Friday, 8 February 2013

SUZUKI SAMURAI: “I met a young fellow called Nath”

Our roving Asian correspondent Suzuki Samurai (you know who we mean) gets a lesson in obedience over a beer.
I met a young fella the other day called Nath (pronounced Nat), a twenty-year-old who speaks bang-on English. Nath teaches at another school not far from me. He asked me to come and meet his students, which I agreed to do as most of the time outside working hours I spend on nothing more important than counting my navel fluff. I got to Nath’s school at 5pm, as agreed (which surprised him), and entered what appeared to be a rather decent house. In fact it was a ruin rather than a house. (Houses in Cambodia doubling as shops, offices, schools and government buildings … or is it the other way round?)
Anyway…Packed into these unlined, concrete boxes with concrete and dirt floors and filthy ‘classrooms’ were up to sixty wide-eyed, bushy-tailed teenagers marvelling at the foreigner in their midst.  (I really am quite spectacular in these parts, one reason I hang around). I answered the usual ‘where you are come from’? ‘why you go to Cambodia’ broken English stuff, asked a few questions of my own and departed. All very nice.
I met Nath again on Sunday evening – his only day off - for a quiet few at the local tent (bar). He told me there are 700 students attending this school of his (this is a house remember) and that he gets paid $50 per month for six days a week of sixty students.
“Tough job,” I said pouring ice-cold beer down my neck.
Shrugging, he answered, “It’s ok, it doesn't cover my costs each month but I like it.”
With a change of subject I asked, “So what’s it like being a teenager in Cambodia”?
“Well, it’s hard to have an opinion.  You are not supposed to question you parents, especially your father … that’s why nothing changes.” Then he started to talk full time, so I let him, only interrupting to order more beer.
“If your father thinks you should work on the farm growing rice, you have to do as he says. If I want to do something different with my life, I had to talk to my mother about it, and she would kind of tell him in little pieces. He thinks me learning and teaching English is a waste of time, and a waste of his money. I want to tell him that I want to have a different life, but I can’t because that would be rude, and other people will look down on me for doing it. So I just shut up. Most kids live a life like this, and the old people are getting angry because they think that the way they did things was better.”
He went on, “I was a monk; from age fifteen to eighteen. I didn't really want to but my parent s said that if I become a monk then they will be blessed; which is what a son should do to return the favour to them of being born and raised by them.”
“How was that, I asked?”
“Kind of strange when I look back, all we used to do is sit around memorizing the old Buddha language, and going to pray for people; in return they would give us food, or money. Monks can’t eat after noon, only in the morning. Females are not allowed to touch monks, you can only touch your mother in special circumstances like when she is sick, but you have to ask the leader first.”
I grinned and asked, “You were a youth, but you couldn't touch a female? - “Did you think about girls/women?” I asked in a tone so as not to be too crude, even for me.
“No,” he said emphatically, “I never thought about that kind of thing; I don't know why, but for those three years I just didn't .”
“There must have been a lot of meditation,” I said, seeing if he’d pick it up. “Yes, we meditated all the time.” (Obviously not.)
He finished by tell me, “I want to have my own school one day, but first I have to find a way of getting money; I thought of buying a tuk-tuk and driving it to Phnom Penh.”
I suggested that he’d make a great tuk-tuk driver as his English would do him well with the tourists.
His face lit up like a Christmas tree.
As parents do in China, Cambodian parents put enormous obligation on their children, trying to keep them very close and somewhat ignorant. They do this openly and deliberately, telling them that everything they do is for their children, and they do it so that the children can keep them in their old age. The ignorance aspect they might do by not letting them have independence until they get married, and even then it spills over.
Even when it comes to things like getting a driving license, or insurance, or opening a bank account, it is usually the father who organises everything and structures it to keep everyone in need of them. This situation is fading away, but it is only fading away very slowly.
Not everyone can be a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh.

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