With another week of my Cambodian adventure complete, I can report that I am beginning to feel more comfortable and confident in my adoptive home.
While my first week in Cambodia was a self proclaimed emotional roller coaster, the second week proved to be a little more stable. There were still surprises, break downs, and tears, but not with the same “get me out of here” mindset that plagued me all last week.
I apologize for the slight tardiness of this post, as I am now halfway through my third week here. However if you know me personally, you will know that this weekend provided some unforeseen personal dilemmas that left me feeling like doing anything but writing a blog post. Sorry… But on to the weekly rewind.
Going back to the Happy School after a weekend of relaxing and exploring Phnom Penh felt extremely difficult. The weekend was full of massages, sight seeing, and eating delicious foods. Replacing that with screaming children and overly hot classrooms was not my favorite thing to do, but I survived.
Teaching on Monday, I felt a bit more confident than I had the previous week, but still found myself shaking in my boots. Even though I knew what I was doing, trying to keep the children not just entertained, but under control felt like an immense challenge… because it was! I spent the whole day yelling, more like begging, them to be quiet, sit down, and copy down the board. Despite my efforts and smiles and positive reinforcement when they did listen, it did not keep up. When I came back from school at the end of the day, I felt emotionally exhausted.
To lift my spirits, and those of my friends who were also feeling the Monday blues, we went out to get drinks at a bar downtown. Changing into “nicer” clothes and allowing myself to wear some mascara after sweating all day felt marvelous. I spent the evening gossiping, bonding, and drinking strawberry mojitos with my friends (or one strawberry mojito in my case). We enjoyed feeling more like backpackers and less like volunteers for a few hours before taking a tuk tuk back home and crashing out for the evening.
Waking up on Tuesday morning, my stomach was filled with nervous butterflies. However unlike when these butterflies appear for a cute boy, the ones I had were not excited and joyful ones. My heart raced with nerves about my impending class schedule, and even though I knew I could handle the events of the day, I simply did not want to go.
But I knew I had to go, and so I did. As expected, everything went fine. My day teaching was not fantastic; more asking the children to quiet down, more asking them not to cheat off each others work, more asking them not to stand on the desks. However, when I ended the day I gained some clarity.
I realized that I do like teaching. Despite the fact that I was losing my voice trying to gain some classroom management, I enjoyed lesson planning, explaining new topics, and interacting with the few students who made an effort in my classes. When things went well, if even a little, I felt like I was on cloud nine. Upon realizing this, I knew that I could survive my placement here for however long it ended up being.
Tuesday evening I retired for bed very early in the evening, still feeling tired from Monday’s “big night out.” Call me a granny, I know my sister does, but going to bed early by choice is something that I am learning to love out here.
Much like Tuesday, on Wednesday school provided more challenges. With my voice diminished to a croaky whisper, trying to maintain control of my classroom was nearly impossible. Even my usually most well behaved students took advantage of my involuntary silence, and chose to shout and run around and misbehave in class all day.
As an outlet of my anger and frustration from the day, I went to play soccer with some other volunteers in the evening. One of the volunteers, Annika, would be leaving at the end of the week and it was her last soccer game she should play with the volunteer team in Phnom Penh. In her honor, we played our hearts out, sweating and running and tripping over the ball like the amateurs we are. Having played the week prior, I hoped I would see some self improvement in my soccer skills. While I did not expect to suddenly become a pro, I was a bit disappointed at my lack of any visible progress. However I had fun attempting, and smiled and laughed for the remainder of the evening.
At the end of the game we all, for some strange and unbeknownst reason, decided to run back to the volunteer house. When we arrived, I was breathing so heavily that I became glaringly aware of how quickly I was getting out of shape from not consistently working out while here. With a resolution to fix that the following week, I forced myself to climb the stairs to my room to shower and sleep.
On Thursday I doubted the realization I had on Tuesday. Even though I liked teaching, I did not know if I could continue to teach. The stress and trials of my classes made me feel miserable and defeated. Even the cute drawings my students gave me as presents did not lift my spirits enough to combat the cruel honesty and mischievous behavior that they could also emulate.
I started to contemplate asking about switching to my NGO volunteer placement sooner than what was originally planned. While the idea filled me with turmoil from the guilt of leaving my students, especially the ones who I could tell genuinely wanted to learn, I could not help but be attracted by the idea of getting to do what I originally came to Cambodia to do. During university, my life with filled with studying International Relations and dreaming about one day working in that sector. I wanted to make a difference in the world by helping organizations with missions similar to my own.
I believe that teaching can also achieve this difference, however my experience with teaching had so far been an unpleasant one and one where I doubted my ability to truly make an impact. The structure of teaching English that my school provided had numerous issues that made it difficult to effectively teach and build upon the knowledge of the children, despite my best efforts. I felt guilty and ashamed for feeling this way after barely two weeks, but I also knew that sometimes it is okay to be selfish if it means going after what you want. For me, this meant sending a very timid email to my program coordinator in Cambodia, asking if I could switch to my NGO placement early.
After my classes on Thursday, I joined the other volunteers for a big goodbye dinner at a place called Rose Apple. We all talked, reminiscenced, and said our goodbyes since the majority of the volunteers who arrived with me the previous week would be leaving either Friday or Saturday. Saying goodbye to friends I had just met left me feeling terribly sad. However simply knowing that I had met these lovely people made everything worth it. During my six months here I will be in the position of saying hello and goodbye to several groups of new friends. But just seeing all the wonderful experiences, friendships, and memories that come out of it will provide me with the most incredible adventure.
Friday put me in bed all day. Literally.
I woke up feeling ill, really ill. While eating breakfast, my stomach hurt so much, I gave up after a few bites. Walking to school, I felt hot and cold at the same time. I knew I was sick, but I was confused and in denial about it. How did I suddenly get sick? I had only eaten at the volunteer house, and the one night I ate out, it was at a place I knew was “safe.” I drank only bottled and filtered water, and I washed my hands excessively.
Despite my attempt to stubbornly trod on, I only made it through two hours of lesson planning at my placement before I admitted defeat and asked the school coordinator for permission to go home. I weakly walked back to the volunteer house, and collapsed on my bed, withering in pain from stomach aches. I was so hungry from not eating breakfast and now not lunch, but with my stomach refusing even water, I did nothing but lie in bed for hours. I slept from around 10:30 am until 4:30pm, only waking to force myself to drink some water and eat a few crackers despite the pain. I went back to bed at 7:30pm and slept until 6:30am the next day.
On Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of drums and chanting monks, an interesting way to discover it was a Buddhist holiday.
My stomach was still giving me trouble, but I felt infinitely better than the previous day. I elected to join the other volunteers at the childcare placement we went to the previous Saturday. After forcing a piece of bread into me, we all took off.
When we got to the placement, we learned an organization from Japan was there with shoe donations. Hundreds of children were eagerly sitting on the floor waiting to receive a new pair of sneakers. After some of the children performed a traditional Khmer dance for the Japanese visitors, all hell broke lose.
The Japanese organization failed to realize that in brining boxes of randomly sized shoes, they were opening Pandora’s box. With over four hundred children present, and not nearly enough shoes, we found ourselves manically running around trying to find a shoe that would fit a child. Too often the shoe was too small, and too often bigger shoes were wrongly given to younger children. Yes the idea of “you’ll grow into it” applies, but when following that mindset means that older children who also desperately need new shoes will not get any, it does not seem a fair or logical method to follow.
After a few minutes, the people from the Japanese organization realized their lack of planning and preparation, and started telling us volunteers to stop giving out shoes. Confused, we tried to continue on, determined to at least give shoes to some children in need. However, the director of the placement explained that we had to stop because the Japanese organization wanted to take a photo and then they needed to leave. Frustrated and feeling upset for the children, I watched as the Japanese visitors gathered up a group of children who had managed to find shoes, and took a smiling photo of them. They then left on their bus, never to be seen again.
Providing aid and donations is extremely important. However it is also important to do so in a responsible way. The lack of planning or research that was put into this attempt showed glaringly, and may have done more harm than good. The children were crying and confused, with so many of the older children feeling neglected. I fought back tears of my own as I comforted some girls, who also happened to be students of mine at Happy School, and tried to explain to them that there simply were not enough large sized shoes. They did not understand, and how could they. They are just kids who wanted a new pair of shoes.
With heavy hearts, we left the placement about an hour later and tried to drown our sorrow in dumplings and noodles. My stomach persisted in rejecting food, but I force fed it anyway. The rest of the day I hung around the volunteer house with the other volunteers, and awaited the arrival of the group of new volunteers coming the next day.
After two weeks in Cambodia, I feel more welcomed into this country. I look out at the noisy and crowded streets and think, “I can handle that.” I feel the heat and the humidity outside and I think, “I can handle that.” Most importantly, I wake up each morning and prepare myself for a day filled with teaching children and bonding with my fellow volunteers and I think, “I can handle that.” Cambodia no longer terrifies me to the point of wanting to go home. It scares me in a way that encourages me to stay.