Phnom Penh: Finding Joy in the Simplest of Pleasures (Day 9,10)
I continue to be taken aback by how sweet and affectionate the children at CCH are. Every day upon my arrival, I am greeted with tender hugs and smiles. At the beginning and end of each class the students stand up and greet me, during class they assist me with any need I may have (such as erasing the board or grabbing a marker), and when I finish, they hold my hand and hug me as they walk me to my tuk tuk. I am admittedly not used to being around this many children so take this with a grain of salt, but I do not recall kids in the U.S. (or anywhere else I’ve been to) behaving so lovingly and politely. I am seeing a pattern: children who have less are actually the ones who give more.
My insecurities about not being a good enough teacher have all but dissipated this past week. Not because I’ve magically discovered I’m an amazing teacher – everything I said about not being a trained professional still stands. More so because these children don’t care that I’m not as good. They’re just happy that I’m there teaching and playing with them. Though I don’t understand the vast majority of the questions they ask me in Khmer, together we’ve found other modes of communication: pointing, drawing, gesticulating, and laughter, the truly universal language.
I love how these children find joy in the smallest of pleasures. For example, the kids lovelearning games. I’ve been splitting them into two teams to compete after each lesson, with no physical incentive involved: the team who finishes with the most points wins. Even though there is no prize, the kids never seem to tire of playing. Over and over again, they excitedly raise their hands, hoping to be picked for the next round. They help one another, shout and wave their hands in pursuit of the correct answer, and squeal with joy when they win a point. They shocked me today when, after allowing them to leave class a few minutes early, they instead decided to stay. If this were the U.S., I’m sure the kids would have bolted out the door at the chance of an early dismissal.
I can’t help but compare my experience with these children to behaviors I’ve witnessed in first world countries. The kids were perfectly content playing games with no incentive other than the satisfaction of being in the winning team. I’m willing to bet that if we were in the U.S., many children would tire quickly of the games after realizing that there wouldn’t be a prize (such as extra points on a test, candy, or special privileges) for the winner. In Western cultures, we tend to operate under the assumption that if we do X, we will receive Y. Otherwise, the effort is just not worth our time. From when we are young, we are taught that we are entitled to a reward for our efforts: parents bribe children with the promise of toys or extra allowance in exchange for a decent grade, we go to college because it “guarantees” us a good-paying job, and we work hard even when we don’t like our jobs because it will earn us a promotion.
Our actions are so often laden with entitlement and expectation. I look at these children, and what I see is the humility and sheer joy that accompanies living in the moment. They don’t calculate what they will get out of the class game if they participate. They don’t request prizes for their great performance. They don’t stomp their feet and demand a better life because they deserve it. Even though they’ve been dealt a tremendously unfair card, they happily take what is given to them with open arms and make the best of their situation. We could all learn from this approach to life.
With the end of my volunteering approaching, new questions have popped into my head: how accustomed are these children to strangers walking into their lives and filling them with love, only to walk away a few weeks later? They must understand that people come and go – I’m by far not the first volunteer to do so. Regardless, they are always so happy and willing to love whoever walks through the school’s doors. Is this because there’s a constant flux of volunteers, or are they just happy that people out there care? Do they ever miss specific volunteers, or are we just forgotten after the new batch of people comes through?
It’s so hard to think about leaving these amazing, joyful little souls to go back to my privileged life on the other side of the world. The lessons they are teaching me are far more valuable than the new vocabulary I’ve been able to offer them. I only hope that in these short two weeks, I may be able to touch their lives a fraction of how they’ve touched mine. Although I will be gone soon and other volunteers will replace me, a piece of my love will remain, hopefully deeply lodged in a crevice somewhere in the depths of their enormous hearts.