June 10th, 2008
Editor’s Note: The idea of guest authors was sparked awhile ago but Jessie is the first I’ve asked. I met her at a time when she was discouraged. She was reeling with the raw nature of Cambodia, but I think she was also facing herself.
Jessie is struggling a bit with her early 20’s and Cambodia was a something of a mandate from her family. Her sister asked me to check in with Jessie when I was in Siem Reap; I had to work, but I found some down time I to spend with her. The Jessie I met was incredibly open, honest, and a pleasure to hang out with. So, when she wanted to head home in frustration, I encouraged her to stay and put a little more effort into connecting. I hoped she would be able to see Cambodia as a place not just for adventure tourists, but a country full of people trying to succeed in life–as we are–but with fewer opportunities.
Jessie did connect, marvelously.
The first thing I noticed about Phnom Penh was the smell. I later learned that it is a combination of Khmer food, hot garbage, human waste and exhaust. The air in Cambodia is heavy and the smell almost penetrates your body. One person described it perfectly when he said “the air in Phnom Penh feels like it could corrode your skin off.” The smell was the first thing I resented, and incidentally, it was the first thing I became accustomed too.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Cambodia. I should be in the second semester of my junior year in college. But life has a funny way of NOT going accordingly to your plan. I failed out of not one, but two colleges. I have a smattering of credits almost qualifying for an Associates Degree, and have I little to no career experience. My parents were fed up, tired of spending time and money on a fruitless investment, meaning not just my schooling, but me. I was lost. I had no direction, no passion and no idea who I was or where I wanted to go in life. I was just as fed up as my parents.
Driving home, my phone rang with a strange number. I thought it was a prank, but it was my sister. She has been living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, off and on for two years working for different organizations and is in the process of starting her own company. She sounded like she was in a box, but I made out three distinct words: “Come to Cambodia.”
Thinking, I took the long way home from school. I had no idea what Cambodia was like. I didn’t know what language was spoken, how the people lived, what state the economy was in. Nothing. I pictured streets filled with men in pointed straw hats and rickshaws behind, rice paddies, bungalow houses on stilts and people eating crickets and spiders. I had no clue.
My parents gave me 24 hours to decide during which I frantically researched, called friends, and smoked way too much. But I left two weeks later and arrived jet lagged and ill-prepared for my first day as a volunteer English teacher at the school my sister worked for.
I spent most of my days helping the kids with the new computers the school had received. I had no clear instructions, only to “hang out” and adjust. Apparently I did something wrong. The owner of the school told my sister that I “wasn’t working out” and was “not what he expected.”
Re-cap: I flew 15 hours to a country where I knew only my sister, who I think saw me as a burden, to work a job I thought I had for 6 months. I felt trapped, alone, and lost in a world I knew nothing about. To top it off, my parents weren’t receptive when I called them, hoping to find an answer.
Scared and feeling helpless, I met one of my few friends for lunch. He encouraged me to stick it out and gave me the website and a contact person for an organization working with kids.
I arrived at the Cambodian Dump Children’s Committee, a part of the Center for Children’s Happiness. It resembles, for lack of a better word, a compound; there is a rec yard, a rusty swing set, a little garden and two huge buildings. One was the boy’s dorms and school rooms, the other the girl’s dorms and main building for the kitchen, theater stage and computer room. About 93 children live there, most orphans found at the city landfill, Steung Meanchey.
There were so many children there, but one little girl changed my life. Her name was Srey Ka. She wanted to be a traditional Khmer Dancer, but was too young to start training. She would watch the other girls and copy their movements. When I asked her what she was doing she took my hands in her tiny ones and moved my fingers into extremely painful positions, mimicking the movements.
I think I needed her as much as she may have needed me. We could only communicate in mime, usually with her laughing at me, but she loved being held. She wanted to know that I wouldn’t let go. Once I opened up to her and the other kids, Cambodia became different. It wasn’t a scary place, it wasn’t as dirty as it was before and the more I relaxed, the more the country offered. I met more people, explored the city and found wonderful new places. I could get on a moto taxi and know where I was going. My perpetual fear gave way to an entirely new sense of independence; I knew freedom.
Leaving Srey Ka was hard. They were simply being themselves, but she and the other children opened my eyes to the beauty of Cambodia. Those kids have never played Xbox, eaten a Twinkie, watched prime-time television, or done the many things Americans equate with happiness, yet they were happier than any other group of people I have met. They have the uncanny ability to look at each day as the gift that it truly is. They don’t tell themselves to relax, enjoy, or absorb; they do it naturally.
I left with a sense of hope, something I had lost a long time ago. I don’t fear tomorrow anymore then I dwell on yesterday. I was only there three months, but I learned the importance of loving myself and loving others, of being accepting, open, and kind. One day I hope to return to Cambodia to give back as much as I received.
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