Growing up in Long Beach, CA, surrounded by the Cambodian diaspora, Khmer (Cambodian) honorific registers were the bane of my existence. As a child, I could not differentiate between si (“eat,” informal) and nyam (“eat,” neutral), or even anh (“I/me,” informal) and knyom (“I/me,” neutral). To me, these words were synonyms, interchangeable with one another, without regard to context, mood, or positionality. Because I could neither handle the criticisms nor the laughter from Cambodian American adults whenever I used the wrong word, I decided to stop speaking Khmer at the tender age of five. Around the same time, I was about to start kindergarten and could not differentiate between “mushroom” and “bathroom” in English either. Fearing I would be unable to express a desperate need to relieve myself in school, rather than an urgent need to use fungi, my family sat me down and made me practice saying “bathroom” over and over again. Eventually I learned the difference between “mushroom” and “bathroom,” but I was never given the same guidance with Khmer honorific registers.
I attempted to overcome my fear of Khmer in my 20s, studying the language and selecting it as the topic of my dissertation “Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence and Change After the Khmer Rouge.” Page 99 of my dissertation is located in “Chapter 2: How Not to Talk to Monks,” a chapter centered around an honorific register dedicated to Buddhist monks in Cambodia. With current trends, it seems that not knowing how to speak to monks in the monk honorific register is becoming the norm and this page highlights two possible strategies for navigating Khmer honorifics. On the top half of the page, I am ending a sub-section about monk avoidance as one strategy Cambodians may employ to evade speaking to monks, especially if they feel their fluency in the monk honorific register is lacking. “[Cambodians] would rather hide and run away from [monks] than use the ‘wrong’ register” (page 99). The last half of page 99 is also the beginning of a new section about using the ordinary register with monks. Cambodians may preface a conversation with monks by apologizing, stating that they do not have command of the monk honorific register, and asking if it is alright if they continue to speak to the monk in the ordinary register. “Instead of running away, these Khmer-speakers hope that the monks will be forgiving of this flaw” (page 99).
The anxiety Cambodians encounter when in the presence of monks parallels my anxiety as a child. One page prior, I shared a discussion with the Venerable Bunchea, a Cambodian monk who was in residence at a Buddhist temple in Brooklyn, NY, about Cambodians and their (lack of) fluency in the monk honorific register. Throughout our interaction, whenever I caught myself saying knyom (“I/me,” neutral), I quickly self-corrected myself by saying knyom gana (“I/me,” with monks). The Venerable Bunchea even interrupted me several times by sternly saying “Gana!” whenever I absentmindedly said chas (“yes,” female) to remind me that I ought to use gana (“yes,” with monks) while talking to him. Like other Cambodians who make similar linguistic slippages, I felt like a failure. Should I run away the next time I encounter a monk as some Cambodians do to avoid embarrassment?
When I asked the Venerable Bunchea which of the two strategies discussed on page 99 he preferred (having Cambodians run away from him versus speaking to him, but apologizing for any mistakes made), he answered with:
When we’re afraid of one another, and are scared to talk to each other, scared of being wrong… we continue to be scared… In Khmer we say, “If you’re scared, get closer.” If you’re scared, get closer. That’s how we learn. (page 98)
Re-visiting page 99 reminded me that I was not alone in my fears of the Khmer language—even native Khmer-speakers shudder in the presence of monks. While I did run away from Khmer as a young child due to my linguistic errors, just as Cambodians today run away from monks, I have gotten closer to it as an adult, even turning it into the topic of my dissertation. Mistakes will be made, judgements and criticisms abound, but it happens to the best of us. The fate of the Buddhist monk honorific register rests in the hands of contemporary Cambodians: will they get closer to monks or will they walk away?
Cheryl Yin. 2021. Khmer Honorifics: Re-emergence and Change After the Khmer Rouge. University of Michigan. Phd.