The Strange Tale of the Magic Flying Whiteboard
“In the year two thousand one hundred I will visit Paris. I will be 132 years old but it’s ok.”
This work is inspired by a 48 year old Khmer man who lives across the street in my spiritual home, the dusty village of Pum Prey in eastern Cambodia. The man is my adopted uncle, Nan.
Born in the late sixties before the fall of Cambodia to Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Nan spent his youth trying to survive the oppressive conditions of genocide. Around him and throughout the country, millions perished from starvation, disease, torture, and execution as Pol Pot sought to create an extreme communist agrarian society.
Above all, the Khmer Rouge recognized what a threat educated people were to their totalitarian reign and systematically eradicated all known intellectuals, musicians, artists, college graduates, and religious figures. Being literate, wearing glasses, or lacking the telltale callused hands of a farmer was a death sentence.
Even so, as a young man, Nan snuck around the village under the cover of darkness to a known educated person’s house to study French by oil lamp in secret. He learned chemistry, a skill which is virtually unrecognized by the younger generation. When he was 19 he was sent across the country to fight on the front lines. As a soldier he faced starvation and inhumane conditions and recalls several times a company of 100 men going out to fight and he and only 5 others returning safely.
When the first French people in at least 45 years arrived in Pum Prey in early 2015, Nan was able to recall the entire alphabet and many words and phrases after not speaking or hearing the language in about 25 years. He was nostalgic and very inspired to begin studying French again. He expressed his dream to go to Paris one day and to send his young son to study there.
Every night I’m in the village, Nan and a small group of other men and women in their forties and fifties congregate around the whiteboard, which we all refer to as “le tableau” in French, and study by the light of a single naked bulb.
Together we discover the world. We teach and learn Khmer (Cambodian), French, and English. We speak about our histories, our cultures, science, art, poetry, war, and love, all the time taking turns scribbling furiously and drawing diagrams and pictures on the whiteboard. We exhaust pens rapidly.
Late in the evening one night after a long session, Nan turned to us and said, “I just now went to Paris. You were still sitting here in Pum Prey village and you didn’t see that I was gone because I went there and came back so quickly. I danced with all the pretty French girls and drank Heineken. I went to Paris riding on le tableau. It’s much easier to fly by le tableau than to fly by plane because you don’t need money for gas. You only need a pen. Pens are cheap! You write the name of the place you want to go, and you’re there.”