Monday, February 18, 2013

The Day I Completely Lost My Cool

… in front of almost 200 students, my best local friend, and the Deputy School Director.

Here’s the story.

I have a chorus class here at my school. We have been practicing for months to get ready for the Create Cambodia Fine Arts Festival. In order to fundraise money to participate, we put on a school concert. First we went class to class asking for donations, and then we invited them to the concert. They were told they would watch a concert and then dance together at the end.

Today was the day of that concert. Of course right from the beginning, it’s a really stressful day. First of all, it was the hottest day of the year so far… the kind of day where wearing clothes at all doesn’t seem to make sense, let alone a long heavy skirt and a tight collared shirt. Then only about half of the students showed up on time to prepare the room for the concert. Then when the room was finally prepared and it was time to do a quick run-through, 3 of the students were nowhere to be found. The run-through went horribly for every single song. Then it took us a half hour to get the microphone to work, and even when it was working it wasn’t nearly strong enough to pick up all the voices. Then just as it was time to get started, the student who promised he’d be the announcer of all the songs backed out and left me to be the announcer in a language I’m not THAT good at.

But surprisingly, none of that got me down. We had almost 200 students show up to catch the concert, and my chorus students were feeling good. The concert happened without major incident. The chorus sang 5 songs, I sang 2, and my friend Rithy sang 1. The whole concert was about a half hour, and everything went by mostly smoothly.

Then at the end of the concert, the plan was to make it interactive and teach all the students in the audience to dance Gangnam Style. And so began my downward spiral.

Standing with the microphone in front of 200 students and my “boss,” I thanked the students for coming and supporting this group of singers. I then announced that any student who wished to learn to dance Gangnam Style should stay. I asked in simple, clear Khmer “Do you want to learn Gangnam Style?” At this point I noticed that about 10 students in the front had taken out their phones and were taking videos of me making this announcement. No one responded to my question. No problem. I just moved on. I invited the students to come to the front where there was room to dance so that we can begin. No one moved. I asked the students to raise their hand if they wanted to learn the dance. Not a single student raised their hand. Feeling slightly defeated, I said “ok then, no one wants to learn so this is the end. Thanks again for coming.”

The students still didn’t budge from their seats. They sat there staring at me. 200 pairs of eyes boring into my skin. My chorus students rushed over to me and begged me to go on with the plan of teaching Gangnam Style. I explained that I wasn’t going to do it if no one wanted to dance. So, one of my students took a turn. She got on the microphone and asked the students to come forward to dance. No one budged and no one said a word. I tried again. The camera phones came out again. Same response. So once again, I explained that the concert is over. Again my chorus students begged me to keep trying. I said fine. “I understand you are feeling shy, so you can start in your seats, but when we learn the footwork, you need to come forward.” I then taught them the hand motions of Gangnam Style. About half the students did it. The other half was busy taking videos of me. Then I asked them to come forward so I can teach them the footwork. Dead stares again. Camera phones kept rolling. At this point I started cracking. “Why are you here? Are you here to dance or to stare at me? Because I said you should stay only if you want to dance.” Blank stares. “Raise your hand if you want to learn to dance.” Blank stares. Cameras rolling. “Fine! The concerts over! GO HOME!” No one moved.

Another chorus member came over with an idea. He said that if I played the song, maybe they would come forward to dance. Cameras still rolling, I took out my computer and started the song. My chorus students tried to help by starting to dance but they quickly stopped under the pressure of 200 pairs of eyes. They began telling me to start dance. “Dance, teacher! Dance! hurry up! Dance! Cher, Dance!” but what I heard was “DANCE MONKEY DANCE!” My voice raised, I said “NO! I will not dance if no one else is dancing! This is not a show!” I turned off the song, took the microphone again and began screaming “If you’re not going to dance go home! GO HOME! Why are you still sitting here! GO HOME! IT’S OVER!” Those camera phones didn’t miss a beat.

My friend and co-teacher Rithy came running over and said “you need to dance for them. If you don’t, they will be upset with you.” At this point all sanity went out the window. I imploded. Are you KIDDING me? They’re going to be upset with me?? I’m upset with THEM! And I stormed off to finish packing up my stuff. I hear Rithy on the microphone begging the students. Then I hear another chorus student trying to get students to come forward, again to no avail. Then I even hear the deputy school director (who up until this point has just been sitting silently with his arms folded) telling students to participate. I started feeling a little bad for snapping at Rithy, and I tried to calm myself down. So I took the microphone again and said “okay, we will make one last deal. I will dance for you to watch one time, and then we will all get up and dance together. Okay?” Silence. “Can you answer?” Cameras rolling. “If I dance first, who will come dance after?” Silence. “I’M DONE! THAT’S THE END. THANK YOU FOR COMING! GO HOME! NOW NO ONE IS GOING TO DANCE! GO!” I turned around to my chorus students and repeated the same thing and told them to start cleaning up. I finished packing up my stuff and left the room. I ended up just hiding by one of the doors, thinking about what I just did.

After the concert, I then had hours of free time to think about what caused me to lose it. People stare at me every day in Cambodia. I very often catch students and other people taking pictures and videos of me. My patience is tested in extreme ways every day. Well, I now know the point at which my patience runs out. It’s the build-up of a list of things that will do it.

  • 200 pairs of eyes is a lot of eyes
  • There were a lot of cameras… and they were filming me doing nothing. If they were filming me performing, that would be a different story
  • The whole situation last 15 minutes, which is a lot of time to have so much unwanted attention
  • No smiling
  • No one responded to my questions
  • My students wouldn’t let me just end the concert, no matter how many times I tried.
  • I realized that all of those students came only to see what the crazy foreigner would do, and none came to see the chorus kids. The chorus kids deserve better than that.
  • I’ve been here 2 years. Why aren’t they over this yet? Every single student there sees me on a daily basis. 
  • The fact that the students felt like I somehow OWED them a show of me making a fool of myself
  • Being treated like a caged monkey who does tricks on command

                Obviously I’m over it now. And like I said, the real concert itself was a success. We are so ready for the Create Cambodia Fine Arts Festival. 

More photos from my trip to Ratanakiri


My host brother

He's a cool guy

My pregnant but beautiful host sister

The center of Ratanakiri Town

We went to Ratanakiri because we were invited to a house warming party. The party  became like an awkward 6th grade dance when the host insisted on playing a slow-dance song. 


  1. Man. This was a tough read. It is really sad that they still see you in that light. But I'm excited for Create Cambodia!

  2. I, too am excited for Create Cambodia. Don't be too hard on yourself for the aftermath of the concert. Think of all the good that you have accomplished.