As the road stretches south from Phnom Penh, the cramped confines and hectic bustle of the city gradually give way to wooden houses on columns and expansive rice fields dotted with palm trees. A distance traveled of approximately sixty kilometers transports one back in time maybe two hundred years. Wooden ox-carts slog along amid students bicycling home and cowherds prodding their products to market. Superficially, at least, it feels like a different world.
At face value, I take my students to Takeo, a Cambodian province rarely visited by foreigners, to experience that shift in time undiluted by tourism. When we step off the bus, no one speaks English, there is no air conditioning, no comfortable beds for sleeping, and no sights to see. Instead, we find an extended family of four generations living together on a tract of land set back from the road and surrounded by trees. There are two houses, a shed, and a volleyball court built for local high school students. Sok Duch, the family’s patriarch, built many of the houses and the volleyball court, cutting down two trees on his land for poles to hold the net.
On arrival, we find Sok Duch in the middle of teaching a class and playing kse diev (a one-stringed stick zither), surrounded by seven or eight of his teenaged students. This is a good day. Sok Duch is an 87-year-old master of classical wedding music, and his health oscillates from days like this, when he has energy to play and teach, to days when it is difficult to rouse himself from bed. My students sit and listen while I join the ensemble, playing the songs I remember and listening to the ones I don’t.
With the performance over, some of my students play volleyball with the Cambodian high-schoolers and some talk with the musicians. We go to the market for dinner then settle down for the night. Sok Duch’s daughter unrolls mats on the floor and hangs mosquito nets above. Certainly, the lessons in humility and “doing without” sink in by morning, when students wake in the gathering humidity with aching bones, stiff legs, and another traditional Khmer meal for breakfast.
But, for me, the personal value of this visit supersedes the lessons for my students. After dinner, while the students ready themselves for sleep, Sok Duch and I sit outside and talk. Over the years, this has become our custom: to sit together and catch up on each others’ lives and our families’ and friends’ lives before talking about the music. He quizzes me about which songs I remember, and I tell him that I continue to practice alone and every-once-in-awhile present about Cambodian music at an American university. We talk for a long time and, after pausing for the night’s sleep, continue the conversation in the morning.
If one of my goals as a teacher is to impact and inspire my students, then I can find no greater comfort than in the impact Sok Duch has had me; this remarkable man has changed my life and its direction in innumerable positive ways. Every teacher has moments of despair, when student apathy and poor attitude overwhelm any sense of accomplishment and progress. When those days hit, I have a teacher who has inspired me beyond reason. I have those intimate conversations, our mutual passion for music and tradition, and a friendship that spans generations and nationalities. I have Sok Duch and everything he has meant to me.