Greetings! My name is Chon Lee and I have been teaching 8th Grade English at Lincoln Middle School for the past eight years. This summer I was exceptionally blessed to have been selected, alongside seven other teachers from across the United States, to participate in an intense four-week educator abroad program traveling across Cambodia.
The program was sponsored by the U.S. East-West Foundation to study the history, culture, and religion of Cambodia. The program is called “Cambodia: Past and Present” and the main purpose was for us, as teachers and lifelong learners, to study not only Cambodia’s turbulent recent history and politics, but compare and contrast that knowledge with Cambodia’s current social, political, and religious conditions. Our next step is to then synthesize our learning and translate it into our classrooms to help U.S. students to better understand and appreciate the complexities and diversities of our world’s history.
I witnessed the urban decay and decadence of the Phnom Penh capital, saw the lingering effects of French colonialism, visited remote Cambodian orphanages and AIDS hospitals, met and interviewed Khmer Rouge survivors face to face, walked through the eerie devastation of Cheong Euk (a.k.a. “The Killing Fields”), felt the tragedy of Tuol Sleng prison, came to terms with the rampant corruption of society on every social level, and saw the damaging environmental effects of pollution and deep exploitation of natural resources. Still, with all the deprivation, poverty, and obvious corruption, the kindness, dedication, and perseverance of the Cambodian people is extraordinary.
Being able to tour public and private schools while extensively interviewing students and talking with university professors and lecturers was very encouraging. Cambodians value is education, however, equal access to education still remains a monumental problem.
One of the most impactful and authentic experiences on our journey was the chance to live with a host family for an entire week in a remote village near Oudong Mountain near the Tonle Sap River. My host family had 10 children (nine girls and one boy), and the most memorable moments of my trip were experiencing simple, daily village life with my host family members. Struggling with communication and language barriers, going to temples and pagodas, helping with the collection of rice in the paddy fields, pumping water out from the well, playing soccer with the local boys, learning basic Khmer vocabulary, and teaching English at the local school were all daily activities that I came to appreciate and enjoy.
Another unforgettable experience was living and practicing Buddhist meditation, religion, and philosophy with Cambodian Buddhist monks for an entire week at a monastery called Wat Damnak, located in the city of Siem Reap near the majestic wonder of the world, Angkor Wat. We would wake up and start every day at 3:30 a.m. to begin our chanting rituals, go collect alms (food donations) in the neighborhood, clean the temple grounds, go to school in the morning, have lunch, listen to dharma talks, go to school in the afternoon, help teach English to the monks, complete our early evening chanting ritual, listen to more dharma talks, and then go to bed. I think I came away a more understanding, compassionate person and just a better observer of life in general.
Ultimately, I can genuinely say that this voyage has helped expand my appreciation for diverse cultures, and I know I have learned so much to share for my own classroom and colleagues at Lincoln Middle School. Honestly though, I am still haunted by two essential questions: How can the Cambodian government help narrow the gap of the indifferent rich and absolute poor? Also, will the UN- sponsored tribunal trials of the former Khmer Rouge leaders help bring any closure for the Cambodian people?