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Saturday, May 20, 2006


Generation gap

The course my students are studying calls for a discussion on the generation gap. The concept was something new to these Cambodian teenagers. Almost all of them said that their parents were good to them and they loved and respected their parents. They even said that 90% of Cambodian parents allowed their teenage children to do anything they wanted. That was not seen by them as licence to do anything. Most of them would behave at all times in a manner that most Western parents would be pleased with.

So, where do we Westerners go wrong that our teenagers give us such a hard time?


A couple of weeks ago I was waiting in line to buy a ticket at the bus station in Phnom Penh. A Westerner, about 30, approached me and spoke in a quiet voice. He told me that he was stuck here with absolutely no money. He said, 'Dude, If you give me just $1, that will be $1 more than I have now.' He was friendly enough except he annoyed me by continually calling me 'Dude'.

What do you do? On the one hand I feel I'm being touched. On the other hand, if he is genuine I would want to help him. What if I was the one in need, or perhaps my son? A part of me wants to know his story. How did he get to be here with absolutely nothing? But another voice says, 'Give him the dollar and get rid of him.'

What irks me is that $1 is a lot of money to a Khmer beggar. If I gave a Khmer 1,000 reil, they would be more than happy. But that's 30 Australian cents. If a Westerner is genuinely in need, it wouldn't go far. I begrudge giving money to any beggars. I'm not against helping people but begging is a practice that I do not believe should be encouraged. So I am particularly annoyed to give this man $1 here in this country where there are so many native people in genuine need. But I give it to him anyway. He is overjoyed and most appreciative.

I am reminded of the experience I have had in Brisbane. A couple of teenage girls approach me late at night. They say they don't have their bus fare to get home. Could I 'loan' them enough for the fare? I don't ask how they could be so stupid to find themselves in the city without even their fare home. I simply think, 'What if it was my daughter?' Of course I give them the money. But when the same thing happens a month or so later, I realize I'm being had. I say no.

Last Saturday, after I finished on the internet, I had arranged to meet up with a friend from Kompong Chhnang who is studying and working in Phnom Penh. Because of language difficulties I am walking in what I am about to discover is the wrong direction up Sisowat Avenue. I hear a voice behind me, 'Excuse me.' I turn and am being approached by a reasonably well dressed man of about 40. 'Are you Australian,' he asks. He makes polite conversation. I know I am about to be touched again. Westerners don't make polite conversation with strange Westerners unless they want something from them. (Cambodians are different. A friendly Cambodian is normal.)

Sure enough, 'I was robbed last night. I've just been out to the Australian Embassy to arrange to have some money sent over. Until it comes through I have nothing. I need some money to pay the moto driver.' He has hired a moto even though he has no money in his pocket! I would not have the audacity to do that. I would walk back into town. I give him $2. He sees that I have another $1 note. He asks if he can have that too.

What do you do? Once again. I don't want to leave a genuine case stuck. But is he behaving like a genuine case? What would I do under similar circumstances?

Well, first I have travel insurance. I have been travelling for over three years and until this year I have not had travel insurance. But knowing I was going to be spending time in Cambodia, this year I took out insurance. Lonely Planet's 'Cambodia' makes it quite clear, 'Travel insurance...is more essential for Cambodia than for most other parts of Southeast Asia.' Assuming these people are genuine, I wonder if they considered travel insurance before leaving home.

Secondly, I am an unusual traveller in that I travel alone. But I am never alone. I always make friends wherever I visit. There are always local people who will look after me if I am stuck. Regular readers of my blog know that I have been robbed on two occasions and thought I was robbed on another. In each case I had friends I could turn to, to get me through. That is, people who, if they loaned me money, I could repay. I did not have to ask a stranger for a non-repayable 'loan'.

No, I think in both cases, this is the behaviour of a bludger and it saddens me. It saddens me that people come from prosperous societies like Australia or north America. They come to one of the poorest countries in Asia where if anyone is in need of assistance it is the local people. But these people come here and have the hide to beg.

Am I being hard? Well, let me end the story. On Saturday after visiting my friend I returned to the bus station and bought my ticket to go back to Kompong Chhnang. I was sitting waiting for the bus to arrive and there was the American beggar from two weeks before. He started to approach me until he recognized me and slunk off, trying to avoid my gaze.

Now I understand why countries like Thailand insist that travellers have onward/return tickets and/or the means of supporting themselves while in the country. I'll be my sympathetic when asked for such in future.


Most of the teachers of English in Kompong Chhnang are Khmer. One or two have learnt from a native speaker but many are self-taught. Such people will often ask me about a word and I haven't a clue what they are saying. 'Spell it.' I ask. And when they do, the word is nothing like what they are saying. I tell them the correct pronunciation. 'I got that from the phonetic guide in the dictionary.' they say.

'Which dictionary?' I ask. Invariably it is a cheap one published in Cambodia and written by a Cambodian.

Many books for teaching English are published by Cambodians. They are full of incorrect English. One of my students showed me one. The author's name was prefixed with the title 'Prof'. I don't know what he is a professor of. I trust it isn't English.

I would observe that the situation in Thailand is no better.

My class of monks was recently discussing curses in English. We were having a lot of fun, calling each other all sorts of disgusting names that are probably inappropriate for monks to utter. One of the students asked, 'What about the word "vulgar"?'

'Most of the words we are discussing would be labelled "vulgar" in the dictionary.' I explained.

'But isn't "Vulgar you" a curse?' my student asked.

'Never,' I answered. He told me that in a Cambodian published English textbook it said that 'Vulgar you' was a curse.

Well, vulgar you to authors of all such books.

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