Kampuchea (Part I)

Friday, June 12, 2015

"I'm heading to Cambodia for a week during the June holidays."

"Huh seriously? But June holidays' super crucial to catch up on work leh!" 

And the first week of my June holidays was undoubtedly crucial. Crucial in finding myself again, crucial in rejuvenating myself for what lies ahead and crucial in realizing what's truly important in life, to me. 

It may sound far-fetched but in all honesty, this International Understanding trip to Cambodia with Raffles Interact has changed the perceptions I have of myself and many other things in my life.  I suppose part of the reason why the seven days made such a huge impact on me is because I came onto this trip without any expectations and in fact I expected the worst. I have always been a strong believer that overseas service learning trips does no good at all - it merely makes the one "providing service and help" feel good about themselves and it's all part of volunteer tourism, something that so many critique. 

Signing up for the trip was probably a rather irrational decision but I did want to experience overseas service learning at least once before my official school career was over and thought that this was the perfect opportunity. 

While I wouldn't say that I've completely changed my mindset - I'm continually questioning the help that we render when we are personally there in the country - I concur that you can actually make a difference when you're there, it just depends on how much you're willing to invest. I still stand by the fact that we take away a lot more than we give in my opinion, though that may not apply to every person because it does actually take conscious effort to give careful thought and reflection onto the sights that we observe, the acts that we engage in while we're there. And I've truly gained so much - few of them being clearly formed ideas but a huge majority being cloudy, messy thoughts I have in my head that I am trying to piece together. I am more than thankful for them. 

At Phnom Penh airport :-) 

Many of these thoughts I would rather keep them private at the moment but if I do find the right moments or circumstances that would be beneficial for me to share them, I'm sure they'll find their way into this space but in the meantime I would be recapping the trip in its bare minimum (knowing my long-winded nature, it will probably be pretty chunky anyway) with photographs. 

With Yijing and Chunman - I really love this photo :") 

The first four days of the trip was spent at UNACAS, an orphanage in Phnom Penh where we helped with infrastructure (painting of the boys' dormitory) as well as conducting English lessons at night. Before we headed to UNACAS, we made a stop at a shopping centre to purchase breakfast supplies for the next few days. 

Ice cream :-) 

Sights as we walked from our sleeping area to UNACAS 


For the first day, we just interacted with the children there, watched them play soccer, and observed their English lessons. I am not good with children and it takes a lot for me to step out of my comfort zone and for the first day, I'll admit that I didn't try. Being the photographer for the team conveniently allowed me to hide behind the camera lens, something I definitely used to my (short-term) benefit. 

Tiko :-) This was an extremely intense game of "Concentration".

After dinner, we managed to catch the sunset and I believe that's the silhouette of Minxin's head. 

Apparently the three of us look alike - probably the spectacles

And that concludes my first day in Cambodia - good night from the inside of insect net tents that look like gigantic versions of the covers we cover our food with :-) 

The next morning, the director of UNACAS brought us around the premises. He strikes me as a really brave, strong and humble person with a good heart, evident from the way he carries himself and speaks, especially as he stood in front of his late mum's tomb and told us about how she founded the orphanage. I can only hope that what Singapore volunteer groups and YMCA does truly helps him and all the children he looks after.

Pond where they rear fishes 

Caught these two photos almost one after the other and I see a rather uncanny resemblance between them - the first photo honestly looks like a grown-up version of the same two little boys. Look at how the person at the front faces forward while the one at the back turns to look at the camera and I don't know, but I feel like the haircut of the person at the front is pretty similar in both the adult and child versions. Maybe it's just me, but even their facial features/ face shapes are similar. 

Primary colours photo - with Melvina & Christal :-) 

Melvina & Christal are two of the sweetest girls I've ever met and throughout the course of this trip, I've definitely learnt so much from them in the way they are so genuine when they interact with the children - nothing is forced. Christal was definitely one of the hardest hit when it was time for us to leave the children at UNACAS, but I admire her for the bonds she was able to form with them and how much she feels for them.  

Infrastructure with Rachel :-) 

Lunch on one of the days - it was really good :-) I understand that the kids don't get to have food like this every day though, and that the food improves when volunteers are there so that's something to think about. 

On one of our mid-day breaks - Cambodian Pringles is a lot tastier 

Taking the road less traveled 

Hard at work

In all honesty, I had so many doubts and concerns as we were painting the boys' dormitory, especially on the first day where we seemed to be making a huge mess, dripping paint all over their furniture and floor and we made a lot of noise as well and it felt like we were imposing on them instead. I begun questioning our purpose there - wouldn't it make more sense if we were to use the money that funded our journey all the way to Cambodia to hire professional painters and give the dormitory an actual, good coat of paint? Would the purpose of us coming down merely be for us to feel good about ourselves? 

In some ways, maybe yes. But in some other ways, our presence there actually does mean something to the people there. Mere donations lack the personal touch and while that does sound self-righteous, I've learnt from the four days spent there as well as from several shared reflections by my fellow IU team members that there is a reason for us to be there and while we're there, we should give it our all because since it's the task given to us at that point of time, what's the point of questioning it? Just do your best. We definitely became a lot more focused in the next three days and that was heartening and it cleared up a lot of the concerns I had. 

Mid- day break 

Definitely laughed the most I could in a week, and knowing my usual laughing frequencies, it's a pretty significant amount. 

Caught this sunset on the third day :-) 

Our IU team shirt which I designed! Honestly it felt really nice getting back into designing t-shirts because in my two years here in junior college I never did get the opportunity to design any (because there's so many super talented artists around), unlike in RG where the responsibility was usually pushed to me (which wasn't a good thing as well). This time, I volunteered and designing it at my own pace felt quite lovely and it's been a while since I felt the sense of gratification watching others wear something I designed :-)


Our final meal together with the kids at UNACAS, which was KFC, a treat for them. Following the meal, we headed to the hall where we had our finale, with us putting up performances for one another. The four days truly went by in a blur and I was completely fatigued by the end of the night and didn't know how or what to feel. Everything was quite surreal. Here's our performance: 

I was truly touched though, when one of the girls handed me two bracelets and a handwritten note that night thanking me for being there with them and teaching her. I felt like I didn't deserve it at all because what I did for her is nothing compared to how she made me feel. It made me wonder, what do the kids actually think about all these new groups of volunteers coming over every few months? I mean, we've always thought about it from our perspective - whether we're giving or taking away more - but what about them? Do they see us as people who are there to help or do they understand that for many of us we're learning by doing service as well?  

I consciously chose to be detached and unfeeling throughout the course of our time there and in fact, I make this decision all the time in my life. It doesn't mean that my service is any less, or that I put in less effort in the things that I do, but I don't invest my emotions into things that easily because of circumstances and events that have previously happened to me that made me feel more comfortable this way. It was rather unsettling for me though, because my fellow IU team members felt such a deep sense of attachment and it was something I could never imagine experiencing and it genuinely made me question my morality. 

I did come to the temporary conclusion after a couple of days that it wasn't wrong that I wasn't feeling much, as long as I am not ignorant that choosing not to feel was a conscious decision on my part. I feel like it is only when I completely stop worrying about my own lack of emotions should I be concerned, but by then I don't suppose I would care anymore. And that's exactly what worries me.

But at this point in time, I am at peace, and I am incredibly happy. Absolutely no regrets spending a week experiencing so much more than I expected.

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