Cambodia is a country full of surprises. I like to think that I know its people, culture, and quirks pretty well but every week continues to present new experiences. Last week’s education was … a little unusual. So there I was at school, finishing up my morning class when the headteacher called me into his office. What have I done? I don’t think I’ve done anything bad … Did I forget to do something? Was there a meeting I missed (again)?
It turned out my head had a rather unique request. I could I be a stand-in English teacher for his friend’s school that afternoon … for a television appearance. Why? Well the school has English teachers from Nigeria and the Philippines but they were just not quite white enough for TV! I’m deadly serious about their reasoning. What would I have to do? Nothing except pretend to teach in front of a camera – the director would tell me everything once I arrived and I’d get paid $30. My head could cover my lessons until I got back, around 3pm, and I’d get picked up and dropped off. Awesome, I’m in!
The afternoon went downhill the moment the other school’s van arrived at 12:30. No air conditioning. Baking hot, midday sun. The other headteacher was very nice and we made small talk most of the way to his school … located at the polar opposite end of the city to Sovann Komar. I arrived at an elementary campus with a sweat drenched back, pondering how I’d get back in time to teach any of my afternoon class. Ushered into the foyer, I was seated next to a middle aged British expat teacher who had even less of an idea what was going on than I did – he thought he was there as a supply teacher. Soon after we arrived, some older kids traipsed by, having been bussed in from another campus. After 45 minutes of sitting downstairs, with no one telling us anything, I asked where the bathroom was and got escorted upstairs. When I came out, I was directed to a classroom at the end of the hall. In the room sat the ten, sullen looking teenagers who had passed us earlier. I said hi but they looked at me blankly. Huh. I asked them what year they were. Nothing. What grade do you study? Grade Six. Ok.
I was somewhat rescued when their Khmer English teacher sidled into the room – at least someone understood me. I introduced myself and he did the same. “Ok, please” he said, gesturing to the white board. I’m sorry, what? I’m here for some TV thing. There are no cameras in here … The teacher had no idea what I was talking about. Luckily, I like thinking on my feet. TV, promoting the school, attracting students. I decided a lesson on future jobs would be appropriate. As I began talking I realised I had no real idea what level these kids were – they still hadn’t spoken. Eventually, by pointing at individual children, I got the usual “When I grow up I want to be a doctor” spiel. Well it’s a start. After exhausting “why do you want to be a …?”, “what do you want to study at university?”, and “what jobs do your parents do?”, the bell mercifully rang. It was 3pm. One student asked me where the canteen was. How the hell should I know? I’m not even a teacher here!!!
It turned out the producer for the TV thing was late. Really late. At 4:15pm, after I had taught my new Grade Six class an entire world geography lesson, complete with a hand drawn map on the board in the absence of any resources, the headteacher reappeared. “OK sorry we’re ready for you downstairs now”. Downstairs? Huh. Back down the stairs I went where I was ushered into a Kindergarten class complete with lighting equipment, television cameras and five or six technicians. And twenty children. Kindergarteners. Aged six, not Grade Six. What the hell had I been doing upstairs for the past two and a half hours? I never had this question satisfactorily answered.
The recording took barely fifteen minutes. I was required to walk from one side of the board to the other and then chant the alphabet. In between takes, I was attempting to control the manic kids, hyped up by the excitement of cameras, lots of people, and a random new white teacher. It was hilarious, ridiculous, and infuriating. Oh and despite the title of this blog, in Cambodian filming the command is “one, two, three, four, five, action!” When finished the producer came up to me and said “Thank you, you are an excellent actor and an excellent teacher”. What part of chanting the ABCs is a) acting, and b) teaching? It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life!
Turns out I am now the face (well the white face) of this school’s new television advertising campaign. I’m not even kidding. So if, for some bizarre reason, you’re watching Khmer TV and an advert for this nameless school comes on and my little face pops up, I don’t work there. I’d never heard of the school before last Tuesday, I do not endorse their programmes, and I have no official link in any way to their education. Except the $30 I spent on cocktails on Saturday night.
Cambodia, you never cease to amaze!