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Language and Empathy in Cambodia

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   4 comments

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Phnom Penh, 2018
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Cambodia makes good, cheap beer, so I was sitting in some lunch place with yet another can of Angkor, after having polished off a plate of fatty pork with rice. Two tables away, a girl sat, doing her homework. She had a machine that sang out, "Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O!" and so on. Suddenly, it switched to, "and girls" just want to have fun!" It's all good, for it was all in English, and this girl needed a constant fix of the world's master language, if she wanted to get ahead, that is, but what if English should wane as the lingua franca during her lifetime? It won't matter much, as long as she can make a few bucks from her English skills.

Her ancestors built the greatest city in the world, Angkor, under a king, Jayavarman II, who declared himself "The Universal Monarch." Now, the Cambodians are sneered at by even the Vietnamese, who never managed to build anything distinctive in wood, much less stone, but that's history for you, for over time, all elephants will become dogs, to riff on a Vietnamese proverb.

Seven centuries from now, which American ruins will attract tourists? Maybe none. There will be a plaque, "Here existed the world's most inveterate generator of illusions," and in smaller type, "Big or small screen, soft or hard core, real or implant, they sure kicked ass! For a century, they mesmerized the world with Marilyn Monroe, Micky Mouse, Sylvester Stalone, Madonna and Black Panther, the last undoubtedly their most iconic contribution to Western civilization."

Phnom Penh is even more ovenlike than Saigon, so during my many long treks, with my shirt soaked in sweat, I would stop at a coffee stand for one or two iced latte or lemon tea. Often, the menu would also be in English, even in neighborhoods that saw almost no foreigners, and though most baristas couldn't speak English, they could readily understand "espresso," "cappuccino" or "hot chocolate," etc.

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Perched on a stool, I was asked by the guy next to me, "Are you from Siem Reap?"

"From Siem Reap?! No, I came from Saigon." I'm sure he meant, Had I visited Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap. Dark, with short hair, wearing chinos and a golf shirt, he was in his late 20's.

"Saigon!" With so few words, one must exclaim. Across the street, four monks in saffron robes walked under yellow umbrellas, with a canopy behind them advertising Coca Cola.

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"Yes, I'm Vietnamese, but I spent many years in the US." To make myself easily understood, I detached each syllable, I noticed, so my speech became staccato. I was exclaiming, too. Unwittingly, I was ruining both my English and his.

Exhausted from the linguistic exertion, he returned to his tablet and ignored me for the several minutes, then, "Do you like soccer?" He pointed to a replay from the last World Cup.

"Yes." I peered at the running figures. "That's Brazil and Germany, no?" Spontaneously, I had suppressed "versus," for I thought he would not know it.

"Yes, Brazil!"

Putting his tablet away, he turned to some thin book and started to mark it.

Noticing the roman script, I asked, "Are you studying English?"

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"No, Spanish!"

"Spanish?!"

"Yes," and he brought his text closer. It was a Spanish guide to Angkor Wat, marked all over by a blue pen, red pen and yellow marker, with notations in both English and Khmer.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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