Today is my birthday. I am 58. The saying “today is the first day of the rest of your life” has never offered such promise and purpose. One week ago today, after four extraordinary months volunteering in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I have returned home. Drastic changes in climate from 90+ degrees to single digits feel just as extreme as my own internal shift.
During my first 4 days at home I sequestered myself – sitting in my office looking outside the window at my snow-covered garden or walking in the woods, always thinking, “What just happened?” Through a lingering fog of jet lag (compounded by midnight prowls for lunch or 3:00 AM email exchanges with friends halfway around the world) I realized, I have seldom felt so useful or fulfilled, except perhaps in my role as mom.
But I also soon realized that “what just happened” went beyond feeling useful. I had traveled to a third world country where culture and history are so diametrically different than my own; it often took my breath away. Cambodians have an indescribable genuine warmth and graciousness; the beauty of Buddhism with ever-present monks and towering wats create a daily reminder of a spirituality available to us all. The pain of the unthinkable past never goes away but on the flip side, nor does the profound hope for the future. Day in and day out, I was continually moved by what I saw and felt.
What I felt was a sense of belonging as I learned more about how to lead my own life, based on seeing how the Khmer (interchangeable with Cambodian) lead theirs. Like others in my generation, I’m a product of the “all about me” mindset, but here were people constantly displaying heartfelt appreciation for the smallest of gestures while facing the harshest of barriers to improve their own lives. From café workers to colleagues to corner tuk tuk drivers to friends who treated me as family, I felt a sense of acceptance while at the same time, was humbled by my own good fortune in life.
The Khmer don’t have the luxuries to be distracted beyond creating a sustainable livelihood. Having access to education (knowing English is paramount no matter your age) or caring for family, both immediate and extended are essentials. Life’s needs are pretty straightforward. Achieving those needs, however, are not as simple. A little context is needed to best grasp the enormity of the challenge facing Cambodians while also explaining my continual amazement at a resiliency and grace of behavior that goes far beyond anything I have ever witnessed in others or myself.
Cambodians are accurately described as kind, gentle people. Mostly Buddhist, Cambodians were traumatized and pummeled as collateral damage during the Vietnam War. But far worse than invasion or bullying by us, the Vietnamese, the Chinese or the Russians, was their fall under the cruel dictatorship of Pol Pot during the 1970’s. Pol Pot was the Cambodian man who orchestrated the killing of almost 20% of the population, annihilating (through executions or starvation) any “educated” Cambodians including teachers, doctors, engineers, artists and the whole middle class. A generation was wiped out. Even wearing glasses warranted execution – it inferred you were well read. This harsh regime created a disastrous agrarian society where illiteracy and isolated peasant life was attempted and momentarily achieved.
Fast forward forty years to 2013 and you have a young generation of twenty-year olds raised in rural villages, often by uneducated parents (formerly children living under the rule of Pol Pot). These parents, isolated in their villages, had no role models, as their parents often were the ones killed. They are now terribly poor with little access to healthcare and thus, rely on their children to take care of them. (Frequently children in orphanages have parents; however, the parents succumb to the reality they can no longer afford to raise their children, leaving the upbringing and care to others.)
Today’s Cambodians have an astounding work ethic with little free time, fortified by a determination to re-build their country and make a better future for their families and relatives. Appreciation for job options is palpable since job choices are often limited – work in sweatshop factories in Cambodia or Thailand; become hopelessly and horribly involved in the sex trafficking or scratch a living, like the parents, in the rice fields. Getting access to education and job skills is sought by many but afforded to few. This is where EGBOK Mission, my place of work for four months (an extraordinary nonprofit organization started by a former student of mine, Ben Justus), comes into play.
EGBOK Mission helps this younger generation develop the skills they need, both for entry-level hospitality jobs and their personal lives. Wages in hospitality are double the annual income for the “average” Cambodian with a 38% raise in income for our students over their first year of employment. The EGBOK Mission team (which has no religious affiliation despite the logo of crossed forks) includes a (newly hired) Khmer as well as a Western social worker, full time Khmer and Western staff and a crew of rotating volunteers, like myself. The goal is to have the organization Khmer run in upcoming years, allowing for a sustainable and thriving future.
My role, as I saw it, was to help students recognize how their entry-level job success was based on a smart (and hard) work ethic, good attitude, teamwork and being aware and alert to understanding the demands that their supervisors faced. Awareness (and support) of the “big picture” was the path to promotion in future years. My focus was to provide realistic hope and inspiration, backed with tangible skills that would help facilitate such opportunities. My biggest contribution was creating the EGBOK Mission Distinguished Speaker Series, where I found successful Cambodian hospitality professionals who shared similar backgrounds with our students. Watching students become captivated and inspired by the speakers’ stories was a highlight. Watching the speakers (often hesitant at the prospect of speaking to 25 students) become more animated in speech and body language, was equally as rewarding.
Volunteering as a “retiree” made me also realize how much my generation has to offer to the world, no matter one’s career. Quite often life experiences can be the best lessons one can offer. Loyalty, mutual respect, resourcefulness and resiliency are core values that only hold true when personally experienced. And in Cambodia, since my generation of adults was silenced, we have an even more poignant impact on those we might mentor. The gratitude shown by the people with whom we came to know at EGBOK and in the community, was constant and sincere. Often, we would hear “Thank you for helping the people of Cambodia” and when I said “Oh, no, thank you” I would be chided. This raw honesty was not to be taken lightly or diminished. Cambodians don’t want charity – they want opportunity in a country that has no support (only corruption) by the government. I can’t imagine not returning – a return visit is already on the calendar for December.
For several years, I have spoken extensively about etiquette and manners, but what I learned during my 120 days in Siem Reap, surpasses whatever I thought I already knew. Remember the book Everything You Needed to Know You Learned in Kindergarten? My version is Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Cambodia. I don’t want to forget these lessons as life back home resumes its own rhythm and course.
To best grasp and live what I learned, there may just be a book in me. I’ll continue to write about what I’ve learned (with more focus and less meandering). Some stories are hilarious (Dave and I lived the Exotic Marigold Hotel life during our time in a small, family owned guesthouse); some are heartwarming (thank you notes from students are lifelong treasures) and a few, a little heartbreaking (saving facing can have an enormous cost).
So that’s it for my birthday thoughts. No time for photo uploads as it’s time to get ready to go to the local pub and have a fish fry with family. Snow is falling and the house is quiet. As I sit here in my office, my heart feels full with purpose both for my work here and in Siem Reap. I can’t imagine a better birthday gift than that.