My phone refuses to change time zones, so I am not aware which day of the week it is at all- however, on the second day after we arrived to Siem Riep we all met early at Wat Damnak (where I work at the CKS Library) for an orientation to Khmer customs and a brief history overview. Wat Damnak is beautiful. Not only is the architecture of the various buildings incredible compared to the buildings within the village but there are trees filled with beautiful flowers everywhere. I’m so lucky that I’ll be working in a place where I can pick a flower every day and stick it in my hair. During the orientation session we all met Khmer students who helped with vocab and pronunciation when we started to learn Khmer. I sat next to a girl named Kong Kia which in Khmer means she “water”, so she told me I could just call her Miss Water. Miss Water really helped me with pronunciation of Khmer which, for me, was nothing less than embarrassing. Now, though, I know how to say “Hello” “Goodbye” “Thank you” “Yes” “No” “How are you?” “Yes, I’m fine” “Where are you from” “I’m from the US” brother, sister and how to count to ten. I also know how to say “gecko” in Khmer because I’m staying in the gecko room at the hotel (it sounds like toek-AY). It’s a lot of fun to try and talk with native speakers but 99% of the time I say something and mispronounce it. I am only on day four though, so I have time to improve.
During the orientation we also learned the different levels of sampeah, which is how you greet others. Similar to how people pray with flat palms pressed against each other, sampeah appears that way but with a different function. Khmer society is based largely on a hierarchy that depends either on rank or age, so when you greet someone the level of your hands will vary based on that. I loved that we had finally learned how to greet people after I embarrassingly greeted elders with the sampeah of a friend for the first day in Siem Reap. We also learned a Cambodian game of “hide the scarf” that reminded me a lot of duck-duck-goose. Later in the day we were able to try palm syrup that was just tapped earlier that morning which was a delightful experience, not only because of the sweet taste but also because the sap is so difficult to transport to the villages many city Cambodians never even get to try it, let alone that fresh. Palm syrup is interesting because although it had a sweet sugary taste it smelled like peanut butter, which left me no choice but to imagine that I was drinking the oil off the top of the natural peanut butter my mom always buys. For lunch we had a traditional Khmer food with five varieties of rice so that we could try and distinguish the different tastes, textures, and smells of the rice. After the meal we had a brief discussion on Cambodian cuisine and went back to the hotel to rest. We had dinner at the Peace Café which was a cozy outdoor café sheltered by tall palms and other trees. I had an amazing vegetable stir fry! One of many things I love about Cambodia is how healthy I’ve been eating. Every morning I’ll have two eggs, toast, fresh fruit (mangos are the BEST here), and fresh squeezed juice. All of my meals have fresh fruit and vegetables and lots of healthy protein unlike a lot of the meats I eat in the United States. Later in the evening a few of us met a boy named Connor, a nineteen year old from Kansas. It was really nice to meet another American there. Although I’m surrounded by my peers on the trip it’s nice knowing that other Americans are travelling here and experiencing Cambodia like me. That night I slept so well and I think I can confidently say now that I’ve completely adjusted to the twelve hour time zone change. Although it has proven a little difficult to communicate easily with loved ones back home.
The next day we did a Child Protection Workshop with Michael Horton, the man who runs ConCERT, the NGO that we’re affiliated with in this program. We learned more about the history of the Khmer Rouge and how it affects children today. Probably the most interesting aspect of the workshop was how children are exploited through working on the streets. You can’t walk anywhere in Cambodia without a young child asking for money or trying to sell you magnets or postcards. It’s absolutely heart wrenching that we much say no to such cute children who obviously need help, but Michael explained that if we support them selling on the streets then we are encouraging them to stay there because that’s where the money is.
On Friday, May 30, we began working at our placement sites. One of the main purposes of this abroad program is so that first hand we can witness and participate in social work in Cambodia. My specific placement site is the Center for Khmer Studies Library. I work in the Children’s Library for the first half of the shift doing arts and crafts and teaching English and the latter half of the shift working in the public library (the second largest in Cambodia) doing whatever they need my help with. On my first day the kids in the library and I made little books! It’s so funny how the kids copy not only older people, but foreigners. I had the outside cover of my book yellow and when they saw that they all changed their color to yellow. When I drew a flower on the outside of mine they all wanted flowers. I think I drew about fifty flowers that day. Although only two kids spoke minimal English it was still really fun to do arts and crafts with them. Art doesn’t need a language to communicate. After an hour or so the kids all left and the two ladies had me work in the regular library. During the Khmer Rouge period all libraries were either destroyed or neglected, so the fact that this library is up and running with collections on Cambodia and South East Asia is great for the community. Unfortunately because they are still trying to gain steady footing, a lot of aspects of the library are still in the early stages. For instance, they don’t have a cataloging system at this library so I spent about two hours looking at different collections of art books and writing down the title volume number and year so that they had some documentation. Overall it was a really great day but I hope in the next few days working that more kids who speak English will come in. I know basic Khmer but not enough to communicate everything I’d like to say to them.
After our placements we all met in the conference room at CKS to discuss how I first few days went. It was really nice to hear about all of the different experiences. After that we quick ate dinner at Sister Srey and I had a great vegetable soup with noodles similar to Raman. We then went to a movie showing (the first time a movie was EVER shown at CKS!) called Lost Loves produced/directed by Chhay Bora who was kind enough to answer our questions after the movie. We’re currently reading a memoir called When Broken Glass Floats that details the horrific events experienced by Khmer people during the civil war, but this movie made the terrible tragedies seem so real to me. I couldn’t keep it together during the movie. It’s mind blowing to me how ignorant I and many Americans are to the horrors that happen in the Khmer Rouge period. Obviously our own countries history is important but we learned about the Holocaust, why we didn’t learn about the Khmer Rouge period which could be understood to be almost equally horrific and destructive? After the movie I hung out with Connor from Kansas again because it was his last night in Siem Riep. We walked around the Night Markets, observing the people and denying tuk-tuks for most the night. I try to journal every night but the days here are so emotionally and physically draining that most of the time I don’t have the energy. Overall it’s been a great first few days!!!