My English class had on average 30 people attending. That’s about as many as could be fit within the space of our classroom. Strangely enough, there was only one girl in the class, the rest were boys (of which about 10 were monks). Because class was open for anyone who wished to improve their English (this was an advanced speaker’s class), there were odd days when we had two girls in the class, but for the most part there was only one. The disproportionate gender distribution was instantly noticeable and got me curious.
Since it was not only my class that suffered from severe lack of women in comparison to men, I asked why there were hardly any girls attention the classes in Wat Preah Prom Rath Pagoda. What I was told was not a bit surprising. My students simply said that if I went to the Khmer University in Siem Reap, I would see the same ratio of women vs men. They said only about 4 girls attended the university, the rest were all boys.
I was curious why that was so I kept asking. Did Cambodian women have aversion to education or was there something else in play? The responses from my students suggested that based on Cambodian cultural and societal beliefs, the place for a woman is at home, looking after children and making her man happy. She is not to care about anything else and should always stay by the side of her man, even if he cheats on her or beats her up, which is a common treatment Cambodian women receive from their husbands.
The world has moved forward and both sexes are deemed equal in most of the world, but some countries still perceive women as the lesser of the two. Cambodia appears to be one of them. High rates of rape also suggest that many Cambodian men perceive and treat women as mere sexual objects. Sadly enough, it is socially and culturally unacceptable for a Cambodian woman to admit pre-marital sex, even if she was brutally forced into it. Because of that, most cases of rape don’t get reported and remain a burden a woman-victim is left alone to bear.
Yes, it was one of my intentions to dedicate my time to volunteering and yes, since I didn’t have much experience volunteering before, teaching English seemed like the easiest way to start. As I was talking to that young man, he mentioned that he studied English here at the Wat Preah Prom Rath temple. He said he was from a small village but moved to Siem Reap in order to get some education and perhaps a decent job. I highly approved of this thinking.
He said he didn’t have the money to pay for his own accommodation even though being local he could find a room for $30 a month, so he stayed at the pagoda sharing living space with monks. Classes at the Wat Preah Prom Rath are free and anyone can attend so he takes full advantage of it. Having come from Canada, he asked me if I would like to come to his class which started at 5pm – in about 30 minutes. You wouldn’t have to ask me twice. I could not say “YES” fast enough.
Before I knew it, I was in a class. Room was full of people who were giving away surprised looks, but the overall feel was that I was welcome. I tried to introduce myself but probably sounded a bit awkward. There were both monks and non monks among students. Before I could get down to anything, a teacher walked in.
The classroom had no doors and no windows, just holes in the wall. The building in which the lectures were held was old, walls on it were mouldy and paint was peeling off. It offered striking contrast to shiny gloss of the temples across the walkway from there.
The teacher was a monk who spoke great English. I’m guessing he spent some time in England as he bore accent affected by the British. I introduced myself to him, after which he introduced me to the class and told me he had a bit of a sore throat and asked me if I could lead the class on my own. I have picked up his TOEFL book, got to a page where they were and without any ado I got straight down to teaching.
It was amazing. The class was at first a bit reluctant but I poked a funny here and there which eased the mood and so the lecture went like on grease. I enjoyed it so much I could not believe when an hour went by and everyone started leaving to attend to their other duties. My first English class as a volunteer was awesome. Everything about it was awesome. I have enjoyed it thoroughly and could not wait for the following day to do the same thing over again. As I was suggested, they held the same class every day during the week between 5 and 6, except on weekend. This was Tuesday – my first day in Cambodia and I have already taught English. What an amazing start to my new life.