( January, 2002 Volume 2 No.1 )

People can get themselves into all sorts of trouble when using a second language. Take a recent example. A man, freshly arrived in Cambodia, is sitting in a restaurant talking to a waitress. His wife has excused herself to go to the bathroom, and the man wants to be friendly. He is in a good mood. After breaking up for an extended period some months ago, he and the love of his life have patched things up enough to come away on their dream holiday to South East Asia. Both of them have always wanted to see Angkor Wat. They didn't argue about coming to Cambodia. The whole holiday planning session was without one cross word. She has always been a bit on the jealous side, so he wants to make sure he is beyond reproach at all times, but he is bored, and curious. What better way to start a conversation while sitting by himself than to ask questions about the local language? How could that be interpreted as anything but innocent?
He has heard Khmer is not tonal, like Mandarin or Thai. Surely there are not too many ways you can go wrong with a language such as this. "How can I say, 'go for a walk'?" he asked the waitress idly. "Daolayng," the waitress replied. "You can daolayng with a motorbike, or a cyclo, or just by walking." "Daolayng," the man repeats just in time for his girlfriend to return to the table and overhear him. "Darling! What do you mean darling! How dare you! I leave the table for just one minute and here you are chatting up local girls!" she yells. "Not darling. Daolayng," he consoles her, but it isn't any use. The waitress, frightened, has fled to the kitchen and the girlfriend has stormed out of the restaurant with the key to their hotel room in her handbag. The waitress finally reappears, looking terribly upset to be the cause of such an uproar. "Where is your wife?" she asks. "Daolayng," he says sadly. And the moral of the story might be any one of many, depending how you see it. Perhaps it is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Perhaps that no matter how hard you try, there is no pleasing everyone. Or perhaps it is just that you should look, and listen, before you leap especially in a country as exotic and unpredictable as Cambodia.