Twenty-Four Teens and a Teacher in Siem Reap

As our plane began its descent into Siem Reap, Cambodia, Larisa, a twelfth grader from the American International School of Hong Kong, one of my 24 students on our group’s weeklong community service trip, called out to her friends in the seat in front of us: “Is that flooding down there?”

I leaned over towards the oval plane window to take a look. Vibrant green rice fields had given way to a rippling murky brown with patches of green poking through—those patches, we soon realized, were the very tops of palm trees.

“No, that’s not flooding,” Joshua, a ninth grader in the seat in front of us, called over his shoulder. “We won’t need to row to the village.”

“Bet you ten dollars it is,” Larisa retorted.

Larisa won the bet. We were landing in a country under water.

This year’s rainy season was unusually heavy and started in the third week of September. Seventeen provinces in the north-west and along the Mekong River in central and southern Cambodia were heavily flooded. More than 1.7 million people were affected by the flooding and 168 people were killed. As of October 18, 2013, when our plane was making its descent into Siem Reap, the flooding had only partially receded. Some 231,484 houses, 1,242 schools, 78 health centers and hospitals, and 533 pagodas were flooded. Roads, bridges and infrastructure were damaged.

In Siem Reap province, where we would be spending the week, the waters had partially receded, but the roads were still choked with mud, and many of the villages were flooded. Our assignment was to construct a village house in the traditional method out of panels made of woven dried palm tree leaves for a type one poor family who had lost their home in the recent flooding. The classification of type one poor is applied to families who cannot feed themselves on a daily basis and have no savings. Our other assignment was to teach English in a local English-language school that served type one poor families. Our school’s students would teach in shifts and also help cement the school’s boundary fence, which had been built from recycled plastic bottles stuffed inside a chicken wire frame. As a believer in John Dewey’s model of leading students in experiential learning by active teacher participation, I would throw myself into the work alongside my students.

The students at our school are mostly Hong Kong Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Korean, and Taiwanese. As students enrolled in a private English-language international school, they are the new Asian elite. They come from comfortable backgrounds and enjoy the typical lifestyle of the upper classes in Hong Kong. They live in luxury climate controlled apartment complexes, whizz through the city on the ultramodern MTR system, shop in the air-conditioned malls that serve as the exit and entrance point of almost every MTR stop in Hong Kong. Many are raised by Philippine nannies and maids, euphemistically referred to as “helpers.”

Maid service comes cheap at 60 Hong Kong dollars an hour ($7.73 US). The Hong Kong monthly minimum wage for a full-time live-in helper who works six days a week and is on duty 24 hours is 4,010 HK ($517 US). With high Hong Kong salaries in dual income families, often exceeding six figures, and a fixed 15% tax rate, domestic labor is affordable and relied upon. With the deteriorating economic situation in the Philippines, there is no shortage of domestic workers willing and able to work in Hong Kong. It is possible in Hong Kong for a kid to grow up never having washed a dish themselves; never having done their own laundry; never having cleaned their own living space; and especially not ever having done manual labor. The goal of our school’s community service project is to broaden our students’ horizons by pushing them out of their comfort zones and putting them to work in impoverished communities.

When the plane landed, we piled out and walked across the small runway towards the airport terminal. My co-teacher and I distributed the two visas each student needed to enter Cambodia. As the kids slowly snaked their way through immigration, each of their foreign passports checked and double-checked and then stamped with three separate stamps pounded out in those familiar rhythms of the bureaucratic machinery of a formerly totalitarian state, I could smell the old stale blood of the killing fields in the air. I especially smelled it when a sternfaced woman in her fifties, dressed in an austere olive-colored military uniform, demanded that I tear out the visa I had neatly glued inside my passport, for her closer inspection. I could sense the paranoia in the many forms we all needed to fill out simply to enter the country.

As I stood at the immigration booth, being stared down by the officer, who could have been one of the Khmer Rouge child soldiers for all I knew, I thought of my entry into Hong Kong just eleven weeks ago. Two girls in comfortable, friendly-looking uniforms, giggled and gossiped in Cantonese behind the immigration booth glass, as they took people’s passports, glanced through them, and waved them through. One of them gave my passport a perfunctory glance, noticed my work visa, and then pulled out a tin box covered in pink Hello Kitty stickers, unlocked the box with a key the size of a child’s jewelry box key, and placed one neat stamp inside my passport.

Once through Cambodian immigration we headed outside where we were met by our ground operators, David and Jo, and their local Cambodian guide, Lim. David Whitaker and his partner started Indigo, tailored school trips, seven years ago. Their vision was to make a difference in impoverished communities and at the same time to open the hearts and minds of teenagers to the possibilities of contributing to solutions to global poverty by participating in making change happen. Over the next nine days we would learn many lessons on how to help communities in a way that was community building and self- sustaining. Indigo made connections with non-governmental organizations on the ground and with local people, embracing the belief that “if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for the rest of his life.”

David explained the ground rules to the students and told them that this week they would have the opportunity to make a difference in a poor family’s life, in a poor village’s life. They could chose to either hang back and behave as tourists and go home having had a nice time, or they could throw themselves into the experience and feel that they truly contributed something of themselves to the global community.

Our group had already contributed before they even left Hong Kong. They had collected 70 pairs of blue jeans and had lugged them all to Cambodia. We would be donating the jeans to a group of type one poor women who had been taught to sew and who now work in a sustainability project sewing toys, laptop covers, iPhone pouches and other touristic items out of old jeans and fabrics. The money these women earned enabled them to pay for basic needs for their families.

David told us that we had about two hours before the sun went down and we would use them by hopping into the row of tuk tuks waiting for us and ride to a 1,000-year-old temple in the jungle. A tuk tuk is a three-wheeled cart attached to a motorcycle. A driver rides the motorcycle that pulls the cart, which seats three, or at the most, four passengers. Throughout the week tuk tuks would be our only form of transportation, other than our feet.

In Cambodia few roads are paved; therefore, most of the time we were rattling across the countryside on clay roads riddled with deep pot holes and crevices: an obvious example of how war had impeded Cambodia’s infrastructure.

The views from a tuk tuk are amazing: oxen and water buffalo graze in the muddy waters, roadside establishments sell barbequed foods and chips and petrol poured into recycled whiskey bottles; vibrant green rice fields beg to be harvested; traditional village houses built from palm tree leaves and suspended high on stilts sway gently in the tropical breeze. Most amazing was the ingenuity of Cambodian transportation. It was not unusual to see husband, wife, and several small children—even infants and toddlers—balanced on one motorcycle bouncing down the pot-holed roads. Children maneuvered large rusty bicycles through the dirt, often balancing a sibling or two on the backrest or on the handlebars. I was amazed at the local people’s sense of balance and at the same time saddened that it took that much physical effort for them to travel even the shortest distances.

As we traveled through the countryside in our tuk tuks one thing that caught my eye was large blue tin sign posts everywhere with the same message: Cambodian People’s Party. The signs were suspended over the entrances into people’s village homes; planted in the ground on metal posts at almost every intersection; loomed over roadside eateries and meeting places.

After we arrived at the temple, as we walked through the temple ruins, the stones a combination of green from moss and fungus bred by Cambodia’s constant heat and humidity, toned orange from the light of the setting sun, amid the jungle sounds of chattering monkeys, I asked Lim what those signs meant. What was the Cambodian People’s Party?

“Basically,” Lim said, “they are the old Khmer Rouge under a new name. The old perpetrators are still around, but they’ve changed their colors. Recently we had a democratic election in Cambodia and the opposition party won, but the Cambodian People’s Party rigged the election so it looked as though they won. The people want the United Nations to get involved, but nothing is happening.”

This was a typical scenario in post-Soviet countries as well. I recognized the dynamic; the evolution of a party that had committed genocide against its people into a more passable political form: a wolf in a lamb’s hide.

“They are simply power hungry,” Lim continued. “The Cambodian People’s Party is full of Vietnamese Communists. There are two things the Cambodian People’s Party refuses to fund adequately, and that is medicine and education. Teachers are paid $25 a month and teach in over-crowded classrooms. It is not uncommon to have 60 pupils in a class. The ones who have nowhere to sit crowd in the back of the classroom hoping to catch a few words of what the teacher is saying. The Cambodian People’s Party does not want people to be educated. Because of these conditions, there is a teacher shortage and a shortage of schools. Children must go to school in shifts: morning or afternoon. Doctors are also underpaid, and in the countryside, health clinics are understaffed. There is no medical care for women. Women give birth to their children in their village homes up on stilts assisted by their mothers and sisters. Because rural people drink the water around their homes, the infant mortality rate in this region is one in five. Where we have installed water filters, the infant mortality rate has gone down to one in seven.”

I asked Lim if the Cambodian People’s Party had a lot of support from the people, since their signs are everywhere, even on private property.

“People are afraid,” Lim said. “It’s because of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone remembers. When the party tells a villager that he will place a sign on his land, the villager does not dare disagree.”

As we walked, Lim told me about his background. He was half-Chinese, which made him an ethnic minority in a country of Khmers, or people descended from Indians. His father, during the years of the Khmer Rouge, was rounded up into one of the rural camps. Being of Chinese heritage, he was an “enemy of Angka,” or the “organization,” a vague name for the political group that had seized power in Cambodia. In the camp, he was forced to marry a Khmer woman, Lim’s mother, in a wedding ceremony in which thousands of single men and women were brought together, paired up, and married by the Khmer Rouge. These couples did not even know each other before they were married. They were paired off randomly, to mix up their ethnicities. However, Lim’s parents lived together until his father died a few years ago. They raised four children.

“My mother is not beautiful,” Lim said, “she has very brown skin and a flat nose. She is from the peasant class. My father was from the upper classes.”

I was surprised by Lim’s openness. Why tell a complete stranger like myself, whom you have only just met, something that personal?

Later over dinner at the hotel David explained that Khmer people are exceedingly open, honest, and transparent and say things that westerners might consider rude or too personal. They did it innocently and they meant no harm by it. He gave an example. He had not been in Cambodia for half a year. When he came back to lead a trip, his Cambodian guides met him at the airport, pointed at his stomach and said, “Your stomach is getting fat, David.” It was a simple observation, not an insult, David explained. They simply express what is on their mind and what they see without reservation or filtering.

A few days later, I experienced that Khmer openness and hospitality. We went to the Night Market, a market place oriented towards tourists in which one could buy anything from Khmer silk woven scarves and tablecloths to foot massages. I bought a traditional silk tablecloth and scarf from a vendor that Lim assured me weaves all their own silk in the traditional Khmer style. I took a long time choosing the color and pattern and during that time had a friendly conversation with the young woman who wove and sold the silks. She urged me to buy another scarf. I declined, joking that on a teacher’s salary I could not afford that many scarves. Later, walking through the market, the same young woman came running up to me, telling me she had been searching all over the market for me. “I like you,” she said, “You came to Cambodia to help us. Please, let me give you a gift.” She led me to her stall and insisted that I choose another scarf, but this time as a gift. She modeled different colors and styles for me. Her friend jumped in and began competing with her for me to choose one of her scarves. In the end, I chose a pale blue and orange scarf, which she wrapped up for me and handed to me with a blessing, palms pressed together.

Already on our first morning in Cambodia we were off to the village where we would be building a house. David and Lim introduced us to At and Tia and their four children, who had lost their home in the flooding. They were a type one poor family, which meant that they often went without food. Nights, Tia would fish to feed his family and sell whatever was left over. At stayed home with their four small children. She was pregnant with their fifth.

Before we arrived, the villagers had hacked the palm tree leaves off with machetes, shimmying up the tall trees to reach them. Then the leaves had to be soaked in water for a week to make them insect repellent. Then they were folded over a long piece of bamboo and woven together with a bamboo cord. We would use wire to weave the palm tree leaves securely to the frame from both sides.

We were split into work groups and were taught our tasks by our Cambodian guides. One group would nail together bamboo frames. The other group would weave flaps of dried palm tree leaves onto the frames. At the end of the week, we would raise those panels onto the frame of the village house on stilts, nail them in place, and we would have built a house for one family.

As our groups worked, curious children, half-naked, naked, or dressed in ragged bits of clothing, watched us from a safe distance. These were the six out of seven who survived their childhoods. The children laughed, played, giggled, like children anywhere. Some of the teenagers in our group were very good at engaging the children, carrying them around on their shoulders, showing them card tricks, laughing and smiling with them.

I was truly proud of our students, especially the girls. They threw themselves into the work, methodically performing the tedious repetitious tasks in the hot sun without complaint. Many of them held a hammer in their hands for the first time and for the first time were taught how to use it. No one complained. Everyone understood. The poverty around us was obvious: Men wearing loin cloths for lack of any other clothing (I even saw a man wearing a woman’s flowery blouse with ruffles); pregnant women carrying heavy loads or working knee deep in murky water harvesting rice; women cooking rice for families of five or six in a clay pot outdoors on an open flame outdoors. Our Cambodian guides had explained that Khmer people only considered food cooked outside on an open flame tasty, but still, this did not make the process any easier, especially during the torrential afternoon rains.

In the afternoons, our group would work in the school and the other group would come to the village. The English School was founded by Anthony and Fiona, a couple in their forties from Australia. Anthony and Fiona are an example of those rare people who live their dream and make it work. They are from Melbourne and both held down corporate jobs, working for an Australian electrical utility. They worked long hours, traveled often for work, and after a decade of this lifestyle, grew tired of the rat race. They both trained as English teachers and went abroad to teach in China for a year. The idea was to get away from it all for a year, one year, and then they would go back to their old lives. While in China they took a trip to Cambodia. It was love at first sight. They had discovered two loves: a love of teaching and a love for Cambodia. Both were more satisfying than the corporate world. They have been in Siem Reap for eight years now and are raising their two sons, ages 6 and 2, in the local community. Their older son is fluent in Khmer, English, and French.

The couple opened up a few local touristic businesses and used the profits from those businesses to create their own NGO, HUSK. The goal of HUSK is to raise the level of poverty in the Siem Reap province by focusing on improving living conditions in two villages; educating children to become fluent in English, so that they could find employment in the Siem Reap tourist industry; and supporting public health through building health clinics. Of the many projects undertaken by HUSK, and assisted by students working with Indigo, besides building the village house and working at the school, two other projects that we saw were the vertical farming project and the water filter project. One of the causes of poverty in Cambodia is when a family does not own land or very little land. HUSK brings PCP pipes into the villages and erects structures that create three tiers in which families can grow vegetables inside the pipes for much needed vitamins. The other project is to install water filters to purify the water that is taken from local ponds, streams, rivers, etc. My favorite project is the school.

Using an enthusiastic, student-centered, active call and response approach, Anthony and Fiona teach village children English in grades one through eight. Because students in Cambodia only go to school half a day, the other half of the day they are welcome to come and attend free English lessons. The students are enthusiastic and eager and cycle long distances to come to school. Anthony and Fiona show obvious love and concern for the children, know all their names, and are passionate about giving through teaching.

Classes take place in two cool, shaded, cozy cement classrooms that were built out of recycled plastic bottles. Outside of the city of Siem Reap there is no trash collection. Therefore, mountains of plastic bottles litter the countryside. Villagers burn the plastic, which causes noxious fumes; cows and water buffalo try to eat the plastic and die; the bottles clog up the water supply. HUSK started paying villagers for every plastic bottle they brought to them. They accumulated tens of thousands of bottles. Teams of students and local Cambodians then stuffed the bottles with plastic debris and fitted them inside chicken wire frames. These frames are then cemented over and painted. Because of Cambodia’s tropical climate, insulation is not needed. Plastic does not biodegrade. The structures are timeless.

I was observing one of my groups of students enthusiastically teach a class, when a young Cambodian man sat down beside me. Immediately, small children encircled him, eager to demonstrate that they could count to ten in English. This young man, whose name was Balam, had recently begun teaching at the school. Soon our conversation drifted into politics.

“The problem in Cambodia is that the Khmer Rouge killed off the intellectual class,” Balam said. “Those who managed to survive the genocide are too frightened to express themselves. They hide. We are trying to rebuild the country from nothing. This is our work.”

Balam explained that he was a member of Cambodia’s dispossessed because one of his uncles had worked for the American Embassy. They were an intellectual family who had to live underground and who are still cautious about revealing too much about themselves.

David had told me that Cambodians do not like to talk about the four years of genocide that took place under the Khmer Rouge, a genocide in which at least four million people were murdered. He said that Cambodians are a cheerful people who do not want to dwell on past evil.

Balam confirmed that the Khmer Rouge genocide was a taboo subject. “We cannot talk about the genocide publicly,” Balam said. “The Cambodian People’s Party uses the propaganda that we must all move on and forget bad things in the past. But they only do this to cover up their crimes and not be held accountable.”

I asked Balam how he learned English. He explained that like many young Cambodian men, as a teenager he was sent to live with Buddhist monks. The monks were educated and taught him English. Lim had told me that he lived with the monks for three years. Because the monastery he lived in was a popular tourist sight, he took advantage of the situation by conversing as much as he could with foreigners. I had to laugh at some of the uniquely American phrases Lim used, such as, “Don’t be a wimp,” or “Push the pedal to the medal.” He had never been inside an English speaking country and yet he knew more idiomatic phrases than the average American.

As we were talking, a small child climbed into Balam’s lap and wrapped his arms around him.

“I love teaching these children,” Balam said. “They are Cambodia’s future.”

On our last morning in Cambodia our guides brought us to a local temple to offer alms to the monks. We were given careful instructions on what we should do. We must sit on the mat with our bodies in the half lotus position and with our palms together and raised at the level of our eyebrows. When the monks come, we may not look at them, touch them, talk to them. We must listen to their chanting and then each take a bowl of rice and make our way down the line of monks, standing before us in their ragged orange robes, oldest to youngest, and scoop rice into each one’s rice pot. This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to the times of Buddha. It is a gift. An opportunity to speak the names of one’s ancestors softly while distributing the rice to feed their spirits. It is a time of blessing—just as this opportunity to catch a glimpse of Cambodia from the inside has been a blessing.

Laima Vince

Laima Vince has published three works of literary nonfiction and a novel. Her play, The Interpreter, is currently in the repertoire of the Vilnius Chamber Theatre in Vilnius, Lithuania. Currently she is the Head of the English Department at the American International School in Hong Kong.

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