Written by Steve Lawrence
In early 2012 I embarked on a journey to Cambodia to discover something new; a new continent, new country, new city, new culture and the start to a new me.
Flying overseas on a 24-hour journey across the globe, thousands of different scenarios flew through my mind, but none of them could come close to the experience I actually had.
Within a week I immediately learned how different a country can be from what I knew as ‘normal’. In the second week I was introduced to the school that I would be teaching English in for the next twelve weeks of my life. The first day felt like I was the new kid in school; I felt very vulnerable. Whilst living amongst locals, traveling to different cities and learning the history and culture, I learned a huge amount about the way people live. It got me thinking about the simple things in life.
Only five minutes out of the tourist-filled city of Siem Reap I came across miles and miles of flat farm land. The houses were wooden shacks, dotted with holes and damaged roofs. Kids played out front in the dirt on the side of the road with sticks in hand and smiles on their faces. Workers carried their livelihoods on their shoulders, sometimes for miles just to sell enough to buy the bare necessities for their families. These didn’t include the latest gadgets, current trending fashion item nor anything beyond bread, rice, fish and water.
Back in the exploited city of Siem Reap, my pupils were telling me what their career goals were. I didn’t hear about being a finance stock broker, or an inspiring fashion glamour model. What I did hear were the words teacher, nurse, and artist. It took me by surprise; these kids no older than sixteen knew what they wanted to be and had the attitude to achieve it. Back home in England if I asked a sixteen-year-old that question I would hear either a sarcastic remark or a dream job, not a realistic job. Even more surprising was that all the jobs I heard were ones that serve the community.
As I left the school in April, the kids prepared a farewell party for me. Even as the school day finished, the kids, especially the older ones stayed to just spend that little bit of extra time with me. I was given gifts, some of which would of cost these kids a lot of their pocket money, that realistically was earned through illegally working underage just to help their families. Saying goodbye was difficult for both me and my students. I waited for them all to leave but hours later I was still surrounded by a class of the eldest kids taking photo after photo. I was almost ready to leave, but not before saying goodbye to Daphira.
Daphira was a nine-year-old pupil at my school, in my first week she walked into my adult class, and sat amongst the 18-23 year olds. To my surprise she spoke remarkable English and even before and after the classes she would speak to me to improve her language skills. A nine-year-old girl with the best English in the entire school; it was a real eye opener. Out of all the students, Daphira was the most upset to see me leave and it made me think that actually, despite only being there a short period of time, these kids respect us volunteers and genuinely enjoy going to school. Why is this not the case in England?
It didn’t hit me properly until I sat on the back of a motorbike and left what was my home for the past twelve weeks. A tear bled from my eye, approaching the coach that would take me out of Cambodia for what I thought would be the last time. I looked back on my time there. When I left Cambodia I felt like I was leaving an important part of my life behind. I was leaving my pupils, my Khmer family, my neighbours and most importantly I was leaving behind the old me.
I felt like I was leaving so much behind, but then it got me thinking. I had helped these children learn English, I had been someone that they looked up to, and they had taught me so much. They taught me that you can live as a community and the importance of sharing. These kids supported each other and helped each other. They really made me think about my life and made me into a better person. Now, I see the world in a new way and perform selfless acts to help others around me.
When I returned to the UK I really felt like a real adult. My priorities were right. Recently I bought my flights to go back to Cambodia to spend another two months helping others. I could quote Ghandhi and say ‘be the change you’d like to see in the world’ but I think what’s most important is to do what makes you happy. Helping others is rewarding and it makes me happy. What makes you happy? Have you tried putting others before you? Try it, you may be surprised.
All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.