Twenty-nine staff members from the Cambodian Senate met in a conference room on Wednesday to continue on a rocky and arduous journey that will test their wills and push them to the very limits of endurance.
“Today, we are learning Chinese,” they said in unison, in Chinese. The journey, of course, is going to be a long one.
About 30 of the Senate’s 500 employees began taking Mandarin lessons in March. The number of eager students is slowly increasing.
“We ask each other, ‘what’s your name?’” said Sok Leakhena, a bureau chief with the Senate cabinet. “Although we already know each others’ names.”
Three days a week, they file into a spacious conference room to grapple with one of the world’s oldest tongues. But it’s the contemporary words that cause all the trouble.
Sok Leakhena finds it hard to write the Chinese character for “basketball”, but appreciates the importance of persisting.
“To know the Chinese language is best for my job,” Sok Leakhena said. “The Senate has a good relationship with the Chinese embassy and China.”
The language instructor, Zhang Chunzi, said her students tried to practise outside of the conference room.
“Sometimes they pick up a few sentences elsewhere, and come to show off in class.”
Tuition was free for Senate staff, and they were encouraged to study the language in office hours, Soth Sang-Bonn, director of the Senate’s human resources department, said.
“Chinese language is very important, especially in the current stage,” Soth Sang-Bonn said. “We need to strengthen our communication.”
Soth Sang-Bonn said China’s support went beyond linguistics. The country has built Senate office buildings, donated vans and given computers.
The Confucius Institute of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, which offers the courses at the Senate, also teaches employees at the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Interior, the Council of Ministers and the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
The institute is one of about 690 Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms established by Hanban, a government-affiliated group under the Chinese education ministry.
The Beijing-sponsored language network is regarded as the best-known effort to promote China’s image abroad.
Since its inception in Cambodia in December 2009, the institute has set up four teaching centres in the Kingdom, and expanded from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Wang Xianmiao, the director of the institute, said that more than 1,000 students are taking Chinese-language courses through the institute.
“Learning Chinese helps university students to find a job when they graduate,” Wang said. “There are a lot of Chinese businesses here.”
The inexpensive tuition helps too. The Confucius Institute at RAC charges from $15 to $35 for a semester. The course covers about five hours of instruction each week for three months.
Confucius Institutes were under the spotlight last month in the US, thanks to a State Department directive suggesting some teachers were violating the terms of their visas and would have to leave the country.
Though a spokeswoman for the State Department later called the situation a “mess-up,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, it triggered debate about whether the Beijing-sponsored institutes are propaganda arms of the Chinese government.
The mess-ups in the conference room of Senate staffers were more lighthearted.
“OK, let’s do some homework,” said Zhang Chunzi. The students cheered. But they hadn’t caught the “work” part. They thought it was just time to go home.
To contact the reporter on this story: Xiaoqing Pi and Mom Kunthear at [email protected]