February 16 2011
Charles Clausner, BSILR '13, Teaches English and Teamwork to the Youth of Cambodia
Through the ILR International Experience Grant I left the familiar scenes of North America, where I’ve spent so much of my life, and traveled to Cambodia, a country on the other side of the world in Southeast Asia. Primarily, I taught English alongside my brother, a Peace Corps volunteer, at Hun Sen Prasout Secondary School in Svay Rieng Province, (only 30 minutes away from Vietnam). My presence as a native English speaker helped students hear the language firsthand. By learning English, students in Cambodia have more opportunities for advancing their careers and lives.
In order to give the students of Hun Sen Prasout a break from the tedious conditions accompanying poverty, I also held a youth basketball camp at the school. These students often spent long hours at home doing chores or rote memorization of their school notes, the basketball camp allowed them to just be kids for once, and also instilled ideas of teamwork and cohesiveness in a group setting. Perhaps the most important part of the basketball camp, were the ‘Girls Only’ hours of the camp. In a country where most men do not respect women or their integral roles in Khmer culture, giving the girls a chance to learn to play basketball proved to be a way to introduce ideas of gender equality.
In Cambodia, I logged twenty hours of teaching, nine hours running the basketball camp, and nine more hours helping students in the library, but these details cannot fully incorporate the depth of mutual exchange that took place between the people of Cambodia and myself. The experience opened up new sets of ideas from opposite ends of the globe; helped me appreciate differences between cultures; and gave valuable cultural insight for all involved.
I’d like to close with a story that, I believe, displays the differences between cultures and peoples but which still preserves the commonalities between all men. Today, almost everyone in America has a digital camera. In America, we love capturing moments in time and preserving them for the future, whether on our smartphones, laptops, or on the latest Canon gadget. We enjoy looking back at old photos, seeing younger versions of our relatives, friends, or ourselves. Yet, when I took out my digital camera and snapped photographs of the some local children (some of whom were orphans—running around in tattered and dirty clothes) and they gathered around as I zoomed in on each one of their individual faces, I felt something different. The situation was not the same as me snapping a photo of myself and my friends to recall later down the road…no, this was a different thing entirely.
As the kids evinced wonder at seeing themselves on the digital screen, I realized that it was probably the first time that any of them had ever had their photos taken; with mirrors being a relative luxury, it was perhaps the first time any of them had seen themselves. In that way, my presence in Cambodia allowed these young people to reflect on their own identity and how they fit into their culture. Instead of being disenfranchised youth in a grinding and rural Cambodian life, unconscious of other worlds and differences, the kids assumed identities they could shape and be responsible for. For them, this meant fixing their hair and making goofy peace signs, which may not seem like actions of empowerment, but they are.
This got me thinking about interactions between cultures. These children (and all the other students, teachers, workers, and essentially everyone I came into contact with) were able to interact with me and reflect on their cultural identities. I too, thought a great deal about what it means to be an American, a Cornell student, a man, a Midwesterner, and so on. Thus, I left Cambodia with the realization that in the world, sometimes we have to view ourselves through other people’s eyes. We have to ponder about what they see, we must think about what they think, and after that, and only after that, can we come to learn about other cultures and hopefully learn about ourselves.