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Today was my last day of teaching. I leave Siem Reap in 6 days, and I leave Cambodia in 8 days: each day seemingly gains momentum as my leave date draws closer. Between packing, training my replacement teachers, doing last minute errands around Siem Reap, end of the year meetings, concluding my time with my students and getting closure on this experience— it has been a hectic few days that will continue right up until April 12th. Furthermore, the heat right now is borderline unbearable, with temperatures significantly exceeding 105, and the humidity being 60-70%, which makes motivating to rush around all the more difficult. But, as I’ve been running around doing what needs to be done, I’ve found myself struck by some highly reflective moments regarding this experience and how it’s changed me as a person.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot in my life and in many different contexts. In high school I participated in a two-month long community service trip in rural Costa Rica (in retrospect, the effectiveness of this work was subject to debate…but that is a different topic for a different time), I spent two months on a tour of New Zealand, I lived abroad in Europe for a semester, and I spent a month in India on an educationally-based university trip. I’ve visited over 25 countries in my life, but the key word here is visited. I went, I experienced, I gawked, I took photos, I explored, I was amazed, I was moved, I was saddened….all-in-all I was a tourist, and I felt very foreign and emotional as I was thrust into the cultural norms of each of these societies. It was very different from what I’ve been through here in Cambodia.
In order to do my job effectively here and make a difference in the lives of my kids, I needed to become a part of this community and all that it is. I could not be a successful, strong authority figure and role model to them if our every interaction was laced with empathy. Not only that, but in order to maintain my sanity and sense of balance over the course of the past nine months, I had to adapt. I had to learn to effectively eliminate that tendency my mind had to race when I was thrust into the craziness of this community and the inclination that my heart had to hurt at at the sight of much of its reality. This foreign place had to become familiar, my reality, and my home.
Although this adaptation was completely necessary, I have found that it can be dangerous ground to tread on for a foreign aid worker. There is a very fine line between becoming assimilated into a foreign community and becoming desensitized to it. When I first arrived, for example, my heart bled for the small, dirty children in the streets toting young babies who they claimed to be their siblings asking for powdered milk for the baby— not money. We quickly learned however, that this is what is called a “milk scam” and it racks in major money from tourists, and these kids rarely see a penny of it. Essentially, the children beg for the powdered milk, the well-intentioned tourist buys it for them, and then the kid turns around and resells the milk for half the price, later handing off the money. Furthermore, funding these beggars in any manner simply perpetuates the act of begging by providing it with a revenue stream. Upon learning these things and facing these realities, I had to say no to these kids. I couldn’t feel right calling myself a philanthropic worker in this city and perpetuate this problem, rather than being part of the practice that will eventually create a solution. When these kids hear no, however, they get aggressive. They grab you, they yell profanities, they chase you, and it can be borderline scary. At first, this made me feel horribly guilty for leaving these small, desperate children alone in the street. But, over time, it started to genuinely anger me. I would get annoyed at their behavior and their aggression, because in my adaptation into this community I had become hardened to their circumstances. This type of desensitization to the extremes of Cambodia has unfortunately happened to me in a lot of circumstances— whether it has to do with poverty, horrible traffic accidents, corruption, petty theft, sexism, violence…anything really. I’ve learned to just brush it off of my shoulders and think “typical Cambodia” in order to maintain my own sense of safety as a woman and as a member of this community. If I had let these horrible realities penetrate my mind, I would have felt like there was a constant threat of exploitation or abuse here, and I would not have felt emotionally stable.
This is where the problem lies. I began to feel cold and hardened to the very reasons I came here in the first place. It felt like, in protecting my own sense of safety and sanity, I was becoming less sympathetic. I was losing the girl who used to feel deeply moved, saddened and touched. That scared the shit out of me, because that part of myself that is teeming with empathy and concern is an essential component of who I am (sorry, Mom, for the profanity, but I didn’t know else how to express the extremity of the situation). I was genuinely worried that, in building strength and adapting, I was losing myself.
Upon realizing that this was happening, however, I managed to reverse it enough that I was adapted, but not desensitized. Perhaps it was because my leave date was fast approaching, or perhaps it was because I missed the side of myself that trusted my emotions enough to experience all of the highs and lows that are implied with living here. Whatever the reason was, I’ve felt that empathetic and emotional side of myself return in full force. I am still assimilated into my South East Asian home, I am used to horrifying traffic violations, I am used to young children who can’t be older than four pedaling adult-sized bikes all alone down the street, I am used to school uniforms, I am used to barbed wire gates and padlocked doors, I am used to being looked at warily when I use my slipshod Khmer, I am used to bartering for cheaper Tuk-Tuk rides or cleaning products, I am used to clutching my bag and money when a motorbike drives by me, I am used to experiencing devastating poverty first hand, I am used to keeping my head down and pace steady when I walk home alone at night, I am used to dealing with preconceived connotations about my abilities because of my gender, I am used to long skirts and long sleeves in sweltering temperatures, I am used to being constantly conscious of upholding child protection policies as best as I can. All of those things that are a component of my day-to-day life here in Siem Reap I am adapted to, but, I am still emotionally invested in this place and my job, and all of the joy that comes with the little things, and all of the pain that is associated with it’s more tough-to-swallow sides. I can still be a strong, authoritative leader in my classroom, while being deeply emotionally invested in my students’ personal lives.
A few weeks ago, I came into the classroom and started teaching per usual. One of my students interrupted me and peppered me with questions about another student’s home-life. He kept asking “Oh do you know what happened to him? Do you know what happened with his brother?” Normally, when the students gossip, I wave it off. I answered “no” as cordially as I could, and then all of the students started to giggle as they made hand gestures as if they were hanging themselves by their necks. I was confused for a moment and a little bit uncomfortable, when I realized what they were trying to convey to me. The student to whom they were referring to was absent from school because his older brother had hung himself, and suicide in Cambodia is a very rare and very hush-hush occurrence. I was immediately struck by two things— first, my students’ nonchalant manner when discussing a tragic death and second, my deep sympathy for this young boy. I immediately confronted the kids, telling them that they needed to stop discussing another’s pain so publicly and so casually. I know that they do this to “save face,” and try and act as if they are immune to pain because it is such a regular, extreme thing here— it is their defense mechanism. But, grief and loss are natural coping mechanisms, and I wanted my kids to understand that it is okay to feel pain in the face of such loss. I felt immediate pity for them and how hardened they are to tragedy so that, when it inevitably enters their own lives, it is less of a burden.
I went home and cried that night for each of those kids and all of the hardship, tragedy and pain that they have dealt with in their very short lives. TGC takes on kids who are in the hardest, most desperate circumstances. Our student body is comprised of young kids who have been forced to deal with situations well beyond their years in order to survive and prosper. The next morning, when the young boy came into school, he had his head and eyebrows shaved as a traditional Khmer sign of grief, they call it being a “little monk.” He was already a reserved boy, but he seemed completely aloof. At that moment, I realized it’s not sympathy that I’m teeming with for these kids, it’s respect. I respect them, and they respect me. I can still be a strong teacher while being emotionally attached to all that they are and all that they’ve endured, just as they can and have emotionally opened up to me.
This weekend was jam packed with activities, starting at 6:30 am and ending late in the afternoon!
We had our first official TGC swimming lesson of the season in preparation for our school trip next week to the beach. Some of our kids can swim like little fish, others are hesitant and a bit intimidated by the water. So, we were lucky enough that my friend Veronica, the manager at the Lotus Lodge (an adorable little boutique hotel in Siem Reap…for those who are looking to visit), lent us their pool in the early morning hours! The kids had a blast and it was a good way to escape the 100+ temperatures.
Then, I am proud to announce that our TGC Girl’s Soccer Team has come in second overall in the Grand Final tournament for the Globalteer Junior Soccer League. I am such a proud coach, they have worked so hard and put in so much time and effort. They are such a fantastic group of girls and I am so impressed with all that they have accomplished.
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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 was 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 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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