Wherein I Offer My Deepest Apologies to Khmer Speakers Everywhere (and to Alexander Graham Bell)

–by Elizabeth

Our family has a favorite tuk tuk driver. His name is Bun, and I dial his number every week on grocery day.

I say:  “Can you come to my house now?”

Normally he tells me yes and is at my doorstep in less than 60 seconds. This week I couldn’t understand his reply. But I don’t worry. What usually happens when I can’t understand him is that he’s unavailable and is sending a friend instead.

Would this be a good time to mention that I don’t understand Khmer very well on the telephone?

I wait at the door for his friend, but after 10 minutes, there’s no tuk tuk in sight.  I begin to wonder if he meant what I assumed he meant. I run inside to discuss my little problem with Jonathan and come back out a few minutes later, determined to wait longer.

A tuk tuk has arrived. He’s not my usual driver, but I recognize him. As I leave my house, I see that he is talking on his phone. Hmm. Perhaps he’s calling Bun to ask why I wasn’t waiting at the door for him. Oh well, he hangs up when I walk outside, and I tell him where I want to go.

Just as the tuk tuk starts driving, my phone rings. It’s Bun. Oh dear. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone. I answer the phone, but I’m not sure what he’s saying. Instead, I assure him: “Tuk tuk came already. Sorry. Cannot understand. Street loud.” That seems to satisfy him.

But wait a second. My driver is now going in the wrong direction. “Stop!” I tell him. He stops, turns around, says something in Khmer, and smiles. I return a blank stare. He then points to another tuk tuk driver (whom I also recognize) and says something else, still smiling. Huh? His meaning is lost on me. And he keeps driving the wrong direction.

Whatever. I know these roads. I know these drivers. I will get to Lucky Supermarket. Eventually. Both tuk tuks turn down another road, and the other driver stops at a house while my driver watches him. Then my driver turns around and goes in the right direction. He drops me off at the store, and I say: “Wait about 30 minutes.”

I shop and get in line and am just about to pay when my phone rings. I do not recognize the number, but I intuitively know it’s my driver. It has been 31 minutes. First I silence my phone. I don’t understand Khmer very well on the phone.  But he calls a second time, and this time I feel I obligated to answer. I do not know what he is saying. But I say: “Wait 3 minutes more” and hang up.

My tuk tuk is waiting for me, all smiles, when I walk out of the store. I tell him: “Sorry. Talk phone difficult me.” He smiles and nods. Would this be a good time to mention that my 6 months of language study gave me survival speaking ability only?

We learned in PILAT (Principles in Language Acquisition Techniques) that learning should be comprehension-based. In other words, we should practice hearing and understanding before we practice speaking. I have unfortunately reversed this. Sometimes when I speak in Khmer — and nearly always on the phone — I am, as my dad would say, “on transmit only,” with no possibility of receiving.

It is for this gaping hole in my conversational ability that I sincerely apologize to Khmer speakers everywhere, especially when using the telephone.

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