I think this story is hilarious, but no one else seems to find it as funny as I do. Maybe you had to be there.
In Khmer, the word for “no” is dtei, or more politely ah-dtei. When you say a negative sentence like “I don’t understand”, it’s something like knyom mun yul dtei (word-for-word, “I not understand no”). But there’s also a casual form at (pronounced like “ah”, not like “hat”), and for this people usually drop the final dtei.1 (Example: at yul.)
(I learned about this casual form while playing Big Two / Thirteen / Dteng Len in the form of the phrase at mien, meaning “[I] don’t have [it / anything].”)
I’ve been eating lunch with the other teachers now, rather than with the students. Last Thursday, I had my boxed lunch as usual, but even though the teachers had all their plates and food out, no one was starting. I was trying to figure it out…and at the same time, the teachers had noticed my confusion, and were trying to remember how to explain it in English. (Only one teacher has real English skills; the others have anywhere from “basic conversational” to “basically nothing”.)
“No spork,” one of them says. What? I must have looked confused, cause a couple of them repeated it. “No spork!”
Now, I’ve been in Cambodia for a month now, and I’ve never seen a spork. Their primary utensil here is the spoon, followed by the fork. Chopsticks are only for some kinds of noodles, and knives are rare outside restaurants catering to foreigners. No sporks. (Most food doesn’t need a knife anyway, and you usually eat chicken and fish with your hands.)
The teachers realize I’m still confused. “What is that one?” one asks, pointing to the top of my lunch box as I take out my own food. On top of my lunch, like every other day, are a banana and my…“Oh, spoon!”
The teachers all laughed and repeated the word “spoon”, then told me what it was in Khmer. (Fair exchange, right? Except I’ve forgotten.)
This is where most people laugh when I tell the story, but for me the best was yet to come. One of the men who works in the PIO office (i.e. just visiting the school) came into the kitchen to say hello, and asked why they weren’t eating. The others explain, and the man nods and starts heading away…but the fifth grade teacher (who’s sitting across from me) finishes it off with “at spoon!”
And it’s been a week, but I still smile whenever I think of “at spoon!”.
I would guess that at comes from ah-dtei as well, but that’s pure speculation on my part. ↩︎