Saturday, March 29, 2008

3-27-08

Today was my new favorite day in Cambodia.
It was a school day of course. At worship I reminded my eight graders that we were having our run-a-thon today after school. They all groaned and told me that they couldn’t find any sponsors. Well, of course not, Cambodians have never heard of a run-a-whatever! And they don’t have money to spare anyway. So they all said, “Why run around for half an hour if we aren’t making any money?” I didn’t want to tell them how much money I have raised at home, because I still want them to work hard and not just depend on foreigners to hand them money. So I said, “Please, please just try. I’ll run with you. It will be fun and maybe we can get sponsors later. Ok?” They didn’t seem convinced.
I spent the next two hours with the 11th graders teaching English and Morality. During English class they presented oral book reports, which are usually pretty funny. Just the way they put words together is hilarious sometimes. Like today, Sophea said, “The house had big chicken where the family like be together”. After each report I correct a few errors and after Sophea’s I said: “How did the family spend time together in a chicken?” She looked at me blankly, “A chicken Ms.Bo, where the family cooks?” She meant to say ‘kitchen’, but instead said, ‘chicken’. I’ve never realized how close those words sound. I like that my classroom is a safe place to laugh and move on. We don’t laugh to embarrass, but using humor at our mistakes makes it easier and more fun. Later I taught them the word “cocky” and kinda popped my collar in an overconfident, obnoxious sort of way. Granted I am mimicking rap music artists whom I do not endorse, but almost everyone in my generation back home understands, so I taught my kids too. Later I laughed as I thought, “What am I teaching these kids?” Regardless they were popping their collars at all the wrong times and circumstances. Oh, but it was funny!
Later I went to 10th grade English and Speech/Drama class where I taught them the song, “I’ve got the Feelin”. They all stopped singing and doing the actions, because I most often just become a form of entertainment for them. I say and do things they would never imagine doing in public. Nothing scandalous I promise! But things like speaking your opinion, making funny faces, and singing happily, are not commonly done among the uber-shy Khmers. We picked roles for the upcoming Easter drama that will take place in April. Acting is as painful for them as having to possibly skip rice at one single meal, absurd! They love their rice. Walking out the door, Ty Chay Hak tossed me the volleyball which we then played with in the classroom dodging the fluorescent lights, but shaking hands to agree that if one was broken, we would split the costs. Then after one too many close calls, we stopped, because none of us really have money to pay for new lights anyway.
From here I went to teach the 8th grade monkeys who call themselves students. They were playing soccer in the classroom with a plastic bottle. I dodged a goal kick as I walked through the door. Some students, all girls, were studying for the Geography quiz I had promised. We started class. Vitya hasn’t spoken to me in 2 weeks. I couldn’t tell you why. He is a bit moody, which is unfortunate because he can be a lot of fun. It is hard enough feeling outnumbered by your students, but my kids have a foreign language up their sleeve. He is somewhat toxic and influential to the rest of the class, so I hope he gets over it soon.
I like that in my classes we can enjoy each other and laugh and have a good time. But when it is time for work, we work.
At 3pm, the school bell rang and 8 of my 24 students showed up for the run-a-thon. The students had innumerable reasons as to why they just couldn’t stay for the fundraiser. I told them I was not going to force them to stay. So in the dreadful Cambodian heat, the rest of us started running. Fay and principle Sharon helped me count their laps and keep time. Sure, they took off quickly at first and I brought up the rear. But sooner or later, they were tired and walking. Cambodians love to play soccer, but they do so on short corner streets and empty landfills. So they really aren’t very fit. Not the long distance type. So I was quite proud of myself that after 30 minutes I had run 20 laps around the school’s track, or 3 miles. I was exhausted, dizzy, and have had a headache ever since. A few of the boys were right behind me and two brave girls really pushed themselves to at least try. I was proud. I am proud.
I came home and took the best shower I think I have ever experienced. Usually, the lack of hot water makes me annoyed, but today I chose it. Tim, Fay, and I watched a movie together in my room and it is now 8:40pm and way past my bedtime, by about 1 hour and 40 minutes honestly.
I still wake up at 4 am. I still pray at 4:30. I still live in Cambodia. I still ride my bike to school and try to be the teacher these kids need. I still feel distance from God. I still fight this eating disorder like I have every day for the last 2 years. Sometimes I feel horribly depressed and cry and cry. I still miss home and I may never fall in love with this country. But I’m still here and that’s something.
Days like today are important. I will never forget. Today mattered to me. Today I realized that I fear loneliness because I have unconsciously believed that lonely people must be lonely because they are not loved. I know that is not true. Today I tried to pretend that everything I have known to be true, just isn’t. I pretended that I didn’t have an eating disorder. I pretended that I felt like an adequate teacher. I pretended that I knew what God is doing with me here. I don’t recommend pretending. But I recommend taking a few or many steps back to see life without our lies.
Because as I pretended like I felt peace, contentment, and absolute joy, a little of it started to sink in I think. And today was great. If pretending made it my new favorite day in Cambodia, I’m all for it. More than pretending, it is practice in thinking differently than how I have trained myself to think. I’m learning that I don’t have to be what I have been. It is terrifying, but it’s good. I’m still here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

3-25-08

I have favorites. I do. And any teacher who says they do not have favorites is lying to you. There are certain students who make life easier almost every single day. I would go so far as to say that, some of my students are the reason I find strength to come to school each day.
Kagna is the student I mentioned once already. She is in 11th grade. She speaks freely and confidently. She hops around and moves actively through the telling of her stories and jokes. She isn’t a beauty queen because she says she doesn’t care what she looks like, but all the better because she is so beautiful without a speck of makeup. She’s a tiny whiff of a person like all the girls here, but her personality is much more substantial. She rides her moto with a helmet because she is smart. She gets nearly straight A’s because she is smart. She wants to become a teacher and help her country. Yeah, she is pretty great.
Reachany is another 11th greater, with even more energy and zest than Kagna. She is shorter and even smaller, if possible! She is known as the class clown and she maintains that every single day. She calls herself ‘Ms.World’ because she will one day be. She has an obsession with, ‘choc-oh-late’, you’ve got to hear her say it. She always wants to play games. She goes home every day and watches TV. I guess that is where she gets her jokes. She probably won’t afford college and knows it, so her ambitions are pretty small. Maybe she laughs to hide it all.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, I seem to relate best with boys. Girls at this age are usually pretty silly and the boys are just trying to figure them out. I contribute what I can. A few of the boys in 10th grade are hopeless romantics, they are: Chheuy Sockha, Keo Sopheara, and Yel Darithea. They practice singing love songs with the guitar between classes. They write about particular girls in their journals. They joke about who likes who, and giggle like 5th graders. I think someday they will treat women right.
Another boy in 10th grade makes me smile every day I come for English. Ratanack is usually near the door when I come in. He invites me to play soccer or volleyball with he and his friends. The other day they made a makeshift dart board out of styrofoam and were throwing pens at it. I lost, but it is always nice to be asked to play. Even though he is a bit talkative in class, I have yet to get an evil glare from him if I ask him to be quiet. He looks at me when I talk to him and he nods his head. Maybe be is listening.
Tulip, I like Tulip. She hangs out with a boy I am not so fond of, but still I like her. She is the biggest Cambodian I have seen since I got here. She isn’t morbidly obese or anything, but the people here are so tiny, her and I must look like giants. Her parents left her and her brother for a better life owning a donut shop in Los Angeles. She says sometimes they send her money. She has big chubby cheeks and dark, squinty eyes. She gives me high fives every time I walk past her. Sometimes she just sits and watches me type on the computer. I’m used to the stares. I’ll miss hers when I leave. She is such a tomboy and I’ve never seen her hair down.
Nika is another girl. She speaks excellent English. She is another tomboy, I seem to like those “real” kind of girls. Often times she corrects my grammar which I am ok with. Because often she will ask me a question I do not know the answer to and she will say, “Ya know what Ms.Bo? There are a lot of things about Khmer I don’t know either. It’s ok. Don’t worry about it!” That is the most encouraging thing a student can say: “It’s ok, you’re human”. Her mother also left her here to fend for herself and her brother. She is tough. She puts a hat on as soon as the school bell rings. The other girls call her ‘fat’ and ‘monkey’. She just rolls her eyes. I wonder how much more she can let slide off her back.
Daroth and Oknha are both 8th grade boys. They are smart. They try. They notice when I walk by and they are nice to girls. They are respectful. They don’t roll their eyes at me or argue when I ask them to do something. Daroth will make a great father some day. He is so good with little kids. Okhna is like Beaver Cleaver of Phnom Penh. He rides several miles to school each day on an old dark green bike. He doesn’t notice the life threatening traffic. He looks up to his older brother. Both of them actually study for Geography and are so easy to talk to. Sometimes, in the morning, outside my classroom, I will hear this obnoxious cackle of a laugh. I think Daroth is imitating something he saw on TV. Either way it is hilarious and I laugh every time.
Ratana is an 8th grade girl. She has a brother in the same grade who has flunked several times, but this girl, she’s special. She’ll probably pass him up. She is always on time for school and laughs at my jokes, even they aren’t funny. She gives me flowers to put in my hair and sometimes we sing High School Musical songs together. She is responsible and very efficient. She doesn’t pretend to worship the ground I walk on just because I am white and a foreigner. She is friendly. She goes to school for 7 hours, then goes straight to work for a missionary family doing their laundry and watching their kids. Then she returns home after dark to a single mother whose drunken father disappeared several years ago. She does her homework, goes to bed, and does it all over again.
I could go on. I will another time. I do not look forward to the heat, the dirt, the contruction drilling next door, or the eternally difficult students I face each day. But I look forward to seeing Kagna, Reachany, Sockha, Sopheara, Rithea, Rattanack, Tulip, Nika, Daroth, Oknha, and Ratana. Gosh, these kids are great. I’m having a hard time finding the words.
These are the kids I am raising money for. These are the students who deserve so much more than they are getting. They deserve futures and happiness and hope and success. These are the kids I am tearing up just writing about. Where did they come from and how I am so blessed to spend my days with them? How will I ever remember all they have taught me about suffering, about relationships, about their culture, and about truly living?
That is probably why I am still writing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

3-22--08

It is the twenty-second day of March. Yes, that’s right. The 22nd of each month means that I have survived another month in Cambodia.
I do not feel like I have exhaled in 7 months. I can hardly wait for the day that I do.
It is getting hotter here as winter is over. Winter? Ha! I scoff at that. How can they call that winter? I suppose Cambodians would have the same reaction upon coming to the States. They’d say, “Ha, you call that summer?” It has become completely necessary to take two showers every day. So that’s kind of a hassle, but I endure for the comfort and survival of others. Really, by the end of a day at school I am disgusting. I probably flick about 25-30 insects off of my body in a typical day. I am like one of those sticky fly traps. But mosquitoes are another story. They seem to land, feast, and escape before I can catch them. I have not lived a day in Cambodia without at least one mosquito bite. But usually it is much more. All the guide books I read before coming said that Phnom Penh isn’t a high risk area for malaria. I’m ok so far. Each day I get home from school I spray my bedroom with mosquito killer so they are hopefully dead by the time I go to bed. Hopefully.
Today I went with Polly to an Easter service. Apparently there are several English-speaking Christian churches here. About 600 people gathered there this morning. The service wasn’t marvelous; it was kind of impersonal because all the churches came together for this service. So there were songs and readings and a short sermon. But this is the first time in 7 months I have been surrounded by so many foreigners! Where have they been hiding? I saw couples, I saw families with babies and toddlers, and all I’m thinking is, “How are you raising a child in Cambodia?” But I guarantee you; those kids are tough and worldly, adaptable and real. As I scanned the crowd, I noticed something; they all looked just as tired as I do. They look weary and drained. Someone needs to minister to these missionaries. Overall, people don’t last long in Cambodia. The turnover is huge and I completely understand why. Still, amidst the weariness was release. I saw hands lifted in praise as we sang, “How Great is Our God”, a song I haven’t heard since I got here. I almost cried.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit scared that if an anti-foreigner organization got together, this would be an ideal time to make a statement or worse. I tried to push the idea to the back of my mind as I was reminded that while I obviously fear some Cambodian people, I should not go fearing all of them. I pursued this thought as the congregation sang another song. Why do I feel so safe surrounded by these people but terrified when I step on the streets? I do not fear English-speaking Khmers. I fear Khmer-speaking Khmers. So, I fear difference. I fear the unknown. I fear that which I cannot understand. It is as though, I wonder if Khmer-speakers really know right from wrong as if they are stupid or devoid of conscience because they don’t speak English. An intriguing thought I am still pondering.
Later Polly, one of her roommates, and another teacher went out for lunch at a restaurant called, The Shop. It is a quiet little cafĂ© on a tourist road known as Street 240. So this is where foreigners gather for familiar food. In all honesty, some of the foreigner’s restaurants here are better than a lot of places back home. This place had a veggie burger! Wow. From here I flagged down a moto who tried to tell me my trip should cost $3. “Ridiculous!” I said. He replied, “Wait, do you live here?” I said I did. He said ok and charged me the fair price he should have started with, 75 cents. I felt proud. I like that I can get around and I don’t take the tourist treatment.
I went straight to the school for music practice. I am helping the 12th graders with a fundraising concert next Sunday. They are doing a mixture of Khmer and English Christian songs. The charge is 25 cents.
Speaking of fundraising, I have very much appreciated all the support I am getting from you back home. My home church has all the Sabbath school divisions doing projects and the adults are doing what they can to help. My uncle Bill just flat out decided to send $1000! Some other churches in Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, and Oklahoma are doing what they can as well. I won’t hold my breath for a response from Oprah this soon. But more importantly I have felt so encouraged by the flood of generosity from your side of the globe. Thankyou.
Last week, the 8th graders and I did our car wash. We made about $6, a huge success! They are having trouble finding sponsors for the walk-a-thon. I am not surprised. Most of their parents don’t even pay tuition. Seventy-five percent of our students are being sponsored by people from the States. Speaking of which, I need a sponsor. This Thursday I’ll be running my butt off in the hot Cambodian sun for, something! Mom and Dad? Eh? One last run-a-thon, I promise!
This is what Dyna my 10th grade student wrote in her journal recently. I had to share in her own words:
“I studied at C.A.S. and I like all the teacher in C.A.S. Every years in the school always change the teachers and almost the good teacher. For this year I met one teacher her name is Ms.Bo. She is a kind teacher. When we have exercise in class she always allowed the student do it at home and she never made stressful in class. Especially she is beautiful person and always made us fun. The most thing that I knew about her was she had danced so nice and she always smile to everybody and made fun. I really knew that Mrs. Bo is a good teacher. She never made the student difficult. I like to studied with her and I knew my friends liked her too. I hope next year I will be studying with her again.”
I melted. After this, I assigned my students to write about the person they admire most in their lives. While some of the boys wrote about soccer players from Manchester United or pop singers, most wrote about their mom or their dad. I try to stress to them how much we all appreciate knowing we are appreciated. I try to do the same for them. As my struggle here has been loneliness and feeling unappreciated, I thank them anytime they teach me something new about life, which is often. I regularly encourage students for their continued effort and remind them they are so amazing for learning two languages. I tell them to give themselves break once in awhile and remember that it is ok that this is hard. They all tend to relax a little bit.
I am going to offer extra credit in English if any of them show the admired person their paper. So their parents have to call me or talk to me about it for them to get the extra points. One kid wrote about Ellen White, we’ll see how he pulls this one off.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

3-18-08

And now my random thoughts and wonderings in, no particular order.

-I wrote a letter to Oprah the other day. I told her (or her army of producers) about the fundraising at CAS, or as much as I could in 2,000 words, including spaces. I was sure to fit “missionary” and “Cambodia” in the first sentence to hopefully grab their attention. I am not above asking Oprah Winfrey for help here. I have nothing to lose and let’s be honest, if Oprah ever hopes to meet me in person, she better get her act together.

-I still have many questions about God. My most recent and pressing is, “Does labeling good things in my life “blessings” instead of “luck” make me a Christian?” Because without solid proof one way or the other, do we choose “blessing” because it makes us feel better? It is comforting to be a Christian indeed, we have hope. But I don’t want to choose to be a Christian just because it makes me feel better. I want a proof. I want to know for sure.

-In my attempts to heal myself from depression, my book told me to keep tally on what I am feeling all day long. So, like a good student, I have been writing down my emotions every hour of every day. Turns out I feel my worst at school and I let my students determine how I feel. This is easy to let happen, because I feel a bit outnumbered and a bit of a minority. They’ll make jokes in Khmer and say things like, “Oh, it’s a Cambodian thing. You wouldn’t understand.” So today I decided that no matter what, the circumstances, my students, the awful heat, or the language, I was going to feel grateful today. It isn’t that easy, but it was a good start. I was intentional about noticing when my kids were trying to make me feel frustrated or isolated or stupid. From there I tried to acknowledge that they cannot physically force me to feel anything other than grateful. So I continued feeling grateful, or at least most of the time. That is until, Kagna burst out crying right in the middle of Morality class, again, for the second time this week. She was crying, shaking violently, clenching her body, and falling out of her seat.
So I put ‘grateful’ aside and tried feeling ‘sympathetic’. But this is hard when she refuses to talk and I don’t understand what is going on or why she is doing this. So ‘stressed’ replaced ‘sympathetic’ and I sent her to the back of the classroom with Sokcheng to hopefully calm her down while I finished class. From what I gathered from another student, Kagna felt stupid at school and unwanted at home. So after class, I shooed the girls away and tried to talk to her. I like Kagna, she is one of my favorite students, ya know, the ones I am not supposed to have as a teacher? I told her I was sorry and I hated to see her in pain. I rubbed her back as she refused to look me in the eye. I asked her what she was feeling. After much prodding, she admitted that she got a D in geometry class and felt stupid. I asked her who told her she was stupid. She pointed to herself. I repeated what she had just told me, “So, you are saying, you got A’s and B’s in every class except geometry in which you got a D?” She shook her head. I said, “Doesn’t that sound silly to you? Because it sounds silly to me! You are so, so brilliant, I adore having you in my class. I love talking with you and laughing with you. You are one of the best English speakers in my class” (All of that is completely true). I went on, “And it hurts me that you are tearing down someone I think so highly of”. She turned to face me and looked…lighter. I told her that sometimes I live by other people’s expectations for my life. I told her that yesterday I found myself curled up on the floor of my bedroom sobbing uncontrollably and that I had been having similar feelings. She looked at me with glad surprise, turns out, Ms.Bo was human too! I said I was sorry for the pain in her life and I was sorry for the pain she felt at home from her mother. She said, “It’s ok”. I told her it wasn’t ok. No one should have to endure such ridicule and pain from someone. She said, “Thank you”. I feel like she meant it. She gave me a moto ride home and she looked very hopeful as she said, “Tomorrow I will be a new Kagna!” I told her I really liked the one sitting in front of me, but I did hope she would be kinder to herself. She drove away.

-Back to Oprah. Recently I read a most, eye opening interview she did with Pema Chodron. The woman said, “Stay with your experience. The problem is that we have so little intolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I’m not even talking about unpleasant outer circumstances, but that feeling in your stomach of ‘I don’t want this to be happening’. You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something. Stay with that [feeling] and say to yourself, ‘Millions of people all over the world have this kind of discomfort, fear- this feeling of not wanting things to be this way. This is my link with humanity.” As a Buddhist nun she recommends meditation. I’ve done more meditating here and it is amazing where our minds float to. Interesting.

-There is a website I used to like. It is called realage.com. It is a website to encourage healthy living by calculating a person’s real age, versus their calendar age, based on how well you take care of your health. So you go online and take a questionnaire that asks all kinds of things: height, weight, how often you attend church, how often you floss, how often you wear your seatbelt, if you take vitamins, you get the idea. So I am 20 years old, by the calendar (my birthday is November 4th, if anyone wants to send a ‘twenty and 4 months old’ present! Why don’t those exist?). So before I left the States, I took the questionnaire and found out that even though I am 20, I am really 15.4 years old because of how I take care of my health! Whoo-hoo. But then, a very dumb thought entered my mind this week and I thought, “Hmm, I wonder if my real age has changed since I have been in Cambodia?” Turns out I have aged 9 years in the last 7 months! I am now 24.3 years old. I am trying to say those years must be years of wisdom, but unfortunately that’s a lie. I don’t even have a nice way to end this thought. I’m just going to stop typing.

-Today, my cousin Angie emailed me. I really like her. In response to my last email, she wrote, “But what hard would be done if depression and the eating disorder didn’t go away until you got back on familiar soil?” I haven’t considered that an option I suppose. I have a deadline. I came here to beat ED and find God, so July 1st rings in my head as the time to get it done! But neither has happened. She wrote a quote that is on her office wall, “The art of living lies less in eliminating our troubles than in growing with them”. Nothing I haven’t heard before, but always, always a good reminder.

If I seem distant and very matter of fact, I am. Maybe ‘snyde’ is the word. Snide? I am just overwhelmed, again. I really don’t want to be here at all. I am just plain sick and tired of living here. I could list the reasons, but you probably know them by now, so I’ll spare you. I’m tired and beat up.

So in my attempts to have order, here is a summary of this blog, in case you just skipped to the end:
-Oprah may not give me $100,000 but I appreciate her interviews. Thanks Oprah.
-I still have many questions about God and am accepting answers
-I can help people by being equally human with them
-I am not 15, but I am alive
-There is no deadline to learning
-I am on a journey that will hopefully take a lifetime

Good enough. Oh, another thing, today I learned that ‘rusting’ is actually the process of a slow burning in oxygen. The flame is so slow and prolonged there is no heat. See the things I am learning in Cambodia?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

3-14-08

I said something important today. I know I did. I looked over my audience of about 100 high schoolers and realized, they were listening to me.
My engagement was another Friday morning chapel at Cambodia Adventist School. Public speaking really isn’t something I dread. I usually look forward to it. It doesn’t bother me to get up in front of people; especially if I know what I am saying is important, as was the case today. I knew what my topic would be two weeks ago after I felt impressed to share this message. I’ve spoken for chapel quite confidently at least once a month since I got here. But today, as I had opening prayer, I started shaking. My voice quivered as I realized I was about to say something that would either inspire or turn away. I opened my eyes from prayer and realized, this was it, I had to say something. So I did.
“I’ve prayed a lot about whether to speak about this or not and feel like I really need to. As you well know, I am from the United States. I have been living here for almost 7 months and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also noticed a few differences between Cambodia and the States.”
I went on to mention the lighter side of my experiences: how crazy the traffic is, the trash I hardly notice anymore, and the “lack of bubble” or personal space that Cambodians have. They were all laughing, really hard. They’ve been known to also keep laughing when the conversation turns serious, but this time they didn’t.
“So there are many differences. But I have to say, the hardest part about living in Cambodia, is how some people react to me. Yes, I know, I am white. I am a foreigner and I am reminded of it everyday. I came to a foreign country, so, of course, people may stare. Women often smile and little children boast one of their only-known English words, “Hello! Hello!” But some Cambodian men have made me feel so low, unimportant, filthy, and worthless, I have at many times, wanted to just go home.”
They were silent. They knew I was serious. I read them my journal entry from January 10th of this year. That was the morning that I was out for a walk and was grabbed at, touched, and cursed while I was alone with a Cambodian boy before the sun came up. I haven’t really healed from this experience and I knew it when, in front of my students and several teachers, I was unable to read it without crying.
But I finished the entry, “I hate that I feel resentful towards the very people I came here to help.” I went on to tell them about sexual assaults that have happened to other Western women I know. I could tell I was speaking news to some of them and yesterday’s news to others. Some of them peered back at me with mouths wide open, others with lips pursed shut. I was speaking to a split audience. Some of them know this is going on, but do nothing about it.
I was very careful to ensure that they understood, not all Cambodian men are creeps. And coming to school each day reminds me that I know fabulous Cambodian citizens who would never do such things and I thanked them for it.
“So why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve decided that there is actually very little I can do, but so much you can. I am powerless here, you are powerful. This is your country. Are you ok with things the way they are? Do you like what people say about your country and what it stands for? I can’t say I am proud of everything about my country.”
I talked about problems in the States. We have rapes, assaults, murder, robberies, prostitution, pornography, school shootings, alcoholism, drugs, and on, and on. I wanted to makes sure they understood I was not attacking their country.
“This world is broken. Do you care to fix it? I’m sick and tired of hearing, “Well, that’s just the way it is in Cambodia!” Because what you are really saying is, “Well, you should expect to get sexually assaulted. You are a foreigner and that is how Cambodia treats foreigners.” No, it doesn’t have to be that way. What are you going to do to change it? You don’t have to be prime minister to do something. You just have to care enough to do it.”
I told them that, what the Great Commission says about going out and baptizing doesn’t mean the rest of us ‘non-pastors’ are off the hook. It means that we should take up the work closest to us and do what we know is right.
They heard me. I know they did. I had something important to say and I said it. It is the closest to “high” that non-drug users experience I suppose.
After closing prayer, I had an uncomfortable knot in my stomach when I realized that the less mature students of the group may be defensive and feel I was just ranting against their country. If that is true, they missed the point. Either way, I went and sort of hid in my classroom, as chapel is the last period of school on Fridays and they would all be going home soon. I didn’t want a bunch of insincere, uncomfortable “I’m sorry”s said out of awkwardness because of nothing else to say. They are Asian and don’t always express emotions so well.
Indeed, they went home and I did too. But this time, upon entering the street on my bicycle and getting the stares, the comments, and the kisses blown in my direction, they seemed to have less power over me. It seemed as though the burden was a little lighter. I felt less alone and more understood. Not by the people along the way, but by the students now making their way home, telling their parents about their day, and hopefully, thinking about what they just heard. More importantly, I hope they are thinking about how they, even Cambodian citizens who feel virtually invisible, can do something to change the world.
This may all be high hopes for such a simple message. Changing the world isn’t a revolutionary idea after all, but it is rarely mentioned on this corner of the globe. But for my attempts at changing the world, I can’t get the message across on my own. These kids are the only hope for this country. I’m just not sure they know it yet.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

3-12-08

From my journal March 10th, 2008:
“The lessons just continued coming. She could hardly keep up. Every piece, element, instance, experience, step, and scene of her life was destined to teach her something, if she would just be willing to learn it. Sometimes it was all very overwhelming and she didn’t feel like she could possibly absorb much more. And other times she didn’t want anymore. Feeling was so painful at times it seemed easier to avoid it by turning the other way, distracting herself, or just crying to forget. But even so, she realized there was purpose in the pain. Ms.Bo wasn’t some fictional character she had read about in a book. This was real. So she kept breathing, it was all she could do. She couldn’t promise much more than existence. But with time, like a wobbly toddler learning to walk, she did too. Walking isn’t the last lesson a child learns, it is the first of many. And the lessons just kept coming. But isn’t that what she had asked for, “Use me God. I’m yours”? So why was she so surprised? She had no idea what life had in store. She thought her God to be as small as she was and she was wrong. So there came a day when comfort was found and needed as desperately as a cool drink of water. The setting had not changed, but this new perspective brought hope with it. The portrait she had had of herself for so long just may have been wrong. Was anything as it seemed anymore? Was the truth she had believed her whole life dead wrong? Amidst the chaos of a typical day at school she caught herself humming a hymn. It was at this very anti-climactic moment on another ordinary day that she realized, she did not have to become all that surrounded her. Life became more so a series of choices than at any other time in her life. She was not the trash on the ground. She was not the yelling, screaming children. She was not the dishonesty, disrespect, or disregard. She was not the bad attitude, bad behavior, or the bad hygiene either. She was only that which she had taken oath to at birth: human. And as another citizen of planet earth she realized that she could absorb some lessons and simply observe others. Life is more about choices than circumstances. And the lessons keep coming.”
Cambodia in a word? Chaos. Through and through, absolute chaos. There are few laws, rules, and definitely no justice. Two 11 year old girls were raped and murdered last week in Phnom Penh. There will be no investigations, no detectives, and no policemen on the job. Life goes on, apparently. Moto accidents are common. Robberies are expected. The people seek to humiliate foreigners and even nationals. They can be very cruel.
All of this creates an environment of fear. There is safety no where. This afternoon I sat at a new women’s bible study that I am choosing to say God placed in my life. Polly came in looking a bit flustered. Upon riding her bike to the bible study, she was hit by a moto and drug awhile. At least the driver stopped, which is rare. She got cut up pretty bad, bonked her head, and was obviously still in shock. During prayer requests I told the group about my questions about God and my lack of love for this culture. It felt good to know I was not alone. I talked about how after I got groped by a boy on my morning walk 2 months ago, it took a long time to feel safe going outside again and being around Khmer people. Safety and comfort are stripped away the second you land here. Everyone has 15 foot gates around their homes with guards if they can afford it.
I read this morning that, “Satan, who is ever ready to destroy, will, in the absence of love and forgiveness, quickly bring bitterness and division.” Well, hook, line and sinker. Way to go Satan! You got me. Yes, I feel absolute resentment and bitterness towards the Khmer people, but mostly Khmer men. Well, that makes it awful hard to love them eh? Impossible. It is impossible to love them if I resent them. But loving them hadn’t honestly entered my mind until this morning. I figured I was loving them just by tolerating them and not attacking them at random with my pepper spray. This morning another boy approached me, but instead he just kept walking uncomfortably close. I was ready to spray him at first. How awful is that? I feel so defenseless I was going to spray a 9 year old boy. As I continued journaling I wrote the following: “The Khmers can’t make me hate them. Hate is a choice I am struggling not to make. Especially when it seems that the whole country is working so hard at it.” Thinking about it today, the devil is working so hard at it. It is just one culture clashing with another.
So on my bicycle ride to school as I passed Khmers, I muttered through clenched teeth, “God loves that person, and that person, and that person…” Turns out God loves a lot of people! I don’t suddenly love all Khmers, but I feel humbled in knowing that first of all God loves them just as much as me and secondly, I am not alone in this.
I am still not exactly sure how to go about loving those who persecute me…oh wait, wait, that sounds like a bible text!? Yeah, so. It’s in the bible that I should love those who persecute me. But how? Where is the “6-step plan” for loving creepy men who I am horribly afraid of and showing compassion to children who humiliate and mock me on the street?
Jesus never got justice either, so I realize that may be out of the question. And complaining gets me no where. But I am not God and I just want to learn how to love them.
After bible study, the leader came up to me and said she would pray that I do not leave Cambodia in bitterness. She is praying the same thing for herself. I suppose all of us are praying similar prayers: “God help us to love those who seem unlovable. Because we were unlovable first.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

PICTURES

Hello,
I just posted a bunch of new pictures on my Flickr.com account. So go check them out by clicking on the link on the left hand side of this very page!! (Thanks Ben Yancer!)

Friday, March 7, 2008

3-6-08

I teach class each day in thatch walled classrooms with holes, doors and windows that do not lock, a broken desk, or five, and a marker board that is just waiting to fall off the wall the next time a soccer ball hits it. Sometimes 1st graders will poke their head through the large holes in my wall and say, “Hello Ms.Bo!” and run off giggling. We use blue, plastic patio chairs in every classroom. Each break time the students get out, run around, and kick up dust that floats into each classroom and threatens our ability to breathe. I can’t leave anything that smells or tastes good for fear that the family of mice hiding in my classroom will get to it before I do. Every book we use is copied because there are no copyright laws in Cambodia. They are all tattered and falling apart. There is a mandatory picture of the King of Cambodia in every classroom. He sits on a huge throne, crown and all, wrapped in a luxurious gold and red robe. Each day he stares down upon us as a regular reminder to these kids that the king does not care about them and isn’t doing much to help.
The mental health in Cambodia is something worth considering and analyzing though that would probably take the rest of my life to understand. They bash themselves and their country every day. They talk about how stupid Cambodians are. They talk about how terrible the crime is. They talk about how Khmers are basically second-class to the rest of the world. Of course they say this, that’s what they’ve been told their entire lives. In the states we tell our children, “You can be anything you want to be! Reach for the stars! Dream big. You have purpose. You matter. You can do it. Go for it!” Right? Well here, the message is, “You are Cambodian and always will be. Don’t try to get out of it. You will always be stupid. Your efforts at a better life are pointless. If you leave to get an education, you are deserting this family and in turn, we will desert you!” I haven’t seen any form of national pride since I got here. Singing the national anthem each morning at flag raising is more a joke than anything. The kids don’t believe the words they are singing and don’t believe in the country they call home.
Today I went to a bible study that Polly invited me to. She teaches at a school called Logos, a Christian school run on an American curriculum. So I met her there. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was “order”. The grounds were clean, there were kids playing organized sports, the buildings were actual buildings, not huts. There was a pool! A really, nice, clean pool! There was a playground area and as I wandered around I found out that every single class is taught in a clean, nicely decorated, air-conditioned class room. Entering Polly’s kindergarten classroom, I was shocked by the “childness” of it all: paints, coloring books, a computer, nap mats, individual desks, bulletin boards, tiled floors, closets for storage, little hooks for their backpacks. It looked like a classroom back home. Ya know, friendly, welcoming, kid-like? At CAS the kindergarteners don’t have art supplies, stuffed animals, cozy mats to sit on, story books, audio books, blocks, anything. They have wooden desks and walls. There is nothing warm, cozy and orderly about CAS. I was so jealous. Logos is for the rich Cambodian children and the expatriate or missionary kids. CAS is the cheapest non-government school in Phnom Penh. CAS is for the poor kids.
I went to the bible study, which was very nice and returned home unable to figure the reason for my sadness. Upon talking to Fay, she told me that when she sees schools like Logos, she almost always cries. I felt the same way. I don’t have to teach in air-conditioned rooms with hooks for backpacks and a pool, but I feel so sad that I can’t give that to my kids. They have to endure each school day just like I do. They deserve what those kids have. They deserve to have textbooks without ripped out, missing pages and desks without curse words written and carved into the wood. They deserve a safe place to learn where they can breathe and relax and be a kid. No, a million dollar establishment does not guarantee happiness. So before you comment that maybe my kids are happy where they are, I get it. But it just pains me to see what some kids have and what my kids don’t have. Why can’t we all have one or the other? Why can’t my poor children get the best schooling? Why can’t they get driven safely to and from school in BMW’s instead of walking several miles in the hot sun?
Right beside CAS is a building that sort of haunts us everyday. This is the new Cambodia Adventist School building that has been being built for several years now and isn’t guaranteed completion this year either. We just don’t have the money. We need several thousands of dollars. This hurdle seems so huge and many have just given up. Sharon, the principle, has started a fundraiser. She has asked that each and every student and faculty member try to raise a dollar a day for 100 days. This may not seem like much to you. But here, 1 dollar could buy breakfast, lunch, and a moto ride home for one child. One dollar is a big deal. So as the teacher I am supposed to lead my kids in 8th grade to raise $100 each. It is incredibly overwhelming and I hate asking my kids each morning if they have their dollar for that day, because they never do. They don’t have money to give. They hardly have food to eat. This is too big for them.
This is, in part, why I am writing this blog. My kids are completely overwhelmed by this fundraising idea. And while I am trying to be the optimistic teacher who suggests moto washes, garage sales, and selling things, I am fighting years and years of influence much stronger than my own. They’ve never been told they can do something. They feel so isolated and hopeless that anyone would even care that they exist. So they’ve already decided this just can’t be done. The best idea I’ve had so far is a walk/run-a-thon. They really like the idea because it is easy, they understand it, and I offered to try to raise some money at home! You should have seen the looks on their faces, “You are going to write home to help us? Why would they care? Do you talk about us? Do they know we are here?”. I thing that my writing home tells them that I care enough to reach beyond my resources here to do absolutely everything I can to help them. The money we raise goes toward the building project, textbooks, desks, all the normal school stuff that we just don’t have.
On March 27th, 2008, I will be organizing CAS’s first ever walk/run-a-thon and will be running in it myself. We will run around the track at CAS for 30 minutes and keep track of each student’s laps. It is smaller than an average-size high school running track. I am guessing that I could run maybe a lap a minute if I kept a really steady pace. So I would guess 30 laps to be near the maximum anyone will run. This is where you come in.
The kids can’t get money from their parents, their friends, or extended family. I am asking you to sponsor my kids. With 23 students in my class, and 24 including me, a dollar a day for 100 days comes to a $2400 goal. Now that number is even big to Americans, so imagine how these kids feel!
Please consider that because I am here, I know exactly where your money is going. I can guarantee that it will get these kids a better school and better education. I know you may feel like you are giving enough already to other organizations and I am glad you are doing so. But I beg you to consider my kids who I’ve grown to love. I desperately want a better school for them and right now they just don’t have it.
Talk to your Sabbath school groups. Talk to your church pastor. Ask your kids if they would like to help other children in Cambodia to have a chance at a better education. Could you take up an offering? Could you wash some cars with your class or Pathfinder club? Could you stand to miss your Starbucks fix for a few days? I feel like I have an army of support back home. That is why I am asking this of you.
The best way to get the money here to Cambodia is by way of my parents in Colorado or my sister in Nebraska. If you want to sponsor a runner or a walker or if you just want to make a donation, which may be easier, please contact me and I will get you in touch with my parents or my sister, depending on where you are.
I beg you to consider how much a dollar will change the future for these kids. Could you afford a dollar or two per lap? Could you save up to give a larger donation? I guarantee you could save $50 faster than my kids. That is more than any of their parents make in an entire month!
I need to start figuring out donations very soon. So please, please email me if you have any questions. These are “the least of these” in every shape and form. I wish you could see them everyday as I do. But take my word, because it is all I have, these kids need and deserve this. Please do what you can, because no matter what your income is, be it, doctor or poor college student, you are rich, wealthy, and these kids only hope.

In case you don't have my email, it is: hbohlender@gmail.com. Ask away. But please help!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

3-1-08

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I don’t always blog about the obvious things, like the fact that while I spend 8 hours at school teaching. I suppose it seems somewhat boring and monotonous to me sometimes. I may instead blog about the recent, “F you’s!” I’ve started getting when I walk down the street. I may not blog about what you may consider exciting, because maybe it has lost it’s zest. For this I am sorry. This is all very normal to me, so the day-to-day life I lead now, often times gets overlooked as ho-hum.
But in reflecting, (Have you noticed I am incredibly introspective? I have a lot of time to think!) I’ve realized, I am a darn good teacher. I am so glad I teach the older kids, because I can actually talk to them. Granted it is really funny and cute to see the kindergarteners’ jump roping or struggling to turn on the faucets in the girls bathroom. Still, that cuteness lasts about 15 minutes until class starts again and they are off running circles around the teacher or pooping their pants. Yes, this has happened at least 6-7 times, that I know of.
So, I am blessed to teach teenagers I can talk to and relate to and trust are potty trained. It wasn’t that long ago I was their age. Though I try to hide it and refuse to tell them how old I am. They know. Let’s see, reasons I am a good teacher? My 8th grade class is quiet when I have class with them. I don’t tolerate their rowdiness like some teachers, because they really can get out of control. The other teachers are confused as to why they act one way with me and another way with them. Vitya chooses to talk to me some days, other days he considers me poisonous or something. I think he has just realized I am leaving eventually and he doesn’t want to get hurt like he did with the last SM. I expect them to do the work I assign but I give them a break if I know they are trying and not just lazy. I laugh with my girls as they tell me how the boys in our class are ugly.
I teach 10th grade, a very colorful class. I know several of the boys have crushes on me and they get really nervous any time I talk to them one on one. The other day I asked them to tell me one thing they like, about themselves. He said, very proud of his English, “Pretty girls like Ms.Bo!” I’m not sure he understood the question. I like that I can teach my classes but still laugh and have a good time. We laugh but we get things done. Fay says that SM’s are the best teachers these kids will ever see. Even over the Cambodian teachers with bachelors’ degrees. We, as SM’s, have had great teachers back home. So I am not about to assume, that I am making any difference here because of all of “my” great skills! I’ve had incredible teachers to learn from.
In 11th grade there are only 11 students, the smallest class at CAS. We meet in the picnic area. They are a funny group of 9 girls and 2 boys. Reachany has the humor of a comedian and regularly keeps everyone chuckling. She prefers to be called, “Ms. World”, and if in class I ask, “Reachany, can you please read?”, she usually responds, “For choc-o-late!”. This is also a class of complainers. Thus I started our very own “No complaining campaign”. I challenged them to not complain about any of the homework I assigned or things I did in class for 11 days. The last 11 days have been so peaceful and good. But as promised, I am baking them muffins for school on Monday morning. These are the girls who will randomly text message me sometimes if they are going swimming. They like me; they just don’t want to admit it. They’ve also realized I am not staying forever and said, that after Monday, they won’t complain if I promise to stay another year. I would love to see these girls graduate. I think I talked Nika into pursuing her dream of being a musician someday. She told me her parents hate the idea, so I am probably in over my head. But everyone else tells her she is crazy. I didn’t want to be another doubter. She has enough of them.
I spend only an hour a week with 12th grade, but after the senior trip, that is enough. I was talking to Sophie yesterday. I was asking her how she learned such great English. We were talking and sooner or later the conversation turned to my difficulties with the culture. She said, “Well I can’t speak for everyone outside these gates, but the 12th graders love you and impress you” (Their past tense verbs are still lacking but, I think she meant, “impressed with you”). That felt good.
On Friday, I skipped chapel to do some schoolwork. Oh wait, I’m lying, I definitely emailed my sister! Ok, so I wasn’t there. But chapel is held in the picnic area, so walking by, towards the end, I heard the speaker, another teacher say, “Now remember date rape happens because girls aren’t dressing modestly! Let’s pray”. Without even thinking, I blurted out, “WHAT?” A few people turned and looked at me. I bowed my head, we prayed, I walked up to the speaker, “DaRith, I admit I only caught the end of your talk, but do you really believe that date rape happens because girls are just asking for it by how they dress?” He very confidently replied, “Yes”. I tried to speak calmly and think about what I was saying, “So do you feel like it is basically a girls fault if she gets raped?” He realized I disagreed and back pedaled, “Well, if a girl dresses provocatively, maybe she is just asking for it. That is just what I’ve heard.” Cambodia is a very modest country, overall. But still a very sex-driven country. But still there are numerous date rapes and sexual assaults that occur more than they are reported. Feeling the last 6 months of pain bubbling up and out of me, the stares, the touching, the cursing, I said, “I think we have two different definitions of rape”. I didn’t want to even think about what had been said during the rest of his talk. I told him that I felt it was indeed a girl’s responsibility to dress modestly and not cause men’s minds to wander. But I also believe that if a girl chooses to show more skin, she in no way deserves to be raped. Sokcha overheard our conversation and walked me back to my classroom, “Why don’t you give a chapel talk about how you feel about it?” Brilliant. He knows about how I have been treated by the Cambodians since I got here and surprisingly, Cambodian himself, encouraged me to talk to the kids about it. I very quickly realized that writing blogs about the perversity and cruelty of some Cambodian people isn’t solving anything. What is the point of going through all of this unless something changes?
I thought about it all afternoon. I thought about my high school students (yes, I call them “mine”). I thought about some of the uncomfortable stares I get from the boys. I wondered how they act when they leave the school. I considered whether they would ever have a close connection with a foreigner again. I wondered if anything I said would matter. I decided that when I talk about it with them, I must be very careful not to be critical or accusing. I can’t make them feel like I am bunching all Cambodian people together, “You are all perverts. You are all cruel.” Not true, not fair. Either way, I am excited to set the record straight from a female, foreigner’s perspective.
(At this point Fay came home with a guest she wanted me to meet. So I saved this and went downstairs)
I met a girl from Pennsylvania named, Polly. She is 23 and teaching at a school not far from me. Her sister is her best friend and misses her horribly. She is a Christian. She gets laughed at, pointed at, and grabbed at. She has had some incredibly difficult roommates. She has had health problems. She has been merely existing under the circumstances of the adjusting process and feels like she too is just beginning to understand and fit in. She has been here since August and she doesn’t really want to be here anymore either. But we are. And just talking about it openly with her was…refreshing, needed, uplifting, encouraging, fun, unexpected, easy, and helpful. She invited me to a bible study this Wednesday. I am thrilled.