Note: this is a late post, but hopefully it's still worthwhile reading. Also, students from the Royal University: if you read this on a laptop instead of your phone, you can change the language to Khmer on the sidebar! It's Google Translate, so it'll be just a bit broken, but it should help.
I've become friends with a charming employee at the guesthouse I've been staying at for the last two weeks. She's the one who took me to the market earlier in the week to try balut and a stinky fermented fish sauce, called Prahok (pictured, and yes, it smells horrible, but like balut, is delicious!).
We had an interesting conversation today, and one that rattled me a little bit.
This girl, like many of the people living here that I have met, work hard. She basically works here from early in the morning to five or so at night, then motorbikes across town to work at her sister's shop to help her out (for no pay) until late into the evening. She does this pretty much every day.
I stupidly asked her what she did for fun.
She laughed. Fun? Really? Where is there time for that?
This got to me thinking, again (uh oh). Again feeling ashamed that I was traveling the world, not on my dime, and going to Dr. Who marathons in air-conditioned theaters, petting strange, friendly cats (speaking of which, they all have no tails here...) with one hand and drinking a double rum and coke with the other.
How crazy lucky is that? At the same time though, how unfair it is when great people like this have to work literally all day just to get by? So, I have this little blog and I write and I travel for free. Uh, cool. So...so, what? Again, I questioned why this fellowship stipend was given to me to just spend instead of just donating it to a good, efficient NGO or something.
Speaking at a university today helped answer this.
Got a tuk-tuk to drive me to The Royal University today to see how their social work program worked. Long story shortened: a great professor/mentor of mine from UWT, Dr. Tom Diehm, was able to connect me up with this school here because it is in a partnership with the UW. Of course, it seems like everything turns into an adventure of sorts with me and I got lost on the way, went to the wrong school, and was completely late (apparently, so I've been told, "social work" in Khmer is only one letter away from "sociology", so everyone gave me directions to all the absolute wrong places). I finally found the 2nd college campus that held the social work department. Of course, it was way, way, way out of the way from the main campus, because, well, why wouldn't it be? Social work always seems to be the underdog, no matter what country you go to. I was welcomed and given a small tour. The 2nd campus is nothing to look at, in fact, it was very basic and very bare-bones. That said, I loved it. And it has little to do with the shape and condition of the school and has everything to do with the heart and soul of its teachers and students.
I sat in a circle with about 10 of the students and was left there to ask about Cambodia and the role of social workers and they asked me about the field in the States. At first, these BA students were very, very nervous. And why wouldn't they be? Here's this tall, awkward, guy from America who wants to talk about school and get into everyone's business. Awesome, right? So, yeah, they were hesitant at first. But after a good fifteen minutes, the floodgates opened and I learned quite a lot today.
Now, I won't say too much about what we talked about because of social work confidentially and, well, I do have to be careful what I say on this blog when it comes to activism and the government...
But, I will say this. These students are smart. They ware highly intelligent. And funny. And determined. And it makes me so happy to see a new generation so ready to change the future. They asked me why I wanted to be a social worker and, like I did in my application to UWT, I said simply: I want to help people.
They jumped on this, heads shaking up and down, all around. I can't express how impressive it was to see these students light up. They wanted to create a better world out there, too! To really make Cambodia even better than it was. They had fierce pride (reminded me of Tacoma pride) mixed with gracious hearts. The school, as broken down as I originally viewed it, took on a whole new spin. I suddenly admired it greatly. It had definitely seen better days, but it also had a history that many of us couldn't even imagine. The 74-79 genocide took not only lives (I've heard that only a few hundreds college teachers survived) here but also years of progress. The Royal University was essentially demolished by the KR, who wanted their new, pure society uneducated. Only recently have they been able to rise from the ashes of this horrible destruction.
I'm proud to have come here today. I'm proud of the people and I'm proud of the school. Immensely so. To have the chance to talk and listen and share with these fellow students. Not only have I learned much from them, but I think, they learned a lot from me (hopefully!).
It was wild to be talking to students all the way across the world, tripping over language barriers, in a surreal school that was demolished during a genocide. Yet, as different as worlds as we come from, we fight the same thing. We fight poverty from different angles with different environmental and cultural factors and lenses but it's essentially the same fight - we fight injustice, we fight to give voice to those who don't have it, and do our best to fight against whatever corruption we find. And it certainly is a fight, let no one tell you different. No matter what you believe, fighting for the poor in a world ruled by the rich is and always will be a violent, unnerving, and relentless Robin Hood-like fight.
These kids and I are one in the same. Different worlds, but we all want to change the world. For the better.
If that's not the most beautiful thing ever - a shared heart for humanity - I don't know what is.
I needed today.
So back to that question of why I got this fellowship. Why did I get selected for this? I think, in part, to meet people like this - inspirational, wonderful people - who will push me to be as dedicated and driven to change the world as they are.
It's an experience of a lifetime for me.
Even if only to meet the game changers of the next generation and have the honor to change the world by their side.
Edit - Just met social work alumni today to talk with them about Cambodia and social work. Just as amazing. And just as much heart.