Entries tagged with “Pannasastra University of Cambodia” from Cambodia 2012

Cambodia Travelogue 2

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Friday, January 13, 2012, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Completed the first week of teaching at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). Although the primary text used for this class is the same I use in my Comparative Arts class at UMass Lowell (a Cambodian classic called Tum Teav), the way the Cambodian students at PUC respond to the text is very different than my students at UMass Lowell.

Since the Cambodian students have all read and studied the story in high school, I spent very little time this week discussing the characters and plot of the story, and most of the time discussing the role of the text in the 1960s after Cambodia gained independence from French colonial rule (1863-1954). Since Tum Teav is perhaps the most important text in the Cambodian literary canon, it played a key part in Cambodia’s attempt to re-invent Cambodian cultural and national identity after almost one hundred years of French rule and cultural domination.


Although these concepts are fairly abstract and difficult to grasp, I was impressed by the students’ eagerness to engage in our class discussions and ask difficult questions. Nevertheless, I found it very challenging to teach these ideas in a setting that is new to me. I have never taught at a Cambodian university before. Consequently, I found myself trying to explain these concepts in ways that I would not use at UMass Lowell, in ways that tried to relate to the specific cultural background of the students. One of the difficult concepts we discussed concerned the emergence of Cambodian literary institutions in Cambodia.


Before the French arrived in Cambodia in 1863, the western notion of “literature” did not exist in Cambodia. Of course there was literary writing, but these texts (written on palm leaf manuscripts) were primarily produced by monks in temples or scribes in the royal palace. So, basically, they were either “religious texts” or “royal texts.” During the French period, French language and literature was used in the educational system especially at the lycée, and by the 1930s, the idea of “literature” and literary institutions (distinct from religious and monarchal writing and institutions) had become established in Cambodia.


After independence in 1954, there was a concerted effort to remove French influence from Cambodian society and assert a distinctly Cambodian cultural and national identity, a modern nation-state that could join the other nations of the world at the recently formed United Nations, for example. In doing this, French literature (Balzac, Flaubert, etc) were removed from the national curriculum and replaced with Cambodian texts such as Tum Teav. “Literature” as an institution was maintained while the texts that comprised it were changed from French to Cambodian.


In the process of discussing this in class, it was clear to me that most of the students were having difficulty grasping these concepts in the way I was presenting them. To make the concepts easier to understand, it occurred to me to compare the various institutions (religious, monarchal, literary, etc) to baskets, an image that is used in Buddhism to explain the three kinds of teachings of the Buddha, referred to as “the three baskets.”

I drew several baskets on the board and labeled them “religious”, “monarchal”, “literary” etc. I explained how after independence from France, Cambodia under Prince Norodom Sihanouk still wanted to keep the “basket” called “literature” created by the French. This was something that Cambodia still needed. It is a necessary feature of a 20th century modern nation-state. What the country wanted to change, I explained, was the contents of the “basket”, the texts, because these were the texts that would be part of Cambodia’s new cultural and national identity.


This seemed to “click” with the students, and would probably not been as effective in my class at UMass Lowell. We went on to compare how this process also took place during Cambodia’s Angkor period (9-15th c.) when Indian cultural influence was very strong but was transformed into something uniquely Cambodian. I think it was a “learning moment” for both the students and me that make teaching in new settings so refreshing and inspiring.

George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies

Greetings from Cambodia!

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Prof. George Chigas is in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to develop our study abroad program with Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). We currently have seven students planning to enroll for Fall 2012. He will be sending updates of his journey.

Monday, January 8, 2012 (4am), Phnom Penh Cambodia
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Arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday night at 10:30 pm. The main purpose of this trip is to develop the relationship between UMass Lowell and Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). This relationship was initiated previously by Dr. Pierson and Vice-Chancellor Maloney and formalized during my last trip in January 2011 which resulted in a memorandum of understanding (MOU). 

Currently, the main activity between UMass Lowell and PUC is a study abroad program through the Department of Cultural Studies. Our first student just completed the program during the Fall 2011 semester and seven students have applied for the Fall 2012 semester. During my three-week trip I will develop a hybrid (face-to-face & onine) 3-credit course designed to satisfy PUC's course requirements for "Critical Reading of Literature" (ENGL 413), a required undergraduate course in several undergraduate faculties (colleges). This course would also be designed to satisfy UMass Lowell's Cultural Studies course requirements for Comparative Arts. If successful, UMass Lowell students who study abroad at PUC during their summer term (August-November) would have the option to extend their stay through January to take the course and transfer the course credit. 

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Other important objectives of the trip will be to discuss a possible faculty exchange with PUC,
 options for PUC students to study at UMass Lowell, service learning opportunities for UMass Lowell students in the area of Peace and Conflict, as well as gathering books and materials for a special collection and locating Cambodian music instruments for use by the UMass Lowell Music Department's World Music class that will offer Cambodian music this spring 2012.

In this travelogue I hope to record my thoughts and impressions about what I see and experience during these three weeks. This is my sixth trip to Cambodia; the first was in 1996, as I was beginning my graduate studies in Cambodian language and culture. Much has changed since then, and it would be impossible to provide any comprehensive assessment of the political and socio-economic transformations that are happening perhaps as fast now as at any time in the last thirty years. 

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It was thirty-three years ago on January 7 when Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power. Their four years of totalitarian rule resulted in the death of a quarter of the population (2 out of 8 million) and the total destruction of infrastructure, educational, financial, health systems, religion, the list goes on. Making a speech on national TV that I watched in my hotel room last night, Prime Minister Hun Sen described how in the 1980s people had three ways to get around: barefoot, using flip-flops, or if you were rich, on bicycle. 

Today, Hun Sen said, you see people in new running shoes, motos (Honda & Vespa scooters) and Lexus SUVs. This is in fact what you see in downtown Phnom Penh today. Families and couples strolling along the beautifully landscaped garden walkways, gathering in the large Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship plaza to exercise in organized groups to music, hordes of young people on scooters cruising the Riverside broadway along the Tonle Sap. 

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And these sights are in stark contrast to my memories of the same places during my trip in 1996, about fifteen years ago, when the gardens were patches of dirt where barefoot children in rags tried to fly homemade kites made of discarded plastic bags and bits of plastic string. 

Everywhere you look there is construction and new businesses. Of course, you will also see poverty and barefoot children, and if you leave the city to the countryside, you see very little development, lack of schools, health care, jobs, etc. And perhaps this is one of the difficulties in trying to assess a place like Cambodia. 

Compared to where it was thirty years ago, the growth, development and stability (no armed conflict, no violent protests, although there are protests that I will talk about) that exist now are remarkable even extraordinary, and Hun Sen?s government (which has been in power continuously) deserves credit for the progress that has been made. Still, there are many serious problems, the lack of civil liberties (freedom of speech, especially), flagrant abuse of power by government officials, lack of rule of law or equality before the law, etc., that are very upsetting to witness and make you want to condemn the government and the leadership for tolerating, enabling and in many cases participating in these abuses.

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As I left the Phnom Penh airport Thursday night in the PUC van that came to pick me up, as we pulled out of the airport road onto the main street, to our left a large SUV pulled out and struck a moto driver. We saw his body (it seemed like slow motion) topple over the hood of the SUV and fall onto the pavement. The driver looked unconscious, sprawled across the road. The SUV backed up a few feet, and someone got out of the back door and looked at the body then got back in the car as it drove away leaving the injured moto driver behind. 

I turned to Narin, the PUC staff person whom I had met last year, in disbelief that the SUV could just drive away like that without having to help the driver or make a report to the police. Narin smiled ironically, ?In Cambodia, no one helps you. You have to help yourself, because there is no one (no governmental agency) that will help you."

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