It is a difficult thing to communicate with another human without the use of language. Language is such a central part of how humans communicate that when it is taken away, we are often left feeling inadequate. I find myself trying to speak Spanish with some people, then remembering that that “go to” language won’t work either. 🙂
Being here again is a privilege, and being here again has opened my eyes to new things. Instead of seeing a cute child selling me beaded bracelets, I find myself wanting so desperately to communicate in them in some way. There is only so much you can convey with 5 Khmer words and 5 English words that we both understand. It is difficult to be a traveler instead of a tourist when you can only say 5-10 basic phrases together. We can exchange smiles, peppermints, and high fives, but we can’t get past the surface level.
I met a man in the market named Nang. We were able to talk for quite a while about his life and about why I am here in Siem Riep. It felt refreshing that I could communicate with a person beyond saying hello or thank you. However, it was also bittersweet. I have a hard time feeling refreshed because I hate that it is almost an expectation that English is the dominant language in many other countries. Here, if you can speak English, you sell more products, get more tourists, and in turn your standard of living goes up. What a privilege it is to speak and understand English.
Some examples. I observed many children selling baskets of beaded bracelets, “5 for 1 dolla.” I sat back and observed, and it seems that the cutest, most outgoing kids make the most money. I observed a very shy boy who looked like he was in agony trying to spit out some words that resemble English phrases to sell more beads than his competing friends. I then observed him getting beat up by his cuter, more outgoing friends. It seems that privilege and expectations start here at a young age too.
While my group was pulling weeds today, a woman came out of her house and started chatting in Khmer. We tried to communicate with her with non verbals, but didn’t end up getting very far. We had to resort to finding someone who spoke 2 languages to translate for us. Turns out, she wanted us to rent her house from her 🙂
Needless to say, I am thankful to know and understand English, and I desire to learn Khmer. It makes a difference when a Cambodian does a double take because you know a few Khmer phrases instead of expecting them to know your few English phrases. Language is such an essential part of our lives yet it is so often taken for granted.