By Jessie C. Zeng
28 August, 2016

This summer, the 1st service learning tour to Cambodia being sent by Guangzhou YMCA, which lasted 11 days with 21 participants involved, has turn out to be a success. This suggests that there’s one more option for Guangzhou youth to go exploring and serving the world together with YMCA during summer and winter vacations. Many would ask, why Cambodia? This country seems to be so out of sight of the public that, quite embarrassingly, the only thing I could ever associate before I seriously start preparing for this tour is a ridiculous riddle back in my primary school, asking about what the largest village in the world is. The answer is Cambodia, which in Chinese “柬 埔寨” ends with the character “寨”for village.

Many probably have the same impression as mine out of nowhere that this country is extremely impoverished, without being able to indicate any details, not to mention having an idea why this nation which cradled the glorious ancient Khmer culture, the well-known Angkor Wat being its humble representative, now is stumbling along in poverty. Many had no friends from this nation, nor did we ever expect to get to know someone there, let alone to understand what the elder generations there had been through, to care about how the young generation lives, or to see from their perspective as well as learn from their experience.

Things changed as this tour came to its end. Gratefully, what our participants got are more than just a character sharpening life experience and a proud feeling of being helpful somewhere, actually they have been forced to face the heartrending suffering in history and reflect upon what it means by being a responsible global citizen. Meanwhile, I have been pondering the value of this and other possible upcoming tours to Cambodia, namely if it worth all the efforts to help our young people know about its history, behold the situation of its people, and think critically to find answers of their own.

To know about the history, is to respect those who have been through it, and to respect the common future of human being.

A visit to the war museum [Photo by Max Ediger}
The suffocating barbed wire and frightening instruments of torture in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (often called S-21), the astoundingly high piles of victim skulls laid in rows of ages in the Killing Field, the land mine victims in wheelchairs working in the Jesuit Refugees Service Center, the complex feeling that the Khmer tourist guide in the War Museum conveyed in his eyes every time he mentioned “China”, all of these above and many other more made me feel extremely embarrassed and even guilty about my complete ignorance of that part of history. I remembered one sentence that I read before, “Are the lives of 200,000 people died right in front of your doorway more precious than the lives of other 200,000 people who live far away”. Cambodia is not really far away given the distance geographically, but it seems so far and even unreachable when thinking of how much we know about its tremendous pain and suffering.

What hurts most is the fact that the suffering came not from natural disaster, but from human wickedness. What worries most is the current situation that seemingly we’ve been used to take peace for granted and would talk about war as if it could happen anywhere on this planet except around us. “War, having been taken as a horrible word and a sensitive topic, is something that goes far beyond my understanding. I can‟t really tell how much pain and irreversible damage it would bring to people. Before I came here, I suppose, I was like many other teenagers, who would hastily shout out „just open fire‟ when talking about conflicts such as that over South China Sea. Now I‟m more aware of the possible destruction a war would bring to the innocent,and will think it twice, if not differently.” Says one participant, Winnie WEN.

People often talk about the importance of drawing lessons from the past. While when the past is past, when history only matters to the numbers in textbooks, marking the time when significant historical events happened, or to the correct answer that students are supposed to tick in their test; when history is really just “his story” that barely has anything to do with us, how is it possible for us to learn from it?

Not witnessing the suffering doesn’t necessarily mean that it does not exist, nor can we be assured to be exempt from it forever. This also applies to the topic of conflict. Be we see it or not, the conflict could be there and could have already result in painful experience for some. Perhaps to face it directly is better than running away. Kiki YU writes, “For forty years, the museum has been speaking to the world this heartrending story that human beings shall never forget. It appeals silently but strongly for ever-lasting peace to come…The conflicts between individuals and themselves, people and others, nation and nation are quite common, better face them bravely. When there‟re tangled feelings inside our heart, list all those annoying details to see why they irritate us; when there‟re disputes among people, sit down and have a dialogue, listen to each other‟s story and try to locate the problem; when there‟re conflicts between nations, turn away from the option of war and search for reconciliation, for war can only shut one side up by bloody violence, but can never solve the conflict. Only until we learn how to love and what true wisdom is can we restore and keep peace inside our heart…Conflict and war are not far away from us, but seldom do we recognize their destructive power. History had already left its victims with hurt and scars that would never fully recover. As a young lady born and live in times of peace, I‟d like to create more peace around me, and let more people know that peace has been painfully won for us.”

To see others in their situation, is to help us open our hearts, and to activate our intrinsic kindness.

Among the participants there’re several tall boys at around the age of sixteen, who know quite a number of ways to drive others crazy. They can act like completely absent-minded when seeing me making announcement, or nearly overturn the roof when they’re in the shower. The one who’s perhaps the most unruly, he acts in a way that seems he never cares about how others feel. After several times dealing with the chaos he stirred up, I was really going to put him as my first priority in work; because it feels like once I can make sure that he is well-behaved, there wouldn’t be any other problems.

While when we were doing street kids service in the local slum, our “priority” turned out to be the most popular guy for the kids there. He could easily attract the kids’ attention and immediately start playing well with them, despite the fact that they don’t speak the same language and could not really communicate. He seems just talented in that and have surprised me even more when we went to the village school to do kids service. The principal of the little village school, which is comprised of 160 students and only 3 people in faculty, has been serving there for 35 years and would come to retirement within a month. Seems to me that this simply but decently dressed old man have been so much worrying about the future of his school and the kids that he’s always in a poker face, sometimes with a deep frown. But our “priority”, acting as unpredictably as he always does, jumped to the principal after the closing ceremony, threw his arm around the principal’s neck and struck up a conversation heartily – in Chinese! What amazed me was that finally at that time, and for the first time, I saw this seemingly unemotional and reserved principal bursting into a heartfelt smile.

Not unexpectedly, “Priority Boy” wrote in his reflection at the end of the tour complaints about a little bit of everything along the way. His common facial expression of juvenile arrogance stands out markedly on the paper through his words. While besides that, I also read his comments about the experience in the slum school, “I really felt that the government here is quite corrupt. Didn’t they understand that it‟s not right to treat their own people like this? It‟s so hurting when I think of those government officials busy attending all kinds of feasts while turning their backs on the poverty of the common. I will definitely give my first donation here once I make money by myself. Because here you see no matter how poor the conditions are, the kids always show the kind of smile that you‟ll never fed up with, and the adults here are also quite friendly. ”

Another boy Jimmy CHE writes, “Although they live in extreme poverty and some of them have to rush to pick up trash after school, they never forget to smile and are always quite actively involved in our teaching service. They look so energetic and positive that it seems like poverty cannot strike them down easily. A nation is lucky to have kids like this, while it irresponsibly fritters this luck away by not providing them the opportunity of getting proper education. It is a great pity that as volunteers we can only give them one or two lessons, which can hardly deliver any substantial change. I really wish in the future there will be chances for me to do more for their future, at least in return for the optimistic attitude that I learned from them.” No matter how rebellious these teenagers might look, they are actually quite sensitive and compassionate. It’s just that we might have failed to teach them how to express and pass on love. Exposing them to the problems that others are facing might let them feel being engaged and responsible, although this needs to be followed by the quest of practical ways to help.

To think critically, is to start taking responsibility over one’s own ideas and actions.

What impressed and worried me most in the program of small SOP (School of Peace) in Siem Reap has something to do with a true story told by Max, one of our dedicated facilitators. In a Caste society where people of different social class that he/she was born into cannot be treated equally, in a man-dominating society where women are taken as a piece of property possessed by their husbands, where woman lost virginity would be discarded by her partner and disdained by the whole society, a young lady surrendered her virginity to a man of higher social class in order to meet her fiancé who, as rumors alleged, was suffering from a serious fatal disease. But her fiancé, instead of feeling touched and appreciated what she had sacrificed for him, harshly humiliated and abandoned her. The story ends with the young lady jumped in a river and died, leaving us the question of who is the most responsible one for her death.

Reflecting on lessons learned. [Photo by Max Ediger]
Many participants, and nearly all female participants, said that this young lady herself is the most responsible person, because she wasn’t strong enough to break the chains of those fusty and false social conceptions, and she was too timorous to start her life anew. Only a few boys insisted that the fiancé, who was also confined to the then social norms and had not even the smallest appreciation for what his fiancée did for him, is the one who should be blamed.

“Those who are pitiful must have a cause for having sunk to their lows.”Quite often we find ourselves winding up the topic of suffering with this plausible sentence. Not only because it’s exhausting to get to the root of a matter, but also because it’s upsetting when we seems to have come to the root, knowing that we cannot help much. Max didn’t judge our standpoints. He just suggested us to try to think out of the box, try to identify and tackle the root problems instead of the shallow ones. And I’ve been asking myself ever since, is it better even not to start finding solutions just because thing are always easier said than done? Does it count for nothing to think and have ideas shared just because actions cannot be taken immediately? “The purpose of education is to teach people how to think, not what to think.”But if people have been so used to yield to so-called authority or majority, scared of presenting an answer that would be judged wrong by others, how can they be able to think in a real sense?

“Is it that poverty leads to lack of education, or lack of education leads to poverty?”We were encouraged by the facilitators to reflect on the service we did in Phnom Penh with this question in our mind, to see if we really have made some difference. Undeniably, participants developed their abilities of organizing and teamwork, as well as handling issues extemporaneously; and they were deeply shocked by the sharp contrast between the poor conditions and the liveliness of the kids there. However, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t remember all the names of those 160 students within two days; neither could we hear the story of each and every one of them. Many details of the service were left unattended and we completely have no idea if or how much we could have influenced them in a positive way.

“I feel so sad whenever I think of those little girls weeping in front of the Angkor Wat, trying to sell goods to the tourists. We are just passers-by in their life. We can see their scars but can never feel their pain…I want to yell for the wishes and needs of the Cambodian people; I want to pray for their scars and pain; I want to pass on what I saw and heard here to others, so that more people can understand and help.”  Becky YU writes emotionally. “Poverty is a prison, which locked the kids inside. There‟s very little we can do from the outside. Because what the kids really need is the long-term company of teachers, not some people who come today and leave tomorrow. Besides doing service there, we could be more helpful by sharing the current situations of Education in Cambodia around and bring people‟s attention to this issue.” Cici CHEN writes.

To admit that we could have done more and better is the first step to know where we really are in this big picture, and to humble ourselves, getting ready to do better in the future. We are pleased to see that our participants not only feel thankful to the peace and plenty they now can enjoy back at home, but also feel sorry for the suffering of the seemingly irrelevant people and are willing to do something to help.

Transformation won’t happen overnight. While looking back at human history, though it keeps repeating itself to some extent, there’re many things people once dared not to imagine have already become commonplace. This wouldn’t have come true if there wasn’t a start with a handful of people who’d been dedicatedly working to prepare the soil and base for the transformation they dreamed of.

To know about the past and present, to see others’ suffering and needs, to look critically at the problems and think of possible solutions, this tour provided many chances like these for the teenagers and young adults. Hopefully it helped them to locate themselves in this globalized era, and encourages them to carry out their responsibilities for themselves and for the community


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