Ep. 30 | Paul’s Khmer Language Mishap – Architect of his own embarrassment

Sometimes it is best to just admit when you don’t know. Paul found this out the hard way when trying to build work relationships in Cambodia. When trying to build friendships and sharing the gospel with people from another country one of the biggest hurdles can be language. How do you make yourself understood? Even with hours of practice it can sometimes feel impossible. In this third language mishaps episode hear from Paul about his embarrassing conversation with one of the deans of the university he was working in.

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This transcript has been lightly edited to make it easier to read.

Chris Watts
Welcome to the Serve Asia Podcast where we have conversations about sharing the good news of Jesus with East Asians across the street and across the world. Today, we’re continuing our language mishap series, where we’re talking to OMF workers about times when speaking a second language hasn’t quite gone to plan. Well, it’s great today to have Paul Robinson back on the podcast and joining me today as we continue our stories about language mishaps. Paul, how are you doing this morning?

Paul Robinson
I’m very well thank you.

Chris Watts
By way of introduction. Could you just tell us a little bit about who you are and where we are today?

Paul Robinson
Great. Yeah. Good morning, Chris. My name’s Paul Robinson. I work for OMF UK as the director of mobilisation of media. And today I’m with Chris in the Borough Green office.

Chris Watts
Where are you normally when you’re not down in sunny Kent?

Paul Robinson
Normally, I’m based in Manchester. That’s where my home is. But I travel all.. Well, pre COVID was travelling all around the UK to connect with the mobilisation and media team who are active in all areas of the UK and Ireland. But I’m based in Manchester and try to travel to Borough Green once or twice a month to connect with this office down here.

Chris Watts
Well, it’s great seeing you face to face. We’ve spent a lot of time on zoom together in recent weeks. So good to be in the same room as you Paul.

Paul Robinson
Absolutely.

Chris Watts
And you’ve got a story for us today. That took place a long way away from Manchester. So could you, sort of set the scene, tell us where you were what you were up to?

Paul Robinson
Well, before I worked in this role, with OMF UK, my family and I we were based in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, with OMF Cambodia, and we worked there for about nine years. From 2008 to 2017. Part of my work there was at the university, the Royal University of Fine Arts, I was doing a lecture series on introduction to urban design. And it was, I suppose two or three years into my time there. When I did my lectures I used to have a Cambodian colleague who would help translate what I taught. And these lectures would happen two or three times a week. And I’d usually go in each time I was having a lesson and I’d do my lectures for a couple of hours and then come home. Now in the university there was obviously a number of lecturers, but also there was a dean, the dean of architecture.

And in Cambodia, it’s a very hierarchical society, I’d say. And often the dean would come in, in his big SUV. He wouldn’t be lecturing, but he would come in and he would fancy a coffee. And he’d tell, well word would get out somehow to all the other Cambodian staff, we’re going for coffee with the dean. Now unlike here, when you’d probably go for coffee on your coffee break. There when the dean says you go for coffee, everyone goes for coffee. So this one time, the dean said, we’re going for coffee. So we stopped mid lesson. My Cambodian colleague told the class, if you just wait here, we’ll be back at some point. We just paused the lesson and we all piled into cars to follow the dean to a riverside cafe for coffee. And I thought it was important to go, I was a little bit annoyed. I wanted to finish my lesson. I’m an Englishman, I wanted to do what I had been appointed to do. So we left the class and went to the riverside restaurant. And we all sat on a big round table smiling, looking at each other. And there was a bit of banter. And I ended up being placed next to the dean.

And my Cambodian at this point wasn’t super good. So I would do a lot of nodding and smiling, saying the odd phrase. And then the dean leaned over to me, and he said in Khmer “Ab(p)sok mane-teh”, and I looked at him and I thought ‘I don’t have a clue what that means.’ So I will just look at him and smile and nod and say, Oh, yes, absolutely. I’m “Ab(p)sok mane mane mane-teh”. And he looked at me a bit quizzically. And then turned around and started speaking to someone else. And I just sat there and waited it out. And it happened. The coffee took probably about an hour, then we went back to the classroom. And I remember thinking, I don’t quite know what he asked me. So I’ll ask my colleague what what does that word mean? “Ab(p)sok”. I just don’t know what it means. I thought it meant something like, ‘Are you having a good time?’ I found out from my colleague that “Ab(p)sok” means “Are you bored?” And I had said to the dean “Yes. I am very bored.” So, I felt mortified. But I maintained my job. And actually my relationship with a dean wasn’t damaged at all. I think he took it on board. But yes, it wasn’t a proud moment. And I learned what the word “Ab(p)sok” meant going forward from that time.

Chris Watts
Well, Paul, thanks for sharing that. What we’ve been then asking people is, what did you learn from this situation?

Paul Robinson
Yeah, I think what I learnt from this. I should have said, ‘I don’t know what “Ab(p)sok mane” means.’ I should have mentioned to the dean, I don’t know what that means, or even given my colleague a nudge next to me, who was on the other side of me round the coffee table. What does this mean? And to have the humility, and just to show, you know, I’m learning, I know a little bit, but I don’t know that one. So I guess my pride got in the way. So its always, to have that humility to ask when you don’t know. Which it becomes a bit trying, when you’re doing it a lot. I think in the early days of language learning, you’re always saying what does this mean? What does that mean? But to realise that actually, it’s okay not to know. And also to laugh at yourself. I mean, it was a very daft thing to have done.

Chris Watts
Well, it’s good that you can laugh about it now. And yeah, what a great lesson to learn to know when to say, “Actually, I don’t know, I’m going to need some help on that one.” And I suppose as Christians, the great freedom that comes from from knowing Jesus, who says, kind of you don’t know, you need help. You can’t do everything on your own. You can do things in my strength and be humble and gracious with others. So, yeah what a good thing to learn. Yeah, I hope that that helps our listeners to think through too, you might find yourself in a situation where the best thing to do is to say, ‘I don’t know, I’m going to need some help on that one.’ So thanks so much for joining us, Paul. If you think of any other funny stories that are similar, or think of others who have got similar ones to share, then do let us know. Thanks a lot.

Paul Robinson
Brilliant. Thank you.

Chris Watts
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the Serve Asia Podcast. If you’ve got an amusing story of miscommunication, we’d love to hear it. So why not get in touch? We’re on Instagram at @ServeAsiaPodcast, or send us an email to uk.podcast@omfmail.com. Check out the show notes for more details. And we hope you join us for the next episode. Goodbye.

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