How I became a Khmer language 'specialist'

How I became a Khmer language 'specialist'

According to DC-based National Language Service Corps (NLSC), a US Congress initiated and funded organization, I am a Khmer language specialist. I have been a charter member since January 2010 after going through three months of examinations and background checks. Despite this distinctive title, which I laugh at sometimes, there was a stage in my life when it was unimaginable to believe where my Khmer would be as it is today. Let’s go back in time one decade ago.

I was 22 then, a junior at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. It began with informal non-credit courses offered by two graduate students from Cambodia, Visal Chan and Sokunthea Ok, who were husband and wife. They volunteered to teach Khmer on campus to members of the Khmer Student Association, which I was vice president at the time. I was horrible to say the least. I remember my classmate, Leakhena Leng, would always tease me of how pathetic my pronunciation was. Even lok kru Visal jokingly said, “you sound like a Vietnamese speaking Khmer.” (I never knew what that really meant until I lived in Cambodia).

But then again, I wasn’t taking theses classes all too serious when I think in retrospect. But I had to that summer.

I enrolled at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute, or SEASSI, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Each summer they offer intensive language courses on their beautiful campus. My program at UW required 2 years of an Asian language of choice, and I selected Khmer.

There under the direction of instructors Frank Smith, Sokhary Khun, and Sambath Chan, my first serious attempt in developing my Khmer began. There were about 16 students total, half were first or 1.5 generation Khmericans like me. By default of being Khmer American, the program put us under the “heritage learner” category. In 5-6 hours of classroom instructions for 8 straight weeks, my Khmer started to take form.

I returned to UW that Fall for my senior year and realized that in order to maintain the level of progress made from SEASSI, I had to bring Khmer into my life there in Seattle. By luck of fate, a couple months into the new quarter, an organization I help co-found was established. One of the first projects Rajana Society organized was called the Khmer Conversational Group (KCG), an informal 60-minute program held bi-weekly at a bubble tea shop. The program was a smashing success and I was co-facilitating it for over 9 months until I graduated in summer 2003.

Real adulthood began after graduation with finding a job and Khmer took a back seat. For the next year and a half, my Khmer was at a stalemate. I eventually found work with a couple city jobs which gave me zero opportunity to engage in Khmer. My summer job of 2005 was hooked up with a Khmer college friend, and I was supervising 5 at risk high school students, 2 of which were Khmer, but their Khmer was zilch.

But Cambodia was in the horizon.

When I secured that summer job for 3 months, I made it clear that I would be going to Cambodia for the very first time upon its completion. I anticipated that my experience in the country would give me the opportunity to fully immerse in the language and culture, ultimately magnifying my comprehensive in the Khmer language.

It did.

I arrived in Cambodia on August 8th, 2005, for the first time ever in 25 years. After a three month honeymoon phase of adjustment and traveling within the country, real adult responsibility took priority again and I began to seek employment. But a 25-year-old bachelor degree holding Khmerican with just a year work experience and broken Khmer wasn’t an ideal candidate for human rights work.

But one lazy Saturday evening out drinking with Barom Chea, a fellow Khmerican, luck again came knocking.

Trust me there is a Khmer language connection to this story.

I met Charles McDermid, managing editor of the oldest English language newspaper, Phnom Penh Post. I was actually given the referral to meet with the editor of the Post’s competitor, The Cambodia Daily, but that never materialize. McDermid accessed me that evening under the drunken stupor of Phnom Penh nights and offered me a writing post on the spot under the condition that I cease all communication with the Daily. Naturally, I agreed.

Surely enough, McDermid called me the next morning and ask to meet up over brunch. I guess he was serious. I met the boss, Michael Hayes, in the coming days and was given my first writing assignment: beauty pageants.

Cambodia officially banned its national beauty pageant, but permitted other beauty-based competitions like the super popular, Freshie Boy & Girl. My story was on Soben Huon, Miss Utah 2005 in the Miss USA Pageant. I had no trouble interviewing her over email and the phone since English is her first language, but my follow up story on Freshie proved that my Khmer was still rough on the edges.

I had a colleague, Chheng Meng, assist me on this writing assignment. I was to interview Sophea Duch, a popular model, actress, and former Freshie Girl competitor. I remember Sophea asking Chheng, who functioned as my interpreter say, “Why are you translating his questions? Isn’t he Khmer?”

I understood this of course, but at that stage in my Khmer, I knew I wasn’t able to conduct the interview in its entirety without Chheng.

This incident made me realize that I had to push myself harder in building my Khmer. Many of my non-Khmer colleagues at the Post were out doing their stories without the assistance of translators, and I’m this 25-year-old Khmerican, who should naturally be fluent, was still struggling to hold a 15-minute conversation with a celebrity.

I felt ashamed and was tough on myself, but it proved to be the right motivation.

I don’t recall using another translator after that second story, even though I knew I would struggle without one. But I knew I had to learn the hard way and take these mistakes as lessons.

I ended up living in Cambodia for 3 years. And in those 3 years, I dared to make mistakes and be comfortable in engaging with all walks of life – from dignitaries, monks, students, and professors – in the Khmer language. And in that last summer of 2008 before returning to US in Fall, I did my last formal Khmer course by enrolling in the Advanced Study of Khmer (ASK), a program administered by the University of Hawaii, Manoa, a school I attended for a graduate certificate program upon ASK’s completion.

My Khmer is nowhere where I want to be today, but I know I have the genuine desire to continue to push for its advancement. Despite having this superfluous title of “Khmer language specialist,” coupled with experience in doing contract work with multinationals, teaching, and getting paid $100/hour as a personal language assistant to traveling guest speakers, I am not satisfied. But then again, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied. Learning is a lifetime process.

© 2024 Phatry Derek Pan