Khmer-language books exported to Long Beach

Khmer-language books exported to Long Beach

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CAT BARTON

Susan Taylor (left) and Lyda Thanh, two American librarians who went on a book-buying spree in Phnom Penh to stock their library back in Long Beach, USA.

Harry Potter eluded them but Anne Frank was available. Such was the luck of two American

librarians, Susan Taylor and Lyda Thanh, who have just spent two weeks trawling bookshops

across the Kingdom.

The pair found and purchased 1,084 Khmer-language books. Transporting their haul-which

weighed in at 298 kilograms-back to the US proved to be more challenging.

It took them four hours to pack the books into eight cardboard boxes. They then fell

foul of FedEx, whose Cambodia office does not take credit cards. Finally, after some

last-minute panic, DHL agreed to ship the books back to the US.

"I don't want to know how much it is costing," Taylor said. "It has

been a great experience. We bought 700 books on the first day."

Taylor and Thanh, both employees of the Long Beach Mark Twain Library in California,

spent a fortnight scouring every bookshop in the Kingdom-at least, those that take

MasterCard- looking for new Khmer-language books to replenish their library's collection.

"There is a word in Khmer, bra'moul, which literally means to gather in large

armfuls," said Thanh. "We weren't carefully selecting books; we were throwing

armfuls of them into the shopping trolley."

Among the armfuls of books were a few carefully chosen titles. "Harry [Potter]

eluded me but I got Anne Frank," said Taylor. The lack of Khmer-language copy

of Macbeth was lamented by Thanh who is helping a newly arrived Cambodian immigrant

to Long Beach with her Shakespeare homework.

Long Beach is home to the world's largest Cambodian population outside the Kingdom.

Last summer, the area in which the Mark Twain library is situated was rechristened

"Cambodia Town."

But when the library opened at new premises in August last year, the librarians were

unable to spend their allocated $20,000 grant on new Khmer-language books.

This was particularly frustrating as Khmer language is having a resurgence State-side.

"The kids are now a bit older and they want to learn - we need material for

them," said Taylor.

"Cambodians are a vital part of the community," she said. "The Cambodian

community donated to the new library. We had new Spanish and Vietnamese books -why

no Cambodian ones? If to get them we need to come here, then ok, that's what we'll

do."

The shopping trip to Cambodia has been planned since March and was funded by the

City of Long Beach and a private group, Helen Fuller Cultural Carrousel, which paid

for the day-to-day costs of the trip.

The books and the shipping were paid for with city money so it all had to be accounted

for-hence the need to use a credit card.

To guide their selection, the pair checked the top ten most popular books in their

library. The most checked-out book was a fairy tale called The Beast of BongBot Forest,

which was checked out 53 times in the last five years, but books on Cambodian culture,

politics and history were also popular.

Their recent purchases-of "every kind of book we could find"-have doubled

the size of the library's Khmer-language collection.

Thanh believes a fully-stocked Khmer language section of the Long Beach library will

serve as a "pathway between two countries and a way to promote literacy across

languages."

"It is really important to preserve Cambodian culture and that's why we've come

to get these books," said Thanh.

"I want to get parents to read to their kids-language is so important. My dad

used to say, 'You will always learn English, at school. But our culture and language

is important too and I won't let you lose it.'"

Born in the Philippines where her parents had fled to escape the Khmer Rouge, Thanh's

book-buying trip was her first visit to her ancestral home. "It was definitely

a culture shock for me-Phnom Penh is so modern," she said.

Thanh's Khmer is fluent but in Cambodia "people speak much more slang,"

she said. "I speak more formal Khmer. They all cut out syllables and sounds-I

pronounce everything exactly as it is written."

Being constantly asked where she was from was a pleasure not an irritation, she said.

"It is really nice to be intriguing for once. They have really different mannerisms

here. I speak Khmer like I speak English, fast and choppy, so I have been trying

to slow down and get their mannerisms."

But there are some things she will never understand: "When I go home I will

never complain about the traffic there again," Thanh said.

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