Phnom Penh: Sometimes Happiness Just Requires You to Show Up (Day 3)

After learning about Cambodia’s terrible history and the suffering of its people, I arrived at the Center of Children’s Happiness with a solemn heart. I was worried I would face a residual sadness, a consuming hopelessness or worse, a jaded outlook on life from the children. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I found was pure, absolute joy. As soon as I walked through the courtyard of the school, I was inundated by a sea of smiling faces. Little kids ecstatically waved at me from the distance, repeatedly asking for my name. As I sat in the office with the staff, their round chubby faces would curiously peek in from behind the window and doorframe, boldly asking for my identity and presence in the classroom.

Any initial shyness they may have had wore off the second I stepped outside of the office to take a tour of the school. Swarms of children surrounded me within seconds, grabbing my hands, wrapping their tiny arms around my waist, asking me for my name and offering theirs in exchange. Once my hands were claimed, they took to the back of my shirt, arms, and pant legs. Other than “what’s your name” and “how are you,” they didn’t speak a word of English, but that didn’t matter. Their affection did not need translation. These tiny human beings opened their hearts to me wholly and completely in just a matter of minutes – never in my life have I felt so wanted.

Goofing around in class :) Goofing around in class 🙂

I’ve spent 24 years searching for and finding different meanings for happiness, yet within an hour I discovered the most potent type. How can I even describe it? It’s a happiness that instantly shoots through the heart, piercing through layers of walls and reservations. It asks for nothing but a smile and an affectionate touch. It doesn’t require time, conditions, or even much effort. It’s just an instant, instinctual recognition that at that moment, you and another human have the capacity to give everything to each other. I didn’t realize it was possible for my heart to overflow with so much joy. It’s intoxicating. Five hours later, I still cannot stop smiling.


On the Corruption of Cambodian Education

My happiness today was only tainted by the realization that some of these beautiful children might be deprived of a bright future due to the constraints of the extremely corrupt Cambodian education system. Technically, Cambodian primary, secondary, and high schools should be free. But they’re not, because many teachers charge for materials to make some extra cash on the side. It is also common practice to “buy” the answers of an exam or bribe teachers for a better grade. Additionally, children only receive about 3-4 hours of schooling a day, and often the curriculum is quite unstructured. A staggering 70% of students failed the 12th grade national exam last year when officials cracked down on bribery and cheating.

For those few who do make it to higher education, the options are limited. University costs approximately $500 a year in a country where the average salary is $120 a month. A Bachelor’s degree doesn’t even guarantee a job: about 10,000-20,000 students cannot find appropriate employment post-grad. Running at $200 per class (and requiring a total of 48 classes), Master degrees are reserved for the very wealthy. Students who cannot attend university due to cost or education level have the option to obtain a technical degree in two years for $400 from Don Bosco, a non-profit school that aims to facilitate the education of children living in extreme poverty. Bosco graduates end up earning approximately the same salary as university students (between $250-300 a month), eliminating incentive for students to receive a higher education at a university.

Considering that approximately 50% of the Cambodian population is under 21 years old – partially because of how many adults were slaughtered during the Khmer Rouge regime – places like the Center of Children’s Happiness are absolutely integral for disadvantaged kids as it gives them a real opportunity to pursue a good education and future. CCH covers the cost of school materials for all of its students and a Bosco education for up to five children every year, meaning volunteer teachers are crucial to help make ends meet.


Some Final Thoughts on Happiness

We spend a lot of time and thought hunting for the meaning of happiness. Happiness is hard to define, and I’m starting to realize that it’s because its meaning cannot be contained within the word. Rather, it is a spectrum, a collection of emotions that can be mixed and matched to create endless combinations of joy.

Today, I discovered a new definition of happiness. I am overwhelmed by these children’s ability to pour so much love into a complete stranger. How is it that as we get older, we increasingly struggle to stay happy? The strongest ingredients of happiness – trust, love, and acceptance – become harder to obtain as life’s hardships chip away at our optimism. The best remedy may be someone (or in my case, and entire army of them) who, by unconditionally offering you love, can jolt awake that dormant part of you that has the capacity to nurture unlimited happiness.

I walked away from the school feeling overjoyed, but also curious as to what I had done to deserve so much unwarranted love. These children have nothing, and they could still shower me with laughter and affection. Could it be possible that when you have less, you actually have more? I often think about why my experiences with people who materially have nothing, particularly in 2nd and 3rd world countries, have largely been positive and heart warming. I’ve been invited into people’s homes who, despite being incredibly poor, wasted no time catering to my comfort and offering me the little they had. On the flip side, I have lost count of the times that I’ve been in a well-off person’s home and not even offered a glass of water.

I wonder if a side effect of being stripped of life’s privileges is a heightened appreciation for love and kindness. When we are not weighed down by the emotional and financial burden of owning many material things, does it liberate us to more deeply value what’s priceless? I am becoming increasingly convinced that it does. In the end, happiness doesn’t require insurance, upgrades, or term conditions. It just needs you to show up.

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