feeling homesick

I’ve left Cambodia nearly 3 months ago. After 12 months I needed and wanted to leave, I was ready to go some new place and see what else I might come upon. The past weeks I have constantly been on the road. First New Zealand, then California, Portland, Seattle and now Canada. In a few days, I’ll be in New York and after that finally back in Germany.

While I certainly enjoy getting to see so many places and meet many different people along the way, there is one thing that doesn’t change – I miss Cambodia. More than I thought I would. Everyone told me that this would happen, the frowned upon “reverse culture-shock”.  Knowing about it, unfortunately, hasn’t made things any easier. Now when I feel like I’m in the wrong place and wonder why no one else appreciates the fact that I always pay using two hands or feel overwhelmed by so much luxury and materialism around me, I know that this is a culture-shock but besides that, it doesn’t make things better.

Missing a place where you cannot be is annoying. I can tell myself that it is alright, that I will get used to my “own” culture again and that, if I want it enough, I can just go back to Cambodia (even though it won’t be the same). But all these options involve patience, which I am not the biggest fan of.

My life in Cambodia was fulfilling. I had a job that made me feel like I was doing something good with my time instead of procrastinating. I was – and still am- grateful & proud to be working for SCAO. Even though Phnom Penh is far from the cleanest and safest city I’ve ever seen, I miss its vibe. The various smells on the markets, motos on the street, the praying of the monks, chatting with the street vendors and eating fried rice in the tiniest plastic chairs. Trying to speak Khmer with my landlady, getting fried banana before class would start at 5.30, hearing the same excuses for why we really shouldn’t write the vocabulary test today over and over again and hanging out with the other volunteers on countless rooftop bars throughout the cities. Weekend trips to small islands, ancient temples or bungalows in the jungle. Famous dinners at 18 and endless waiting for food and drinks at Score. Endless ceremonies, all dressed up and hidden behind what felt like 10 layers of make-up, being late for work because of the rain in Phnom Penh and water fights with the children when the heat got too much. Rice for breakfast and noodles for dinner. Frozen energy drinks and other snacks, including sour mango with chili and salt, cream-o’s and coconut-ice from a small plastic bag.

And yes I know I’ll need to wait a bit until I can come back, but one thing is for sure – I am going to be back. Even if it will test my patience.

Excerpts from my second Red Cross Report

Work in Cambodia
My tasks within S.C.A.O. have slightly changed. Before Leon and me didn’t really split the tasks and both of us were just doing everything that needed to be done at certain times. Now that our tasks have been split I’m responsible for all administrative tasks within S.C.A.O and working closely together with our director, Mr. Sameth. All tasks have been split into so-called “teams” at the S.C.A.O. Center. Leon is the team leader of Education and I’m the team leader of Administration. In addition we have a team leader of the family and the kids, which is Aleix from Spain.
So now I answer all emails from the information account and the emails from the volunteering account. I also do the volunteer planning and work together with our partner organization AIESEC in sending over new volunteers. […]
I still teach, however not that much. The only class that I’ve never given up for anyone else to teach is my Pre-Intermediate class from 5.30 to 6.30. This class has been taught by me for six months already. It is wonderful to see their progress and do more and more content focused projects with them. At the end of January I let them work in groups to work on their own presentations about creating a law to improve Cambodia. They enjoyed it a lot and came up with so many great ideas, that I actually hope are going to be used one day, for example ideas on how to prevent domestic violence and saving the Cambodian rainforest. Sometimes I still teach beginner classes, but really only when there are no other volunteers around. […]
Life in Cambodia
At the moment I’m still living at the S.C.A.O. center in Boeng Chhouk. However I’m planning to move out the end of April, and move into an apartment in Phnom Penh together with Emilly.
Life at the Center hasn’t really changed a lot, except for the fact that I spend a lot of my time in the internet café, since I can’t really concentrate on work when I sit downstairs at the Center having a bunch of kids and some volunteers constantly around me, asking questions or wanting to play. I really enjoy life at the center, but it has beenI really enjoy life at the center, but I’ve realized that I need a quiet surrounding to actually get my work done.
[…]
I spend a lot of time with the volunteers from SCAO but I’ve also started hanging out more with Khmer people. For example on Valentine’s Day I met with a bunch of my students and we all spent the day together, walking through Phnom Penh and taking funny pictures. It’s probably not what I would ever do with my friends in Germany, but it is great to be introduced into this aspect of Khmer culture and learn about Cambodian friendships. I’ve also attended the wedding of the sister of a Cambodian friend. For that event I went out and bought traditional Khmer clothes and later had my hair and makeup done together with a friend. Everything was really Khmer Style and it was a lot of fun.
Together with Leon I still attend Khmer classes every day. By now I have started to learn how to write and read Khmer. I’m definitely not as good as I wish I would be, but I know all vowels and consonants now and am able to read and write first, really simple sentences. Learning Khmer writing has also helped me a lot to improve my pronunciation and other than that it is quite fun, since the writing is really beautiful. I do have to start to focus a bit more on vocabulary again, since I’d really like to be able to have deeper conversations that go past “How long do you live here?” and “Where do you work?”.

For the next few months I have a lot to do. In addition to my daily tasks, I need to finish my pieces for the annual report of S.C.A.O. and I also want to film a fundraising video to promote the 3rd school of S.C.A.O.

Regarding my personal life I want to move to Phnom Penh and travel through Vietnam in April, when we have Khmer New Year Holidays.

Excerpts from the 1st quartely Red Cross Report

For the German Red Cross Schleswig Holstein i have to write a report about my life and work in Cambodia every 3 months. Here are some excerpts from the first one, talking about my classes, my free time and reflecting about my first months here.

At the moment I teach three English classes and one Computer class a day. Two of my English classes are Beginner level. At first it was really hard to get used to the fact that my students understand nearly no English at all and that now I would be the person in charge of their education. However after the first two weeks I figured out how to handle my young students, who are often loud or run around the class, and by now I feel really confident about what I teach them and about how to treat my students. Especially as a young person, who just 6 months ago was still going to high school and listening to teachers, now being the teacher and no longer the student is a bit tricky at the beginning. I do feel though that the best method was to just get thrown out there and start teaching. Here in Cambodia there is often no better way than to improvise and just try to figure things out on your own.

The other English class I teach is a Pre-Intermediate level. Many of the students in that class are around the same age or even a little bit older than me.  All of them understand quite a bit of English and they start learning more complicated grammar. I instantly started to have a lot of fun teaching that class since it was great to have students who understood most of what I said and who I could actually have a conversation with. After my first few days of enthusiasm with my Pre-Intermediate class I quickly realized that this class was also the toughest to prepare since they would actually start to ask a lot of questions about the grammar I had to teach them or about more complicated vocabulary that I couldn’t explain without looking it up first. Since it is important to me to keep up the motivation of my students and encourage them to improve their English constantly and to take studying at SCAO seriously I started to let them write at least one vocabulary test per month, let them do homework for which they can get points, give points for attendance and also have a final exam at the end of every month. At the end of the month I print out the list with all the scores of my students and I also rank them so they know who the top ten students of the class are. This is similar to how the Cambodian Public Schools grade their students, only that students can fail classes and get sponsorships at the public schools. So far I’ve noticed that many more students do their homework when they get points for it and that they care a lot about how good they are in class now.

[…]

Around three weeks ago Leon and I started to go to Khmer class every day from 4 to 5 o’clock. So far it has been a lot of fun however it is also quite a lot to learn and another addition to my already busy schedule. Right now we only study how to speak Khmer but maybe in the far future we will give a shot at also learning how to write and read Khmer.

Even though we still have lots and lots to study I already start to understand a lot more when I hear people talk Khmer and I’m already able to go shopping at the market or talk to Moto & Tuk Tuk – drivers completely in Khmer. It is a great feeling to be able to understand and speak a little bit of the language and see the reactions of the Cambodians. It makes me feel a lot more at home in Cambodia than before.

On the weekends I either spend my time in Phnom Penh or I stay at the center in Boeng Chhuk. When I stay at the center I usually try to sleep long, do my laundry do some more work for SCAO, go to the internet café nearby and research for classes or Skype with friends and family. When the kids come home from school we sometimes play monopoly together or try singing recent chart songs together, it’s always great to enjoy some time with the center kids and get to know them better. Weekends at the center are pretty quiet most of the time, but I like to spend some time alone, without all the students around me, just hanging out in my bed and relaxing.

Weekends that I spent in Phnom Penh are quite the opposite. Most of the time I share a room in a guesthouse with at least one other volunteer. During the day we are either procrastinating and using the wifi in the guesthouses for almost the whole day and then go out for dinner somewhere on the streets and later for drinks and going out with the volunteers or we spent the whole day running around Phnom Penh, from market to market, from fruit stand to fruit stand and browsing the shelves of the biggest supermarket. However these days also end at dinner and drinks with other volunteers quite often.

[…]

One of the moments that was quite new to me, was the day that a monk from the local pagoda joined my beginners class. At the new school many monks have been coming to conversation class for a while, but before that one monk came to my class we didn’t have any monks from the pagoda joining us at the Old School. In the beginning I was not really sure how to treat the monk. I had read about many rules regarding the relationship between monks and women. I was not to look into his eyes, not too touch him and if I would greet him he wouldn’t be allowed to answer. Some people even said I wasn’t allowed to talk to him. Since the monk was now my student not talking to him was not an option though. After some classes I figured out a way how to treat the monk that worked for him and me as the teacher at the same time. Obviously I did speak to him and I also looked at him, however I still try to not look into his eyes for too long or in a way that might be mistaken. Whenever I walk through the classroom or I pass him the marker, I make sure that I do not touch him and that I give something with my right hand.

Now I’m really happy about the situation. The monk in my class has a great level of English and is always very interested in learning more about Germany and my German life.

Having a monk in my class also helped me a lot to be a bit more relaxed about Buddhism and monks in general. The first weeks I’ve always been very careful that I wouldn’t do anything that might be against the rules of Buddhism. Having the monk in my class though helped me realize that I do not have to be that tense all the time and that even monks are normal people, like everyone else.

 

I hope everyone had a good start for the new year and i’ll write some more posts about my family visiting me and recent changes around here soon.

All the best from Cambodia,

Lilli

Daily life at SCAO

Since two months now I live and work at the Save poor Children in Asia Organization, afterwards referred to as SCAO.

SCAO has two schools and is planning on building a third one. One (SCAO School II) is located in the village of Som Roung, around 15 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. The other one (SCAO school I) is in Boeng Chuck, a village close to Phnom Penh, and besides the school there; this is also where the center is located and where I live.

“The center” is the home of Mr. Sameth, founder of SCAO, his wife and 18 children, and since September my home in Cambodia.

My tasks at the center include many different things. Together with Leon I’m responsible for paperwork, the volunteer planning and for the smooth running of the school.

In the mornings I usually get up at around 7.30 and have breakfast together with the other volunteers before the first classes start at 9. Right now my first class starts at 1, so I have the mornings off to answering emails and doing paperwork for SCAO, planning my classes or doing my laundry (by hand).

From 11 till 1 we have lunch break and there are no classes at the school. Usually most of the volunteers go to have iced coffee at a small little shop down the street and after that we all have lunch together.

We have 4 different classes at SCAO; ABC class, which is the lowest level, beginner, elementary and pre-intermediate, which is the highest level.  I teach two beginner classes (from 1-2 and from 3-4) and one pre-intermediate class in the late afternoon from 5.30 to 6.30. After 6.30 I assist Lion, who also lives and teaches at the center, in another class.

When classes are finished all the volunteers have dinner together and the day is nearly over. Most of the time you stay up a bit longer, playing with the kids, reading books or watching a movie.

I hope this gives a short insight into my life and work here in Cambodia. If you have any other questions or comments just let me know.

All the best from Boeng Chuck,

Lilli