The National Library of Cambodia and the Australian Embassy organized this week a forum in Phnom Penh to talk about culture of reading. Unfortunately I did not participate, because I did not get any invitation and, moreover, Sihanoukville is three hours by car from Phnom Penh. I got the news from The Cambodia Daily that entitled it ‘Cambodia Lacks Reading Culture, Experts Say.‘ Then I said ‘Eureka! These guys discovered the wet water!
I am saying it since 2000: Cambodians do not read and it is very serious. It is one of the main problems of modern Cambodia and we need to prevent it. Promoting reading must be done with children. It is possible to make teenagers and adults to read, but it’s more difficult than trying it with children. But most Cambodian schools lack libraries and even teachers do not read.
I commit myself to make my students read at the social communication section of Don Bosco Sihanoukville. But my students are 18 to 23 years old young farmers and it is not an easy task. I met just a student that liked reading two years ago and he was studying mechanic. His name is Sarong and he had old books of history and geography. I discovered he liked reading by the type of questions he used to make. Out of him, I never have known another Cambodian that likes reading.
Talking with Vuth, 21, one of my students, he told me that he has read five books all his life. Two of them were about Cambodian mentality and culture, but he could not remember the name of the authors. He told me that in his house in a farmer village in Kompong Thom, there are about ten books – a big number already for the average in any Cambodian house today – and all were about learning English and all belong to him, because his dream was always to speak the language of Shakespeare, a man he does not know who is.
Vuth told me also that he does not find reading an interesting activity and he is too busy in the school to spend time reading books. This is more or less the same answer you find in most students.
He told me that the school of his village has not a library and he never has been inside a library, although in Don Bosco we have two big libraries… by the way, I do not remember Vuth around and we are talking of a good student…
The books production in Cambodia is also low. Then you come into a bookstore and you find as the main sections books in Khmer and English about marketing, banking, accounting and English learning. It is the main purpose of the Cambodian youth today: make money. At the same time, teenagers want to study only administration, accounting, tourism, business… those areas they think give a lot of money and big salaries. Nothing about education, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and even archaeology, a subject that should be the queen of studies in a country with historical millenarian sites like Angkor Wat or Sambor Preikuk.
Try to find a cultural center in Sihanoukville, a place that is highly promoted as a star of tourism for its beautiful beaches and islands. Try to find a movie house, a museum, a library… try to look for cultural programs on weekends. Therefore, a weekend in a place like Sihanoukville for a teenager is just the invitation to visit those areas that would not be properly of cultural formation.
But if we say that Cambodians do not read, we find also too many expatriates in Cambodia that are not the best cultural gifted offering of their countries. Then our youth, as any youth from any country, try to imitate those alien models with the same ideal of richness. We are not talking of those serious foreigners of prominent offices, NGOs, companies and so on, but those more evident foreigners with their vices wandering around, trying to enjoy as much as they can without an ethical limit.
We need schools with libraries, teachers who like to read, the translation of the world classics of literature, science, history and geography into Khmer, the promotion of new Cambodian young talented authors, good newspapers and magazines in Khmer with real good contents…