I Never Would Have Guessed

It’s been a minute since I talked about actually teaching. To bring you up to speed/remind you, a teacher at Sovann Komar went on maternity leave earlier than anticipated. I was given her English class to teach for three hours each afternoon. 18 boys. 5 girls. All 5-7 years old. Ironically this was also the class I had bonded with the least. I taught them the same amount of time that I taught the other classes.. something just didn’t click. I was pretty terrified to take them on full time.

I’ve now been teaching the cuties (or monsters, it all depends on the moment) for 5 weeks. I think. Really not sure about that. BUT, I can safely, confidently, 100% say that I love them. I absolutely love them. Shocked I’m typing it, but it’s the truth.

Starting out was pretty rough. I couldn’t really discipline or control them because the language barrier was too strong. On top of that if I WERE to get upset with them, I wouldn’t be able to tell them what they did wrong. That drives me nuts. I didn’t see a point in getting upset when nothing would change because I literally couldn’t explain what they needed to change. My teaching assistant is a wonderful woman who also doesn’t speak much English. Often times she takes care of the disciplining, but it’s somewhat unnerving not understanding what’s happening. Regardless, I had no idea how anything was going to work.

Step one was to learn names. Names might be my biggest issue here. I cannot pronounce anything correctly, and they all sound so similar to me. It was especially hard when I was going between so many classes, but once I had a constant group- I was determined. The first week I tried to understand what they were saying when I asked each child what their name was. They were either so quiet, said their surname as well, or just didn’t speak clearly enough for me to understand. The only way to learn how to say things here for me is to have them written in English. I had the principal come in and write all of the kids’ names on their activity books. I then took a picture of each child and wrote their name onto the picture. I’m actually really excited to have all of those pictures with me forever. Naturally they all did some ridiculous pose; it shows their personalities. I love it. And I know all of their names now. (It’s a much larger victory for me than I’m making it out to be.) Chill.

I quickly discovered sitting and listening wasn’t going to fly for the cuties/monsters. They’re young. They don’t want to stay in one spot, and I am actually very ok with that. I wouldn’t have liked that style of learning either. When they start to move around a lot or talk with each other I have them stand up and do some kind of dance. “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” is a good one, as is “The Hokey Pokey”.. I’ll have to video tape it. They’re so funny. I also taught them “Dah Jellyfish” which is a song from the summer camp I work at. Somehow they end up falling during every song. Every song. Whatever, it gets them more focused. Have I mentioned how hilarious they are..

I also play a lot of games. They get really determined to know things when winning (+ a high five) is on the line. I play a lot of racing games where they have to get to a certain flashcard first, or where they have to hop on one foot to a specific colored mat. Issues arise when I have played someone more than once. Everyone runs towards me and starts kid-yelling in Khmer. It’s precious.

Now that I’ve had them for a bit, I know how each of them works. I know who is way ahead and who won’t understand what. I like that. I never thought about how it would feel starting to individually understand students’ abilities but it makes me feel like we’re one big team. I’m constantly rooting for them, and there is a small connection in understanding how they operate. I’m acutely aware of what questions go to whom, and I try to help as much or as little as possible depending on the student.

We went swimming on Wednesday, and if I thought I had seen them excited before I was very wrong. They were CRAZY, even more so than usual. I tried to control them but honestly, I was laughing too hard- which just reinforced whatever ridiculous thing they were doing. I’m the worst. It was happiness in its purest form. There were two rectangular inflatable pools and some plastic balls and they could not have had more fun. It was really cool to watch- not only because they were having the best time in the world, but also because I had originally been so scared to take them on. The class I thought I liked the least is now MY class…. and I love each of those little goons. I never ever ever thought I would enjoy having this class like I do, and that in itself has been a pretty cool lesson.

Above all, this has made me crazy excited to get back to the U.S. and talk with kids in English again. I want to get to know my goons here so much more than I can because of the language at this point. I’m not going to take the ability to know a kid’s favorite color for granted ever again.
Great news though, I started taking Khmer lessons. So maybe, MAYBE…. I can start to learn more about them. And also communicate with my assistant. Ideal.

Everything is going swell, guys! Thanks for reading. The photos are hilaaaaarious, check ‘em out.

Oh My Buddha!

This is what my most recent tuk tuk driver said to me as I was bargaining. I got the price I wanted but also found out it was lower than I should have paid. Bit of a win(cheaper)/lose(I’m a jerk) there.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m writing about. Recently, Ruth and I have taken to watching BBC documentaries during our lunch break.
Ruth (British accent): “What do you want to watch? What theme. Something historical? Something culturally relevant…?”
Myself (Really American): “Is there one on meth? I’ve heard there are a lot of good documentaries on meth.”
Ruth: “………. How about one on Buddhism.”
Myself: “Ok yeah that would be good too.”

We ended up choosing one called “The Life of Buddha”. I had known vague bits about the Buddhist religion; probably the same things everyone knows. It’s peaceful. There is no “want” (??????) I knew the Buddha had different forms. I knew Monks practiced the teachings of the Buddha. I knew it was present in everyday life here in Cambodia. That’s about it. I didn’t know anything about the history of the religion. I’ll try and give you a quick recap of a 20 year journey.

Buddhism started with the birth of Siddartha Gautama, who came to be the Buddha. It has been adopted by many different cultures, has many different interpretations, and is seen as many things; a religion, a philosophy, a psychotherapy. What makes it so different is that what the Buddha discovered is scientifically true. All-encompassing, it is also a very accessible religion. It is often seen as a therapeutic way to deal with the everyday struggles of life.
The Buddha’s father was a chief, and therefore the Buddha lived a childhood of luxury. His father wanted Siddhartha to follow in his footsteps and become chief as well, so Siddartha was kept in the palace and was rarely allowed outside. When Siddhartha was allowed to partake in a festival at the age of 9, he noticed a plow cutting through a field. He then noticed a bird eating a worm as a result of the plow. If the farmer had not been plowing, the bird would not have gotten the worm. He realized everything is connected, and that all actions have consequences. Siddartha grew up, and was finally allowed to leave on his own. He went on four journeys and noticed things that had been kept from him his entire life. Among these were aging, sickness, death. He continued on, determined to find his own answers to life’s suffering.
Ultimately, Siddartha discovered the Middle Way. It is a sense of mindfulness that neither ignores the body, nor tries to muster it. It is an awareness of self; the goal being a state of wisdom and everlasting bliss called Enlightenment. He realized if we can remove desire we can remove dissatisfaction and suffering from our lives. This insight was the birth of Buddhism.
Cambodians practice a specific form of Buddhism called Theravada Buddhism. Theravada is said to use the oldest recordings of Buddhist texts as its core foundation, but has developed many more diverse traditions and practices over its long history of interactions with different cultures. It is ever changing.
I like the thought of that. A religion collecting and evolving; not in a way that tarnishes the tradition, but in a way that embraces all of the differences among people and cultures that follow its teachings. Learning this, I was distinctly reminded of the Cambodian lifestyle; the effortless calm and way of being that tends to not worry about the little things, but welcomes all, living at a pace that is neither rushed nor still. The Middle Way; it’s clear the Buddhist religion is engrained in the culture. Buddhism is the religion of Cambodia with 95% of the population practicing. It’s evident everywhere. From the small shrines outside each shop, home, and school, to the wonderful smiles and personalities of everyone I meet. The philosophy, outlook, and practice are always weaving and mingling- inextricable.
I thought exploring a Wat, or Buddhist Temple, would be an interesting thing to do post-documentary. So today I visited Wat Ounalom located near the Royal Palace of Cambodia. This Wat is the seat of Cambodia’s Mohanikay order, which is one of two sects of Buddhism, making it the most important wat of Phnom Penh and the center of Cambodian Buddhism. I chose to visit Wat Ounalom because it was severely damaged during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Statues were broken or thrown into the river as a demonstration that Buddhism was no longer a driving force in Cambodia. It has since been restored, and I like the idea that it, like the rest of the country, had made it through such a terrible time and was slowly rebuilding.

The wat was not what I expected at all. I pictured one, maybe two temples that I would pay to see. I walked in through the gate when I arrived and it was like entering a small village. The monastery was really rather large and I was able to go where ever I liked. In traditional Cambodian fashion, it was a very welcoming place to be. I visited a couple temples and then explored the living quarters. I learned that even when monks fail their schooling or leave the monastery, they are accepted back whenever they want, over and over again. I passed a group of monks eating at a restaurant there, and painfully refrained from taking a picture. I’m not sure if it’s old fashioned or even true, but I was cautioned against taking pictures of Monks because of their belief that photos steal the soul- something along those lines. I erred on the side of caution and just walked by smiling. They smiled in return. Thinking about it now I really should have asked one of them for more information about the place. Next time.

It was lovely seeing this part of the culture. I witness snapshots of it in everyday life, but seeing an actual place of worship felt like a necessary and respectful thing to do to further understand where I am, and the people I’m surrounded by. Cambodians are wildly accepting and kind. They have been nothing but friendly since I stepped off the plane. My experience at Wat Ounalom felt like seeing the roots from which the kindness and hospitality I’d experienced everywhere else had grown. Ironically it was entering the wat, which I saw as a literal separation of religion from culture complete with a high-fenced boundary, that helped me see how entwined the two really are.

On a trip to Kampot, our taxi driver pulled over at one point to give a small donation and say a prayer at a Buddhist shrine on Bokor Mountain. I remember thinking how much I agreed with that act. It showed such simple respect and appreciation for the world; respect and appreciation that, according to the Buddhist teachings, will come back around in a positive way. All of our actions have consequences. What a beautiful practice to live by, and what a beautiful outlook that has created an environment that I am very fortunate to be a part of during my stay in Phnom Penh.

Thanks for reading! Pictures are a collection from the orphanage and Wat Ounalom.

Tuk Tuks, Ultimate, and Golden Children

First week in Cambodia and first week at Sovann Komar Children’s Village: complete. You would never guess by watching me get lost walking two blocks away from my apartment, but I’m settling in nicely. My second day here I had to really pump myself up to buy some cereal. This morning I walked to Angkor Mart and got a bunch of things without thinking twice. I’m feeling more comfortable, and that’s really cool.

In an effort to fight my jet lag and not waste any time, I decided to walk to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum during my third day in Phnom Penh. Toul Sleng, also known as S-21, was a high school turned prison/interrogation center during the Khmer Rouge Regime’s rise to power. 20,000 people held there were later killed. Prisoners were required to write an autobiography detailing their lives from when and where they were born to their arrest. A photo was taken of each prisoner and they were given a number. The photos were on display at the museum and made everything that much more real. The whole place was solemn and heavy with the weight of not only what had happened there, but how recently it had occurred. Reading the pamphlet guide that corresponded with each cell or torture device was horrific and nausea-inducing. The oppression was palpable and while it was somewhat numbing, I was kept uncomfortably alert with the shocking reality of it all. It was an abrupt experience upon my arrival in Cambodia, but one that I felt was important to understanding the country’s history.

I was beyond nervous to begin my internship on Monday. I had no idea what to expect. What little expectations I had were immediately shattered as my ride rolled up. For some reason I assumed it would be all teachers, or weirdly just myself and the driver, but the van was full of children. They motioned for me to jump in the front seat but there was a little girl already sitting there. She opened the door and stood up. I waited for her to jump out, and when an awkward length of time had passed it dawned on me that she would be sitting on my lap for the ride. Whatever nerves I had been feeling about interacting with the kids were forced aside. Her name is Natia, and we read from her English textbook for most of the ride. I was very comforted by this first interaction, and it restored some much needed confidence in what I was doing here in Phnom Penh.

The children at Sovann Komar are the sweetest, cutest, most excited little kids you’ll ever meet. Happy enough simply saying “hello” to me, their enthusiasm was contagious and I immediately felt welcomed. The staff is fantastic as well, and were happy to answer my endless questions.
“Hello Teacher Joh!”
“I am great! How are you?”
This is a daily exchange. They don’t fully understand that “And you?” isn’t a part of the actual greeting. I try to correct it but there is this issue with it being very, very cute. It’s an internal conflict. Every day on the ride home a couple of teachers from the school try to teach me simple words so that I can communicate a little better with the kids. Khmer has proven to be a very difficult language for me, but I appreciate them trying to help, and they appreciate my effort.

I will be teaching pre-school 3 days a week, kindergarten 2 days a week, “sport” or physical education on Fridays, and assisting with older students’ English classes every morning. I only observed classes this past week, so I’ll write about teaching when I get there.

On Thursday I was given the opportunity to travel to Arun’s (co-founder of Sovann Komar) home village and volunteer with KIDS International Dental Service, an organization that recruits people from the dental industry to volunteer their time and service to children in rural communities all over the world. It was amazing. They gave around 250 children check-ups, educated them on proper brushing techniques, and did free dental work when it was needed. My job was to direct children from one line to another, which was as unhelpful as it sounds- still a very cool thing to be a part of. The dentists performing extractions, fillings, etc. let me observe and explained what they were doing and why. Ironically, there happened to be a South Korean Christian group at the village the same day, and they were handing out candy. I think the children were more excited to get their free toothbrush and teeth cleaning. It was a wonderful experience with a wonderful organization, and seeing Arun’s home felt special as well. He does a lot of charity work for children having been orphaned at the age of 5 himself. He is a very wonderful, kind, and inspiring man to work for.

Friday was a great day. As I mentioned earlier, I get to teach sport on Fridays. I chose to attempt a frisbee lesson. I had no idea how many students I was teaching, how many frisbees we had to use, and how tough it was going to be to explain drills with the language barrier. All three of these concerns ended up being very real, but everything worked out. There were around 50 students, 3 discs, and they did not understand much. I kept it very simple.
“This is a frisbee.”
“Do you like frisbee?”
“Do you want to see Teacher Kosal catch a frisbee?”
I kind of threw Kosal under the bus, but I thought it would be funny. He did not catch the frisbee, and it WAS funny. The kids loved it, so I threw to other teachers as well. They cheered when it was caught; they cheered when it was dropped. I gave a basic lesson on throwing and catching (“This side of frisbee UP. Catch like alligator.”), then decided that the best thing to do with 50 kids and 3 discs would be to split them into three groups and let them throw.
Somehow, this worked perfectly. As long as all of the kids had a turn, it was great. It was easier to help kids throw when I was dealing with a smaller group, and they LOVED it. I only planned on the group throwing taking up 10 minutes or so, but it ended up lasting the entire 40 minute class. My first time teaching “sport” could not have gone better.

Next up, I’m off to play some pick up ultimate. I’m actually literally waiting for my tuk tuk now.
Speaking of, this week I successfully hailed a tuk tuk, and bargained with the driver- all by myself. Little things, little things.

– Johannah Kohorst