televisions, food is cheap, dogs run free, and the people are wonderful.  Or something of that sort, instead all I did was stand in the doorway smiling from ear to ear, with my hair sticking out in all directions from my moto helmet.  It is ok though, I think he learned all of these things and more during the time he spent with me in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh-  all of these things and much more.

What I did say that first night, as we walked to dinner, was how I realized with his arrival that I could never go back to seeing Cambodia as it looked during my first days here.  My view has changed too much.  The roads, homes, and stores have become where I bike, visit, and shop.  I have a pharmacy lady, a fruit lady, and a t-shirt girl in the Night Market.  I had forgotten that the trash could look dirty, the buildings could look modest, and the people were different than myself.  It has become familiar, and I can not go back to seeing it through the lens of  a first impression again.  However, the experience of watching my father watch all that surrounded him that first evening made me realize how comfortable I had become here.

Our days in Siem Reap were filled with classes and temples.  I had driven by the temples every time I taught at the Junior High School, but I had never stopped.  Each time Ratanak tells a security guard where we are going and why, and then the security guard tells me, “Do not look at the temples,” although I will say they are impossible to miss!  Walking through them was an entirely different experience.  Each was incredibly different.  Bayon is filled with Buddha faces that all look down on you as you wander from entry to entry throughout the temple.  Preah Khan will always make me smile as I think of the young Khmer man who led us through the different areas, giving an explanation of each carving and statue he memorized from a book on the history of the Angkor temples.  We were both amused to see his lunch stashed near a statue of a Khmer Queen, and how quickly he set it aside to earn $2.00.  Ta Prohm is haunting as the trees overtake the stone and in many places nature has caused a once strong and sturdy structure to crumble.  Angkor Wat is incredible in its size and splendor.  The view from the highest level of Angkor Wat across the stone entry way was one of the most spectacular I have ever seen and one I will not soon forget.  It was very special to look out from the most famous place in Cambodia with my dad next to me.  It made me wonder if I will ever share that view with anyone else, or even if I will ever have the chance to see it again.

Outside of Bayon Temple

A young girl collecting plastic bottles at the Elephant Terrace near Bayon Temple.

Dad with the "tour guide" in Preah Khan.

Ta Prohm

The view from Ankgor Wat.

I took my dad to see the most touristic part of Cambodia in Angkor National Park, and then I took him to meet the twenty-six students I teach in the evenings in Siem Reap.  As usual they were nothing short of entertaining, but shy to meet a tall, white man they didn’t know.  We played Hangman that night and a game called the Hot Seat where students had to describe words to one another all in English, like the board game Taboo.  Sna, our student with a lot of personality, was acting out each answer even when it wasn’t her turn, and Ratanak spent most of the class yelling out random things in English either related or unrelated to the correct word.  I think my dad saw that I spend most of the class laughing with the students as they make mistakes, joke, and succeed.  That night we ate dinner at Viva with all twenty-six of them!

My dad and the students eating at Viva

After a 7:00 AM morning, visiting Angkor Wat until mid-afternoon, and a quick lunch at Sala Bai Hospitality School,  I then had the audacity to drag my dad one hour down a very bumpy and uneven dirt road to visit my class at Angkor Thom Junior High.  Ratanak tried to avoid the potholes (or maybe ditch is a more appropriate word to describe a hole of this size in the road) but inveitably my dad and I spent the ride bouncing around, holding on for dear life, and slightly concerned that at any minute the tuk-tuk would completely turn over and dump us onto the red dirt.  I was glad when we reached the school, without an accident or busted tire, although Ratanak did not seem rattled by the drive.  My students at Angkor Thom were very excited to have my dad visit and before and after class a group of the boys bombarded him with questions about his trip, about our upcoming trip to Vietnam, and what it is like in Canada.  I was very proud of them for their willingness to practice their English around a stranger, and was even more proud that my dad seemed to finally be picking up the accent and understanding their English (the missing s’s, th’s and ch’s can get you every time here).

My class in Angkor Thom

That evening was our last night in Siem Reap, and it was off to Vietnam for three nights to visit Ha Long Bay and Hanoi, but I will save those adventures for another post because… as an exercise in my Night Class, Molly and I had the students write thank you letters to my dad, Ben, and a woman in Siem Reap who gave us free tickets to a show here.  I want to share some of the ones to my dad because they are so great, in more ways than one:

Dear Mr. Ted,

I would like to say thank you very much for taking us to have dinner at Viva, and we are very happy and ate full of dinner.  We hope one day we will enjoy dinner with you again.  We wish you have life full of health, happiness, and properity.  We love you very much and miss you.  We trust you coming back soon.

Your sincerely,

Much love,

Veasna

Hospitality Student

My dad having his feet cleaned by the fish at the Dr. Fish in Night Market. And Tyler, I couldn't do it haha.

Dearest Mr. Ted,

Thank you so much for dinner and coming with us.  You are so kind and handsome man.  I hope we will meet each other once day.  We all are love you daughter Katie like our family.  She is a very good teacher.  She always teach us new things.

I like computer class and English class.  I hope you will come and visit us again in the future.

From: Ratanak

Outside of Angkor Wat on our 2nd day visiting the different Temples

Dear Ted,

I would like to say thank you so much for your dinner at Viva.  It was so delicious.  I was very happy to go with you, and all the students here.  You are so kind.  I always remember everything that you did with me, and the day that we played game wiht us.  Especially on the day that you went to Sala Bai school.  I was very surprised when you were there and I hope one day I can see you again.  You are very helpful to us.  We love you so much.  At the end I wish you have a wonderful time with your family, good health, and especially successful with everything.

All the best of love,

Sokea

Elephant rides outside of Bayon

Dear Mr. Ted,

Hello! How are you and your job?  I’m very happy when I had dinner at Viva with you.  It’s very delicious and I can know a lot about that kind of restaurant.  And I want to say thank you for Viva dinner.  You are a very good person.

My favorite thing is food was very delicious and waiter and waitress were very friendly.  So I hope, I will get to meet you when you com here again and I wish you have a good luck for your health and have successful for your job.

All the best Sambath

At Viva dinner with Sara and Sokea.

Dear Ted Bross,

Hello! I am Vichny.  I would like to say thank you so much.  It is the best time.  Thank you so much for your dinner.  I am very interested with them.  It is a yummy dinner.  Thanks for your generosity.  I am so happy that you thoughtful to us also.  I would like to wishes you to have good health for ever, good luck every time.

Best Wishes,

Vichney

Telling the students about his plane flight to Cambodia

And at the end, I have to share that one of Ben’s thank you letters informed him he was handsome man, but also that when he rides his moto he looks like a baby.  I confiscated the handwritten letter and I am going to frame just that sentence.

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Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, 50 Cent and the Students Who Love Them

My days and weeks in Siem Reap have begun to take some routine.  And most of the routine is focused around class times.  The rest of the days are filled with computer work at Common Grounds Cafe, meetings with other NGO’s and organizations, errands, making copies, and as the days blend together I start to realize that routine is a loosely used definition in Cambodia as I mostly have no routine at all here.  Like most things in Cambodia, once I begin to apply a definition or word from home to my experience here I find that it doesn’t fit or even begin to describe what I am doing, feeling, or seeing.  Cambodia is always a bit unexpected.  Like the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap – Srey Yim brought us each a baguette to eat for breakfast.  A nice recognizable food, with a name I know and recognize, and then I took a bite and found a BBQ dried meat inside – that is Cambodia.  And I have found that like the rest of my experience so far, my students are always a surprise as well.  To start their love for American music I expected, but the artists they are crazy about I did not.  Michael Jackson – maybe, but Justin Bieber, 50 Cent, and Jack Johnson are all getting some airtime in Cambodia.  And even more surprising than their taste in American music has been some of the funny conversations and situations that have come up talking about it.

The Angkor Thom Junior High School Students at the Angkor National Museum

I teach five days a week.  Three nights I teach a class at the EGBOK student house with Molly on computers and English, and two days a week I teach a hospitality curriculum at the Junior High School.  I could not have imagined two more different teaching environments.  The “Night Class” in Siem Reap with the PAGE girls and the students currently in hospitality school is informal, loud, and often filled with laughter (and often that laughter is my own).  At Angkor Thom Junior High, my “Normal Class,”  the students sit quietly at their desks until I begin class, then they sit quietly until I call on one of them to answer a question or give a definition, and as I end class and dismiss them most of the students wait for me to leave the classroom before doing so as well.  It is like a calm on Tuesday afternoons after the storm of Sunday and Monday “Night Class,”  but I have to admit I enjoy the storm as much as the calm.

As Molly and I introduced the idea of a Night Class in English and Computer Skills to a group of 23 students, they were all eager to get started, and so we started with a list.  A list of what the students wanted to learn while in the class, on the list were things such as better conversation skills, learn Excel, better at typing, learn how to use Powerpoint, and become better at listening to English.  There was also Michael Jackson, a lone celebrity on a list of things we could teach them.  So far there has not been a class on Michael Jackson, but I did show the pilot episode of Glee last week, and while cheerleaders and slushies were a bit outside of their knowledge of American pop culture they actually understood peer pressure, bullying, and stereotypes pretty well.  Maybe we will find a way to fit in Michael Jackson, there must be a lesson in there somewhere.

One more Michael Jackson bit before I forget, one of my students at the Juinor High School, Vichhay loves Michael Jackson.  Correction he loves Michael Jackson’s song We Are the World.  Today in class, he brought up this song for perhaps the 20th time to date, and this time it was to ask a very serious question, “could we all sing We Are the World as a class?”  What else could I say to that request but give him a “you are not serious” look before smiling and telling him I will bring in the lyrics.  Mom- he got the blank stare for a quick second, you know the one I wore for most of my time from ages 0 – 4.

50 Cent is a popular American rapper.  He has been shot nine times and survived, and now he probably owns nine homes none of which he actually sleeps in.  Well, let me introduce 50 Sent.  Ratanak is one of the kids in our Night Class, he does great is school and his English is very strong, but let me just say that his interest in hip-hop was no surprise.  During a typing activity I looked at his computer screen and found his answer to the question, “Who is your favorite singer?”   Response “50 Sent.”  I asked him what 50 Sent meant and he gave me a look that said, “If you don’t know then I am not going to bother telling you.”  50 Sent where, 50 of what was sent?  I asked him a bunch of questions, and finally explained to him that it was 50 Cent… as in money.  He did know every single word to his song Get Low so I give him partial credit for his answer.

Justin Bieber, I have met his number one fan.  Name: Vichhay Grade: 9 Location: Angkor Thom District, Cambodia Occupation: Talking about Justin Bieber oh and student.  When I say Vichhay loves Justin Bieber I mean it.  He not only brought up the Canadian pop star in our very first conversation, but he also breaches the subject after every single class.  And God help me if Canada happens to come up during a class because Justin Bieber will get at least five minutes of class time as he asks about his newest song, tour, or his background.  I have heard, “Oh Justin Bieber is from Canada. Do you know Justin Bieber?” More times in three weeks than I ever thought possible.  Vichhay is so dedicated he asked me to do him a huge favor.  No it was not to fly Justin Bieber into Siem Reap.  The favor was to bring him the lyrics to Jusin Bieber songs.  I brought him printouts for two songs, and as I handed them over – deeply proud inside that I even remembered to print them – he looked at me and said could you get a few more?  I asked him what other songs he would want, and he smiled, “All of them.  All Justin Bieber.  I want to sing all his song.”  I promised him two more songs.  I have seen the song list for that little pop star and it is longer than my bank account can afford to print, besides I have enjoyed Vichhay’s renditions of Never Say Never and Love Me enough to know that expanding his repertoire could be dangerous.

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A Moto Ride to Angkor Thom

On the way home from my first class at Angkor Thom. If you click on a picture it will open in a new window at full size.

With messy hair and my face and arms covered in a hearty layer of rust colored dust, I stood to face my new students on the first day of class.  Barefoot and nervous I was still reeling from my one hour commute to Angkor Thom Junior High School.  On the trip to Siem Reap I had glimpsed the farms, the small wooden homes,and was able to see the world of rural Cambodia.  But speeding into the countryside on the back of a motorbike with the dust in my face and the sun beating down onto my arms and legs made me realize how far away those first views from a bus window were from the actual feeling and energy that exists among the rice fields, small wooden homes, and back roads.  From the moment we left the traffic and tourists behind, and swung onto an uneven dirt road I knew I was seeing and experiencing this part of Cambodia for the first time.  I tried to capture the length, beauty, scenery, and people of my one hour commute from the back of the motorbike.  I will admit, there was a lot that my camera missed but I will remember; however I do think the pictures tell a part of the story I cannot put into words.  While this ride makes my legs stiff and sore, I already cannot imagine my Cambodian experience without doing this trip twice a week.

I might never grow used to the start of this trip.  With the town of Siem Reap at our backs we pass through the Angkor Wat check-point for free after Ratanak has a few words in Khmer with the security guards who are lounging in the shade waiting to stop tourists who try not to pay the entrance fee.  Angkor Wat has over 2 million visitors a year, and at $20.00 per person per day it is making quite a bit of money.  For the Khmer entrance is free, and often Cambodians will picnic along the moat surrounding Angkor Wat or even go in for a swim.  To reach Angkor Thom District, we must take the road that passes the ancient temples, and as we start forward past the checkpoint one of the guards yells, “Do not look at the temples!”  Instructions that I immediately find impossible to obey.

The outside of Angkor Wat

Riding past Angkor Wat Temple

Angkor Wat Temple is surrounded by a moat, and I have to say on the way home it looks perfect for a swim.

Without a second glance Ratanak is past the most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat.  As we pass through the first archways into Angkor Thom though, he slows down and takes the bends around the temple Bayon at a slower pace.

The archways mark the Angkor Thom section of Angkor Archaeological Park.

Like an army of guards, many statues line the bridge before the arches.  The Devas or gods are on the left, while the Asuras or demons are on the left, and they depict a Hindu creation myth called the Churning of the Milk of the Sea.  While carefully carved in stone, each Deva or Asura has been warn by the elements and has aged in different ways.  Some are darker, greener, less perfect in their shape, and some a missing hands or feet.  They are old men who have seen many people come and go, while they remain like the temples to show those of us less resilient how to stand the test of time.

They reminded me of grumpy old men, then I learned they are grumpy old demons.

Going through the tall and narrow archway, I feel as if I am performing a rite of passage.  The eyes of a giant Buddha follow our approach, and appear to remain trained on our moto, until the second Ratanak beeps in warning and cautiously enters the one lane pathway under the Buddha’s watchful gaze.  However, his face appears benevolent and he appears to welcome us to venture to the other side.

Ben and Molly about to pass under the arch.

Some say that the image atop the arches or Gopura are not of the Buddha or a god but of the Khmer King, Jayavarman VII.

Before leaving the tourists, their tuk-tuks, the elephant rides, monkeys who supposedly do tricks according to Ben, and the temples behind we pass Bayon.  There are 216 Buddha faces carved into the beautiful stone structure, and as one of my bright, young students told me the twenty-five spires on Bayon stand for the twenty-five provinces of Cambodia.

The line of tuk-tuks waiting for tourists to take back to Siem Reap

Monkey crossing

Like the archways of Gopura that come before Bayon, the temple itself was first constructed by King Jayavarman VII, and in addition to the Buddhist influence that covers this intricate and richly decorated temple, the Hindu kings who came later added their own Hindu influence to the carvings and deities depicted on the temple.

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

It is only a short distance more and the world of tourism and 2 million visitors a year, seems far away.  And it was all with a single turn down a dirt road.  This I thought to myself, is Cambodia.  It is a thought that is a half truth.  Going to Cambodia and only seeing Angkor Wat and Siem Reap would be like only going to the United States and seeing Disney World and Orlando.  Yes, it is America, and it even represents certain aspects of our culture and country but it would be impossible to only visit Orlando and say you understand the United States as a whole.  Siem Reap is the Orlando of Cambodia.  So many visitors go there, and only there however I have discovered from the back of a motorbike that it does not begin to paint the story of the people and current culture here.

The Cambodian countryside is painted more in brown and green than any other colors.  The browns of tree trunks, homes, dirt roads, and harvested but not yet replanted rice fields.  The greens of leaves, grazing pastures for cattle, and rice fields that have just been planted.  A slice of white and a splash of blue appear where the sky peeks through the trees along the road and above cleared fields.

It is natural and refreshing, but the nature beauty has not captured me as much as the people we pass along the road.  The children in their starch school uniforms who wave enthusiastically, the young girl with her younger sibling resting on her hip who carefully watches us go by, and the woman who never pauses in her cooking as trucks, motos, and bicycles pass on the road inches away.  I am only able to tell you in words about the children playing inside and on top of a dicrepid and rusting dump truck, the men playing their games of volleyball in the early evening, and the family of five balancing precariously on a single bicycle as I was unable to capture those images.  But each day a different child or scene strikes me and I hurriedly press snap my camera hoping something appears through the lens.  Here is what I have seen:

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PAGE Take Molly and Kitty Dancing

On our first visit to the PAGE house the well-spoken Vichny asked Molly and I if we would like to attend a dance class the following Saturday.  I was interested.  Molly and I had seen the large groups of women doing aerobic classes at a pavilion near the river, and after a few minutes of questioning Vichny on the meaning of “dance classes” we both concluded that was what she meant.  Sitting on the wooden floor I could picture the eleven students and ourselves doing grapevines, basic rights, and cha-chas like pros after a few minutes among the middle aged women.  All of the girls seemed excited for us to go.  What I did not anticipate is awkwardly and un-rhythmically shaking my booty to Korean pop music with a group of well-rehearsed and enthusiastic teenagers.  However, at 6:30PM Saturday night THAT is exactly what I was doing.

Saturday night arrived and Molly and I threw on t-shirts and headed out the door.  I had just run 30-minutes in the sweltering heat, so I was looking extra special for the event, and while in the future I want someone to document this event with pictures I am tremendously glad it wasn’t this past weekend.  It turns out, the PAGE girls really were looking nice.  In jeans and flip-flops they were dressed more for a dinner out than going to an aerobics class.  This was the first point of skepticism I had about what “dance class” would actually entail.  However, after clarifying that yes, our attire was perfectly appropriate, we set out on our bikes towards Wat Bo Primary School where the class was taught every night of the week.  The courtyard of the school was busy with the happy shrieks of young children chasing one another in circles, a few adults in  sitting in chairs along a garden, groups of teenagers hanging out near the edges of the concrete, and thankfully an athletically clad instructor who looked like she meant business.

Molly and I as the only non-Khmer people at the dance class were immediately a source of interest for the PAGE girls’ friends.  They cautiously approached us to ask about Facebook, the Internet, and our names “Molly, like the Cambodian flower mollis,”  and “Katie as in a very small cat, Kitty.”  After almost three weeks of not a single introduction going smoothly, it is difficult for them to replicate the T sound in my name, I took what I could get and decided that there are much worse things to be called than Kitty.  So, for the rest of the evening and probably my entire Cambodian dancing career at Wat Bo, which it may be quite short lived, I am Kitty.  A few more questions about their names and ages and a bit more of a tour from Vichny, and the music was starting to roll across the courtyard.

Most of the boys and many of the younger girls took up positions on the walls and near the bikes, a giant red cooler filled with bottled water was rolled out onto the concrete, and a group of people were falling into lines follow the teacher shout 1,2,3… and different aerobics steps in Khmer.  This was my second moment of misgiving about this whole idea as Molly and I made our way to the back of those dancing, and I clumsily tried to follow the sequence of steps.  Emily Stowe and Alison Dinkelacker have witnessed my attempt at Zumba, it was not pretty.  This was less coordinated and involved way more tripping over my own two feet as I tried to replicate the hop like movements of our instructor, without having a clue as to the instructions she announced into her speaker.  After a half hour of what I am sure was pure hilarity to watch me fumble through the aerobics portion, I was sweating terribly but ready for more.  Despite my overall performance, it was great to try something I am inherently bad at with a group of people who could not have cared less about my lack of rhythm, they just continued along with their own steps and every now and then smiled at my mistakes.

The second half of the class was far less of a success, if that is imaginable.   After a stretching break, the instructor pumped up the music and the entire concrete dance floor filled, as the boys and younger girls joined the group of aerobics enthusiasts.  The first few songs had corresponding Khmer dances.  They were similar to American Western line dancing.  We all stood in lines and performed the same steps without a partner.  At the end of each dance, the participant was expected to end where he or she began… so very similar concept.  Each dance was very different from the one before, and while by the end of each song I had the foot movements down, the hands I was never able to master.  In Western dance moves we are inclined to be fluid throughout the steps, here the hands moved much more suddenly and turned at very specific angles, up and down and side to side on cue with different foot steps.  Yes, it was as confusing as it sounds.   Molly had been talking about the Cambodian dances since my arrival, telling stories of how the kids dance and perform at parties big and small.  Everyone has them memorized, and as I turned too late, or tripped slightly on a pivot the people around me would say “no,no” and then show me the correct step the next time it came around.  These dances are like the Electric Slide of every wedding, only with a longer cultural history.

To end the evening the instructor played Korean pop music.  Three weeks ago I was not familiar with SHINee, Super Junior, of Girls Generation – but now I could pick out each groups’ poster at the Old Market, and while I have not completely adjusted to their combination of bad 00’s rap and bubble gum pop I may someday purchase a Super Junior poster – just do not ask me to name the 20 or more members of the group.  Either way, Korean music was the cherry on top for the younger crowd, and almost all of them were out on the dance floor going through the routines.  By routines I mean, there was no way that I was capable of learning when to spin, turn, shake my butt, or wave my hands above my head.  These were no lines dances, these were all out pop star routines that the instructor and the Khmer students were obsessed with.  Obsessed might be an understatement for how Cambodians feel about Korean music, they are infatuated beyond belief.  While I have not been able to determine what exactly is “uncool” here for the younger generation – I can say with certainty that there are a few things that are cool 1. owning the right style and brand of motorbike 2. Korean pop music 3. Korean clothing styles 4. Koreans 5. Anything that was Korean, is Korean, or may have at some point in time been in Korea.  So, while I was completely lost and eventually took a seat by the water cooler with Molly, these kids were right in their element as the boys and girls hardly missed a beat.

In spite of my failures to be a dancing queen, the whole evening with the PAGE girls had been a blast.  They were patient and funny as along with their friends they tried to tell us the correct movements.  It was an activity where the students became the teachers, and this teacher started to think how difficult it must be for students not apt to pick up languages to try and engage us daily in English – how frustrating it must be to try again and again to pronounce the S in a word, but not have it sound correct, or listen attentively but still not formulate the words for a response.  Like my ability to eventually correct my missteps, good teachers can make a difference, and so can frequent practice.  I am going to stick with the dance classes while I am here, and I think I will be much better nine weeks.  After all if these girls are willing to attempt new words and tricky grammar, shouldn’t I be willing to give the Heartbeat by 2PM routine another go?

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