“Now they will retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate each other on being masters of the universe.” – Rose, Titanic
It’s appropriate that Cambodians have a Titanic fetish, because they are so good at congratulating each other on being Masters of the Universe. I’m convinced that this is the one lesson that has stuck from the U.N. (and most other foreign agencies and NGOs here to learn them natives).
Peace Corps was no exception. Actually, that was where the Titanic parallel was first pointed out to me by another Volunteer. Eileen and I had just decided that our taxi to Phnom Penh was going to “break down”, stranding us just long enough that we’d end up missing the final training “debriefing” before Swear-In. I was a little worried that we might actually miss something important, but Eileen reassured me that “it’s just going to be more of Peace Corps taking a moment to reflect on their awesomeness and congratulate each other on being Masters of the Universe!” I should have known then that we were going to become good friends. Anyway, each week during training we had Saturday “seminars”, which was really code for PC admin patting us (and themselves) on the back for being such good Americans, helping those less fortunate than us (and they try to tell me that PC influence is outside of the realm of culture? >_<), et cetera et cetera.
But alas, it isn’t just foreigner “developers” who come in with their brandy and cigars and back-patting; Cambodians have hardcore adopted the habit, too.
Like today for example.
We had a “faculty meeting” at my school and so I went in an hour early. Actually, I was ten minutes late to the meeting, but this is Cambodia so naturally I was ten minutes early. 😛 When the admin walked in, all the teachers applauded; they seated themselves on the stage at a long table, which was strangely reminescent of “The Last Supper”. We were lectured on remembering to erase our classroom boards, not letting out students out early, and all that mundane stuff, and then “What you have all been waiting for!”: Outstanding Teacher Awards!
At first they were rather comical: old expat guys and young male Khmer teachers getting called up for their awards. Then it was a little embarrassing, because they had a first, second and third place for each category of teacher (foreign/Khmer, part-time/full-time), and the first place winner would get to make a speech. It was as if the Khmer teachers had memorized an “on the occasion of receiving an award” speech right out of a book (seriously, I’ve seen those books at bookstores around town). For some reason the expat teachers’ speeches didn’t stick in my mind at all… Each time a winner would receive their certificate (yes, an official Outstanding Teacher certificate plus an envelope with an “incentive”– aka money) they would pose with the school director, each holding one side of the certificate, to have their picture taken. Evidently these pictures are going to be posted around the school. All the time, I was making fun of everyone patting themselves on the back, pointing out how every winner so far had been male, and generally deriding the Masters of the Universe ceremony with a newer teacher from South Africa.
Then something horrible happened. They called my name.
I just sat there a moment, and literally didn’t move: a T-Rex supposedly will pass you by if it doesn’t detect movement. But the admin staff was just staring at me from the stage, so I got up and forced myself to join them. As I glanced back I could see the South African silently laughing her head off at me. I could feel myself turning red as I took the certificate and posed with the director, smiling at the camera like a deer in the headlights. At least I don’t have to make a speech since I’m a third place winner, I thought to myself. “Elizabeth, would you like to say a few words?” One of the admin handed me a microphone. Sonofagun. I don’t even remember my own speech.
After that it was straight to class. My students immediately noted my red face when I walked in. I told them I felt ill. Afterwards, as I was punching out, I ran into the South African teacher again; “I figured out why they gave me the award,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” She was still laughing at me.
“It’s because I look like a guy.”
“You’re funny,” she said, and we exchanged numbers. Could I possibly have made my first foreign [non-PCV] friend?? I guess being labeled a Master of the Universe isn’t a total loss (+ $20 “monetary incentive”, what what!)– though (tempted as I was), I didn’t ask: what is the criterion for a Master of– er, Outstanding Teacher, anyway?