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before reading this blogpost, if you haven’t seen Lupita Nyong’o’s speech on beauty already, please, watch it. Click on the link below to watch.
First of all, I apologize for my lapse of posting in recent weeks. I have been lucky enough to be visited by those I love the most— my father in January, my boyfriend in January and my father and my mother came together in February— and between lesson planning, exam writing, project coordinating and writing application essays for when I return to the USA, I was inundated with extra work on top of my teaching hours. But, I have finally found myself with a massive amount of spare time, only 5 short weeks left of my time here in Cambodia, and quite a lot to say!!
Now, onto the crux of this post. Since arriving in Siem Reap, Ariel and I have been bombarded by the Cambodian concept of beauty (Ariel wrote a post on her experiences with this subject in the fall…www.arieldevra.tumblr.com). Maybe it’s because we are women that we notice it more, or maybe it’s because we work with teenagers (the majority of whom are girls). Whatever the reason, our girls have made it very clear to us the standards by which they judge beauty: very thin, straight hair, small facial features, clear and very fair complexion.
This band, T-Ara, is a South Korean pop group that our girls are currently OBSESSED with. When you ask them to describe what they perceive as a beautiful woman, this is who they describe.
The most prominent determinant that I have noticed in their distinction of beauty is skin tone. Skin tone varies in Cambodia, some people have very light complexion, while others are very dark. If you have dark skin in Cambodia, society automatically deems you less attractive. The first time I was exposed to this social norm was in July. I was with one of the older students at the Woodhouse (our safe house/boarding house for some of the students) as she was cleaning her room, which I was overseeing. She had music playing, and Beyoncé’s “Ring the Alarm” was her song of choice. She pointed to the photo of Beyoncé, and asked me whether or not I thought she was beautiful. My answer was an unequivocal yes, and I told her that I thought Beyoncé is one of the most beautiful women on the planet. She made a skeptical face, and asked me if I liked the color of her skin. ”Of course,” I answered. “She has beautiful skin.” The student then cringed and said “Oh, but she is very dark.” I was floored. First of all, Beyoncé is absolutely beautiful, as are gagillions of other dark-skinned women around the world, famous or not. I also hadn’t realized that such absurd generalizations would be something I would bear witness to here. But, they are prevalent and deeply engrained in these kids.
These beautiful young women make constant comments about how they wish their skin were lighter, and it breaks my heart. They are genuinely gorgeous, and huge components of that description are the varied, beautiful, and deep colors of their skin. But, they intrinsically look at themselves and do not see the immeasurable beauty in each of their own faces. Similar to the U.S, the super markets and pharmacies have shelves lined with skin creams and facial cleansers. But, here in Cambodia, the majority of those soaps and lotions advertise to be “skin lightening” or “skin whitening” products. It is somewhat difficult to find a skin product that does not have complexion-lightening chemicals. There is clearly a large market for these products, or they wouldn’t be stocked in such bulk in these shops. My beautiful girls are sadly a component of that market. They often will find magazine or newspaper clippings from beauty companies and revel over the products advertised in their free time, discussing which ones they wish they could afford. They always point to products that advertise their “skin lightening” abilities. I have spent tireless hours trying to explain to my girls how beautiful they are, how gorgeous their skin color is and how dangerous these products are to both the long-term pigmentation of their beautiful skin and to their self-esteem.
The most beautiful girls that I have ever met, inside and out. It is legitimately impossible not to describe these girls as beautiful.
My girls are some of the many reasons that I found Lupita Nyong’o’s speech in this clip so inspiring. Ms. Nyong’o has recently burst onto the public’s radar with her Oscar-winning role in the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.” Nyong’o’s powerful performance and engaging, graceful presence have made her an instant star. In this clip, she is giving a speech at Essence Magazine’s 7th Annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. I think that her message in this speech is an important one for EVERY little girl to universally hear— beauty is not tangible, it is not exclusive to one cookie-cutter type of girl, it has nothing to do with what products or clothing you put on your body, or how your hair is cut, or how you apply your make-up, and it is so much deeper than your appearance alone. She attributes beauty to the depth of a woman’s soul, her compassion, and her sincerity. She is a beautiful and clearly brilliant woman, much like my girls. She speaks with strength about her own struggles with the same issues that my girls are enduring. Her message is something that I have been trying so hard to slam into the minds of my students. Their dark skin makes them beautiful, and it is only one factor of many that makes up their beauty, and the universal determinants for a truly beautiful woman are what lies within her heart and her mind, not on top of her body. I am planning on showing them this speech and discussing it in an upcoming health class about loving our bodies, and I hope that they can take the lessons from role models like Lupita and find the strength to break through the self hatred and the false stereotypes that have been instituted by ignorance. I want for each of them to look in the mirror and know that she is truly beautiful, on the inside and on the outside.
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I couldn’t be more proud to announce that my girl’s soccer team at TGC has ranked second place overall in their regular season, and is moving onto the Grand Final Championship for the league. In two weeks, the girls will compete for the number one slot! They have worked so hard, they have been incredibly dedicated towards their success and they have been beyond supportive of each other. I am very lucky to have been able to coach and lead such a wonderful group of girls this season. They have deserved each and every one of their wins, and I can’t wait to be by their side during the Final tournament!! Wish us luck!
Our girl’s team! Top Left: Srey Am (Defense), Kontea (Captain, Goalie and Midfield), Savonn (Midfield), Srey Sdeang (Attack), Srey Khouch (Captain, Attack), Teary (Defense), Nari (Captain, Defense), Sopha (Defense), Sophoas (Defense)
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I want to take a minute to write a quick blog post about my amazing family members who not only have been so openly and wholeheartedly supportive of my participating in this fellowship, sending their love in Christmas packages, Skypes, texts, emails and letters, but also supporting TGC and helping it to be the amazing foundation that it is. Thank you so, so much as both a member of the TGC family, and a member of our family for your donations. They mean so much to us here, and they go so far (just to understand how much they mean, university tuition here is only about $400/year…..). We are putting your donations to great use, and we are beyond thankful for your support. I also thank you personally for supporting all of the work I have been doing here over the past 6 months, it means the world to have you all standing behind me. So again, Mom, Dad, boys, Nonnie, Grampy, Grammie, Uncle Paul, Auntie Suz, Matt, Care, Ow, Uncle Pete, Auntie Celeste, Ian, Uncle Ben, Auntie Karen, Nate, Max, Dyl, Shana, Dev, and Jos thank you so much for donating!!
Also, on another note, my Dad just finished his first trip to Siem Reap to visit both me and the school! It was so wonderful to have him here for the past few days. It was so special to show him this place and these children that I have come to love. It’s also incredible to have my Dad around in general. He and I are very close, and we had TONS of fun exploring Siem Reap, getting to know my kids and just hanging out.
Dad, myself and the girl’s soccer team after a day of matches on Sunday. We had one loss (by only a quick, unlucky goal in the last two minutes and one win against our rivals, Sangkheum Center!)
Dad discussing professional life in the business world, his job, Chamreoun’s professional aspirations (to be a marketing manager) and what the role of marketing managers in his company is. She got so much out of this talk and was fully engaged, asking awesome questions and making excellent observations. I was so proud!!!
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Happy holidays to all of my loved ones from Siem Reap!! It was nothing short of confounding to see this Buddhist country transformed into a spectacle of Christmas and New Years joy throughout the past month. I was bombarded daily by my Khmer friends, Tuk-Tuk drivers and students joyously shouting “Merry Happy Christmas!” that immediately put a big smile on my face (they are under the impression that the holiday itself is called “Merry Christmas”). It’s special to see the entire world embrace Christmastime, my favorite time of the year, as an opportunity to celebrate togetherness and love.
I was lucky enough to celebrate on the 26th with my wonderful TGC family in a fun-filled day of Santa-themed games and activities that Ariel and I got to invent and laugh hysterically as they became realities. The students gave each other small candies and notes, I was surprised by a paper stocking made for me by my class that was filled with small hard candies and notes from my students, thanking me for being their teacher and telling me how much they love me. One student wrote in her note to me “Sometimes you are mean to me, but I do not get angry because I know you want me to be my best. I need you my teacher. I cannot live without you.” At first I didn’t know what to think, but then Ariel told me she probably does not know another word to use beside “mean” to describe being strong, and I should take her observation as a big compliment. The highlight of our celebratory events was definitely the “Santa in Style” competition that I stumbled upon during a google search for holiday-themed games. The kids were given random craft supplies, and they had to come up with the best Santa costume that they could. Ariel and I then got to choose the winning teams. The top left photo shows the final products— can you guess the winner??
I spent Christmas Day with my amazing Siem Reap expat family. Two of my friends, Cas and Loz, welcomed the lot of us into their home and organized a feast, the likes of which I don’t think has ever been seen in SE Asia. We had a creative Yankee Swap (dubbed a KK by the Australians), and many laughs. Notable gifts included a package filled with Khmer cheese (a terrible smelling creamy concotion made out of fish paste), many bottles of whiskey, and a package with wine and bleu cheese (cheese is something of an expensive rarity here).
I was honestly concerned about being away from home for the holidays. My family is very close, and the holidays are all about Duffy/Gordon/Smith family fun. In fact, I’ve been to the same holiday concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, followed by a rowdy dinner party, with my enormous extended family for the past 23 Christmases. It’s been a tradition since long before I was born. I was really sad to be missing both those traditions, and my mom’s birthday celebration on the first, but I ended up having an unforgettable holiday season filled with love, laughs and new traditions and my Siem Reap family. My family at home also did not forget about me, as I received thoughtful packages from my parents, my boyfriend, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. My Skype was also ringing off the hook between the 24th and the 2nd. I am one lucky person.
Mom, Dad, Will, Luke, Jack, Sam, Andrew, Nonnie, Grampy, Grammie, Susan, Paul, Matt, Care, Ow, Pete, Celeste, Shana, Dev, Ian, Josie, Ben, Karen, Dyl, Nate, Max, and everyone else I miss you so very much!! I will be home to see you all soon!
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