January came in on the beach on Rabbit Island (so called for its shape not its animal population) on the Gulf of Thailand, a short boat ride from the southern coast at Kep, where Cambodian families go at holiday times to dance in the water, fully clothed.
We’d slept in a tent on the sand, as there were no beach chalets left – as with most things in Cambodia, you can’t easily book in advance – and I woke at first light as I usually do, about 6 am here. Straight into the water (I still had my swimsuit on under my clothes from the night before, and modesty is a thing here) with a pink light on the ripples, and a boat rocking. Two little boys swimming and jumping around the boat. Plastic bottles in the water. The first time for me.
There is no winter here, only a time in December and January of breezy blue mornings and no rain, with a light coating of dust and dead insects on the faces of the tuktuk drivers on Monivong Boulevard. I think sometimes about the four years in the 1970s when Phnom Penh was empty. No people at all. They were driven out, and some were even pushed along the roads in hospital beds, with drip stands rattling at their sides. Money was burned in the streets. The people would have no need of it now. It was April, when the heat is like a punishment. The 17th of April, which is my birthday. I cannot tell Khmer people when my birthday is, though they sometimes ask. The date is one of infamy and the deepest of bad fortune. It is also the date of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, the day I was born in fact, when the French lost their empire in Indochina. I am quite sure that Brother No. 1, Pol Pot, and his henchpeople chose this date for the boy soldiers in black pyjamas to go in and take the capital, as a deliberate reminder of the end of war and colonial bombing. Of course the Khmer Rouge were welcomed at first, which is how they were able to fan out and take over the city. The people were told at the beginning that they were being evacuated to protect them against American bombing. Some of them even believed it, at first, but none of them had a choice. Four years later people began coming back to the city, though a civil war of sorts dragged on until the 1990s. The people just moved into houses. Not necessarily their houses, any houses. They and their children and grandchildren still live in them today.
I have lived the expat life here this year, teaching English to Cambodian teenagers whose parents can afford to pay for lessons. The students have a fair knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, but they cannot pronounce or speak in any way that someone who is not Khmer or resident in Cambodia can understand. This is not a problem for most, as very few have any intention of ever leaving Cambodia. As far as I can tell they mostly want to be web designers and YouTube billionaires. They also cannot get information from what they hear or read, as they are used to being told what to think by their teachers. They do not willingly ask questions, and given the opportunity they copy each other’s work and cheat in exams. But there are many compensations and rewards in this work despite all this. We have talked about Cambodian ghost stories, of which there are many, and some of the students have written wonderful (and very scary) ghost stories in English. We have learned songs, and even written some. And I can teach past modals like a BASTARD.
The expat life here is a good one. I define an expat as someone who goes to live in a country where the cost of living is lower than their income presupposes, and they are not obliged to learn the language. By contrast, a migrant worker is someone who is poorer than their income presupposes, and who is obliged to learn the language to survive. The latter was the situation of my companion in France, which is where we lived for nine and ten years respectively before coming to Cambodia. I have of course been trying to learn the language in Cambodia, with so far limited success. One difficulty is that Khmer people assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and so they patiently try and decode what they hear. If the foreigner is actually speaking in Khmer, they fail, and so does communication.
This has been 2017. I left Cambodia in June, taking a term out to go to the UK and see family, especially Third Granddaughter, who was born in early July. I spent five weeks on the campus of Brunel University, Uxbridge, outer west London (a mile or two from where I was born and spent my first seven years), teaching multinational teenagers at summer school, and topped this off with a week in Bloomsbury for the same organisation. It was surprisingly good fun, and I made some new friends too. One of them is even coming to work in Cambodia next month! I hope to be back next year. The rest of the chilly English summer was spent travelling around the UK seeing various friends and spending time with family, all good. I like the peripatetic life, only wish I could afford to lead it permanently. I made a short visit to France with First Granddaughter. She is now my travelling companion of choice.
A general election in the UK came and went in June. I didn’t vote. I had a proxy arranged, but seeing my (Labour) MP posing with Nigel Farage, and seeing the racist Jew-hatred at the heart of the Labour Party, made me draw the line. Anyway, I have been out of the UK over ten years now, and as an overseas voter you have to vote in the last constituency you were registered in, an area I no longer feel any connection with. Well, the time difference meant I saw the exit poll, ‘Hung Parliament’, at 3.45 am, and was able to follow the results through the morning, overnight UK time. Ultimately the only two I connected with emotionally were ‘Con Hold Reading West’ – cue much glee at the confirmed political ineptitude of the corrupt group of men (still) running Reading Labour Party – and, even better, ‘Lab Gain Reading East’. I hope Matt Rodda has as good a time representing Reading East for Labour as I did, and I say so without irony. I also hope he is better at circumventing the corrupt bullies at the heart of Reading Labour than I was.
Well, it doesn’t much matter what I think or feel about UK politics in 2017. I do hope though that something good can come out of all the crap, even Brexit. But it’s hard to be optimistic. I would say too that Theresa May is doing an almost impossible job not badly. I did know her when in politics – we represented neighbouring constituencies and went to some of the same functions.
I started learning Khmer (pronounced K’my), the language spoken by the overwhelming majority of Cambodia’s 13-million population, in January. I unashamedly plug the school, Gateway to Khmer, who do not know I am writing this. They use the CELTA method (those who know, know) and the teachers, all native speakers of Khmer, are not allowed to speak English to the students, even absolute beginners as I was in January. There is a strong emphasis on phonics and phonetics, a Very Good Thing in my view. It means I can PRONOUNCE yay! Well, trying to speak Khmer when all Khmer people seem to assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and patiently try to decode your Khmer into the English they don’t know, has its moments of misery and frustration. But I am keeping on. It has been striking that ALL my fellow students so far, almost all USians, with the occasional Australian and Brit, have been Christian missionaries. Because all those people have it as a rule that you have to learn the language before you can do the missioning, so that is where the market is. I’ve learned a lot from them. My failings as a language learner so far are however all my responsibility.
September to December, back teaching in Phnom Penh. Also going to the gym and having adventures in sobriety, all part of my preparation for being old, which some would say I am already. Some days in Penang, Malaysia (go there! it's fab!), when term ended in December, followed by a lovely laid-back Australian Christmas with Andrew’s family. Thanks to them all for their kind and generous hospitality, and for the opportunity for Andrew to get to know his niece and nephew. Now we’re back, and I’m still here, still negotiating the Phnom Penh traffic on my bike with what I hope is aplomb.
See you in 2018.