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A big welcome to the newest additions to our home in Siem Reap!! My cat, Jasmine, and Ariel’s pal, Mike!! There’s no place quite like our Cambodian home!
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Before getting into this blog post, I need to deliver one massive, combination thank you/apology to my Mom and Dad for the years of 2004-2010. These years encompassed my ages 13-19, and let me tell you I was no treat. Spending my days with a bunch of teenagers has most certainly exposed me to the not so pleasant reality that was my teen years: I was a. annoying b. angst-ridden and c. nowhere near as cool as I thought I was. But, that’s part of being an adolescent. Adolescence is a very weird time in which you are dealing with massive bodily changes, the seemingly sudden loss of your childish “cuteness”, new social responsibilities and expectations, an insatiable desire to be the person governing your own life, but also a simultaneous, very serious need for adult guidance. Between pimples, a sudden interest in making out and your totally annoying parents, it is no surprise that the teen years are referred to as a kid’s “awkward stage.” This awkward stage is unequivocally important in the transition from childhood to adulthood, and being a component of this transition in my kids’ lives— particularly the girls— has been nothing short of interesting (and sometimes migraine-inducing).
So, you parents out there are probably scoffing, thinking: “Oh please, don’t complain to us, you only have to deal with their teen angst for a few hours in class.” And to that, I have to respond touché. But let me tell you, those few hours in class and soccer can be nothing short of challenging. My class, in particular, has recently developed some new behavioral challenges while their social position in the school has shifted. I primarily teach the kids who range in age from 12-15. They were the youngest kids enrolled in TGC until our recent acceptance of 13 new students who are 10-12. Based on my observation, the kids in my class expected these younger students to come in and immediately bow down to seniority. That didn’t happen. So now, my kids are no longer the little, cute kids, and they are not getting the respect that they have deemed themselves worthy of from their rowdy, younger counterparts. This discrepancy has caused some behavioral issues in both my classroom and on the soccer field. There was one week where not one of the kids from my class signed up for our weekly soccer practice. When I addressed the problem, they all stood firm and informed me that they were too annoyed with the new students to play alongside them. We’ve been addressing the fractionalization of the age groups through a variety of means— including a school-wide meeting on the value of teamwork and leadership, and a freshly minted set of team rules that stress the responsibilities of the older kids and the younger kids alike. While this angst-ridden rivalry between the ages has cooled down considerably, I have my own issues in the classroom. My kids can be the sweetest, most fun people to be around. But, they can have some serious attitudes if things aren’t going their way (i.e. when I give them homework they don’t want to complete or a hefty vocabulary list). These attitudes can range from very open complaints, getting up out of their seats and rolling around on the ground, or taunting me. I’ve been pretty good about smiling and continuing through class unfazed, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t bring some aggravation home with me in the evening. I’ve had to take pride in the little moments when my kids make clear that they respect me, and remember that these kids are going through their adolescence in a particularly tough environment.
Last night, I had a really interesting conversation with former-Minerva Fellow at TGC, Carolyn Canetti. We discussed adolescence in Cambodia, particularly for our kids at TGC, and how much harder it is for kids here than in the States. American society has not only recognized the temperamental transition that is adolescence, but it has been embraced culturally. We have movies and TV channels that serve the sole purpose of giving teenagers characters and stories to relate to, reminding them that they aren’t alone in their awkward stages. I specifically remember finding solace in Disney Channel Original Movies targeted to the adolescent crowd, like Rip Girls, Johnny Tsunami and Brink!, all of which depicted American fourteen-somethings and their very real misadventures through teenhood. I also grew up with the characters in the Harry Potter series, whose teen struggles were all too real for me. There’s an entire series now called “Awkward” on MTV that portrays the precarious teenage life of an everyday girl in high school. As we learned more and experienced more, there was continued access to information in magazines, TV dramas and books that we could find comfort in. Furthermore, we had entire classes dedicated towards helping us understand the changes our bodies and brains were undergoing. Here, none of these types of resources exist for kids.
Some snap shots of the resources I had while going through adolescence
Teens here are given the social freedom of children, but they have the societal and academic expectations of adults. Carolyn said something interesting: “the entire country is in such a transition period with such a large population of young people with such a small population of educated adults…there’s such a societal pressure to go to school but also with outside influences and tourists everywhere, it’s just really hard for the kids to see such different people and wealth, it’s just…unbelievable. So many times I tried to picture life from their points of view. But it’s impossible.” I thought this was such a good point. The older community in Cambodia doesn’t know how to give a proper social education to their rapidly maturing kids, because they are from two entirely different Cambodias. The parental generation endured the immediate aftermath of the Khmer Rouge reign, which officially ended in 1979 when the brutal rulers were ousted by the Vietnamese. The wartorn country endured a mass genocide, and among the targeted “enemies” of the state were all professionals and intellectuals— even people with glasses could be arrested, tortured and murdered because glasses were considered a sign of literacy. There is still a permeating fear for Cambodians of Khmer Rouge resurrection. Because of this slaughter, the older generations suffered an enormous brain drain. And this is where the trouble comes in for adolescents. Now that the country is in a transitional state of rebuilding (there is still a long road to go), there is enormous pressure on these kids to go to school, but they are also expected to take on responsibilities at home. It is hard for a kid to mediate that pressure and expectation when their adult role models are uneducated.
This graph depicts the rapidly growing Cambodian literacy rate in the post-Khmer Rouge era between 1990-2004. In 1990, it was 35%, and by 2004 it had risen to 73.6%. www.indexmundi.com
Furthermore, Cambodia has undergone intense Westernization in recent years with the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge, reintegration of foreign affairs (the Khmer Rouge created an almost fully isolationist Cambodia) and a booming tourist industry that’s lured by the ancient ruinous temples and beautiful beaches. This Westernization exposes kids to a culture and a way of life that their parents can’t understand or relate to. Siem Reap, for example, boasts the Angkor Wat temple complex, an impressive set of huge ancient temples, many of which have been featured in movies like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. In the last ten years, Siem Reap has underwent enormous expansion in its physical size. New hotels and restaurants are popping up seemingly overnight. There is also a strip of rowdy bars called “Pub Street” where you can find superfluous amounts of liquor flowing, loud dance music, late night scams, prostitution and a congregation of Western tourists. Our kids are exposed to these things but none of it is explained, both because their parents don’t understand it themselves, and their strictly conservative culture does not condone its presence. In order for them to make smart choices as adults and properly mediate that delicate adolescent time, they need to understand what is going on around them.
A photo I took in our first week of Pub Street. It goes for a whole block and is filled with bars and restaurants that cater to tourists. At the time of this photo, it was “low tourist season” but still chock full of people. It is now “high season” and every restaurant is filled and every bar is wild 7 nights a week.
And so, we are left with this task: providing these teens with safe environments in which they can undergo their adolescence, educating them in the most informative and responsible manner, and giving them positive adult role models. I have recently started a health education class, which will be as comprehensive as I can make it in my returning time, and hopefully will be continued on by future fellows. I just recently gave a lecture on the basics of germs and hygiene, and next week we will be having a basic anatomy class in which I intend on discerning the differences between the child’s, the teen’s and the adult’s body. In the future, I will cover puberty, sexual education (STDs, etc.), drugs and alcohol, etc. They are split into classes of girls and boys, and the classes are translated into Khmer. I intend on trying to help these kids understand the responsibilities that come with having an adult body, and the gravity of making adult decisions. I also want to give them an outlet for their questions about being members of Generation Y and what it means in terms of our physical and mental health. I hope that it is as successful as it can be, only time will tell! Any suggestions that anybody has or experience that they’d like to share would be much appreciated…shoot me an email or a Facebook message!
Messing around with some of my lovable teenagers during free time…these are some of my favorite photos
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Today, we hosted a prayer ceremony for Bridget, the daughter of one of our prominent founders, Jackie, who has been diagnosed with cancer and went into surgery today. The TGC family is very tight knit, and it is always hard for the kids and staff when someone close to the school falls ill. We send our prayers and good wishes to Bridget and hope the very best for her. Here is a short clip of the blessing ceremony and prayers that were conducted at the school today. The monk in the middle is also our Morality Class teacher at TGC.
We just had a week long school vacation, one of two breaks that we get before leaving in April. So, Ariel and I decided to take advantage of our time off and join the hoards of backpackers in Southeast Asia for a few days. We did a route through Northern Thailand. We started in Bangkok, which is pictured on the bottom right. Bangkok is a developed, Westernized city…and the first time I’ve been in a car, not to mention on well-paved streets, since leaving the States. Then, we travelled to Chiang Mai, where we cuddled with tigers and trekked through the jungle. Our last stop before rotating back through was the beautiful mountain village, Pai. The top right and bottom left photos were both captured in Pai. It’s heavily travelled, however it’s natural beauty has been wonderfully preserved. We explored mountain ranges and jungles, hiking up to the top of a mountain to see the beautiful white Buddha statue I’m pictured with. We spent three (chilly) nights in Pai and it was certainly hard to say goodbye. All in all, it was a great break from our hectic schedules, but now it’s back to work!
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