“Wait, the semester starts January third?” I exclaimed. That was only three days away! We had been planning to take classes at a different language school until our teammate Joshua Lewis convinced us to take classes through a local university. It is cheaper and closer to our house, and they teach reading and writing immediately, whereas the other school doesn’t teach it until much later. It’s a more challenging program, but we wanted to become literate as quickly as possible.
The next morning, we drove to the Institute of Foreign Languages at the Royal University of Phnom Penh to try to enroll in classes despite our lateness. We found the campus deserted with only a few students loitering here and there, and the buildings were closed. “I wonder why no one is here,” I said to Eric as we walked around. Then it dawned on me: “It’s New Year’s Day! They’re probably off today.” Though school is closed for the calendar New Year, Cambodians don’t typically celebrate it much since they observe Chinese and Khmer New Year days later in the year. We decided to try registering again the next day.
On January 2, we rode our motorbike onto campus and found it swarming with students. Okay, so this is what it usually looks like! This time we found the enrollment building open and made our way up three stories to a corkboard where sign-up sheets and schedules were posted. All of the slots for level-1 Khmer classes were full. We were wondering what to do when a teacher walked up. We asked for her advice, and she instructed us to return on the first day of class with our money (students pay teachers directly) and try to get into the class anyway. Without any assurance that we’d make it into this semester’s class, we went home.
January 3 was our anniversary and the beginning of the semester. We arrived at class an hour early and found seats next to other foreigners from various countries. We uneasily waited as more and more people showed up, and the teacher, Mr. Phara, verified names on his sign-up sheet. Though we weren’t on his list, he allowed us to stay since four students opted to attend the afternoon class instead. What a relief! We had made it.
Now, each morning we drive our little moto past the vegetable market, the fish shop, the betelnut vendor, the pharmacy, the car wash, the stinky seafood market, the furniture shops with beautifully carved wood, the breakfast carts selling noodle soup or sandwiches and through the campus gates. We then drive to the covered motorbike parking area. We pay 300 Riel (about 7.5 cents), they staple a numbered ticket around the mirror and give us the other half, and we squeeze our bike into the rows of hundreds of others.
Along with about 25 classmates of varying ages and ethnicities, we have been learning the Khmer alphabet (the longest in the world at 74 characters), the basics of reading and writing, and a handful of vocabulary each day. To call it overwhelming would be an understatement. I am familiar with many Khmer words, so the vocabulary has not been entirely new for me. The reading and writing, however, are very confusing and challenging. But it’s exciting to begin to read signs on the street and decode the beautiful scribbles into basic sounds. We can’t wait until this language flows fluently from our lips and our pens. We plan to complete level two before moving to our village.
We envision ourselves living here for many years—as long as God wants us to—and becoming literate readers and fluent speakers. This language-learning process is tedious but a worthwhile investment in the future. We appreciate your prayers for quick learning and excellent retention so that we can soon articulately share the love of Jesus with the Great River People.