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French Bread and Linguistics

by Sarah 

Posted: 09 July 2003
Word Count: 3406
Summary: a contemplation of languages

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

The trees are tipped on fire with the colour of sunset, and I’m riding home on my blue, Cambodian-made bicycle (front basket and a bell, no gears, kamikaze breaks), and I pass Vuth’s shop. His mother owns it and he works there in the evenings, after his shift at the hospital. His shop is typically Cambodian—lacks cohesion, and impossible to pigeonhole. Among other things, he keeps in stock q-tips, sweet and savoury biscuits, Coke—warm and cold—batteries, toothpaste, ice, pastries wrapped tightly in cellophane, glue, plastic clothes hangers, beer, incense, and tall, yellow tins of insecticide, the same kind they use at the Angkor Hospital for Children where Vuth is a cleaner and I am an English teacher. These pressurized cans of poison are what the nurses use for vector control—our hospital’s euphemism for insect holocaust. “Hello, teacher!” Vuth calls to me, waving a greasy rag as I bump past on the diabolical dirt road. “Bonjour!” I call back. No, wait. I meant to say swors’dai, which means hello in Khmai, the language of Cambodia, but at the moment I’m thinking en Français. “Mok bi ana, teacher?” he says, where have you come from? “Meh rien pia-sah Barang robolt knyom,” I yell back to him in Khmai over my shoulder, my French lesson.

I’m teacher until 5p.m. every day at the children’s hospital here in Siem Reap, where I teach English to the staff; then I’m éleve from 5p.m. to 6p.m. at the Cultural Centre de Français. The remnants of French colonialism still hang here like the dust that is forever stirred up by traffic. It’s in the architecture, the NGO’s, the signs. Cambodge, the French word for Cambodia, is still painted blue on many white signs, or white, on many blue signs. Ministry buildings and police stations, political party headquarters and government offices all have bilingual signs in Khmai and French. Some Français has even been swallowed by the Khmer language itself, though no doubt the things these Français-Khmai words signify weren’t commonly known to the Khmer before French imperialism. Nam-pain means bread (and incidentally, no matter what city, town, village or roadside kiosk you buy bread in, it’s identical in shape, colour and the saltless smack of a bad baguette impression), caffay means coffee, and moto means motor scooter. The Khmer have adopted French words for names, too. A doctor at the hospital is called Bonami, another is Pises. One of the patients, a beautiful, blue-lipped baby girl who went to Malaysia for heart surgery (and returned in the pink), is named Dimanche.

(When teaching English in Korea, a year before this, I was asked by a 10-year-old student the English name for a kickboard, the toy of the season that consisted of metal handlebars on a wooden skateboard, and plastic wheels that lit up like carnival-ride bulbs when they rotated. “The English name is kickboard,” I said. “No, kickboard is Korean name,” he argued. So I had to define kickboard for him, with a physical kick on the rug, like an belligerent bull, and a brush of the hand along the skateboard, to mean board. He still looked sceptical, but then again he had lost faith in either me, or the English language weeks before, when I could offer no logical rule to govern the f sound for ph. Or the silent k in knife, knight, or knock.)

I don’t know how to Romanize Khmai. I place a ‘ where there should be a catch in the throat when speaking. S’aad means clean, and it means beautiful, and it offers fantastic verbal satisfaction, like esoteric. Say them: Esoteric. S’aad.

At the Cultural Centre de Français, my maîtresse’s name is Madame Dip Saury. She’s the proverbial battle-axe of classroom horrors. She growls after a mispronounced er, spits on an s when no s should be heard. Dip Saury is more solid than most Khmer women. She holds court at the front of the room like an anvil. Her thick black hair is cut short and she wears wool pant suits, glasses with a silver neck chain, lipstick. She spent most of the 70s and 80s in France, and is cosmopolitan. Her nails are manicured and her fist turns into a stone gavel if someone uses passé composé when they should have used l’imparfait.
Dip Saury picks on the youngest student, who can’t be older than 16. Brutalises her when she doesn’t know an answer, orders her to clear the blackboard with a grunt. (The 16-year-old, whom I call Mousy, is miniature, and her voice escapes her mouth like air out of a balloon. And it’s sing-songy and sort of lingers. I didn’t like Mousy at first; she used to stick her hand up high enough to tickle the ceiling – until Dip Saury’s lambasting beat all confidence out of her. And she passed me couple of times when I was cycling home, perched on her cherry-red Honda Dream moto – the Cadillac of motos.) Dip Saury speaks only Français in class, but barks her disgust in hairballs of Khmai—her disgust with our pitiful, lower-intermediate French. I’m the only one in the room who can’t understand these diatribes. I’m the only Barang, the rest of them are Khmer. Barang literally means French, but the term is used loosely to describe any white foreigner.

Dip Saury thinks she can yell Français into us, linedrive it into us; she demands that we know it. Elle nous demand savoir Français. Is that correct grammaire?
My study is half-assed—only looking for the gist. Looking for the ability to converse with the Canadiennes when I meet them.

On the back of a pick-up truck, my first day in Cambodia, months ago, and there was an older Canadienne couple. We were traveling together from the Thai border at Poi Pet, eight hours to Siem Reap. The truck was butterfly-stroke swimming in and out of dusty pot holes, and the femme Canadienne asked me, “Parlez vous Français?” And as I was about to deliver the standard, “un petit peu,” with my forefinger and thumb held up to show an inch, she smiled sardonically and said the words for me, “ah, oui, un petit peu, non?” “Oui,” I said. And for the rest of the rib-cracking ride, I struggled to deliver my petit peu. “Regardez la lune!” I screamed at them, when the hot red exclamation of Cambodian moon pulled itself up from the horizon. Poked l’homme on the shoulder when his head lolled onto his chest, “Es-tu fatigué?” “Oui,” he said, startled, and again let his head bounce violently at the mercy of the road.
I just want the gist.

When Dip Saury teaches grammaire, I translate into English. Passé Composé is like Simple Past, in a way. L’imparfait is like Past Perfect—or maybe it’s the other way around. I breathe grammar these days. Last night I dreamt about gerunds: the ing form of a verb, which can be used as an object. “Many writers get into teaching to fund their careers.” Or: “Teachers who use yelling as a pedagogical tactic have a typically low success rate.” Some mornings, when the alarm goes—bombastic funeral music from my local Pagoda, Bo Lanka, which begins at around 5a.m.—my brain is already busily annoyed, thinking of clever ways to teach the different uses for past continuous and simple past: I was walking to the market when I saw my cousin drive past the post office. And past, as in drive past is a preposition implying motion.

(“Puck you, teacha,” is what a grade one student in Korea said to me last year. Crawled into my lap, scratched my ear with one pudgy hand and stuck her finger up on the other. Wasn’t even the correct finger. “Puck you, teacha.”
“No, Eugin,” I said, “it’s fuck you, and don’t ever say it again.” She tilted her head innocently to the side like dogs sometimes do, blinked at me through thick glasses, and slowly put her hand into her lap. Looked ashamed. One of the older kids probably told her this was an endearment equal to I love you. The arbitrariness of language, caught in the misdelivered meaning, and the mild embarrassment of one innocent eight-year-old. A friend once said, “all words are defined by other words, so no word really has any meaning in itself.” But then, anything is only anything. Try to define it without saying any, or thing. How about, non-specific piece of whatever you like. Or, indeterminate sort of as much as suits the fancy. Blarb. Please try to come up with something better than this—anything will do.

Dip Saury is explaining the meaning of continuer. She once spent 20 round-a-bout minutes explaining the meaning of nature. These tangents seem such a waste of time until you consider this: the Khmai word for continuer is tveubo n’tdo, for nature, it’s toe-m’jiat. As an english speaker learning Français, I’ve got a linguistic advantage over all of them; they’ve had to learn a new alphabet, a foreign set of sounds, the almighty importance of verb conjugation.

Ahh, the verb. The blood and bones of language. Life, action, inaction, the motion, the coming from and going to. The time. To fornicate, then postulate about the act after it’s done. The verb makes us move eat love shit murder pray demonstrate make. Can be turned into an object: love, shit, murder. There are 12 verb tenses in English; we know this intrinsically, but not practically. I was not aware of this until confronted in the Outpatients Department in the hospital, by a group of Khmer doctors—ready to teach them how to speak English.
They already knew how to speak English.
They wanted to stroll down those slim and dark corridors of grammar, to study it like they had studied pharmacokinetics or metabolic pathways. They wanted to talk about subordinate conjunctions, demonstrative adjectives, moduls and future perfect continuous. By the end of this piece of writing you will have been reading for approximately 20 minutes. Future perfect continuous.

Patronizing the Starmart last week, lickin’ a Cookies n’ Cream Coronetto, meandering. Meandering this place that’s become my Saturday-afternoon treat in Siem Reap, out of the heat. Stocked with Western amenities: Doritos, butter, cheese, deodorant, tonic water. Red wine. I’m pretending to shop, but really I just want to eat my ice cream in the air con. They’re used to me here; it’s a Saturday ritual, my escape. This heat. It’s the middle of April in Cambodia and there’s no word in the English language that satisfies the description of this strangling temperature—unless you use fuckin’ as a qualifier, and that’s cheating. The heat is off the top of the vocabulaic thermometre. The Khmer say k’dau naa, and the naa is said with a quick shake of the head and an oooeeeiii tacked onto the end.
This weather deserves a metaphor: it’s like the belly of a bitch in heat. No, it’s crying for a simile: this heat is the calm before the Big Bang itself. It’s a porn star lying open and naked on a sweaty straw mat, in front of an open fire (chestnuts exploding). It’s the YAWP of victory as the sperm with the fastest flagulation and best navigational skills penetrates the egg. It’s fuckin’ brutal.
Two Japanese girls sit on stools by the wine rack; they’re dressed funky, bright colours and big shoes, shiny bags. Red hair. Wine is my excuse to hover, savour the Coronetto and listen to the sound of Japanese. Water over rocks, silk threads pulled together to make cloth, tongues flip over the words like rhythmic gymnasts would, and roll them around like marbles—marbles made of marble—and deliver them out of the mouth like a parade. Japanese: throws tidy little candies, wrapped in pink and purple crinkly cellophane , out to the crowd that lines the street. These women, chilling in the Starmart on a Saturday, are probably talking trivial—dinner plans or what pagoda to visit—but to me it sounds like determined, brave poetry. The Japanese language is a composition in fluidity.

Idioms: Burning the midnight oil. I try to explain to Reach Say, the logistician at the hospital—who, by the way, has already mastered the idiosyncratic uses of go fly a kite, and, I’ve got my back to the wall, and between a rock and a hard place.
“Well, people used to have only oil lamps for light, right? And if you were still up at midnight, you were still burning oil, and if you were still up at midnight, you probably had a lot to do, so now when someone stays up late to work, we say that person is burning the midnight oil.” “Oh,” he says. “Does it work if you say, ‘burning the electrical light?’”
“Well, no. It’s an idiom. It is what it is.”
“But in Cambodia we still use oil lamps.”
“Ya, in Canada we do too, at restaurants, for romance.”
Reach Say giggles. “Yes, but we keep ours on all night, to discourage thees.”
“Yes, thees.”
“Well anyway then, this idiom doesn’t have meaning for you.”
“Yes it does, or yes it doesn’t?”
“Yes, it doesn’t.”
In Cambodia, and in Korea, people who learn English answer a negative with an affirmative if their answers are negative.
Don’t you want any? Aren’t you hungry?
So you are hungry then?
No, I’m not hungry.
Think about it for a second; they’ve got it right.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into one of my fellow éleves Cambodge at a temple ruin called Beng Melea. She’s damn near fluent in Français and I was intimidated, afraid to make the talk with her in my three-year-old-baby Français, but she addressed me in English. She’s Khmer, but speaks English with a French accent. “How was your journey here,” she asked, referring to the 60 or so kilometres of dirt road, both groomed and ungroomed, that we travelled to see this jungle-woven temple.
“Fine,” I said. “And yours?”
“Easier than yours, I think.” She nodded, and glanced at my mud encrusted moto, my mud encrusted boots, and patted the hot, black hood of the four-wheel-drive she came in with some tourists from France. The conversation ended there, with me giving a wave and moving away, terrified that she would start speaking Français.
She sits next to me in class and uses a bilingual dictionary, often. After I saw her at the temple I peeked at her dictionary to see if it was Français/Khmai or Français/Anglais.
It was Français/Chinois.
She’s probably Indo-Chinese, the race of Chinese who have been in Cambodia for hundreds of years. And she’s my language guru. La-di-da.

Today I’m doing an oral presentation in Dip Saury’s class; the prospect is mortifying, has been annoying me all week. Dip Saury has been especially vicious with the other students, cutting them off mid-sentence if a word is mispronounced or wrong, making them start over from the beginning—encore en fois—after she has muddled and confused them into oblivion, tension rising from all of us. Or, she’ll listen with her head in her tight hands, raise her face to display pain and disbelief, and pinch the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger like she’s tamponading her own volatile sanity (tamponade means to block the flow of liquid; this is the vocabulary one is exposed to when working in a hospital. Incidentally, pass wind means to fart, or to burp. Pass water means, of course, to pee). When my fellow students have finished their solo presentations with a terrified and hopelessly uttered, “c’est tout madame,” she has been making them remain at the front of the class while the rest of us assess their mistakes, their use of les gestures (hand and body) and whether or not we could understand their Français. So far, I have raised my hand up high and straight (a reaction, actually, to the pummelling Dip Saury delivered us for not raising our hands properly. She gave some sort of lame imitation of an epileptic attack—her interpretation of our inedequate hand-raising efforts), to show that I understood well and clear, even if the presentation was unintelligable. I have grown an affection for my fellow éleves, especially Mousy, who endures heaps of linguistic abuse—we’re all in this together. Dip Saury has reduced me to 14 years old again and it’s difficult to concentrate now, waiting for my turn at the stocks. All week—riding my bicycle through Siem Reap’s busy streets, or showering, or cooking—I’ve been practising my monologue, a petit résumé of a dialogue between four old friends who rendevoused dans l’unité 15 of our textbook, which is titled, Café Creme.
I bring my pen to the front of the room so that my hands are occupied, even though part of our grade is based on les gestures. Les gestures are a lot of effort and I need something to do with these hands. As I speak, it’s obvious from their cardboard faces that the éleves haven’t a clue what’s being said. Dip Saury listens with a vague smile, pushing air out of tight lips. My presentation is over in minutes and when asked, none of the éleves raise their stinking hands to show they understood anything. They all look apologetic, but they can’t even pretend they understood, can’t give back any of the support I’ve been giving to them!
“Ton accent,” says Dip Saury, “il est Anglais. Ils vous ne comprendent pas parce-que ton accent. Mais moi, je comprende, pas de probleme!”
They don’t understand my accent? I protest, “mais, mon accent est Canadienne! Français-Canadienne! Som-toh, I mean, sorry, I mean, pardon et moi.”

I’m on the back of the moto of my friend Dr Seitaboth; we’re driving home under a brewing sky and talking about the word fart. Seithaboth pronounces it faht.
“No,” I tell him, “say it like art. Say rrrr.”
“No, art. Say rrr.”
“What means aht?”
Oh god, does he want my interpretation, or a literal translation? To interpret it I would say: “Any creative expression. Anything that exudes a message.” Is exude the right word here? I give Seitaboth examples.
“Art: a drawing, or a painting. A statue.”
“Of course, I know aht. Very easy. Now, can I say, for example, if I’m in a meeting, can I say, ‘please excuse me, I faht?’”
“No. You would say, ‘please excuse me, I farted.’ Past tense.”
“Could I say, ‘please excuse me, I passed wind?’”
“Yes, you could say that.”

I went to a performance the other night, to watch a series of vignette plays. The final piece was called Photographs from S-21, written by a young, French/Khmer playwright, who spoke Khmai with a French accent. S-21 is the history-book name for the biggest, and most actively murderous prison of the Khmer Rouge regime, Tuol Sleng. It’s where many of the people buried in the celebrity Killing Fields spent their last days. Now, people can visit the building, which was a school before its conversion to prison. Four of the bigger, ground-floor rooms are walled with black and white portrait photos of all the prisoners who lived and died there. When “infidels” to the regime were imprisoned here, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge soldiers would sit them each in a chair, each with the same background, with their heads secured in a vice, not visible to the camera, slap a number on their chests and steal an image. Everyone the same: women, children, monks, nuns. Same chair, same body position.
Words are embarrassingly futile here, amongst these photographs. When visiting, I spent two hours in these rooms, staring into the dark, living eyes of hundreds of people; they stared back with looks of fear, defiance, surprise, hatred, confusion, despair, hopelessness, hopefulness, anger, resignation, agony, exhaustion, knowing. Photographs from S-21 was performed by two actors, two people old enough to have vague, almost innocent memories of the Khmer Rouge, memories enough to cast heavy shadows over their performance. The piece was a running dialogue in Khmai (subtitles, way out of sync, in Français and English projected onto a screen to the right of the stage). The actors played ghosts, stuck in their respective photographs. The ghosts were distraught, because they existed only in the eyes of gaping strangers, speaking in foreign tongues.
Their only relief was in each other, in their own language, in communication. The sounds people make to one another, in strings and beats and rules.

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Comments by other Members

Hilary Custance at 22:25 on 12 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah, this is really writing that I enjoy. I love most of all the observations of the weird and amazing ways that humans communicate - and mess up communication. Absolutely ravished by the paragraph starting 'Ahh, the verb...' (which is probably just an indication of my own wayward mind). I love the layers of words and meanings all interleaved like poetry, all carrying meaningful threads. I love the cleverness and humanity of it, all packed tight into one para.

I got immersed in French when sent to a Belgian Convent as a child and then ended up studying languages until A levels. My head if full of jumbled grammatical information and streams of poetry in different languages even though I have not touched languages much since then. (You might get a french speaker to check the written french for you. I spotted two - it should be 'encore une fois' and 'pardonnez moi', but there are definitely more.)

Another thing that interests me in this piece is the slipping in and out of roles - from teacher to pupil, from visitor to resident - and the way that other people's reactions to you in these different roles affect your emotions and your view of yourself.

As you can tell by now, I found this an immensely satisfying piece of writing.Cheers, Hilary

stephanieE at 11:30 on 14 July 2003  Report this post
Sarah - wow, what a dense and satisfying piece. This reminds me of Bill Bryon's 'Made in America' - hugely entertaining but packed full of scholarly observations of language.

A couple of minor things: I too picked up the French mis-spellings that Hilary identified; the para beginning 'Puck you teacha... has an opening bracket but not a closing one; the Cornetto in the Starmart changes to a Coronetto later on.

But I really enjoyed this and hope you can find a suitable market for it.

Sarah at 11:32 on 16 July 2003  Report this post
Thanks so much for reading this. I actually wrote it specifically for a Canadian magazine I've been coveting for years. I've sent them loads of stuff, always rejected, and this one actually came back with an "almost there Sarah, some of us wanted it... keep trying". Argghhhhh! Not sure where to send it now.

I thought about correcting the French, but I think the mistakes sort of add to the humour -- non?

Hilary Custance at 17:27 on 16 July 2003  Report this post
How maddening to get so close and STILL get rejected. I have thought about why that might be and my best guess is structure. It is a fascinating account but not a tightly knit one. The end does not tie up, specifically, with the beginning. Your relationship with Dip Saury occupies more than its 'share' of space. I like the way it wanders in and out of situations, but if I were editing a magazine maybe...?

Another thought, I wonder if French Canadians, without being aware of it, felt antagonised by your feelings about learning French. If people can possibly interpret something personally - they do. I would also say 'non' about the french errors. They do serve to highlight that it is conversation you are after not the academy style french - but they are still mistakes . So once again putting on my dream editor's hat I might say ....non.

None of this may be to the point. The editor may just have a gut prejudice about Cambodia. It may have been between you and the Editor's, cousin's niece. It is maddening nonetheless as this is a stunning, humane, funny, sad piece of writing. So they missed out. Cheers, Hilary

Sarah at 11:37 on 21 July 2003  Report this post
Thanks so much Hilary. And your comments are noted.

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