I first came to Cambodia in 2000, for a film shoot in Phnom Penh, where we were given no time at all to explore and none to fly north to the ruins of Angkor. But I had read about Angkor as an art student. And I knew the rudimentary history of the Khmer Rouge, had read the books, watched the film The Killing Fields. However, none of this prepared me for the quiet dignity and calm inner strength of Cambodia’s people. On my return to the States that fall, I could stop talking about Cambodia. I had never met people who had so little yet seemed so full. I wanted to go back to Cambodia. The years passed. I was lucky enough to find Lori and the Ponheary Ly Foundation through the internet. Began making Christmas time donations. Had the cd sent to my mother. Cried when I watched the big bike delivery. And knew, in my heart, that this time I could make a difference. Here was a foundation and two women doing something very real and measurable for kids I could believe would truly benefit from the help. But I wanted to do more. As gas prices spiraled up last fall and airline ticket prices started to go through the roof, I started to wonder if I was ever going to be able to get back to Cambodia. A few weeks before the economic melt down (which would dramatically alter everything, but who could know?) I found a sweet spot in mid January and quickly booked our flights. And as I emailed Ponheary to discuss dates and our visit, I learned that she is always more than willing to take her clients to visit a school. But I didn’t just want to show up and gawk at the children. That didn’t seem fair or appropriate. So as the time for the trip neared, I asked two friends of mine with young children to help me put together a project that I hoped could have meaning for kids in the US and students in Cambodia.
Armed with 45 English labeled crayon drawings of everything from snowballs to soccer fields, beach umbrellas to puppies, skyscrapers to clouds, we arrived at Tchey School to visit an English class taught by one of the teachers who will also be helping the students learn to use the new computers donated last year. I’d assembled the drawings into a flash card style story, and was amazed at the hush that descended as I started trying to explain things like “cold” and “snow”. The students repeated each major word after me, as well as a few of my conjunctions, as I learned when having said “Flower”, “Petal”, “Leaf”, “and Clouds”., they answered with “Flower, Petal, Leaf and Clouds.” With amazingly good ears, and the knowledge that their language puts a premium on inflection, they also completely mimicked my intonation, so that when I, squinting to make out a penned “Pond” ended the word with an upward question-mark inflection, they repeated it perfectly, to great giggles from all of us as we realized our mistake.
Lori had cautioned me that the students might need help coming up with ideas of what to draw for the students in the US, but they dove right in, drawing wonderful pictures of their houses on stilts, the temples of Angkor, one boy even copied a page from his text book on the lands “given” to Vietnam by the French; obviously that history lesson had made an impression! One delightfully talented young girl gave me two pictures I realized were of herself: one holding a microphone (look out American Idol – she likes to sing) and another in her traditional dance costume. They are beautiful! But nothing could have prepared me for what came next.
I had admired the origami animals and paper sculptures dangling on string in the classrooms; had learned the teachers were using origami to teach the students about geometry. Having finished their drawings, students started asking for another piece of paper (imagine prizing 1 sheet of paper like that?) and the next thing I knew, I was being presented with little paper sculptures. The first was an amazing boat, with two people drawn inside and a detachable canopy. Next was a hopping frog. Then birds and intricate flowers. Then a little box. The students had no glue, everything was folded and tabbed together. They brought them to me saying, “Teacher, teacher”. I’d been pretty strong up to this point but this really choked me up. Thoeungh Rithy, the teacher for this class, told me afterwards that he had wanted to do something like this (the drawing exchange), but had no idea how to go about it.
You quickly realize when visiting the schools that there is no lack of desire to invent wonderful projects to stimulate the minds of these children, just (just? such an inadequate word, that) the people and time to implement the programs. Tchey school has no electricity. Some wonderfully modern electric wires go right by the school, on their way from Thailand to the hotels and restaurants of Siem Reap. But there isn’t enough capacity to allow the schools to draw from the grid, which is why the donated computers will have their batteries charged ultimately by a solar rig. Things we take for granted are incredibly precious there.
After two hours, it was time for the students to take a break, and for the teachers to get ready for the afternoon classes. It was Saturday, but as children only spend a half day in school, they go six days a week. (This means the teachers teach 2 sessions, 6 days a week). Fortified by some wonderfully fresh coconut milk and a million watts worth of smiles, we exchanged email addresses with Rithy and left for Siem Reap.
It was later that night, packing up the origami sculptures so I wouldn’t crush them on the way home, that my husband said, “Did you see this?” He was holding the little box. Inside, he’d found a folded sheet of paper. I took it out and read it, and the tears I’d managed to hold at bay that morning at Tchey school finally escaped. The note said, “Hello teacher. Good morning teacher. How are you teacher? My name is Srey Leak. I love you teacher.” I have to give it to Cambodia. Even when you try to be the one who brings something, you leave with so much more than what you brought with you. I cannot think of a better way to spend time during a holiday.
Any thoughts I had, that I was being selfish by wanting to do the art project, that yet another tourist visiting the schools was an imposition, that there was something self-serving in the exercise, quite vanished. Bringing something of yourself to Cambodia may be one of the best presents you can bring. Cambodia is still a place where you can make a difference. Please go. Take science projects, take math flash cards, take costumes and put on a play. The students and teachers will love you for it.