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Favorite Failures

As the Peace Corps K9 team slouches towards the end of our service in Cambodia, we are each obliged to complete a Description of Service—the DOS. This document has a particular form (third person) and length (page and a half). I like forms in poetry—sonnets, pantoums, villanelles—and enjoyed compressing two years of my Peace Corps experience into a succinct summary. Since PC asks for accomplishments, not failures, we all look pretty good on paper. We got stuff done. High five!

At the same time I’ve been transcribing my hand written journals chronologically. In this more detailed review I see a lot of failures, some that I think are worth sharing. Not so much for the rueful laugh as for the ah-ha! moment that presents an opportunity to reset one’s compass.

One of my favorite failures was the Book Club. Although we have a tidy library at our school, historically there is a lack of reading for pleasure in The Kingdom. A few students would come to the library between classes to sit at a big wooden table and thumb through picture books; some would even read aloud. But reading isn’t something you see Cambodians doing often, except on their phones. I envisioned an intimate salon, where students would talk about a book and discuss ideas, perhaps gain philosophical insight into their own human condition and find others so inclined. Or something like that. A generous friend in Boulder agreed to send six hardbound copies of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I chose that book because the story was simple and the illustrations charming.

The books were shipped from Amazon and arrived in Cambodia within a week. Then, they were “lost” for nearly four months at the post office. Finally, a persistent PC staff found them in a clerk’s office. Oh, you mean this box of books? By the time the books arrived at my school the semester was nearly over. Nonetheless, nine eager students showed up and even though there were just six books, they didn’t mind sharing. At our first meeting we took turns reading the story very slowly. I wanted them to take the books home, to re-read what we read in class, and to come back with questions and ideas.

Questions: The pilot tells the prince he lived alone. What does that mean? All by himself? Who cooked for him? Who did his laundry? He had no brothers? Wasn’t he lonely? The idea of a person living alone was confusing. In Khmer culture you are never by yourself. No one lives alone unless they are crazy or bad and have no family. An illustration in The Little Prince of a boa constrictor who swallows an elephant, which grown ups mistake for a hat, was a joke they just didn’t get. Still, they appeared undaunted. They all showed up for the next Book Club meeting; then we had a three-week break for Khmer New Year. Again, I encouraged them to take the books home to continue reading over the holiday.

With the new semester our schedules changed. All those eager students were now too busy to come to the Book Club. Some had left school. Most of the books never made it back. Only one student returned The Little Prince to the library, where it was filed under English Instruction. The Book Club flame died out as quickly as it kindled. Perhaps some of the kids who took it home continued to read the story. Maybe it’s the only book in their home or maybe they sold it. Or, perhaps they never thought about it again.

This favorite failure showed me something about assumptions. I had assumed a book written by a Frenchman and translated into English would make sense to a Cambodian. I thought since individual expression was not encouraged in the classroom, students would welcome an opportunity to share their own ideas. Nearly all my assumptions are culturally biased. I had entered the room with my own point of view, assuming everyone knew what I meant. Yet, the very idea of reading and talking about a book from your own perspective is a Western privilege. In the English For Cambodians textbooks high school students hunt for answers within the text, they don’t filter it through their own experience or ideas. To assert yourself in such a way would be impolite. It implies that you know more than everyone else in the room or that your particular ideas have merit—that you are clever. Who are you to make such a claim?

If I were to rewind this favorite failure, I’d choose a Khmer book translated into English. Perhaps a folktale, something everyone knows. I’d try to see it from my student’s point of view, rather than pressing my own familiars into their culture. The failure of the Book Club wasn’t a total loss, however. My Khmer students got a glance of Western-European values—and likewise I was allowed a glimpse into theirs.

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