We (my team members and I) landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on August 28 a little after 10 PM. Upon stepping out of the airplane, I could instantly feel the drastic difference in the air; the humidity was no joke. The reality was that we were no longer in NC. Everything was completely different - the air, the people, the traffic, the language. I had one culture shock after another. What I couldn't get over was the fact that we were actually here; we were finally in Cambodia. Each of us had been waiting for this opportunity (some longer than others). I know for certain that our team leader, Grace, had been waiting for this day since the last time she left eight years ago.
The first thing we all noted was the humidity. It didn't take much for sweat to start forming on my face... my ENTIRE body felt sticky. You think NC weather is humid? Wait 'til you step into Cambodia. I promise you, it does not compare. However, despite the humidity, I don't recall anyone complaining much about it. I mean we all took turns saying that it was humid, but none of us seemed to have let that fact affect our attitude or the overall mood of our team. The important thing was that we finally landed in Phnom Penh and we had arrived safely without much problem at all (well... except for the fact that I put 4 tubes of toothpaste in my carry on and got it taken away in Korea.. my bad).
Settling down in our hotel rooms was a bit of a struggle. We had about 20 bags/suitcases of luggage we needed to take to the 7th floor. Thankfully, we had help from the hotel staff and our team members to help unload the luggage from our van, stuff them into an elevator, make a few trips up and down the hotel, and get our things into our rooms. Whew, we had so much stuff (considering that each bag was almost 50 pounds... the trips up and down the hotel was no easy business).
The next morning, on August 29, we had breakfast at the hotel and we left right away to Phnom Penh's newly built mall. The mall was huge... to put it into perspective, it was about twice the size of Crabtree Mall (a two story mall in Raleigh, NC). There were a total of three or four floors. Each floor had a variety of stores... some of which were of American and Korean brands (this includes Puma, Adidas, Skin Food, LG, Sony, Tous Les Jours, etc). As nice as the mall was, I felt strange being in it. Yes, the mall appears to be a comfort location since there are many such buildings in the US, but the odd thing was, this mall was completely out of place. Right outside the mall, maybe within a mile or two mile radius, there is the undeveloped side of Phnom Penh - outdoor markets, dirt roads, trash piles, and a distinct stench in the streets.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not at all hating on Cambodia. In fact, I actually LOVE it here. Despite the fact that Cambodia is an underdeveloped third world country, I find peace and comfort in living here. During the few days I've been living in both Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, I made a mental list of observations about my surroundings (none of them are in any particular order):
The last bullet point brings me to my next topic: education. As you all may know, I am going to be a first grade teacher at Life School in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The importance of teachers does not really have much affect on the Cambodia people (generally speaking). Why? Let me take you through a brief history lesson.
From 1975 - 1976, Pol Pot, a leader of a communist party (The Khmer Rouge) in Cambodia, took over the country, overthrew the emperor, and ruled over the Cambodian people. Under his rule, Pol Pot declared that educated people were a threat to his throne, so as a result, the Khmer Rouge Regime took place. This was the mass genocide of the Cambodian people; over 2 million people were murdered. Anyone who was, sounded, or even looked educated were taken into concentration camps, interrogated, tortured, and then ultimately killed. According to Robert D. Kaplan, "eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star" as they were seen as a sign of intelligence. This dark era is commonly associated with the term Killing Fields and the prison, Tuol Slang, which became widely known for mass killings. Because of this mass genocide, many Cambodian people (not speaking for all Cambodians) today are uneducated and do not know why it is important to have an education... many people assume that there is no other life other than the labor work that they already do. Hence, since basically all educated people were killed no one could really educate the rest of those who survived, which led to little value in education.
A few days ago, on the same day we visited the mall, my team members and I were given the opportunity to visit the notorious prison, Tuol Slang. I didn't know what to expect. Honestly, I wasn't expecting to be as impacted as I did when I walked out of the prison. I was absolutely horrified and traumatized. The most twisted concept of it all was the fact that the prison was actually an old school building... which was supposed to symbolize a safe place for students to seek refuge. The first building we walked through broke me. In the middle of each room was a wire bed frame; they were old, rusted, and blackened. Some even had dents in them. The wall of almost every room contained a photograph of a deceased, decayed body that was at one point a living being, tortured and murdered in the room... that fact really shook my core. The photographs were slightly hazy, but still very much real and graphic. By the time we reached the third or fourth room, I mentally lost it. My stomach was already churning and tense to start with and my body was hunched over as my arms pressed across my chest, my fingers gripping the straps of my book bag (I'm pretty sure I left nail indents in the palms of my hands). I couldn't control the sobs coming out of my mouth nor the tears flooding out of my eyes. I was a complete mess - a broken faucet spewing out water in all directions. It took my entire willpower to stay under control and not fall to the ground in front of everyone (yeah, I sound like a drama queen, but this experience took a huge emotional toll on me).
The second building contained most of the pictures documenting the Khmer Rouge. There were endless photographs of all the deceased victims. I saw photos of young boys and girls. I saw photos of middle aged women and men. I saw photos of elderly people. I couldn't grasp the fact that ALL of these people were brutally killed in cold, merciless blood. After seeing all those photos, I physically and mentally could not go through the remaining buildings. The horror and reality of this was too tremendous for me to handle. I couldn't understand how such an atrocity could have taken place. How heartless, cruel, and evil for another human being to do that to another human being. And to think that this happened only 40 years ago and that these atrocities still happen around the world. My heart was literally broken... going through this experience gave me reason to be more compassionate and loving towards the Cambodian people. I will never forget this day. I may have not gone through all of the buildings, but it didn't take much for me to be heavily impacted and broken for these people.
I still have much to learn about the culture, language, and lifestyle in Cambodia, but as of now, I feel at peace and nearly worry free about living here. Despite the fact that I still know so little, I have a strong feeling that I will adjust well and grow to love this place more and more. The peace that I have comes not from myself, but from God alone. When I think about surviving in Cambodia and teaching my students for my own glory under my own accord, I panic and become very distressed. However, when I think about doing my absolute best to bring Him praise and glorifying Him through all that I do, I really am filled with a joy and peace that I can't explain. These next 11 months are definitely going to be challenging, but I know they will be worth it.
Thanks for reading to the end. I put a lot of thought and care into writing this post.